Beauty With Attitude
From Biba lipstick and the BBC to BAFTA winning beauty in films ranging from the cult (Orlando, Wittgenstein, Manifesto) to mega-blockbusters (The Aviator, Cinderella, Thor.) Morag Ross is a prolific make-up artist and the list of actors she has painted (Ms. Huston, Mr. Neeson, Ms. Swank, Ms. Blanchett) reads like the Hollywood Walk of Fame. For Beauty Papers Issue Six BIG Morag explores “The Artistry of Ageing,” and we talked to her about faces, film and fish skin.
John William: Do you live in New York or on the West Coast?
Morag Ross: I live in London! And I’m just here [New York] doing this film until the end of October.
JW: Are you allowed to tell us what you’re working on or is it a secret?
MR: Yeah, I’m working on a film called The Woman in the Window, which is from a novel. It’s a British director called Joe Wright and i’m working with Amy Adams, who I really like.
JW: You’ve worked with Amy before?
MR: Yeah, I did. I worked on Arrival.
JW: That film was incredible.
MR: It was really beautiful. We were just talking about it yesterday actually, it was a really special film to be part of, because it was quite different.
JW: I’d love to start by talking to you about your editorial for Issue Six: BIG. Tell me a bit more about the story and your exploration of “the artistry of ageing.”
MR: It was organic. I’ve never met Maxine before and I didn’t know her but I did of course know Beauty Papers. I’m a big fan – It’s really inspirational to a make-up artist. Anyway, Maxine called me because she’d seen my work and for Thor, where I had done a lot of vein work on Cate Blanchett when she was playing Hela. She said she really liked that and it how did I feel about doing a story along the lines of ageing and about what happens to the skin. I loved the idea of doing something about ageing rather than anti-ageing. I mean everything’s about anti-ageing, and that’s sadly the society that we live in. The focus is on youth and it’s on trying to not stop the clock, but to sort of trick time… evade time. It was quite good to celebrate ageing, and to look for beauty in it. Why is beauty just the domain of the young?
JW: Especially within fashion editorial, where we are even less likely to see age being explored, found beautiful, celebrated – than film where you spend a lot of your time. With the shoot did you purposefully speed up the clock?
MR: I was thinking about the beauty of the things that we feel we should cover up. So we feel that we should cover up broken capillaries or broken veins, I mean I’ve had mine zapped! But there’s a shot of Stephanie that looks very naked, and it’s the honesty of that. I was just enhancing the blush that appears with broken veins. We did another shot where I painted veins all over her face, I did it as subtly as I could so that it really looked like it was veins running under the skin surface. We did a shot as if she was under a UV light showing all the sun damage. It’s another thing that I love doing and I kind of invented a technique of doing that sort of make-up when I was working out freckling for a film. It’s my favourite shot of the story because it’s so strong and she looks so striking and androgynous. It’s just like, this is me and I’m a person. Is it a man, is it a woman? Indiscriminate age. This is my skin, the skin that I live in. I loved the result of that.
JW: It’s beautiful. When was the last time that you worked on editorial still images like this? Because you are mostly in films.
MR: Yeah, that’s the thing, I am a film make-up artist. I’ve never really worked in editorial, not until the last few years. I’ve loved working in this new genre, being in the studio working with models. Because film make-up isn’t always about beauty. In fact it’s rarely about beauty. It’s about character and it’s about telling a story. Working in Fashion it’s nice to have a bit more time, because with film make-up, there’s a lot of pressure with budget and you have to be absolutely on time.
JW: Even in Fashion advertising when you start to deal with moving image and a team, time is insane. So on a big film, when there’s a big cast, you could be looking at what, twenty minutes for an extra?
MR: Yes. Usually that’s what we allow – twenty minutes for an extra. Again, that’s a very different way of working. How to tell that story, especially if it’s period production. How do you get that look down in twenty minutes?
JW: The thought strikes fear right into me! How does it work on a massive production like The Aviator?
I’m quite a perfectionist and when we did The Aviator or Hugo, both period productions, there was a lot of planning – which I quite like. The crowd artists get called in, they get their eyebrows plucked. They’re given guidelines: don’t get a tan, no false nails, no false lashes. All those things that are gonna hold you back on the day. If somebody turns up and they’ve got lash extensions and they’ve been in Brighton all weekend, they’re just not gonna look like a Parisienne woman in the Thirties! You try and lock that down and then you’re gonna use foundation that is quick to put on.
You probably wont spend all that time enhancing the skin that you would do for somebody that’s taking a lot of screen time in close up so in that way it’s broad strokes, but I think the details have to be correct to get the right image across. You can’t just say, oh I’m just gonna leave your eyebrows thick because nobody will see you, you’re gonna be at the back because, lo and behold they’re gonna walk right past camera.
JW: I loved when you were talking about the Beauty Papers shoot “Is it a man, is it a woman?” the indiscriminate age and ambiguity. If we’re going to talk about that then we have to talk about Orlando. It was a long time ago but it’s a film that still has a huge influence and relevance.
MR: Well you’re right, it was a long time ago. We made it in 1990 so that’s 28 years ago. Well, firstly, I’m so glad you like it and really it still touches me, because so many make-up artists say, oh my god I love Orlando. Which is the greatest compliment. It was a fantastic shoot. It was a low budget film, it was difficult to make, it was long hours and difficult conditions. At times we just thought who is gonna be watching this? You know, we were standing freezing in minus 19 degrees in St. Petersburg. Visually it had been prepped for a long time by Tilda [Swinton] and Sally [Potter]. I think they’d worked on it for about seven years, trying to get funding, writing the script and putting it together, the whole concept. It was very inspiring from that point of view. Orlando was a very alternative film, and when you think about it, myself and Sandy [Powell – costume designer], Tilda, we have all come through these alternative films but ended up doing big blockbuster films.
JW: What was it like to do Quentin Crisp’s make-up?
MR: Oh, it was fantastic. He was very elderly by then and wasn’t that well, and so he was quite quiet. He was very funny and he was very acerbic. When he did talk, it was usually a put down, a very funny one. I remember it got to his last day, I said, Quentin, it’s your last day today, because I knew he would be pleased, and he just looked at me and he said, with any luck.
JW: You also worked with Tilda Swinton and Sandy Powell with Derek Jarman.
MR: Caravaggio was Sandy and I’s first feature film. When I went to meet Derek for the first time I remember I went to his beautiful little studio flat above the Shaftesbury Theatre. He was very nice and he told me a little bit about the film and how he wanted to shoot it. He showed me his reference books of Caravaggio and old Spanish photographers, and he said it was really important to him to get across the street level of the characters that Caravaggio picked up: the boys, the low lives, that sort of strata of society. I want them to have dirty nails and bad teeth, but I also want it to look slightly not period. I want it to have a sort of timeless feel. He said you know, I’d love it if the rich people had gold teeth. I don’t know how I would do that, because we just don’t have any money. But I’ve had this idea, I was thinking maybe we could just use nail polish and he started trying to paint his teeth! In the end for the film I painted gold leaf onto the actors’ teeth with spirit gum.
JW: How would Derek direct you?
MR: He was so calm, he was beautifully prepared. On Caravaggio it was mostly like tableaus, so there weren’t a lot of big sets and huge lighting systems. I always remember that if things went wrong, he would walk away for a little while and then he would come back, and he would address everybody, he was very inclusive and he would say, we can’t do this because such and such hasn’t arrived, or we can’t afford whatever. So we’re going to do it this way and I’m going to put the table in the middle of the room and there’ll be two chairs and we’re going to have the two actors talking to each other as a tableau.
He’d just find a solution, and it was very practical and beautiful. He had a huge diary that he kept everyday on set, and he would mention everything. Today it’s the World Cup and we’ve got to finish early, because they really wanna get home to watch the game, or so and so cut their finger. He was just a one-off.
Film make-up isn’t always about beauty. In fact it’s rarely about beauty. It’s about character and it’s about telling a story.
JW: You worked with Tilda Swinton on Wittgenstein and painted her in that incredible Bronislava Nijinska make up.
MR: I did, and it had nothing to do with anything. On most films I put a few postcards around my mirror, they’re like my good luck charms, my benediction and my company. Anyway, that picture by Man Ray is one of them and I just said to Derek, Listen, can we just do this somewhere, because it is so good? And he said, that’s a great idea.
JW: It is genius. I’d always wondered how that came about – if there was some connection between Lady Ottoline Morrell [the historical figure Tilda plays in Wittgenstwein] and the Ballet Russes. It was a pinned up postcard!
MR: I’m really pleased that Derek’s films have become rightfully noted and respected. Caravaggio is taught in film schools, which is amazing. Edward II is one of the most stunning, fantastic films that I’ve ever worked on. I just love it. I remember I didn’t even want my days off on that film. We just had such a good time.
JW: What was the first set you worked on where there was a shift from “all hands on deck”, very limited resources, having to be quite frugal … Was there a distinct moment when things changed?
MR: That’s a really good question. There were transitional films like The Crying Game, which was still me and Sandy Powell but it wasn’t quite as independent as previous shoots. I did a film called Fools of Fortune in Ireland that went through three decades and that production had more money behind. I remember there was more pressure and a different kind of questioning about the looks and getting things done. It’s a bit like growing up, isn’t it?
JW: When you were transitioning from some of those more independent productions to the much bigger films, was there a particular film for which you felt really happy with the work you had created?
MR: Actually you could look at something like Thor, to be honest. It’s quite interesting because I suppose things really do go round in circles and I came back to tapping into things from when I was much younger. Thor is a big franchise, it’s Marvel, and it’s based on the comics and people look a certain way. They have to and there’s a lot riding on it. There’s a huge, huge fan base and for them, it has to be precise. So we started out with Hela looking much more ordinary, in my mind, and in Cate’s mind. Working with Cate It’s a bit like a dog with a bone, we don’t want to let go and we just kept trying to push it. It was Cate who said to me what about Soo Catwoman? And myself and Kay Georgiou who was doing the hair, we were like, uh-huh laughing. We thought, is this gonna go down well? But it was a really great way to start afresh, because we went back into the whole Punk thing, and Siouxsie Sioux. I used to love Serge Lutens commercials for Shiseido in the seventies, and Hela is a mixture of Siouxsie Sioux and those commercials. And that was really satisfying to come up with it in the end, and for a big blockbuster hit.
JW: I’m interested in that relationship between blockbuster popularity… blockbuster budget… and creativity. A lot of the projects that you’ve worked on that have been very big have beautiful creative integrity. Is that luck? Is that because you are working with specific actors who have very good taste? Is it that you’re very exacting on what jobs you accept?
MR: I think that it’s a little bit of all of those things. You can choose to do something for the money, or you can choose to do something because, Oh my god, this is gonna push me or this is gonna be really exciting or different. I think one thing weighs up the other, for instance when I did Manifesto with Cate Blanchett – that was the tiniest budget ever, and one of the best things I’ll probably ever do in my career.
I said to Cate, doing thirteen characters in one film, never mind the fact that we’re doing it in twelve days, doing thirteen so diverse characters in one film… some people would never do that in their whole careers. You might just do the same look again and again, for your whole career. Or play the same character. And here we are coming up with it all in one job, in a fortnight. It’s amazing.
JW: Which was the most fun of the characters in Manifesto?
MR: It’s impossible to say. The obvious one for me would be the homeless guy. I did roll around the floor laughing when we did the test. Literally, I rolled on the carpet in the hotel.
JW: Was Cate also rolling around?
MR: No, she was getting into it. I just said, Where is Cate? I also liked the news reader, because that was another character that was like, where was she? We were working in such a rush on that film and the changes were very apparent, and it was really satisfying and mind-blowing. Normally on a film you do make-up tests before. There is planning and things are approved and tried out. It was a low budget film, we arrived, we had one day to put it together, so we didn’t have time to work out all the characters. We worked out maybe six of them and then had a vague idea of the others. Then we just had to pull it together on a daily basis.
JW: Was that liberating? Or just stressful?
MR: It was liberating in that, yes … Sometimes when you think about things too much, you can overthink them, can’t you? When you have just get on with it, it really gets rid of the clutter.
JW: You posted a picture of Kevyn Aucoin on your Instagram recently and Manifesto reminded me a little of his amazing book of transformations Face Forward. Cate is such a transformer. Even in Elizabeth within the same film, it almost looks like her bones shift. I mean it’s just amazing. How is it working together?
MR: Oh, it’s amazingly inspiring. It’s been seventeen years, off and on working together and she’s just amazing. I think the fact that Cate is such a perfectionist and pushes herself so hard has actually pushed me. She never wants to look the same and she doesn’t wanna look like Cate when she’s on film. She wants to look like a different character, so that’s always a challenge. It’s also really good fun, thinking ok, where are we going with this next person? She’s got a brilliant mind.
I quite like to intellectualise the character, and that sounds really wanky but I like to get lots of references for the character and reasons why they look a certain way. It’s nice to plan an arc of the make-up, why they look that way and why they would have changes. Then I also pull references from real life. Like with Charlotte Grey, I suggested basing that on Lee Miller, because I love Lee Miller and I thought that was a good physical match for Cate. I said, look at these pictures, and it’s great because it’s a real person so you don’t get this stylised make-up and hair of the 1940’s. It’s more earthy and more real. Believable, I suppose.
In most films I put a few postcards around my mirror, they’re like my good luck charms, my benediction and my company. That picture by Man Ray is one of them.
JW: You got started with make up at the BBC?
JW: But you studied Art?
MR: I studied Art, yeah, at Glasgow Art School.
JW: How did you start to teach yourself how to do make-up, did you have any training?
MR: Not really. It was that time. I was at art college in the late seventies, so it was New Romantics, just the end of Punk. I was making myself up to go to college, making my flatmates up to go out at night. In Glasgow we were called The Make-up Crowd, and we did get chased down the street sometimes! It was a bit much.
We used to make the pilgrimage to Blitz, save up my money to come down to PX and buy a shirt. We had a fashion show every year and I got involved in helping out and doing the make-up and just loved it. In my spare time I started doing make-up for hairdressers in Glasgow for photoshoots, but it was all self taught. Somebody said to me, “You know, if you like doing make-up, you could try to join the BBC and learn how to do it.” That’s what I did. I went for an interview and I got in.
JW: When you were in The Make-up Crowd, doing your make-up everyday, what was your favourite cheap stuff to use on your faces?
MR: Oh, wow. I can’t remember. The only thing I do remember using was one of my mum’s lipsticks. It was Max Factor Firebrand, in the gold case. I really loved it, I loved the smell, maybe because it reminded me of my Mum. Very, very waxy. It just wouldn’t come off. Also I had a Biba lipstick which was that really dark browny colour. I remember I used to do my top lip with the dark Biba, and my bottom lip with bright Firebrand red, and I had a line round it. I had a very round face at the time, I didn’t have cheekbones, and I do remember doing that New Romantic thing with the stripes of blusher.
JW: I used to use masking tape for my stripes.
MR: Did you? That’s a very good idea. There was a person at the college who used to do zigzags on her face like that. Yeah, masking tape’s good and now you can use Micropore.
JW: What are some of the most unexpected bits and pieces that are in your kit now?
MR: Now? For special effects? I was just talking about this yesterday and recommending it to someone. There’s something called Fish Skin. Fish Skin has seen me through many problems in my career. It’s really strong and it’s very clear and it’s like a sheet of real fish skin – It probably was fish skin at one point! You can use it to make lifts, you can use it for dry lips, you can use it for burns. I started almost thirty years ago when things weren’t so readily available.
I remember the make-up department head at the BBC, she made lifts for this actress called Irene Worth who was very famous and she must have been nearly eighty at that point. The make-up artist made her own lifts with fish skin, matchsticks and elastic bands, and I was mesmerised. I just thought, this is fascinating, it’s like science. When things aren’t readily available, is a very good foundation for your craft, because you’re not gonna get stuck thinking, oh my god, I haven’t got that product.
For the story in Beauty Papers I made my own stipple sponges. I like to use them to create broken capillaries or a stippling effect. Because sponges usually come in tubes or rectangles, I cut all the corners off so you don’t get a corner when you’re stippling. Then I thought it would be much better if it had a handle like a brush, so I made a bouquet of them.
JW: With film make-up and technical effects, do you think that things are constantly changing with technique, with technology?
MR: Do you mean products?
JW: Yeah, and with the approach. I imagine HD was a big change?
MR: Oh, hugely. Well it was just ugly. Absolutely ugly. I’m still battling with it right now. The technology is so advanced … and it sees more than the brain sees. With your own eyes you don’t see all the pores and the tiny little invisible hairs and the finest lines, but then you look at the screen and it’s like, what is that? In the flesh you don’t see the make-up on the skin, and then you look at the screen and you see make-up on the skin. So it’s been a huge challenge.
It has got much, much more refined and it’s forever evolving. It has softened a lot, because HD can be extremely hard. I think even to be gender specific in this way, it was very hard on beauty and on women, because it’s so harsh. It can give men a sort of gravitas, which is quite helpful in film. Like anything in the digital age, there is also the backlash. Maybe not a backlash, but a return. For instance, when we did Carol, that film was shot on film and you can see it was done on film.
I remember people saying to me afterwards, I mean, how did they shoot that? Was there some kind of filters or something. I said, It wasn’t filters, we shot it on film. And people had just forgotten how beautiful film is. Having said that, digital film can look exquisite too, it’s just that the technology is different. Things are done in post production. I do think even with all the refinements, it’s still hard on filming a face.
JW: And so have there been technological shifts for make-up in film?
MR: Oh, I think definitely. I think make-up’s had to adapt as well. You can buy HD foundation, HD bases, HD powders, because they’ve had to create stuff that has a lighter touch. You have to work with a lighter hand – HD’s more contrasty. Also, it’s stimulating, because it keeps you active. I think change is stimulating because it’s like any movement, you have to adapt and you have to find new things. You don’t just become complacent, I suppose. Change is good. HD is great for sport, it’s great for nature programmes.
JW: How about a change in the culture of Hollywood in the wake of the Me Too movement?
MR: The whole fallout from the Harvey Weinstein accusations has had a huge impact on the film industry. Yesterday we all had to go to a mandatory harassment meeting, which actually was really quite good. I thought it was gonna be dead boring, but it was really good because the guy was talking about the history of the Civil Rights Movement and it was very informative.
There is a huge shift to being inclusive and there are huge changes on film sets, talking about harassment. I think it’s a really really big topic that we could talk about this forever. It’s very complex but it’s about honesty as well isn’t it. It’s about true honesty.
JW: Do you feel optimistic?
MR: I don’t feel optimistic about the world, no. I think the changes to the film industry absolutely are optimistic, and I think that’s a great thing. But I think that concurrently with all this stuff that’s happening in the world, it’s going in the opposite direction… which does not bode well for all these advances. And that scares me.
JW: What do you think is beautiful?
MR: I think honesty is beautiful. Fearlessness is beautiful. I mean that in the sense of looking at a face or somebody’s character, what they project. I would like to think that I could aspire to Louise Bourgeois in my old age, or Georgia O’ Keefe. Of course, I think it’s scary to get older, because of the pressures of this society that we live in, but it’s also a privilege to get older. Just think about all the things that can go wrong – it is actually an amazing thing to get older.
What else is beautiful? I think attitudes. Beauty with attitude, that is my favourite hashtag, because I just think having your own sense of self… I think that’s beautiful.
JW: Do you think there’s a person living or past that exemplifies that notion? Beauty with attitude?
MR: Patti Smith. I think she is beauty with attitude.
JW: Have you seen her live?
MR: I never have, I really wish I could. I think she is one of the greatest artists around at the moment, and inspirational, as a person.
JW: She’s still wild live. Her last book M Train …
MR: I just read it! Isn’t it fantastic? I kind of fell in love with her. I was reading it and I thought, God, I think I’m in love with Patti Smith. I thought it was such a great book. I loved the whole premise of it. There as an honesty, and it was beautifully written.
JW: I love when she writes about staying in crappy hotels in the West End of London and watching reruns of Midsummer Murders.
MR: I know! Isn’t it great? Because she’s such a rock star but she’s so accessible. I’ve thought of another person who for me exemplifies beauty with attitude, a fellow Scot, and that is Pam Hogg.
JW: She’s got bags of attitude.
MR: But she’s very beautiful too. It’s that thing about being honest it’s just like… This. Is. Me.