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Backstage: Naomi Donne, make-up designer

Published May 17, 2010

She has made up Mary Poppins, Michelle Pfeiffer, Shrek and several Bond girls. Now, having just created the weird and wonderful faces in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Love Never Dies, Naomi Donne talks to Caroline Bishop about the challenges of being a make-up designer. 

I started as a make-up artist at the BBC, and as I was going out to do freelance I got asked to do [the stage show] Song And Dance and then I did Starlight Express. I did shows that needed a designer, they needed something special in make-up. So I started doing theatre and then I stopped for a long time when I was doing all films, for years and years. I did this film called The Crucible. Bob Crowley was designing the costumes and [now-National Theatre Artistic Director] Nick Hytner was directing it. Then Nick was directing Twelfth Night at the Lincoln Center in New York and Bob was designing it and he said would I do the make-up? I hadn’t done any theatre for 15 years or something, I was really nervous. I went in with Bob and we did it, and it was the most beautiful production and I so enjoyed doing the make-up. Then Bob designed Aida for Disney and I did that. I love working with Bob, he’s my favourite [designer]. It’s thrilling work for me because it’s always a lot more creative and it pushes different boundaries.

A blank face

You start by meeting with the designer. It varies with different designers but with Bob, we sit down – well I read the script first – and we go through all his designs for all the costumes. We go through all the characters, where they come from, who they are, why he’s designed what he has. Sometimes he does a huge background on the characters that you wouldn’t ever really know, it’s just how he comes up with his ideas. So I follow that and I go through his points of reference. He doesn’t design the faces; actually in [Love Never Dies] he drew a couple and I did reproduce them but usually he never does that. So I use all his references, I have conversations, then I go off and start researching my stuff.

I don’t do drawings beforehand. A lot of make-up artists do, they design beforehand and they draw it all out and then the faces come and they reproduce it on that. I can’t do it that way, I have to have someone in front of me. I have ideas; on [the Broadway musical] Shrek I sketched a load of stuff but I never would cement it because it really depends on the person, their face, the costume, how they look when it’s all put together, and I don’t like to paint myself into a corner.

By the time they [the actors] come I’ve absorbed all the information, I have pictures all over the place and a huge amount of make-up – it’s very messy, my approach! – spread around the room, and I start slapping it on.

In Love Never Dies I did all the make-ups in the rehearsal space. That was fantastic because the costumes would arrive and I could see them being fitted and then I could slap it all on and it would all come together. It was really one of the most creative fun times I’ve ever had, working on this show.

We get on stage and see it in the correct lighting, and then you tweak it all round because sometimes things happen that you weren’t expecting. Then you cement it and you make a bible of all the looks.

Creating characters

The idea is that the Phantom was this brilliant man who repaired things and rebuilt things and rebuilt people. So his henchmen were all damaged, that’s the background. For instance there’s one guy [Squelch] with a tattooed head who was actually a strongman who – no one knows this, this is in Bob’s head – he got crushed by a piece of scenery or something, his ribs got crushed. [Bob] wanted him to look like some strongman Maori type, so we did this tattooed head, that was Bob’s idea. I love that.

The girl, Fleck, she lost her leg so she has a false leg. She has diamante callipers. She’s actually one of my favourite make-ups. And then the other guy [Gangle], he lost his voice, so he has this trumpet coming out of his throat, and he has a collar of live snakes. Bob was going crazy, it was fantastic.

We’ve done eight shows now, me and Bob, and all very different, but I now know his sensibilities, we have a shorthand. But if he doesn’t like it he would just say ‘make-up artist gone crazy!’ which I do sometimes!

Sometimes he pushes me to go a bit further. That’s what’s so exciting. But I get really nervous working with him, I still do, because I just think he’s one of the best theatre designers in the world, I think he’s phenomenal, and you want to match that type of quality to his. You don’t want to let him down.

Keeping up appearances

Most of these make-ups are applied by the actors, except for the Phantom and the tattooed head. We teach everyone how to do it themselves. They have charts, photos, the make-up is given to them. I teach them as we go and if we have to make changes at least they’ve got the basics.

You have to do spot checks. I check the show regularly. There are people who work in the wig and make-up department here who check it and keep it all going. It’s hard for performers after a year, it’s hard to keep slapping on the same make-up. They get bored and things change. Sometimes things change and they make them better and it’s still appropriate. Probably you don’t want to write that because everyone on my shows will start changing things!

In film everybody gets made-up by a make-up artist. But in theatre the budgets are different. There’s 30 people here, they can’t be made-up [every day], it’s too expensive to have that type of crew on.

The make-up Christine wears, you could put that on for a movie. Because lighting [in the theatre] is so much more accurate now and so focused, you really see stuff now, which is why you can’t get away with a theatrical make-up on the Phantom. We did a film quality make-up, that you could actually shoot, and it was the same with Shrek. Shrek’s prosthetics are film quality silicone and you can’t see the seams and the joins because you would see them on stage. It’s changed drastically over the years. The first Phantom has the original make-up that was designed 25 years ago, but when you see The Phantom Of The Opera the lighting is much more shadowy and dark and you can just about get away with it. But you couldn’t get away with that make-up on this production because you see it so much, you just couldn’t.

Extreme make-over

Putting prosthetics on stage is unbelievably challenging. It’s challenging artistically and physically for the actor and it’s phenomenally expensive, and then they have to work in it. In film, if you do a prosthetic make-up, there’s a limit to how long the actor can stay in make-up and how many days in a row he can wear it because it’s very brutal on the skin. I did this Charlie Kaufman film with Philip Seymour Hoffman called Synecdoche New York and for three quarters of the movie he is in prosthetic make-up. We didn’t have a schedule that allowed him to take breaks in a way another huge movie might, and he was wrecked at the end of it, his skin.

But you know, you can take care of skin. For instance Shrek didn’t ever get a rash on Broadway, during a year of wearing that make-up for eight shows a week. Philip had very sensitive skin and he couldn’t wait to get it off so he was much more aggressive about getting it off. In Shrek we took it off very carefully, he was very patient. So far we’ve been alright with this too. He [the Phantom] has only got half a face of prosthetics. It takes an hour and a bit to make up the Phantom.

I did a budget for Shrek; it was phenomenally high, but I said to them, we can’t do this unless the kids feel that Shrek has walked off that screen on to the stage, it has to look exactly like him. And that costs a lot of money, but they all wanted that. Dreamworks wanted that; they didn’t want a stick-on green nose and some ears, and they were willing to pay for it. We spent a fortune doing prototypes and working it all out. We worked it out a year before we went to rehearsal because they didn’t want to start unless they knew it was going to work. It was so exciting to do it, so thrilling.

A life in make-up

I was going to go to art college. I wanted to do something in the arts. But I was always obsessed with faces, that’s all I drew, faces, faces all the time. I suddenly thought, I wonder who does those Doctor Who shows? They must have someone doing make-up and why couldn’t I do that? So I found out what I needed to do and I went to the London College of Fashion for three years and did a big course and I begged my way into the BBC. That’s where I trained. I stayed there for seven years, and I did work on Doctor Who!

It’s a world that takes your life over. The hours are very unsociable, your social life becomes the people you are working with because there’s no time for anyone else. It’s hard for a woman – I have a kid – it’s hard to have a family and this type of career. You have to really juggle it and be really organised. That’s really hard, but worth it.

When my daughter was eight or nine weeks, I did Nine on Broadway. I just threw her on my back in a pouch thing and made everyone up with her on my back.

Getting it wrong…

I was doing a film years ago, it was a comedy, and the actor had to have fallen into a vat of chocolate and come out of the chocolate and walk around looking like he was covered in chocolate all day long. So the costume designer made him this latex chocolate suit and I was thinking, what can I use? I used alginate, which is the stuff when you go to the dentist and you have an impression done of your teeth, that’s alginate. I coloured this alginate so it was chocolate brown and I mixed it all up and I thought it won’t be a problem because it peels off the skin really easily. I poured it on the actor and all day long he walked around under the lights, looking like he was dripping with chocolate, and then we couldn’t get it off; it had set under the lights. We were there til midnight getting it off. I couldn’t stop laughing!

…and getting it right

There’s elements from all my shows that I’m happy about. I really love Mary Poppins, and I like Love Never Dies; I’m really thrilled with how this show looks, I think it looks very period and very weird and I feel that his [the Phantom’s] world has been recreated and that I’ve been a little part of that. It’s just always great when you see a beautiful show and you feel you’ve maybe helped in a little way to making this look good.

CB

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