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Sergio López-Rivera, the Spanish makeup artist who left Shonda Rhimes to follow Viola Davis around the world

Since he met the actress in ‘How to Get Away with Murder’ he has become her inseparable collaborator on red carpets and film shoots, one of which earned him an Oscar in 2021. ‘I have been in this business for almost 35 years and not one Hollywood star would have allowed me to do the things I have done with her’

Sergio López-Rivera
Sergio López-Rivera, makeup artist for actress Viola Davis.Foto cedida (Prime Video)
Héctor Llanos Martínez

The biography of Sergio López-Rivera has many and varied roots. Born in the Andalusia region of southern Spain and raised from the age of three in Cantabria, in the north, he moved to the United States to study as soon as soon as he was old enough. And he has stayed in that country ever since. Although his life is becoming more and more nomadic because of one woman: actress Viola Davis.

Television allowed him to develop his childhood vocation to become a makeup artist. He did it with such opposite characters as different as Felicity and Larry David, until the all-powerful producer Shonda Rhimes signed him to her company, Shondaland. López-Rivera worked on several projects at the Rhimes factory: Grey’s Anatomy, its spinoff Private Practice, and Scandal, “Until I joined the series How to Get Away with Murder and I met Viola in person,” he recalls.

The meeting with EL PAÍS took place in the middle of last February, while shooting the Prime Video film G20, on location in Cape Town. The makeup artist has followed Viola Davis literally to the ends of the Earth, as he has done now to the South African city. Before finding himself on the set of this series, López-Rivera was already hypnotized by the actress. “The first time I saw her on a screen was in Doubt and I became a fan of hers instantly. I thought, who is this woman who is stealing parts from Meryl Streep?

The mutual love-in between the two was immediate, to the point of leaving Shonda Rhimes to become Davis’s go-to makeup artist. Since then they have traveled together, with him as her constant companion on film shoots, and using makeup to help the American build her characters with or to show off on the red carpets. Assisting Davis in her portrayal of Ma Rainey, an American musical legend, earned López-Rivera an Oscar in 2021, in the category of Best Makeup and Hairstyling, for the biopic Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

Sergio López-Rivera, Viola Davis
Sergio López-Rivera applying makeup on actress Viola Davis for 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' (2020), in an image provided by the makeup artist.

He still remembers the moment he found out he was going to work with Viola Davis. “I was already hired for the series, but we didn’t have a lead. They were thinking of actresses like Jennifer Connelly or Diane Lane. When I found out it was Viola, I loved the idea. It was a completely different series than if another woman had played it. In fact, many of her character’s conflicts were proposed by Viola herself,” the Spaniard recalls.

Mia Neal, Jamika Wilson, and Sergio Lopez-Rivera pose backstage with the Oscar for Makeup and Hairstyling in the press room during the 93rd Annual Academy Awards
From left to right, Mia Neal, Jamika Wilson, and Sergio López-Rivera with their Oscar for best makeup and hairstyling for 'The Mother of the Blues', at the 2021 awards.Handout (A.M.P.A.S. via Getty Images)

How to Get Away with Murder was first aired in 2014 and ran for six seasons, and in addition to being a ratings success, it helped Davis build her image as a pioneer in the Hollywood industry. Annalise Keating, her character, was “a 49-year-old dark-skinned African-American woman, who was both sexy and dangerous,” the actress celebrated at the time.

López-Rivera was involved in the series’ most iconic scene, which occurred in the first season. It showed something practically taboo on screen: a black woman’s relationship with her hair. Davis’s character, so ferocious outwardly, would come home and take off her wig and remove her makeup in the mirror to face her husband. “The director of the episode, Laura Innes [who was one of the actresses in ER], told me how we could simulate removing makeup without having to appear on screen without makeup. I told him that Viola doesn’t have the vanity of the Hollywood star that she really is and that she kick up a fuss. So it was. She was beautiful. “He took off his wig like no one else, as if it were a superhero’s helmet,” he says with admiration.

“I have been in this business for almost 35 years and I assure you that no Hollywood star would have allowed me to do the things I have done with her. Only one Spanish actress has such a level of commitment to her profession that she goes beyond her image, and that is Aitana Sánchez-Gijón. “They both belong to the same category of actress,” argues López-Rivera. He has also helped Davis become the former American first lady Michelle Obama in another of her television projects.

Being a makeup artist in Hollywood doesn’t only involve issues related to beauty or vanity. Another of Davis’ milestones is starring in action films at the age of 50. Already in South Africa she filmed one of her latest projects, The Woman King. It is a historical epic inspired by real events that happened in the Kingdom of Dahomey, one of the most powerful states in Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries.

“In action scenes, wounds, and bruises don’t have to look aesthetic, they have to look real,” says López-Rivera. “In these types of films, the female character generally starts with glowing makeup and well, it gradually fades as the plot progresses.” In genres such as drama, thriller, or action “makeup is really important, because it gradually reflects the suffering that the characters face. I call it emotional makeup, because it also helps the actors get into the role.”

Sergio López-Rivera, Viola Davis
Sergio López-Rivera applying make up to Viola Davis in her role as Michelle Obama.

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