April 10th, 2014
Hers is the name on every lip, the girl who won her Oscar with smallest budget in modern movie history. With a background in performance and FX, Robin Mathews has learned her trade via an unconventional route that features reality TV, horror, documentaries and beauty. Warpaint met up with her at United Makeup Artist expo and she brought her “new husband” with her.
WP: How did you first get into make-up? Were you influenced by your family’s stage experience?
RM: My family has always been extremely creative. My dad is a professional photographer, my grandfather was a well-known portrait photographer, my mum is an opera singer and my grandmother was a Vaudeville actress, so we’ve always been creative. I originally started out as an actor, training at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in LA, but it’s a tough market out there, and I started working as an MUA as well.
I loved [American theme park Six Flag’s] Fright Fest, working on that and I started getting hired by friends and some producers. I learned FX first and beauty after. It was tough and I often found it quite sexist, like I couldn’t create the monsters and stuff because I was a girl – very frustrating!
WP: What made you want to change from being an actor to being an MUA? Would you say that working as an actress has helped you develop your skills, as you have been both in and out of the make-up chair?
RM: I found acting, the industry, so hard to crack and was just doing so much make-up. It got to the point where I had to pick one or the other. Getting chosen by Sean Penn to work on Into the Wild was the turning point. It was a huge opportunity; he’s very into supporting new talent, working on independent projects. I acted in that as well and he said to me, “This is what you’re meant to do. You’re meant to be an actor.” It was amazing to hear, but I really had to think about what I was going to do. It was a big chance, a big gamble to give up 10 years of working as an MUA, of building up a reputation. It was a real crossroads, and I chose to stick with make-up – which hasn’t turned out to be a bad choice!
WP: Your latest film Wild, as well as Into the Wild, which propelled you to work on bigger films, requires almost anti-make-up; the characters are removed from the amenities of everyday life which would allow even natural make-up. How do you develop their looks?
RM: Layers – lots of layers to make it look a mess. In Wild, Reese [Witherspoon]’s character is on a hike for three months. The director [Jean-Marc Valée, the director of Dallas Buyers Club] wanted no make-up at all from the start. Reese wasn’t necessarily comfortable with that, but we kept it to stripped back, just evened out her skin a bit.
The main problem was with continuity. Depending on what stage of the film she was at, there were different cuts, bruises, dirt – films are never shot in sequence, so it was important to keep track of what level she was at. The film has the dates of her journey appear on the screen to help the audience keep track, so they would be sure to notice if suddenly a cut was missing from her leg, or if she looked cleaner than she did a few days before. It was so much work. I created a big portfolio of images to use as reference, especially for things like suntan – a natural tan that she would pick up from being outside all the time, but taking into account her clothes, and where her face would catch the sun the most.
Like in Dallas Buyers Club, there was no ambient lighting, only natural light and no real camera crew, just a couple of guys with light cameras. So I needed to use products which could either stay on all day, or ones which I could take off really easily and reapply if we turned around and shot a different scene.
WP: Speaking of natural looks, what is it like working on a reality TV show, such as The Voice or The Amazing Race? Do you feel constricted as an artist on shows such as these?
RM: I find it fun to do everything. I love working on different types of shows, though so little of reality shows are real. You do things like re-shoot reactions over and over. I love working on The Voice, it’s very creative. When do you get the chance to do such great, creative stage make-up? It’s so much fun.
WP: You’ve worked on multiple indie or low-budget films during your career, but what was it like to only have $250 for Dallas Buyers Club? Did you feel extra pressure, or was it creatively inspiring as many options were off-limit?
RM: There was tremendous pressure. It was extremely limiting as a designer, though with hindsight it was a good thing because I had to go right back to original techniques – right back to basics. I originally balked at the idea of not being able to use prosthetics, but if I had been able to, if I hadn’t had to strip everything back, it would have been a very different film. And Matthew [McConaughy] loved it! He loved the make-up. I was freaking out, thinking “I can’t put grits and cornmeal on his face!” I knew it was a really big role for him. But he loved it, he encouraged it!
WP: Your ability to imply extreme weight changes through make-up was what struck me the most. What sort of techniques did you use?
RM: I used a lot of Koh Gen Do Green Colour Corrector Base. It’s a beauty product; nice and sheer. I used that on them from head to toe. I needed them to look pale, but I hate to see a white, opaque, wax-like skin covering, so I used this all over to tone down all the redness and colour in their skin, but keep it looking like skin.
There are many levels to AIDS, so I went through with Matthew and Jean-Marc to establish levels of sickness. I used a lot of reference images, did a lot of research of real-life people. The main thing I did was to contour their bones, to make them more prominent. Then for the next level it was highlighting and more contouring the bones, bringing the bone structure out, making them look more skeletal. I used Dermacolor products for that, because it’s easy to blend, but easy to remove if I instantly had to change things for another scene. The last level was to start very subtly drawing in bones which wouldn’t normally be visible under the skin, using lots of reference pictures of skulls and skeletons; implying that these bones were now right below the surface. Then for when they were heavier, it was reverse highlight and contour. Where I had previously used contour colours, I would use highlight to bring it forward.
Most of my budget went on Matthew’s dental plumpers, which clipped in and out. They filled out his cheeks to make him look healthier, heavier.
WP: How did it feel hearing your name being called at The Oscars for Dallas Buyers Club? Were you confident going into it?
RM: I had already won the Hollywood Make-Up Artist and Hairstylist Guild Award, so that was a big boost in confidence. I’d been up against The Lone Ranger and won, which was incredible. So I had a bit of confidence, though I still knew that anything could happen, especially since Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa had also won a Guild award in a different category.
It was a nice mix of projects this year. I liked that it wasn’t just “Let’s give it to the big-budget show.” It was nice that it couldn’t be pigeonholed this year. But still, I was shocked as hell to win. I just had to hope I didn’t trip on my dress!
WP: What is it like working with clients such as Kristen Stewart or Reese Witherspoon repeatedly, over a long period of time? Does it make it easier to help design new looks for them? Do you collaborate together?
RM: It’s great, because actresses like Kristen really like to delve into the physicality of a role. It helps her understand the character better. She’s the kind of actor who’s willing to go 100% of the way into a role, into a serious physical commitment. On The Runaways – we had just finished Twilight: New Moon in Italy and we flew out, filmed The Runaways and then she was back on the Twilight set for Eclipse only a couple of days after the shoot. With The Runaways, Kristen wanted to be Joan Jett. She wanted to cut her hair, everything. The Twilight producers were begging her not to, but she insisted.
I tried to explain to them that the hair was the least of their worries, she could always wear a wig; it was the eyebrows that were the real problem. I had to tweeze them all off! Joan had done that and drawn them on, so that’s what Kristen wanted to do. She wasn’t scared at all. So when we went back to the Twilight set, I had to apply her eyebrows every day, using individual pieces of hair which I’d cut from a wig, for months. I got it down to about 20 minutes by the end of it. But she’s totally happy to be morphed. In Welcome to the Rileys, I gave her chapped lips and all these sores – she loved it.
WP: You’ve worked on every type of film going it seems – blockbuster, indie, documentaries, horror, even some erotica in your early career. Do you have a favourite type of job or has a particular project been your favourite?
RM: No, because they’re all so different and I love that. With each new job, I dive into the research. I start from scratch each time, even if I’ve done that time period before.
I love to add layers, to make a character more interesting, more realistic, even if I’m the only one who will pick up all the details. It’s all to create a whole picture. Like with John Cusack’s character in The Paperboy; he plays a serial killer, and I wanted to make something slightly. . . off about him. It was so subtle that people on set were creeped out, but they couldn’t figure out what I’d done to him that was making them so unsettled. And it was just one black contact. His eyes are dark brown anyway, and by introducing the slight difference in eye colour, of creating that subtle shift, he looked instantly creepy. And I love that.
WP: Have you noticed a change over the years in the industry as a result of technological advancements – either through make-up and prosthetics becoming better, or your job becoming more difficult due to better cameras, HD, 3D etc?
RM: It’s ever-changing and scary, because the new cameras are so clear. No-one looks good in HD! I’ve found you have to use totally different products, and a completely different way of doing make-up. I have stuff that I just can’t use on HD. I have to always be learning, always researching, to stay ahead. We need to stay on top. The cameramen love to scare us – saying things like “Oh, just wait ‘til you see what that looks like on camera. . . ”
WP: Do you have any faithful, saviour products?
RM: I couldn’t live without Skin Illustrator. It can do anything and everything. For beauty, I like Cle de Peau Concealer. And Shu Uemura Eyelash Curlers – I’m not sure what it is about them, compared to other curlers, but they’re the only ones I’ve found which really work! Kevyn Aucoin does a good one too; it’s a different shape if the Shu ones don’t suit the eye shape you’re working with.
I like the Laura Mercier Secret Brightening Powder, especially under the eyes. Just a light dusting – I like to set the concealer. I put some on the back of a sponge, wipe most of it off, and then apply.
I’m very picky with foundation. I don’t think there’s such a thing as a perfect foundation for everyone, our skin is just too different. I think it’s really important to exfoliate. I use the Dermalogica Daily Resurfacer – they’re quite gentle and I don’t need to wash them off. And they’re packaged individually! They’re a lifesaver for if I need to give someone smoother skin, otherwise their base won’t look as good.