Beauty, Glamour + Fashion

Behind the Scenes Photographing Portraits for the Oscars

September 13, 2019

By Libby Peterson

Photo © We Are The Rhoads

Supporting actress nominee Rachel Weisz from The Favourite.

Diversity and inclusion seemed to be the buzzwords at this year’s Oscars, especially when ten people of color won awards across various categories. In 2018, UCLA’s Hollywood Diversity Report showed that minorities and women are still very underrepresented in films, lead roles and writing and director jobs. What follows here is a conversation with photographer Sarah Rhoads about the story behind a dream gig that highlights the powerful female talent significantly changing what has been a very male-dominated Hollywood landscape.

Oscar winner Regina King.
All Photos © We Are The Rhoads

Libby Peterson: You and Chris were invited to do these shoots, but exactly how did the opportunity come about?

Sarah Rhoads: The director of photography for PEOPLE, Ilana Schweber, was familiar with our work and had tried to get us on some assignments previously, but none were quite the right fit. This was the one where the stars aligned for us. When we were approached, we were asked to do the entire women’s portfolio for their Oscars issue. It was a very attractive assignment. Most times in the editorial world for a large story like this, a photographer may be assigned one of the celebrities and another photographer gets another. To have the opportunity to photograph all of the women and sign your name to the whole portfolio they had in mind was really something special.

LP: It sounds like a dream job. What would you say helped clinch you two in the minds of PEOPLE?

SR: Ilana communicated that we may only have very short snippets of time with each woman and that she wanted us to do our “Rhoads thing” with each of them: get to something honest quickly. I think the reality that we can get to the heart of a person quickly in our photographic work was a real draw for PEOPLE.

LP: When it came time to plan, where did you begin?

SR: We knew we would be photographing six to eight Oscar-nominated women (there were ten nominees in total), however the nominations weren’t yet announced so we didn’t know who we’d be photographing. Once the nominations were announced, it was very much fast and furious, and who we were photographing seemed to change by the minute since celebrity schedules are always tricky during awards season. Since the issue launched right after the Oscars, we had about ten days to shoot seven women. Some were shot on the west coast and some in New York. 

LP: Did you have your own team of creatives to work with?

SR: We had our team of three photo assistants and a digital tech with us on each shoot. Each celebrity brought their own glam team of hair, makeup and styling.

LP: What did you do to make sure the shoots would look as you hoped they would?

SR: Part of our process involves putting together a small mood board for each shoot and each woman so that we have an idea of how we want to capture them. Obviously, that can change given what’s thrown at you on the day of the shoot, so you go in with your best-case scenario and also have to think and respond on the fly as necessity demands.

LP: Were your plans for each fairly different, or did you want to keep it consistent?

SR: The plans had to be different because we had a different set of unique circumstances for each shoot. For some shoots, we were inside a dark room at night. For others, we had daylight but it was raining. Others were sunny and we had access to an outside area. We worked with what was available to us. The most important thing to us was to capture something real about each woman.

Leading actress nominee Melissa McCarthy.

LP: How much time did you have to photograph each of the actresses?

SR: We had no more than 30 minutes for each—we had under 7 minutes with Melissa McCarthy. It was raining for her shoot and we initially wanted to shoot her outside, so we had to call an audible and go under an awning. I hopped up on Chris’s shoulders and we got the final shot quickly.

LP: Melissa McCarthy is known for her more comedic roles but was being celebrated for a dramatic one in Can You Ever Forgive Me? this year.

SR: We had a great time with Melissa. We laughed a lot and bonded over the fact that we were both Chicago gals. We put on some music and just did our thing.

Lupita Nyong’o from Best Picture nominee Black Panther.

LP: With Lupita Nyong’o and Danai Gurira (who weren’t nominees but starred in Best Picture nominee Black Panther), you photographed them both individually and together. How smooth was that process?

SR: We photographed Lupita and Danai in New York. Right after photographing Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk) and Melissa in Los Angeles, Chris hopped on a red-eye flight to New York and photographed Lupita and Danai the next morning. We had access to a small hotel room to photograph them in, and Chris and the team got into the space two hours earlier to pre-light and plan out the different locations. We had 30 minutes with Danai, then 15 minutes to shoot both of them and then another 30 minutes with Lupita solo. They had a nice rapport with one another and are real friends, which was something we wanted to play to when we photographed them together.

LP: For the shoot with Regina, it looks like you were in a sparse room. What did you do to make that space interesting for the time you were together?

SR: We utilized lighting to make that hotel room more interesting—that coupled with Regina’s wonderful charisma made that shot [at left] what it was. It certainly wasn’t about the space as it was lackluster, so we focused on capturing her spirit.

Roma’s Marina de Tavira.

LP: For Marina de Tavira (Roma), you got to go outside. Did you scout the location or were you roaming around?

SR: We scouted where we would walk to shoot her prior to taking her out with us, but then we allowed some room for spontaneity once we went out.

Roma’s Yalitza Aparicio.

LP: Yalitza Aparicio had her breakout role in Roma, so she is very new to this scene. What was your approach with her?

SR: We kept it very simple with her, the intimacy of a small space next to beautiful, clean window light. We just tried to put her at ease as much as possible.

LP: Then you had an actress like Rachel Weisz (The Favourite), who has been part of many glamorous shoots before. What did you do there to mix it up?

SR: We shot Rachel in a dark basement at the SAG awards ceremony. We found a tiny room off to the side of the basement that had vanity lights and mirrors, a chair and set it down in there surrounded by the vanity lights, used three lights of our own and made it come to life.

LP: Did you encounter any interesting challenges?

SR: We initially were supposed to have 20 minutes with Rachel and had plans to light a unique space that we were excited to shoot her in, but on the day of, it turns out we didn’t have access to  that space. Also, we only had her for 10 minutes total, so we had to really work on the fly and utilize the vanity lights in the basement. Although very different from what we initially planned, sometimes those situations force your hand at creativity on the fly. We were very happy with how it turned out.

LP: This series feels a little more poignant because of what’s happening for women in Hollywood now. Was that in the back of your mind?

SR: Working as a male-female team, our goal is to always look at each of our subjects outside the confines of sex, gender, race and ethnicity, to just see them as humans and find the wonderful dignity and honesty at the heart of each person. That was at the heart of this shoot.

LP: What was one moment you won’t soon forget?

SR: While we were shooting Melissa in the hotel hallway, Chris got out the large-format camera and Willem Dafoe walked up behind us, trying to get by. Before realizing it was him, I held out an arm and told him not to walk through the shot. He smiled and waited patiently. When I turned and realized who it was, I had to chuckle to myself. 

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