Those of us who have seen “The Handmaid’s Tale” and are secretly (well not so secretly) counting the days until the new season know what we are talking about when we say that the use of close-ups literally brings you inside the story, inside the minds of characters, almost as if we are in the story ourselves.
So every time we finished an episode, and “got out” of the screen and recovered a bit, we asked ourselves also about the makeup: it couldn’t be easy to create such an “invisible” makeup yet so strong and meaningful and perfectly in harmony with every other detail from costumes to light and so on. So we couldn’t but try to meet the magic hand behind such makeup looks…and we did meet him, his name is Burton LeBlanc, he’s been the Head Of Makeup Department from season 1.
We met him in New York not long ago, where he walked us through the creative process for the series’ makeup looks, he unveiled the must-have products he uses on Elisabeth Moss when she plays Offred and how he differentiates her look when we see her life as June before Gilead.
Burton’s goal and driving force? Not letting anyone down, from the people he works with to the audience…and a tip from his endeavor in working with so many closeup shots? Always check the light and makeup on camera…you’d be surprised how different things may look.
Why makeup as a career choice and why cinema makeup?
I’ve always been fascinated by changing somebody’s appearance to make them appear like characters from older movies. I was in the middle of a career change: I was on contract work with something, and that changed so I was like, “what am I going to do?”
I decided to go to makeup school and I wanted to do it for film and TV in addition to fashion makeup off camera.
Have you always been a fan of cinema?
Yes, I’ve always been a fan. I’ve always been intrigued by the stories, and always loved the industry, and wondered, “How am I going to break into the industry, and start a career in entertainment?”
“I’ve always been intrigued by the stories, and always loved the industry…”
“I’ve always been fascinated by changing somebody’s appearance to make them appear like characters from older movies.”
What kind of research did you do at the start and also during “The Handmaid’s Tale”?
I was going online and checking out things like cult TV, looking for very distressed worn-down looks after months of torture, and abuse. My references included “Lord of the Flies,” photos of Holocaust victims, and other oppressive or dystopian scenarios: very worn-down. I wanted to carry that realness over to this.
How did you work with Ane Crabtree, costume designer of the first two seasons?
Ane has always been great. In the very beginning, we didn’t really have a relationship, because we just didn’t know each other. I would watch her working, look at her designs, and consider how the makeup and costumes could best complement each other. We’d talk about it, and from there, we very quickly got to know each other, and she was always happy to collaborate. She was always wonderful, and I’m fortunate we got to become friends.
From the first season, the series has been characterized by close-ups on the faces. How has this influenced your approach with makeup?
I am a perfectionist, first with myself [laugh]. In the trailer, when we get everybody ready in the morning, I apply the makeup I think is right along with my team. I let them know what we want for each character’s look. Then there are always last-minute adjustments from the time the actors exit the makeup trailer to when the cameras are actually rolling. For me, I am always looking at the actors’ faces on the screen in case anyone needs the slightest adjustment.
The lighting is extremely important, and can completely change what we’ve done in the trailer, and if the makeup matches the mood and looks real. The DP and I work together, and if the makeup doesn’t match the lighting, either I will adjust the look, or the DP will adjust the lighting, depending on what works best.
How do you deal with all the pressure?
I’m fortunate to have an extremely talented team that I trust, and that absolutely helps lessen the pressure. I have a lot of history with both my team and the rest of the crew since I’ve been on the show since its beginning, and we all have a common goal of making this show perfect, so everyone pulls their weight and then some.
“…there are always last-minute adjustments from the time the actors exit the makeup trailer to when the cameras are actually rolling. […] The lighting is extremely important, and can completely change what we’ve done in the trailer, and if the makeup matches the mood and looks real.”
Were there any particular challenges doing the makeup and how did you face them?
I think those extreme, super tight close-ups started out especially challenging because sometimes you want the makeup to look just right without it actually looking like the characters are wearing it, like in Gilead where Handmaids wouldn’t own beauty products. Every single character on the show is wearing makeup, some more minimal than others, but the goal is to have the makeup reflect the scenarios and characters.
In the very beginning, even when we did the camera test before we started shooting, there was a lot of talking and trying things out. Again, lighting can be a challenge since it can drastically change an initial look, but fortunately, the DP and I have a great collaborative relationship to get past these challenges.
Women on the show have very minimal makeup but, on some occasions, for example when Offred (Elisabeth Moss), goes out at the Jezebel’s and she wears red lipstick. Why did you choose that?
Red is such a very bold, powerful color. At this point, she’s in a place where she needs to come off as completely confident, like she belongs there, and isn’t a handmaid, so the red is also symbolizing her power, passion, and anger.
Offred vs June, what are the main differences regarding makeup?
Offred is worn-down –I put red right in the water line, which I think exemplifies the emotions in her face– just distressed and broken down. June in her flashbacks is beautiful, but not heavily made up. Her look is very natural as if she did her makeup herself. That was the main thing, making it real. If she’s very done up, it doesn’t work.
“Offred is worn-down –I put red right in the water line […] just distressed and broken down.”
“June […] is beautiful, but not heavily made up. Her look is very natural as if she did her makeup herself.”
What are the must-have products when doing Elisabeth’s makeup on set?
Almost every morning she uses Tatcha skincare; you’ve probably seen them on my Instagram, they’re her favorite. She’ll put on Tatcha moisturizer almost every day, along with Peter Thomas Roth 24K Gold Pure Luxury Lift & Firm Hydra-Gel Eye Patches, but sometimes I have to stop her because in Gilead she’s not supposed to look so refreshed. The Laura Mercier Tinted Moisturizer in Natural is the base I use for her “June” flashback looks, and I use the Porcelain shade for Gilead, which is a little lighter since Handmaids don’t get a lot of sun. It’s oil-free, and the paler tint is perfect for light, natural-looking coverage that provides a subtle sheen perfect on camera.
The La Roche Posay Ultra-Light is her go-to sunscreen, it’s really light and sheer, and once again, on camera, you don’t want too many layers. Sometimes, I use Elizabeth Arden’s Eight Hour Cream for more of a heavy-duty moisturizer in certain dryer spots, which she loves – it’s a nice go-to, and helps prevent a “flat” look on camera. If she gets sick or a cold, we’ll use it then too to prevent redness around the nose. We film in Canada, and the set can be really cold or even snowy, so it’s essential. Most days, she’s wearing a little bit of mascara, which helps for expression. When we film really close-up shots, the camera picks it up, so I remove it for those.
Peter Thomas Roth 24K Gold Pure Luxury Lift & Firm Hydra-Gel Eye Patches
Laura Mercier Tinted Moisturizer
La Roche Posay Ultra-Light sunscreen
Elizabeth Arden’s Eight Hour Cream
I’ll also use a small amount of dark shadow on her outer eyebrows and under her eyes to create a more exhausted look. If she ever gets too shiny, once again, Tatcha, with its Japanese beauty papers. They’re very delicate, not too heavy, and they don’t take off too much. The Ben Nye “Death Flesh” creme foundation is excellent as a wash for an extra layer of pale coloring.
Then I use the Skin Illustrator FX Palette, which has some great blood tones, which is my go-to for any illness or injuries such as bruising, cuts, abrasions, scabs, and so on.
For June’s pre-Gilead lips, I use Elizabeth Arden Sheer Tint Cream Lipstick in Berry or Blush, depending on the lighting and scene.
If I need to clear up redness in her eyes, for example from a Gilead scene to a flashback scene, I’ll use the Collyre Bleu eye-drops as a quick fix.
How did the makeup change from season 1 to season 3?
Time has passed, so the women are more worn down, and rougher, except for the new handmaids coming in, who are a little bit fresher. Everything is more worn and broken down. In the later seasons, Offred gets more control back, so I just helped her look a little angrier. You can see in the flashback scenes how much brighter the women look before this new society takes over.
For Commander Waterford, as stress builds in his life, you can see the aging and wear on his face and in his beard. As time progresses, he grows more grey, and more unkempt, and looks more exhausted.
Can you spill out a secret of your work on the series?
I’ve found that sticking to my instinct and expertise is one of my secrets I’m happy to share. I want to carry out the shared vision of the directors, producers, showrunners and writers, but find it important to bring my expertise to the table, and advocate for how I think my work will best contribute to the storytelling.
How does it feel being part of one of the biggest TV shows that has become a phenomenon?
It feels unbelievable and amazing. To be on one of the most critically acclaimed shows on TV right now is unreal. The pressure is there because I want to get it right, but it’s good pressure, and it’s motivational. Like anything I do, I want to make sure it looks correct. Being on shows like this, I don’t want to disappoint people, and I want it to be really believable.
If you could define the looks in “The Handmaid’s Tale” in three words, what would they be?
Raw, real and distressed.
Have you read the book?
Yes. It’s pretty intense. When they sent me the script, I immediately gravitated towards it and needed to make it happen for myself. I reached out to a producer on the series I’d worked with in the past, got connected to Elisabeth Moss via phone a few days later, and the next day I got the job!
Do you have a favorite genre and one you would like to try?
First and foremost, I’m drawn to any script with a compelling story that I’m passionate about, no matter the genre. I also love doing different things, and trying my hand at all creative styles of makeup. I especially love horror and period pieces, because I think they provide an extra challenge, but contemporary makeup can also be extremely fun too.
What’s your favorite movie for makeup?
Among the latest ones, I think “The Darkest Hour,” and “Bombshell” were pretty impressive because the actors were completely transformed into their characters. I was also so impressed by the makeup in “Vice,” and “Mary Queen of Scots.”
Have you ever had an epic fail on the job?
Elisabeth has a nice lip balm she uses, and it gets really shiny, so she puts it on because it’s dry on set, and nobody is allowed to wear lip balm. She carries it in her pocket. So once they started shooting she was still wearing the lip balm. There wasn’t any light shining on her so there wasn’t even any sheen on camera, but I freaked out over that anyway because I’m so detail-oriented. I just needed to know that the camera didn’t catch it, and now I’m extra meticulous checking every character’s lips.
What’s your skincare routine?
My favorites to use are Joanna Vargas vitamin C face wash, Dermalogica Multivitamin Power Firm eye serum in the day, and Kiehl’s Creamy Eye Treatment with Avocado at night. I use Skyn Iceland Pure Cloud Cream as a night cream, or sometimes In Fiore Pur Complexe Face Oil Concentré for extra hydration.
I read on your IG: “Think bigger, dream bigger”. What’s your dream now?
I always want to improve myself and my craft, so my dream is to be able to take on even more amazing projects across even more genres that allow me to create a variety of looks. I’m a designer, so I love being given the opportunity to look at a script and help contribute to who a character is based on the visions I have with the makeup.
“I always want to improve myself and my craft…”
What was for you the best thing about this journey with “The Handmaid’s Tale”?
I think the best thing is getting to work and grow relationships with extraordinarily talented people, who are also extraordinary themselves. And that is what it’s about: the talent, both in front of and behind the camera. I’ve grown especially close with Elisabeth Moss and Joseph Fiennes because I work with them the most, but everyone is a joy. Just being on a big show like this is great. Even from day one, we were just feeling like it was getting bigger and bigger, then after our first season, we were nominated for thirteen Emmys! More importantly, the audience loves the show. The whole journey has been pretty amazing.
What’s your favorite character?
I like the Commander and aunt Lydia, I like to hate her. She’s fun to watch, even for us behind the scenes. She’s great.