Interview: Alexei Dmitriew & Cassie Russek Talk Breaking a World Record on ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3’ [EXCLUSIVE]


Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 has released in theaters as of May 5, rounding out the trilogy for this misfit family of galactic heroes. In the third installment to the franchise, over 22,000 prosthetic applications were carried out by the talented hair and makeup teams, breaking a world record previously set by 2000’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Behind this unbelievable new world record are department heads Alexei Dmitriew and Cassie Russek.

Dmitriew’s career as a makeup artist spans over two decades, with credits including Parks and Recreation, Avengers: Infinity War, Captain Marvel, and more. His stunning work has been nominated for four Primetime Emmy nominations, securing three wins for his prosthetic work on MADtv, Star Trek: Picard, and The Mandalorian; as well as six Makeup Artist and Hairstylist Awards nominations, winning for his special effects makeup on The Mandalorian and The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special. Dmitriew also owns and operates Hookup Tattoos, Inc., where he has designed temporary tattoos for film and television for over a decade.

Russek has lent her award-winning talents to a variety of television and streaming series, feature films, and theatrical productions for over a decade. Her credits include Black Adam, Red Notice, Avengers: Infinity War, Captain Marvel, and more. In her career, Russek has been recognized with 12 Makeup Artist and Hairstylist Awards nominations, securing three wins for Birds of Prey, Mamma Mia, and Alice in Wonderland.

Nerds & Beyond had a chance to talk to the pair about their work on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.

Note: This interview has been edited for clarity.

Nerds & Beyond: Not only did this movie take the level of prosthetics used for the Guardians franchise to an entirely new level, it also broke the world record. I wanted to congratulate both of you on that first, and then ask how you approach a film with over 22,000 prosthetic applications. I imagine that starts with a lot of organization, but what exactly does that look like for each of you?

Alexei Dmitriew: The summer of 2021, I got asked by Legacy Effects and Production to basically look through all of the assets for Marvel from Guardians [of the Galaxy] Vol. 1, [Guardians of the Galaxy] Vol. 2, and anything else that the team appears in — Thor Love & Thunder, the Avengers movies … everything that was made with them. I spent the summer looking through 55 pallets of stuff to look for stuff that was a good reference or what we could reuse. At the end of that, we put together a big character bible that consisted of all the aliens in the Guardians world and overall in the Marvel world, but mainly everything that was in the Guardians movies.

Then we handed all that to production and James [Gunn], who is really good about knowing what he wants in the scenes and how many people he wants, and how big everything needs to be. So from there, production gave us numbers back, and then we just started to organize it all. And, like you said — it was a lot of organization. A lot of charts. Being one department, we weren’t split into a prosthetic makeup department and a regular makeup department; we were one thing, so I oversaw all of it because it’s basically a big prosthetic movie. Then we just got really organized with it. They gave us numbers, and we prioritize when we needed things on set because you can’t just start making 10 of these when maybe you only need two now and some other things. So we just got organized with it all, lots of charts, and went from there.

Cassie Russek: Yeah, we tried to keep ahead of schedule. I feel like at least about two months ahead of schedule for each scene that we were currently shooting, so when we would get to a new planet or a new set, we were at least about two months ahead of schedule.

So we had the initial numbers that we thought we would have, and then once we realized we were shooting in the mega heart of COVID, we quickly realized we needed extras of everything. And so we definitely kept as organized as we can … like Alexei said: charts. We just keep charts, charts, and more charts … that was like our song. We had a different chart every single day. But that was just the only way that you can approach this with such vast numbers. Sometimes we were seeing days of 300 background, and we were like, “How do you wrap your head around 300 background?” And you just do. You just have to stay ahead of schedule and make sure that you’re completely prepared and that everyone has everything they need. And that was what we did.

Alexei Dmitriew: Yeah, that’s a big thing as well — really setting up your team up for success. You have so many people, and everybody’s doing so many different things, and some are just doing humans, some are doing dirt, some are painting all the painted makeups, which all have little prosthetics on. So we set it up where everyone has their little bags with all the paint in it they need and the steps to take, and we did classes on all the characters. Our core main people knew how to do all the characters so they can answer questions, but then if something COVID related happened, they would be able to step in and replace anyone as well. That was really an important thing that we knew was going to be successful for us all if we could do that.

Nerds & Beyond: When that scale of work started to set in with both of you, what were the thoughts and feelings you experienced when you’re like realizing what you’ve set out on?

Cassie Russek: I think we both, from day one, knew this was going to be big. I don’t think we knew how big, but the thing is … everything is gonna get done. It’s going to. We’re going to shoot it. That’s kind of the mentality you have to have is that there’s no coming in and being like, “What are we going to do?” There’s no reason to be stressed because it’s gonna get done, and it has to get done … and it’s got to look good. So you just do it. I know that that’s a lame answer to say, but you really just prepare and do it and execute.

Alexei Dmitriew: We had up to 140 hair and makeup people. I had like 90 makeup people, and Cassie had, like, what? 50, 40-something hair people.

Cassie Russek: One of the days, I had 60 total hairdressers, so I think we topped out at 150 total for one or two days.

Alexei Dmitriew: Yeah. It’s really just making sure everybody has what they need. And we had 22,542 total appliances throughout the movie, but we also used about 500 wigs. And man, we also used about 117 pairs of contact lenses as well. It was just a lot of stuff.

Nerds & Beyond: A lot to keep track of … hence the charts that you both mentioned.

Cassie Russek: I actually have this really great photo of me sitting on the ground of my trailer with probably 15 poster boards surrounding me, and me just giving a thumbs up because you just have to look at it all and go … “Did we get everything? We did. We got it all.”

Nerds & Beyond: And then give yourself a pat on the back for it.

Of the new characters and species introduced in this film, which was your favorite to work on?

Alexei Dmitriew: I love doing Marvel bad guys, and I’ve been really lucky that I’ve gotten to do a bunch of them over the years. I worked on Chukwudi Iwuji as the High Evolutionary with my coworker Scott Stoddard. He was one of my key makeup artists, and he was a delight to work with on what was a challenging makeup. That was a challenging makeup because James [Gunn] really wanted his face to show through, and so we worked around his face. We left the appliances in unconventional areas that we had to cover stuff, and so just that made a little bit of a challenge, definitely. Then the Humanimals were all a challenge. I got to work on the Bat-Mom, and she was lovely.

Everything was really intricate. It was so many makeups, and we got to do a lot of really cool stuff.

Cassie Russek: Yeah, this is hard; there’s so many characters. It’s actually so hard to pick favorites of who was new.

I loved doing Ura, our Krylorian manager, and she was just so cute. It’s not that she’s overly complicated, but she’s beautiful. She’s such a beautiful pink character. She had these beautiful prosthetics on her forehead and on her cheeks, and so I made this wig to be this very 60s nuance, like a Vidal Sassoon bob, and it hit right at her cheek line so you could read the prosthetics. She is just beautiful, and I also thought that she was a fun character.

But like Alexei said, the Humanimals were just outrageous. It was creativity at its finest. We just got to be artists who, between Legacy Effects building everything and us getting to put the puzzle pieces together, were at their finest. I feel like we really got to create and do such rad stuff.

Nerds & Beyond: When you’re working, do you ever find yourself going, “I really wish I could put this on right now just for a little bit”?

Alexei Dmitriew: [laugh] I do not.

Cassie Russek: Everyone who passes through the hair trailer gets a head massage at the end of the night. It’s something that with the team, I don’t care if you’re tired, you’re giving the actor a head massage. If an actor has to go through the works, they’re gonna get a pampering for at least like five to 10 minutes at the end of the night. Sometimes I have the AD yelling at me, like, “We need these actors out.” And I’m like, “You know what, they wore a prosthetic, a wig, or this or that for 13 hours … they get a head massage.”

That’s the part I envy is the head massage.

Alexei Dmitriew: I love it all. I love being a part of it; I love seeing it all. But at my core, I love doing makeup, and I love painting, so I don’t ever care to have it on me necessarily; I’d rather be doing it. As department head in these types of movies, you’re trying to make sure your team has all the information, all of the supplies, the time needed … everything needed to really do the job right. By the time I see them, we’ve done so much work to set everybody else up.

Cassie and I are both pretty critical about things and making sure that they look right. And they are right because these movies … they get structure. There might be an “A,” “B,” and “C” like with background. So “A” is going to be upfront, “B” is in the middle, and “C” is deep background. But the reality is, they might get to set, and they shuffle all the time. It happens all the time. So really, even our “C” background has to be at the quality we expect, so when we make all that, and we’re organizing, we’re really critical about all of it. Our artists that we have on our team are top-notch people; they can do everything, so we feel confident that we can throw anything at them. Because even though it’s a “C” character, it has to be ready, so if they’re going to do a close-up on that character, it needs to be that quality.

So no, I don’t want it on me because I analyze it too much.

Cassie Russek: I think when Alexei and I would go to set, and we would see all of our people, and what we’ve done, what our artists who came to us did, that’s the pinch-able moment. We are like, “Whoa, we did this. Look at it, it’s perfect.” And that’s sort of that’s where I feel like at my highest joy.

Alexei Dmitriew: We had people from Los Angeles that flew out, and then we also had a huge group of people that were there from Atlanta. Some of the people from Atlanta, this was their biggest job they had worked on. To really push everybody’s artistry and to make sure that everybody was doing top-quality work ee went out, and we saw everybody, and we gave people critique, but we also made sure to tell everybody that they had done a great job because then everybody was psyched.

Then they come back the next day, and they even do a better job. It’s a bit of management skills, too, but also it’s just lifting everybody up and just telling everybody they did a great job. And as a team, we got to do something amazing.

Nerds & Beyond: That’s the ultimate goal. I’m glad both of you feel like you got that pinchable moment — where you really feel like you accomplished what you set out to do.

Have either of you ever received a specific piece of advice and your career that’s really stuck with you?

Cassie Russek: Pay it forward. That was what someone told me once. They gave me a really big opportunity when I was really young in my career, and I asked him, “How can I ever thank you enough?” And he said, “You can thank me by paying it forward to everybody else.”

Ever since then, I’ve always tried to do that. Giving anybody and everyone a chance to succeed at all of this.

Alexei Dmitriew: I don’t know if there’s something specific that somebody told me, but I think just after being on set for how many years and getting to work on this amazing stuff, I want to make sure that me and my team always treat everybody equal from the PAs to the background. We just tried to treat everybody equal and make sure that everybody gets respect all the way through. Nobody is lesser than another person. Sometimes on these shows, a real hierarchy pyramid can be set, and I just don’t like that.

I don’t think that that’s the way to do these things and approach this. I think more so just seeing things done in a way that I didn’t like made me this way. That’s the message that I try to convey on all this stuff is just to make sure we all lift each other up. If we do that, then we’re all gonna get lifted up together as a team.

Cassie Russek: Fact. That is a fact. Alexei and I are both really nice.

Nerds & Beyond: You both seem very nice!

Cassie Russek: Thanks! It’s a rarity sometimes in this industry. It’s really tough.

We both really worked really hard together as a team. Sometimes a lot of hair and makeup people end up splitting apart into separate teams, and we never did that. We made it really known to each other that we were going to always have each other’s back and be a complete team, and to lift everyone up. And like Alexi said, treat everyone equally. It’s so important. This was a nine-month movie; everyone has to be happy for nine months. You can expect perfection, of course, but also be just very kind.

Nerds & Beyond: I think that’s so important too with such a large team to make everyone feel like they’re part of a team rather than fragmented and keeping those spirits up that that’s a daunting task.

Are there any projects upcoming from either of you that we can look forward to seeing that you’re allowed to share?

Cassie Russek: I’ll go first! I have a Taylor Sheridan show that’s called Special Ops: Lioness, with Nicole Kidman, Zoe Saldaña, and Morgan Freeman. That’ll be on Paramount+, and that’s just going to be a fun ride. I’m excited for everyone to watch that one.

Alexei Dmitriew: When does it air?

Cassie Russek: Actually, Vanity Fair just did a bit about it. It’s going to air at the end of July, they say.

Alexei Dmitriew: Awesome. In and out of Marvel, I do a lot of Star Wars, so I’ve department headed or co-designed all The Mandalorian stuff. And literally right after this job was over [on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3], I went straight to a trailer to do Rosario Dawson’s makeup as an Ahsoka for that series.

So this is a pretty cool sci-fi year for me because I had Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 come out, and then in August, we’ll get we get Ahsoka. I co-department headed that with Christina Waltz, and we have an amazing team, and we have some really cool stuff that people are gonna see. So yeah, I have that coming up too.

Nerds & Beyond: I’m a huge Star Wars fan, so I’m really excited for Ahsoka, but Lioness sounds amazing, too — I’m definitely going to be on the lookout for that.

Cassie Russek: I got to do two days on Ahsoka in the summer, and let me tell you … what they have done is very good. Ahsoka is going to be really exciting.

Alexei Dmitriew: Hopefully, when that comes out, we’ll be able to do a little bit more press for that as well and figure that out! Because there’s so much really cool stuff to talk about that, we can’t yet, but we will be able to at some point, and I’m excited for that.

All of this is awesome. Makeup is great; I love makeup, I love sci-fi. I just do have to pinch myself because there’s one or two makeup people that get to do these jobs, and … I’m one of them. I get to do all of this amazing stuff that people are psyched about, and there’s posters of my stuff everywhere! That big close-up of Ahsoka? That’s my work. It’s pretty cool.

Nerds & Beyond: One last fun question. Which character from Guardians [of the Galaxy] Vol. 3 do you hope to see the most Halloween looks for this year?

Cassie Russek: That’s a great question! I think Halloween looks we’re gonna get a lot of Adam Warlock. I would love to see Ura. Who would you like to see, Alexei?

Alexei Dmitriew: Oh, I don’t know. I always like seeing people do Nebula. That’s a character that’s close to me. I’ve applied it over 100 times now throughout the last bunch of years on Karen [Gillan], and so I like watching people pull off a good Nebula. But especially this year because in Guardians [of the Galaxy] Vol. 3, her makeup is different because Rocket has done some work on her appearance and mechanics. So it’s something a little bit different.

Cassie Russek: There was one person I saw at the premiere in cosplay who had the very long, sort of the strung-out Gamora hair from this new movie. And I was so excited! I would love to see more people with the new dreads … get in there and dread it! I was like telling the cosplayers, “Get dreaded out, make it look like dreads!” So I would love to see more of the long hair Gamora.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is playing in theaters now. Check out the gallery below for behind-the-scenes hair and makeup images from the film.

Hannah’s a lifelong nerd, but has been with the team since May 2021. Her life is easily classified by two abbreviations - BBG3 and ABG3 (before Baldur’s Gate 3 and after Baldur’s Gate 3). Especially nerdy about: video games, folklore, Star Wars, D&D, Spider-Man, and horror (all of it). Based in Denver, CO.

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