Television

Search Party’s Doll Designer Explains How He Made Those Extremely Creepy Barbies of the Cast

“You do have to get a little obsessed.”

Alia Shawkat's Search Party character side by side with her doll counterpart, which has bloody hands.
Search Party’s Alia Shawkat (right) and doll. Cyrus Bronock/HBO Max

Search Party’s delightfully demented fourth season features a star turn by an unusual addition to the cast: a half-dozen eerily life-like Barbie dolls. Bearing a haunting resemblance to the show’s four (anti)heroes—and their two murder victims—these dolls also play a terrifying role in this season’s plot.

After being found innocent of a murder she absolutely did commit, Dory (Alia Shawkat) has been kidnapped by Chip (Cole Escola), an obsessed fan who wants to replace her rag-tag group of friends. Using the dolls as a kind of immersive “therapy,” Chip forces Dory to relive the killings of Seasons 1 and 2, while altering her memories to exonerate her of any responsibility

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Chip cuts off all of Dory’s contact with the outside world, holding her hostage in a foamy bunker designed to look just like her real-life apartment. When Dory first meets the tiny, inanimate versions of her friends, she embraces them, and speaks tenderly to their creepy little faces. Later, the brainwashed Dory becomes more and more immersed in Chip’s bizarro perspective on the murders. The immersive “therapy” becomes her reality as she and the others momentarily exist as the dolls in her hands, and then become the human versions of themselves inside a surreal rendering of the crime scene.

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The actors themselves seem sufficiently spooked by these dolls, too. In a recent “unboxing” video, John Reynolds (Drew) looked at the doll of himself and asserted, “I would absolutely not put this doll on display in my house.” John Early (Elliott), for his part, seemed impressed by the way the “art department has fully nailed Elliott’s spirit” and simultaneously miffed by how the doll is “confirming that I look like late-career Jeff Daniels.”

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To understand how this season’s villainous twink might’ve created these dolls, we spoke to the actual artist who did: Cyrus Bronock, whose work on dolls has captured the likeness of icons and divas from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Barbra Streisand.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Slate: Did you grow up playing with dolls?

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Cyrus Bronock: Yes! I was homeschooled my whole life because my mom was sort of a bohemian type. I played with dolls and, with all of my free time, I learned to customize and do a lot of different art projects. Any time my mother meets someone, she’ll tell this story: I put an art brush in my child’s hand at one year old and just told him to go with it!

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I always wished that there were certain celebrity dolls that I loved, especially as a gay kid growing up in small-town Louisiana. You see the icons you love—Madonna, Donna Summer—and you’re like, why aren’t there dolls of them?

Meredith Hagner and her doll counterpart.
Cyrus Bronock/HBO Max
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What is your doll-making artistic process like?

So sometimes I will repaint an existing doll if I think I have a great likeness on the sculpt. And sometimes if I can’t get that, I will just sculpt it myself. So that’s what I did with all the Search Party dolls, they were all authentic sculpts.

So I’ll cast the mold, then fill it, paint it, get the hair right, boil-perm the hair.

What do you mean by boil-perm?

So, curling doll hair is not like when I used to help my sister with her hair. I can’t use a curling iron because that will burn the doll’s hair, because it’s nylon. So what you have to do is use coffee straws for the little curls. You’ll take the hair, set it there, put tin foil on the ends, wrap it around the straw, soak the hair in a cup of boiling water, leave it in for 10 minutes, take it out, let it dry. It makes a perfect perm.

I think the most important thing in getting a good likeness and capturing an individual is not just getting every feature of their face, and hair, but also capturing their soul, and capturing their personality. So I’ll study up. I’ll look at an actor’s other work. I’ll look at interviews of them. I’ll look at a bunch of different pictures.

I don’t mean to offend, but that level of scrutiny sounds a little bit like the show’s demented stalker.

You do have to get a little obsessed. You have to put yourself in this sort of cave of just studying, and trying to understand this person.

Ron Livingston and his doll counterpart, the latter with a bloody head wound.
Cyrus Bronock/HBO Max
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Do you order the hair online or pull it off of old Barbies?

It depends on how much time I’ve got. If I don’t have extra time for a project, I’ll go into a Target, buy three Barbie dolls and pull the hair out of their heads.

How do you go about finding fabrics that perfectly match the characters’ clothing and recreating those patterns for something so much smaller than an actual human?

So I usually have to look through stores and find patterns that are the same but much smaller. My dolls are one-sixth scale. But I’m relentless, I will find that pattern, in a local fabric store, on a fabric website, at Goodwill, at Target, at any store that sells women’s clothing. And if I can’t find it, like with Elliot’s outfit, I’ll hand paint it.

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John Reynolds and his doll counterpart.
Cyrus Bronock/HBO Max

How long does each doll usually take?

They usually take about three to five full days of work.

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Tell me a little about some of the pieces you found or created to accessorize each doll. I found myself totally drawn to Keith’s jacket, Portia’s cross necklace, and Drew’s obelisk, especially since it’s the murder weapon!

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Even though I hand-sew about 95 percent of the clothes, I was so lucky, I found Keith’s jacket on a G.I. Joe and then just did a few alterations. For Portia’s necklace I bought a little bag full of various crosses, knowing that at least one would have to work. For the obelisk, I sculpted the top part and the bottom part is a little, tiny tester spool of thread, without the thread on it.

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Which character’s soul do you think was most challenging to capture in doll form?

Elliott. I love John Early—he’s hilarious, and such an amazing actor. But it feels like every time I look at a picture of him, he looks like a different person.

Usually the more gentle a person’s facial features are, the more difficult it is to capture their likeness. With a couple of the dolls, I had to do three or four different sculpts before I got the right one.

John Early and his doll counterpart.
Cyrus Bronock/HBO Max

Where else might people see your work?

Well, Mariah Carey owns a few of my Mariah dolls, Belinda Carlisle, Michelle Visage, Bianca Del Rio. And I’m fans of theirs, too. Sometimes I’ll get contacted by other celebrities or reality TV stars and not create their dolls because I don’t want to make something that’s not authentic, that I’m not a fan of. I’ve been lucky to be able to pick and choose my opportunities.

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