Behind the Glistening, Shirtless Scenes of ‘Top Gun: Maverick,’ ‘Fire Island’ and More: “It Was Definitely a Lot of Oil”

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Beyond scoring big at the box office, breaking streaming viewership records or enchanting critics, several of this summer’s hottest projects have one thing in common: oiled-up, skin-baring scenes.

Top Gun: Maverick took its own approach to the famous beach volleyball scene of the original, staging an oil-heavy game of beach football with Tom Cruise, Miles Teller, Glen Powell and the rest of the pilot team — which Teller’s close friend Shailene Woodley even gushed about on Instagram. Fire Island featured throngs of gay men shimmering in the clubs, while Minx’s cover models got camera ready. Physical and Winning Time took more active, sweaty approaches to their shirtless moments. And just what went into making these half (or in some cases, fully) nude stars glow onscreen? Turns out it’s a lot more than meets the eye.

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“It was avocado oil and sunflower seed oil and castor oil and coconut oil, it was a lot of oils — literally we probably all had four or five layers of different types of oils on us to really make sure the muscles popped,” Jay Ellis recounts of filming that glistening Top Gun scene. And that paled in comparison to the oil operation on Fire Island.

‘Everyone you saw shirtless had some sort of oil on them,” which accounted for the main stars and dozens of extras, says the Hulu film’s makeup head, Rashida Bolden. “We also had to keep in mind that some guys needed to look oily-sweaty and some just needed to look oily-beautiful. With the oily-sweaty guys, that would use a thicker oil on them and spray them with water after that.” The application process could take up to 45 minutes, involving primer, sunscreen, setting spray, and occasional glitter as well as the oil, which would be touched up throughout the day.

“The mainstays for all of our set bags was a spray bottle of oil and a spray bottle of water,” Bolden adds, “and it was really like, ‘Let’s find a safe space so we won’t ruin whatever set we’re on.’ And we sprayed them down.” She can’t estimate just how much the shoot went through but confirms, “It was definitely a lot of oil.”

For Nick Adams’ character, Cooper, specifically, Fire Island director Andrew Ahn told Bolden he wanted the actor to look almost plastic, which was done with face and body makeup, bronzer and oil hybrid serum.

“We were trying to achieve full Ken-doll, Botoxed plastic,” says Adams. “We found that we needed sunscreens and bug spray on the island, which actually helped to achieve the luster. There was a day we had to rewash my hair because oil applied to my face traveled up into my hairline. I think the overall look was super effective in combination with David Tabbert’s excellent costume choices to portray a slick gay villain.”

Bolden says that the oil process not only gave the stars “just a little bit more oomph to their look” but also helped them get in character. Recalling the film’s underwear party scene, she says, “It really felt like I was just prepping a bunch of men to go to this party — like actually go to this party.”

James Scully, Nick Adams and Conrad Ricamora in Fire Island.
James Scully, Nick Adams and Conrad Ricamora in Fire Island.

Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty had its own thorough oiling process, complicated by the fact that many of its stars (including Quincy Isaiah as Magic Johnson) had tattoos.

Since most NBA players in the ‘70s were not inked, the tattoos had to be covered “and then whatever we put on for shine afterward had to not affect the makeup,” says the show’s makeup co-head Kate Biscoe, as oils chemically break down coverup. And on top of that, “the shorts couldn’t be shorter” and the actors couldn’t be taller (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar actor Solomon Hughes is 6-foot-11) which meant lots of real estate to cover. Biscoe and fellow co-head Corinne Foster turned to a silicone paste and dewy finish spray to bring the shine, which also had to be slip-safe for the cast and crew shooting on the court.

“They were very particular if we were on the basketball courts,” says Foster. “We couldn’t even spray water on the court, because if they slipped or anything was on the floor, it could affect the camera operators and the players and was a dangerous thing.”

But for those not actively playing basketball, including stars Jason Clarke (who plays Jerry West) and Jason Segel (who plays former Lakers coach Paul Westhead), the oil was flowing. “I did a scene with Jason Clark and they were just ‘more sweat, more sweat, more sweat,'” remembers Biscoe. “He was so ridiculously sweaty he practically slipped out of the bed.” Adds Foster, “Jason Segel had a couple of scenes where he’s having a hard time going to the bathroom, and specifically really wanted to express that with the amount of sweat that he had on. He really was like, ‘I need it, I want so much, like over-the-top amounts.'”

Biscoe says the show’s director of photography, Todd Banhazl, “wanted everybody to be shiny” to match the series’ unique visual style, which was shot on film, leading to some back and forth with the makeup team. “That was walking that thin line all the time of, ‘Is it enough for him, but is it too much?'” she explains. “It’s great for basketball players because they can be shiny all the time, but when you have somebody who’s sitting in an office, I’m like, ‘I don’t know if they should be so shiny.'”

Solomon Hughes and Quincy Isaiah in Winning Time. - Credit: Courtesy of Warrick Page/HBO
Solomon Hughes and Quincy Isaiah in Winning Time. - Credit: Courtesy of Warrick Page/HBO

Courtesy of Warrick Page/HBO

And, as Top Gun’s Powell points out, there is a downside to being covered in oil when playing sports on camera: “If you are going to play a competitive game of beach football, I would not do it greased up. It’s very hard to hold on to a football — you slip, you can’t throw a good pass.”

On Apple TV+’s Physical, there was also the consideration of “keeping oil and sweat off of our sometimes one-of-a-kind vintage or handmade garments” while still maintaining the shine of ’80s workout video stars, says creator Annie Weisman. And to fit the time period, “We had to turn back the clock in terms of skin cancer awareness. So, there was a lot of body makeup and oil being applied to achieve what was the more prevalent look of the time and place.”

Not every Hollywood shirtless scene is so reliant on oil, though, says Minx makeup head Carleigh Herbert, who opted for body makeup and bronzer on most of the show’s actors.

“It’s something you have to babysit,” Herbert says of the choice to use oil. “It’s something you have to think about — with lighting and with movement, what the actors are doing. You don’t want someone who’s running around, jumping around on set with a bunch of oil all over their body unless the character calls for it.”

Conversations with the director and actors will often dictate what products to use, even if it’s just body makeups that “doesn’t look crazy in person, but it just gives it a bounce-up on camera,” she adds.

Because at the end of the day, “we want them to look natural while being covered in makeup,” says Foster. “It gives it a sleek look, rather than having any kind of imperfection.”

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