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Filmmaker Interview

Inside Glen Powell’s ‘Hit Man’ Transformation(s): From Dorky Professor to Sexy Bad Boy on a 30-Day Shoot

Richard Linklater and his costume, hair, and makeup teams on the inspirations (Brad Pitt in "Fight Club") and the practical craft of Gary becoming Ron and seven other hitmen.
Glen Powell in 'Hit Man'
Glen Powell in 'Hit Man'

Hit Man” director Richard Linklater knew Glen Powell was a movie star the moment the young actor, with no profile, walked in to audition for “Everybody Wants Some” almost a decade ago. Linklater explained what makes the Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio movie stars go beyond their good looks and acting ability, but their charisma and how we are drawn to them.

“You look at Brad Pitt, ‘Oh, I want to hang out with him,’” said Linklater. “They attract you, you’ll follow them somewhere. You want to be wherever, whatever they’re doing. Some personalities have that quality, most don’t… Glen does.”

Linklater would need every ounce of Powell’s star power to pull off “Hit Man,” a sexy screwball comedy in which the audience is rooting for Madison (Adria Arjona) and Powell’s Ron (the nerdy Gary Johnson’s alter ego, who Madison mistakenly believes is a real contract killer) to be together, but who do some questionable things to get their happy ending.

HIT MAN, from left: Adria Arjona, Glen Powell, 2023. © Netflix / courtesy Everett Collection
‘Hit Man’©Netflix/Courtesy Everett Collection

“That’s where you need to be a Paul Newman, a Robert Redford, to really toss your moral compass into the river,” said Linklater. “If you don’t like him, or question him, then [Madison and Ron] are just terrible people.”

“Hit Man” doesn’t dwell in the darkness underlying its genre fun, quite the opposite, it leads with an optimistic view of humanity: That we have the ability to change who we are, that there is a confident Ron inside our mundane Gary-like existences yearning to break free. That play acting different roles, putting on disguises, can be liberating. That even a smoldering hot movie star is one un-styled haircut and off-the-rack professor outfit from being as remarkably ordinary as one of us.

“Listen, Glen Powell is one of the most handsome men I have ever seen,” said hair department head Ally Vickers. “He’s so good looking and he has such beautiful hair, it’s kind of hard to make him look dorky.”

Hit Man. Glen Powell as Gary Johnson in Hit Man. Cr. Matt Lankes / Netflix © 2024
‘Hit Man’Matt Lankes / Netflix

And there lies the filmmaking challenge at the heart of “Hit Man.” The ideas in Linklater and (co-screenwriter) Powell’s script are embodied in the physical transformation of Gary into Ron, and all the subtle shades of grey and seven hitmen in-between. It’s a tall transformation task for any film, but for a production this small, with a 30-day shoot, what “Hit Man” accomplishes is an example of practical craft at its very best.

There were not months of prosthetics work on “Hit Man.” In fact, there wasn’t even a makeup camera test. Powell did not spend hours in the makeup/hair trailer, he would go from Gary to Ron in minutes (crew joked Powell was like a real-life Clark Kent without a phone booth), as production was constantly shuttling between New Orleans locations (and there were a ton of company moves eating up the clock of a 30-day shoot).

IndieWire talked to Linklater, Vickers, costume designer Juliana Hoffpauir, and makeup department head Tara Cooper about how they pulled this off, the inspirations for some of Gary’s memorable hitmen disguises, and how they collaborated with Powell to create a character that somehow simultaneously establishes Powell as our hottest movie star and the affable nerd next door.

The Hitmen: Starting with the Faces

Linklater said that while he and Powell discussed the character(s) at length while writing, they didn’t discuss the performance and or how he’d portray the various hitmen, leaving Powell to run point.

HIT MAN, from left: director Richard Linklater, Glen Powell, on set, 2023. ph: Matt Lankes  / © Netflix / Courtesy Everett Collection
Richard Linklater and Glen Powell on the ‘Hit Man’ set©Netflix/Courtesy Everett Collection

“Glen was doing the research, reading books on body language, working all his accents for all the hitmen,” said Linklater. “I was always thinking, well, if this is too over-the-top, we’ll just not use it, you know, cut it out of the movie.”

Cooper, who was already working with Linklater on his next multi-year “Boyhood” like project, “Merrily We Go Along,” was the first to work with Powell, as they started to visualize the faces of his different characters.

The makeup designer refers to herself as a luddite who hates computers, but for this project she knew she’d need to quickly run through a wide variety of options. She collected a library of tattoos, sunglasses, skin tones, freckles, facial hair configurations, hair styles, all of which could be easily applied to Powell’s headshot in Photoshop.

“Glen had so many of the ideas,” said Cooper of their early meetings. “When we talked, I could just click on a layer in Photoshop, or click off a layer, ‘Do we like this hair? Do you like this?’”

Hit Man. Glen Powell as Gary Johnson in Hit Man. Cr. Brian Roedel/Netflix © 2024
Glen Powell in ‘Hit Man’Brian Roedel / Netflix

While each of the hitmen would evolve, some changing drastically (originally all the seven were southern characters, Dean was a scary oil rig worker), the rendered faces gave the rest of the “Hit Man” team a starting point.

“As a costume designer you dress to a face,” said Hoffpauir. “You’ve got the face, how do you complete the picture? What’s he wearing?”

7 Hitmen: The Teeth & Movie References

Due to time, the hitmen were in constant danger of being cut from the film. The discussion of almost eliminating Dean (the bespectacled red-hair hitman with a transatlantic accent) in the middle of production was the closest the familial Linklater set came to a fight.

Powell’s five o’clock shadow was central to the Ron/Gary character, making it impossible to quickly add beards or mustaches — stubble and adhesive don’t mix. Cooper’s original solution would be for Powell to wear plumpers in his mouth to alter his facial silhouette, but ultimately it is only Nico (the long-dark haired, trench coat-wearing, Eastern European hitman) who wears them.

Hit Man. Glen Powell as Gary Johnson in Hit Man. Cr. Netflix © 2024
Glen Powell as ‘Nico’ in ‘Hit Man’Netflix

Time wasn’t the only issue. The disguises needed to at least feel somewhat homemade, Gary after all was doing this himself — Linklater had watched surveillance tapes of the real-life Gary Johnson, who did create some of his own disguises, but fairly minor in comparison to what’s in the film.

Cooper credits her mentor Matthew Mungle for helping her make a breakthrough with the hitmen by connecting her with legendary dental prosthetics artist Gary Archer (“Austin Powers,” “Interview with a Vampire”), who created the perfect facial transformations. While it’s true that in real life Gary wouldn’t have the ability to replicate the mastery of Archer dental prosthetics (in the film he is seen putting in false teeth and painting his natural ones), teeth have long been the unheralded, unnoticed, and over-looked cornerstone of Hollywood actors most celebrated transformations.

“[Gary Archer and I] talked and talked about what was possible and what would make an impact,” said Cooper. “With Dean we gave him little short baby teeth because we ended up with [this back story of] Dean having kid issues. I based his hair on an 8-year-old boy.”

Hoffpauir and Vickers took it from there, having their most fun putting their own spin on the Dean character.

Hit Man. (L to R) Glen Powell as Gary Johnson and Richard Robichaux as Joe in Hit Man. Cr. Netflix © 2024
Glen Powell as ‘Dean’ in ‘Hit Man’Netflix

“I was so obsessed when I saw Juliana’s outfit for [Dean], I loved that orange, stiff denim so much, and [from there] Glen and I talked quite a bit about Javier Bardem’s hair in ‘No Country for Old Men,’” said Vickers.

Cooper was delighted that no one recognized Powell when he appeared as Dean on the “Hit Man” set, including the actor’s assistant and parents, who were visiting that day.

Fellow celebrity actors and their most famous characters were a common reference point for Powell and the team, for example, Boone’s teeth were based on Tom Hardy’s. X is a direct reference to Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman character in “American Psycho,” for which Goodman relied on makeup (rather dental prosthetics) to capture the contoured, tight jawed cheeks.

Hit Man. Glen Powell as Gary Johnson in Hit Man. Cr. Netflix © 2024
Glen Powell as ‘X’ in ‘Hit Man’Netflix

Inspiration also came from more familiar, everyday characters the “Hit Man” team knew.

“I know Nico. I used to work at a salon in Beverly Hills a long ago, and I knew a lot of guys that had that hair,” said Vickers. “So when we started talking about that character, I was like, ‘He’s Beverly Hills, Canon Boulevard, 2004, I got this guy.”

One of the only real southern hitman characters to survive rewrites was the bandana-wearing Tanner, who takes his potential client out skeet shooting.

Hit Man. Glen Powell as Gary Johnson in Hit Man. Cr. Brian Roedel/Netflix © 2024
Glen Powell as ‘Tanner’ in ‘Hit Man’Brian Roedel / Netflix

“Tanner was based on a general Southern guy we all know here in Texas and Louisiana,” said Hoffpauir. “Glen talked about a Carhartt vest and a freedom t-shirt. I just went to Academy Sports, it was the easiest costume. And down south you see the dip can scars on the back pocket of jeans, so we created that.”

The Practicality of Gary

While Goodman’s renders of the hitmen faces was the cue for the general hair styles and wigs, when it came to the central character looks of Ron/Gary the idea was to use Powell’s natural hair and let Vickers’ do her thing.

“I’m really good at the weird shit,” said Goodman. “Ally works on ‘The Bear,’ and is really good with modern sexy dude hair.”

Early on, it was decided to let Powell’s hair grow out as long as possible, in part because it would work well for both Ron and Gary but also because Powell’s previous star-making turns featured short, often military, haircuts.

“I imagined Gary having the kind of length that was just a very nondescript haircut, he gets a very simple trim, no product, has a two-in-one shampoo and conditioner, combs it in the same place every day, same part, and just leaves it,” said Vickers, adding if she had one tip for the Gary’s of this world [the author of this article asked for a friend] it’s to use sea salt spray. “Gary has his routine. He feeds his birds, he puts on his jorts, and that’s how he approached his hair.”

Hit Man. Glen Powell as Gary Johnson in Hit Man. Cr. Netflix © 2024
Glen Powell as Gary Johnson in ‘Hit Man’Netflix

Gary is guided by practicality, not fashion, which applies to his costuming as much as his hair style. As Hoffpauir points out, those jorts make a ton of sense when you are sitting in surveillance van for hours.

“He’s a practical guy, it’s hot in that van in New Orleans,” said Hoffpauir. “He’s got the professional polo, it’s almost uniform-like, jorts to keep airy and comfortable sandals, again, because it’s hot!”

For his professor look, Hoffpauir staked out the University of New Orleans campus, and found plenty of 30-something professors wearing short sleeve button-ups and khakis, needing to distinguish themselves from the students they teach. The costume designer mirrored what she found at UNO, just extending the shirt sleeve in effort to hide Powell’s ripped arm muscles (which she admits she wasn’t 100 percent successful in doing in every scene).

Goodman completed the Gary look by keeping his makeup flat and matte, adding, “It helps his features look a little bit more flat and made him all eyes, especially with those glasses on.”

Hit Man. Glen Powell as Gary Johnson in Hit Man. Cr. Matt Lankes / Netflix © 2024
Glen Powell as Gary Johnson in ‘Hit Man’Matt Lankes / Netflix

While all three collaborators agree it was no small feat to make the gorgeous Powell into plain Gary, they are also clear that a great deal of the credit lies with the actor. Hoffpauir saw this during the Gary costume design fittings, watching how much Powell fed off the clothes as he continued to refine his Ron-and-Gary mannerisms.

“It is more of how [Glen] feels when he puts on the costume. A lot of Gary’s colors were beige and subdued, and he’d kind of slump a little bit. He really brought the physicality to the fittings, you can even see it in my fitting photos, like when he’s in his jorts, he’s not cocky in the way he stands,” Said Hoffpauir. “You look at his Ron fitting photos, he’s standing up straight, he’s got some swagger, he’s looking at the camera very confidently.”

Ron: The Sexy, Dirty Bad Boy

There’s consensus that Powell is much more Ron than Gary, that confident charisma radiates from him off and on camera. But with Ron, there was an attempt to create a different type of sexy Powell character we hadn’t seen before: The dirty bad boy.

As a jumping off point, Powell brought Hoffpauir reference photos of Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden character in “Fight Club”: sexy, mysterious, and yes, dirty. Vickers thought of Ron’s vibe as the guy who just got his motorcycle after a long ride – his hair unwashed, unkept, rugged.

HIT MAN, from left: Adria Arjona, Glen Powell, 2023. ph: Brian Roedel / © Netflix / courtesy Everett Collection
‘Hit Man’Netflix

“What lady wouldn’t want to run her fingers through Ron’s hair?” Vickers said. “That was a conversation I had with Rick [Linklater], ‘This is hot guy hair,’ and Rick and I had a good laugh, and he was like, ‘Yeah, that is hot guy hair.’”

It was more than a funny line, but something Vickers considers her bread-and-butter as a hair stylist. It was important to her that Powell’s hair move, tousled strands of hair able to fall into place. The length Powell had been able to grow his hair before production was perfect for this, with Vickers giving him a hair cut every 8-10 days.

“I would use a little bit of sea salt spray, a little bit of pomade (something called Days of Dirt, which the name says everything), and I don’t use a regular blow dryer, I use a diffusing attachment,” explained Vickers. “I get it in the shape I want and then I go around it with a diffuser and it holds that shape. He can do whatever he wants, run his hands through it, and it just kind of always goes back to its baseline of hot guy hair.”

Goodman rounded out the dirty bad boy look by giving Powell’s face a dewey slickness, and contoured his makeup to make him look more rugged and defined, along with a slight bronzer making Ron darker than Gary.

In the film, Gary, as he conjures up his next disguise, studies the file of his potential marks, asking himself, “Who is your hit man?” Hoffpauir took this as her cue in thinking about Ron as Madison’s ideal.

Hit Man. (L to R) Glen Powell as Gary Johnson and Adria Arjona as Madison Master. Cr. Brian Roedel / Courtesy of Netflix
‘Hit Man’Brian Roedel / Courtesy of Netflix

“Madison comes from Texas and we talked about maybe her fantasy of a hit man would have this Texas flair, so he had black Wranglers, black boots, and a Western snap shirt,” said Houffpauir. “A dark horse because we sometimes find that mysterious and intriguing in a male fantasy.”

The key to the costume designer in unlocking Ron was his silhouette, specifically his jacket.

“The jacket is like Gary’s armor as Ron. We couldn’t do a flight or bomber jacket because Glen’s already done that [‘Top Gun: Maverick’]. The Ron character is more like Glen, confident, sexy, playful, so the jacket also had to be something comfortable for Glen,” said Hoffpauir. “Whenever he put that [jacket] on he was Ron. That suede leather jacket had these green tints that hinted towards the swamp (because he references the swamp a lot). Green to me, it felt [a little] animal and nature, it just screamed masculinity to me.”

Gary Becomes Ron (“When Did Our Teacher Get Hot”)

For Linklater the most important aspect of Powell’s transformation was in the balance of the Gary/Ron relationship.

“The real story here is Gary, the spectrum of Gary to Ron, that’s the transformation, that’s the throughline of the movie,” said Linklater. “I think we all have a little bit of Gary and Ron in us, I know I do, my default is Gary.” The director later adding, “And it’s fun to see Ron triumph.”

The key here wasn’t so much defining Gary and Ron, as outlined above, but Gary, liking how it feels playing the more confident Ron, starting to slowly incorporate elements of Ron into his life away from Madison, as we move to the end and the two ultimately merge.

“You kind of have to graph it out on a chart, ‘In this scene, OK, how much is Gary? How much is Ron?’ Because he’s doing a slow transformation, and we shot out of sequence,” said Linklater.

This was a constant discussion for Cooper, Vickers, Hoffpauirr, and Powell throughout their collaboration. Powell gravitated toward shirts with a grid pattern for Gary, a motif Hoffpauirr continued throughout the film, even the last scene that jumps years into the couple’s future there’s a subtle grid in Gary’s shirt.

As the film progresses, Gary starts going without glasses, and Vickers puts a little texture to his hair: All the little pieces of craft that define Ron slowly creep their way into Gary’s presentation. Hoffpauirr points to a scene late in the semester when Gary takes his class outdoors. A couple of the female students notice their professor as attractive for the first time.

“He pretty much stays pretty much the same as a professor, except that one day outside,” said Hoffpauirr. “He has flat front pants, his shirt is unbuttoned a little bit, he’s more airy, he’s outside, he’s more in his element. I felt like it was the Indiana Jones look, more relaxed, confident, still professor-y with a little grid in his shirt, and he’s really excited about his subject. He’s passionate. And that’s sexy.”

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