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Q&A: The Makeup Artists Behind the Monterey Moms in ‘Big Little Lies’

Angela Levin, Claudia Humburg and Molly Stern explain how the beauty looks came together for Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley and Reese Witherspoon on the set of the HBO miniseries.

Moms sense when something’s off. So, if Angela Levin, Claudia Humburg or Molly Stern bungled the makeup on Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley and Reese Witherspoon, respectively, for the HBO miniseries “Big Little Lies” premiering Sunday, the outcry could be louder than what might occur should a parent slip Nutter Butters into a school cafeteria. The makeup artists strived to match the actresses’ beauty looks to the personalities of the characters Celeste, Jane and Madeline they were charged with bringing to life: a reserved wealthy housewife concealing domestic abuse, a young out-of-place single mother with a stormy past, and an image-conscious problem solver teetering on the edge. WWD talked to Levin, Humburg and Stern about how they sought to pass PTA muster.

WWD: Can you tell me about creating the look for Woodley’s Jane, who has recently arrived in an insular seaside community?

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Claudia Humburg: Jane is not the pretty beauty, the put-together one. She has no money or time to get her makeup ready or pay attention to it. My job for the character was actually to make her look not good. I had to enhance her tiredness, sadness and anger. It’s the opposite of Nicole and Reese because, in the movie, they are pretty and put together. Jane really stands apart from them. Also, Shailene is a very healthy, happy person who exercises every day. She came into the makeup trailer looking very fresh and good-looking. When she left the makeup trailer, she looked more pale, sad and darker under the eyes. That was very exciting, actually.

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C.H.: Woodley is known for being conscious of what she eats, and applies to her body and face. Did that come into play in the makeup for “Big Little Lies”?

WWD: She is very, very particular and requires natural materials. I go to the Whole Foods Market in Los Angeles, and a store in L.A. called The Detox Market. I buy RMS Beauty. They have foundations I used to make her maybe a shade lighter so as to not give her the sun-kissed look and instead give her the I’m-not-sleeping look. I used Tarte, Vapour, W3ll People and Kjær Weis. When there is a scene when she’s running and sweating, I don’t use glycerin. I just used Evian water. I stood right next to the camera and sprayed her wet.

WWD: What were you thinking for Witherspoon’s type-A character Madeline?

Molly Stern: She’s always put together. She does her makeup and hair the same way pretty much every day. It’s part of her armor that she’s always buttoned up, and always has her lipstick on and her hair perfectly blown out. She’s not wearing a lot of makeup. We kept it fresh and clean, but one of the aspects we were consistent about was that she has a red lip on. It can be a little bit high-maintenance, but she does it with ease.

WWD: What red lipstick did you use on her?

M.S.: We had a gigantic bag of lip color. When it was a new scene or a new outfit, we would grab something we were drawn to. It ranged from a true red to a fuchsia red, and everything in between. It was usually pretty opaque, and complemented her skin tone and worked with the outfits. We used everything from Tom Ford to Revlon, but her main staple was YSL [Rouge Pur Couture] 57. It was bright and powerful. It was important for the character Madeline to feel powerful, but it also wasn’t a true red. It had a little bit more pink to it, so maybe it also showed a little bit of her underlying vulnerability. It isn’t as bold as it could be even though it is superbold.

WWD: Kidman’s Celeste is hiding a destructive marriage. How did you deal with that in the look?

Angela Levin: Celeste’s husband is very successful, and she lives in a beautiful home. There needed to be sophistication to her look. She is somebody who would never let herself not be pulled together. At the same time, he [director Jean-Marc Vallée] wanted to maintain delicacy in her look. He wanted her to be polished, but not overly done. It’s a very fine line between not too much and just about enough. Then, as the character goes through her journey, there are things that happen to her and, an hour later, she would be covering up any beating she has. We were constantly pulling ourselves into the story so we could envision realistically what happened to do the makeup.

WWD: When you mentioned the delicacy of Kidman’s look, I immediately thought of her porcelain skin. Was that a factor?

A.L.: There are scenes outside and Nicole is very fair, milky skin, and we had to maintain that to show how delicate she was. I was really concentrated on her complexion and having that glowy, pale look to her skin. We had to make sure she wasn’t in the sun too much and had proper sunscreen. Nicole has the most incredible eyes, and Jean-Marc and I agreed that we have to see her eyes. They can’t disappear in the sea of milky, flawless skin. So, all the makeup was there that you might have on the red carpet, but just in very small amounts. It was a hint rather than full-on eye shadow.

WWD: What about the impact of the abuse Celeste suffers? Did you apply makeup to mimic bruises?

A.L.: If she was in a scene where she was hurt prior to it, even if we don’t see it, we actually bruised her and covered it. Normally you might skip that part, but Jean-Marc was extremely particular about things being real. So, we would talk about where bruises would be, and we would apply them. People always look at makeup as very technical, but there’s a mental journey that goes with it as well. Just like the actors do, we as makeup artists have to really go there. We have to visualize and understand things to their fullest.