Articles >

Hairstylist Melissa Forney From “Selma” To “Empire”

Melissa Forney is still accepting reality. The hair department head recently received her first MakeUp Artists and Hair Stylist Guild Award nomination for her work on best picture Oscar nominee “Selma.” She hadn’t been following the nominations, and the modest artesian is still warming up to the accolades the nom has presented her with.

“People were texting me, saying ‘Congratulations!’ and I was wondering ‘For what?’ I hadn’t heard the news myself yet,” said Forney. “To be recognized by your peers is very humbling and exciting. It’s really just hitting me know.”

After receiving a call from friend and makeup department head Beverly Jo Pryor who said “Let’s do this show, “ Forney found herself speaking with “Selma” director Ava DuVernay. The two shared an encouraging phone interview,and Forney began doing research on the period immediately. She delved into the history of the lesser-known activists and community members who made an impact in the civil rights movement. Once pre-production began, Forney, Pryor and costume designer Ruth Carter met at DuVernay’s office to define the character’s appearances and color palettes, and were treated to the director’s careful planning and attention to their contributions to the film.

“Ava had a big wall lined with photos and research,” said Forney. “She was completely prepared, knew the direction she wanted to take, and was very involved in our discussion. She knew how important the hair, makeup and costumes were (to her film) and we had her full support.”

Having worked on period pieces before, Fornay was well practiced in creating 1960s hair styles and using classic products including Murray’s Oil, Dippity Do and Brylcreem. Much of the styling including finger weaves, hair extensions and dying was done on wigs. What proved challenging for Fornay and her seven person team was styling the large cast, including 250 extras.

“We had two people in the trailer, then five others working in the background,” said Fornay. “It was a big cast and not a whole lot of prep time, but we pulled together and just made it happen.”

Organization was key to Forney’s successful handling of the wig and hair needs. The wigs were retouched nightly and stored in one of three trailers. She maintained a cataloging program that accounted for each individual and each hair piece used daily and per scene. She’d take frequent photos to ensure continuity, printing out the images each evening. She also maintained doubles and triples of some pieces for use in emergencies.

A production accountant petitioned for a slight bump to the hair department’s initial budget; however the financial constraints remained a challenge. Forney rented many of her own wigs to the production to offset costs and maintain the department’s budget. The greatest reward was to be part of a featured that shared an important moment in the Civil Rights Movement.

“What I learned about folks like Amy Lee Cooper is something everyone needs to know about,” said Forney. “I’m just so grateful for this opportunity, and proud to have been a part of this project.”

Since wrapping “Selma” Forney has reteamed with Pryor on the Fox series “Empire.” The story revolves around former thug turned R&B music mogul Luscious Lyon (Terrance Howard and his former wife Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson). While the series has several flashbacks to the late 70s / early 80s, Forney is able to explore a wide range of very expressive and contemporary hairstyles worn by the female and male artists, including intricately etched fades rapper Hakeem Lyon (Bryshere Gray) sports.

“It’s a freelance style; there is no pattern that’s used for the design. We have to reapply the lines daily because the design can change,” said Forney. “Men’s hair grows fast.”

Forney and Pryor meet daily with costume designer Paolo Nieddu to discuss character’s looks, styles and characteristics. Some characters, specifically Cookie, change their wardrobe several times within the span of each one hour episode. Forney focuses on ensuring the hair remains consistent to the character’s mood and development despite the costume changes.

“We work closely with the producers and the directors, to get a sense of their favorite looks and styles,” said Forney. “We try to find an area of consistency within each episode.”