Merc Arceneaux and Vera Steimberg on the Make Up of ‘Coming 2 America’

Merc Arceneaux and Vera Steimberg are two immensely talented makeup artists who have worked with some of the most notable names in the business. For both — and for many in the art of movie makeup — the chance to work on Coming 2 America was a dream. I recently spoke with the two of them together about the opportunities and creative challenges of working on the long-awaited sequel from director Craig Brewer.

Arsenio Hall, Eddie Murphy, Clint Smith, and Eddie Murphy in COMING 2 AMERICA — Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Karen Peterson/We Live Entertainment: I’m excited to talk with you both about Coming 2 America. Before we do, I’m curious for both of you what the journey was like. What got you into this art and working in film in the first place?

Vera Steimberg: I grew up in Argentina. My aunt was an actress, my dad’s sister. And so I was involved a lot in the theater and TV mostly. So I would go behind the stage and I would see how they get prepared. And my aunt used to be part of the actors union, so a lot of the meetings took place at our home because she used to live with us. A lot of the meetings with all the actors, talking about politics and union stuff, was done at my house so they allowed us to be there. They were drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes, and we were just around. I studied photography when I was 16, anything that was part of art projects and stuff like that. I didn’t think of makeup as a career until I did. And, you know, slowly but surely I’m here. Long story short, but I love it.  I love what I do.

Merc Arceneaux: My story is a little different, but similar. It started with my mom who was a pageant girl when she was young, growing up. And she did a little modeling on the side. As a young girl you see the pictures. My mother was always very glamorous and beautiful and very stylish. And I was very tall and lanky. I wound up getting into modeling at the age of 15, runway modeling. I studied all the hot models, all the runway models, they were all on my walls in my bedroom. As I was modeling, I would watch how makeup artists would do my makeup and I really got into it, not ever thinking that it would be a career because I really wanted to model as a career. But that wasn’t going anywhere. That was strictly just like a fun little side hustle that I had. Eventually I kind of fell into makeup just from playing with other people and studying and watching and correcting my makeup when I didn’t like the way somebody did it. Never went to school formally, it just kind of happened and I loved it, and here I am still, 25 years later.

KP: What do you love about getting to be part of the makeup team and getting to help that part of crafting characters?

VS: Oh, my God. I mean, I feel part of the creative part of the movie. We are a big part of creating the characters. And we can can bring things to the table, we can listen to what the director wants, what the actors want, but we can also have a voice and present ideas and research and be creative. I love that process. I love the process of reading a script and envisioning what’s happening with each character and taking notes and having questions. It’s a beautiful part of being part of the film industry, just the creative part of it for me.

MA: The collaborative part is a big deal for me because you’re collaborating with the director, your team. And I also feel like the collaborative part falls short, because costumes are always the first people that start a film. They’re the ones that kind of create the world. And then we come in later, hair and makeup. But the costumes are nothing without the hair and the makeup. So you know, I kind of always feel like I get bothered sometimes when I see the costume credit at the front of the movie. It’s like, where’s the hair and the makeup? {laughs} Why aren’t hair and makeup up here too with the costumes, you know? So, I’ve always wanted to say that. I wish that all three of us, all three of our departments because we all work so hard to create this world, this fantasy that turn the TV on or sit in front of the big screen, when you become a part of this moment. I don’t feel like we get enough credit, Vera, sorry.

VS: Oh, Merc, I know. I know.

MA: We roll way later, after the grips and everybody else go, here come hair and make up. Here they are.

KP: And yet everybody needs you.

MA: Yeah.

KP: How did you two get to Coming 2 America

VS: I’ve been working with Mr. Murphy since 1999. So you make the math, I don’t want to even go there anymore! Put it this way, more than 20 years. When the project came along, we were over the moon like, is it going to happen? Is it really happening? This is like, my dream movie since I was a kid. The project came because I worked with Eddie for so long. And we had the team with Stacey [Morris] that does his hair. And we were just so ecstatic about doing this project. Carla Farmer has been working with us in other movies as a hairdresser, and Merc, we’ve known Merc for many years, but we never worked together. She’s really good friends also with Carla and Stacey and we kind of wanted to have a team that we can all collaborate on this big project. And it was a really huge project for us as a team, for Eddie. We just needed a good team with us to go ahead and love the projects as much as we do. And Carla and Merc did everything with all the their love and creativity to make this movie happen. And so that’s how everything came along.

KP: Where do you start with a project like this one?

MA: We start with the director first!

VS: Yes. For sure.

MA: The first conversation was with Craig to see where his head was at. Once we figured out where and what direction he wanted to go, then that’s where we all were like, okay, now here we go. Then that’s when we all sit down and start sharing ideas, and research and that’s how it all came together.

VS: We had a group chat with Merc, Carla, Stacey and I where we shared pictures and boards, inspirational boards, that also we presented for different groups, what we were wanting to do on the movie, to the director. Also by looking at what Ruth Carter had in mind with Craig and all the styling of the movie, we all get in and say okay, so this can go with this, or we can do that, or we can… You know, it’s a collaboration. We talk a lot and we get involved together with costume, makeup, hair, the director, knowing also what the actors want. It’s a whole decision among a group of people. Collaborating is everything in our world.

MA: And then you talk to the actors, because the actors may have an input too. Once we’ve decided that, hey, we want to go in this direction, and we have put boards together so that we could show the actors this is the direction that we were all thinking, we talked to Craig the director, and this is kind of the mood, then they will be like, “Oh, I love this look or this look,” you know what I mean? Everybody was able to play a little bit of a part in in their look and what they wanted. The collaboration turned out to be really nice.

KP: How did you divide up the work?

VS: There is no way in a million years that we can all do everything, we had to divide. Not only among us, we had a team of amazing artists. I think that our strongest thing that I always tell people, for Merc and I, before the movie starts, that’s the hard work because you need to have okay from the actors, the okay from the director, the okay from every team to say we are going to go in this direction for this, that direction for that. And then you have to transmit that direction to your artists. I was in one trailer with Eddie and I was trying to do Arsenio when I could and Merc was doing Arsenio when she could.

MA: And we needed to do Wesley sometimes.

VS: Wesley! So we had to divide and say, “Hey, the call times and the scenes that are involved are… I’m going to be on set when you have to go.” We were all the time, trying to figure things out and and covering for each other. But obviously, you try to have your actors that you usually do as often as possible because you don’t want to be switching around. I think that we did pretty good. But you know, Merc was the one that was in the main trailer with all the other artists coming and going and following directions from what we were going to do that day.

KP: The makeup in the original film is one of the things that makes it so iconic. Did you feel pressure to live up to that? Or were you able to approach this as just something completely new and different?

MA: Oh, no. Pressure? Pressure? Are you kidding? {laughs}

VS: Pressure! Yeah, pressure? Yes. Yes. We wanted to make it…

MA: It’s an iconic movie!

VS: Exactly. We cannot make everything, like Merc was saying before, we had to make the modern version of it. But if anything, Mike Marino and his partner, his team trying to develop the same characters. What Rick Baker did 30 years ago was incredible. And then you have to revive those characters 30 years later. That was more of a challenge, I believe. For us, it was like we could actually play a little bit more. Right?

MA: Yeah, Mike definitely had more pressure than we did for sure. Yeah, we could have fun creating a little bit more than he could. He had to actually match…

VS: Yeah, we could do more stuff. We had a lot of fun just putting pictures together and envisioning how we see the groups of people in this movie. And so we had a lot of meetings with Merc, Carla, and Stacey and talking a lot about how these people were going to look and these other groups. So having some beautiful pictures in a board and kind of, you know, envisioning [how] the movie was going to look.

KP: And because so much of this film is set in Zamunda instead of in New York, what sort of inspiration did you turn to for those particular looks?

MA: I feel like for me, when you think Zamunda, when you think Africa, the first thing that pops in my head is color. Just pops of color. And this is a royal family, so you get to have some fun, but at the same time, you have to be wise enough to know that you can’t go too over the top with this. It has to be relatable. So that was kind of a challenge for me because you want to have fun with the makeup, but at the same time you don’t want it to look like… What’s the word I’m looking for, Vera? You want it to look beautiful.

VS: I remember before starting the movie, we were like, let’s go very editorial. Like, graphic editorial. We wanted to bring something completely new to the table and we thought that will actually bring an edge to what we were going to do. Because it’s hard when you have the wardrobe with a lot of color and the hair pieces and the wigs and there was so much going on that, for Merc and I, we were like, “Okay, what can we do that’s gonna make a difference, and a statement?” So we had to think about graphic, editorial type of makeups for dancers and for different scenes in the movie. That we could think about something that would be completely different and we could still not be taking away from the wardrobe or the hair but yet having a statement.

We would like to thank Merc Arceneaux and Vera Steimberg for speaking with us.

You can enjoy their incredible makeup artistry in Coming 2 America, now streaming on Amazon Prime.

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