Makeup artist Jenny Shircore won an Oscar for Elizabeth, starring Cate Blanchett. A veritable cinematic institution in her own right, she has been nominated so many times for the little golden statuette that she now arrives at the Hollywood ceremony wearing her best comfy Fit Flops.
Born in India to an Armenian father and a French mother, she has inspected more naked, half-asleep celebrity faces than the best Botox doctors in LA. Currently on the set of her latest film, Altamira, starring Antonio Banderas in Northern Spain, she tells Imogen Edwards-Jones what it’s like to wield a base-loaded paint brush and stick moustaches on for a living, getting the likes of Scarlett Johansson, Julia Roberts, Michelle Williams, Emily Blunt, Kate Winslet and, indeed, Ralph Fiennes ready for their all important close-ups...
So Jenny, over 30 years in the business? How did it all begin?
I was at the London College of Fashion for two years, doing their Beauty Culture course, which included weaving and wig making, and then I applied to BBC and did their Makeup Artist training course. It was extremely competitive in those days - there were something like 5000 people applying for 20 places. I worked at the BBC for 16 years, doing things like Dennis Potter’s Pennies from Heaven and of course, Dr Who. Prosthetics was in the infancy back then, so we built noses out of mortician’s wax and hoped they stayed on in the heat of the studio. It was embryonic prosthetics to say the least.
And then into films?
One of the hardest films I have ever done was Vanity Fair, with Reese Witherspoon. There were so many people and so many different looks. I hardly ever left the makeup truck. It was physically and creatively demanding as everyone had to have a different look from the period and they all had to be appropriate for their character.
How much research do you do?
I do tonnes because that is my favourite part of any film. I spend hours looking into how they dressed, how they did their hair, the fashions, the clothes, what their manners were like, what their family structure was like, what they ate, how they lived. I love it. I have my own library at home. I don’t need to leave the house. There is now the Internet, of course, which speeds things up. But I used to spend hours in the Colindale Library in North London, going through the newspapers and Woman’s Own from the 1930s, with all the students doing Greek sitting next to me.
How has makeup changed so much over the years?
It is so much more sophisticated these days. The products that go into the makeup are so much finer. They used to be heavy and full of white oxides, which you’d then mix with colour. You’d have heavy-duty paints mixed with mercury. Stuff that killed women in the long run. It ate into their skin and caused all sorts of problems.
So women used to mix their own makeup?
Yes. It was not considered the done thing to have it out on your dressing table but there would be lipsticks and rouges made out of crushed beetles, pigments and then a vehicle of some sort, like un-purified fats. There were heavy bases to cover pox marks and or markings left from gonorrhoea or syphilis. Or indeed large black patches, like beauty spots. But if your skin was really bad you could end up having something as large as a silhouette of a horse and carriage stuck across your face.
And then what is practical becomes fashionable?
Yes. Like when the kings of France became bald they had wigs made, and then because of who they were, everyone else followed suit, and wigs became the height of glamour.
When you did Elizabeth with Cate Blanchett which makeup did you use?
Well, when I did Pennies from Heaven at the BBC I had all the old rouges and indelible lipsticks made. You could sleep in them, they’d still be there the next morning. But now you work with what you have. So I created a look rather than actually using anything that was era specific.
What is the difference between film makeup and everyday makeup?
You can’t just slap on film makeup because the camera goes very close. Especially these days with digital, you see everything. So lip and eyeliners have to be spot on. Also everyday makeup is about making you more attractive, whereas film makeup is about the character.
How do you deal with the vanity of your actors?
If an actress is playing a 1830s prostitute, they quite like it. But if you have to say to them they can’t wear too much mascara that’s when the vanity kicks in. It is not just actresses; the actors are quite keen on their mascara too!
So are the boys more vain than the girls?
They can be. But the problem is they can’t really say it out loud so they find other ways of suggesting it. They are most keen on eyeliner and lip liner because their lips are not quite what they were. More often than not, you could just send the boys out there without anything on at all; but we don’t, as they usually like having something done, it is a type of security. They like putting on a face; it is part of the process.
How do you make someone look younger?
It depends on the age of the actor. But it is all about structure, so with colours you give them shape to their face and take as much shade out around the eyes as you can. Cheekbones, the jaw line, nose to mouth line, under the eyes, lift the top socket of the eye. Define the eyebrows more. Thin eyebrows are very ageing. Lighting, shading, smoothing out the skin texture.
What makes you look older?
Too much makeup. Powdering is bad. It always seeps into the lines around the eyes and makes them deeper and more obvious. Less is more.
How much ‘work’ have you seen?
A lot of them have had work. I can always tell. Mainly because I have been in the business so long, most of them look the same as they did 20 years ago! Surgery, fillers and Botox are much more sophisticated than they were 10 years ago. But it is a dead giveaway when an actress can’t move her eyebrows and can’t laugh beyond a tiny smile. I can always tell by the way the skin has been pulled; there is a pull mark under the cheekbone. You don’t just look behind the ears anymore.
Is ‘work’ endemic within your industry?
It has become that way. More have had work than haven’t, and now they are doing it much younger. Having said that most people on the crew have probably had work too! And they start young, from about 30 years old onwards!
Has our idea of what is attractive changed? It used to be hollowed out heroin chic and now it’s the Bagpuss pillow face?
It’s like the French kings all over again. If fashionable people have a pillow face that’s what we begin to think is attractive. If particular actresses have those sorts of faces due to the work they’ve had done, then, where the celebrities lead, the rest of us follow.
What’s the hardest thing about your job?
The hours. They can be very long, setting your alarm for 4am and being on-set for 5am and working till 9-10pm. It is a long time. And when it is a six day week then you really begin to feel it.
How has it changed?
In the old days the actors used to smell of eggs, alcohol and fags, now it’s all fruit salad and oats. Before they’d be burping up their full English after a night out on the tiles and now they're chewing goji berries, having spent the evening before rehydrating on their own in their hotel room.
Do most people fall asleep?
If it is a long session, yes, and sometimes it is better that way as they keep still. The only thing is though every now and then you need them to flip their head so you can see them in the mirror. Which is a little hard to do when they are out for the count.
Ever been tempted, with an actor you have not liked, to leave a giant zit there?
Um, er, well, no, umm…. No. If it needs covering I will cover it.
What don’t you leave home without?
What is in your bag?
My kohl pencil.
What is your secret weapon?
What should you never underestimate the power of?