For the next in my series of Makeup Moments I wanted to showcase Keira Knightley in that amazing green dress in that Atonement library scene. It’s such a fashion moment, but no-one ever talks about the wonderful makeup. Keira looks incredible and there are so many beautiful makeup looks throughout the film.
Directed by BAFTA winning Joe Wright, Atonement is based on Ian McEwan’s bestselling novel and begins in England in 1935, just before the Second World War, and goes on to span several decades. It follows the lives of young couple Cecilia Tallis (Keira) and Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), whose relationship is torn apart after Cecilia’s jealous younger sister Briony (Saoirse Ronan) accuses Robbie of a crime he didn’t commit.
The makeup – and the hair – was designed by the fabulous Ivana Primorac, who’s worked on tons of amazing films, including many with Keira (The Imitation Game and Anna Karenina, see the last image below) and Kate Winslet (The Reader and Labor Day), actresses who I’m also fortunate to work with a lot. I first got to know Ivana when Kate asked me if I could call her to let her know what makeup I’d been using for her red carpet events. Ivana is an Oscar nominated makeup artist, so I was a bit nervous about calling her – why would she need advice from me?! Haha. But when I called she was so lovely and we ended up chatting for ages about our different approaches to makeup up in our different mediums, Ivana as a film makeup artist and me as an editorial makeup artist.
Kate and Keira have often spoken highly of Ivana and I can understand why – she’s a brilliant, transformative makeup artist and also super-lovely to boot, so it was an absolute pleasure to talk to her about her work…
L.E. I firstly wanted to ask you how you researched for Atonement – it’s set in the interwar years, 1935-39, how did you decide what to do with Keira’s hair and makeup?
I.P. I started by researching British aristocracy and the British middle classes before the war. Because of the nature of the fashion of the 30s there were lots of perms, short hair and tweed – everyone looked much older and there wasn’t really a lot of glamour! It was beautiful but in a very stark way, so I also looked at the American advertising images of the time (which was all drawn material, not photographic), the glamorous Coca Cola girls – here there was heightened colour, beautiful fabrics, little shorts, pretty bows and lovely, sleek hair. So after lots of testing we decided to suspend reality a little and mix in some of this Hollywood glamour to enhance Keira’s natural beauty and capture the fact that she was a very innocent, young girl – her hair had to move and I wanted to be able to see her naked skin rather than covering it with a lot of makeup.
L.E. What makeup did you use in the scene with the green dress?
I.P. In this scene we really pushed the glamour with an iconic red lip and colours that punched the beauty and the seduction. There’s a funny story about the makeup – when we filmed it was just before Keira had signed her Chanel contract but, funny enough, all the makeup I used was Chanel, completely by chance! When I researched 1930s makeup colours and textures of course Chanel had products that were perfect for the period. So it just so happened that we were true to Chanel but only because, as you know, they still have some of the colours that they had all those years ago. For this scene, the lipstick we used was Chanel Rouge Allure in Coromandel.
L.E. And when Keira is by the pool in the white bathing suit, I just love that she’s so made up, it’s stunning – she looks like she’s in one of the Guerlain ads from the 30s. Why did you decide to fully make her up?
I.P. Well that started with the genius bathing cap – Jacqueline Durran, the costume designer, had it specially made because you just don’t get those one piece, ‘helmet’-like bathing caps any more. It was a bit of a palaver getting it right, we had to do lots of head casts, but it looked stunning when it was finished. And when I saw Keira in it I just thought, like those American adverts, she needed to look as beautiful and glamorous as possible – and of course that also worked because the scene is juxtaposed with the war which came right after.
L.E. How did you change Keira’s hair and makeup for the war years?
I.P. Everything went the other way – we stripped Keira of all her makeup and made her hair quite frizzy and the length unattractive. I wanted to show how you can use makeup to tell the story – in the beginning, when she’s made up, it shows the decadence and the enjoyment of the middle classes. And then suddenly they, and the whole world, are thrown into the most horrific situation – and you suddenly see Keira, or Cecilia, as a nurse, hair not that glamorous anymore, eyes tired and skin a little bit ashen and green. So that was a subliminal way of getting across the atmosphere in the world before and during the war.
L.E. You sound like you just love your job, how did you get into it in the first place?
I.P. Yes, I do! I come from a very academic family but I really wasn’t and I spent a lot of time before I finished school thinking – what am I going to do?! My parents wanted me to study law but I knew that would have been a disaster! My family always loved cinema and we always went to see absolutely everything – I remember watching a lot of movies with Dustin Hoffman, who always looked so different in all of his films, and I thought – who does that? And so I researched to figure out how I could do it.
L.E. And how did you research, because there was no internet? Did you look for credits at the end of movies, or did you find books?
I.P. Yes, I looked at every book, but the books I found were all about theatrical and operatic makeup which I didn’t want to do, I wanted to tell stories. So it was quite hard to research but the BBC really helped – at the time they were making some really incredible stuff, including beautiful period dramas. So I contacted them but they weren’t hiring so I got booked to assist makeup artists who’d just left the BBC like Naomi Donne and Jenny Shircore – who are still some of the best in the industry. I worked with them as a trainee for years and years, slowly climbing through the ranks, and it all worked out!
L.E. I’m often asked for advice about becoming a film makeup artist – do you have any advice or is it the same thing as being a photographic makeup artist, just chipping away?
I.P. Yes, it’s exactly the same. As you know, our job is totally apprenticeship, and the years I put into getting to a top assistant level is the equivalent of a law or a medical degree. It takes more than 10 years to be able to approach a really good photographer or director and discuss a story or a theme. And to be able to work to tight time limitations you have to have experience – you have to be constantly, totally prepared for things going wrong and challenges you need to deal with immediately.
In film you can, to a certain extent, get away with more because they might be filming a wide shot that day, or from a certain angle, but even though some things can be tweaked afterwards, most people want the makeup to be perfect so that they can just enhance and don’t have to tamper with texture in post-production.
L.E. Do you have any products that you absolutely wouldn’t go on set without?
I.P. I actually go out and fit every character with a brand new set of makeup. So even for people like Keira and Kate, who I work with a lot, I might use the same base but generally from the colour scheme to the texture, mascara to lipstick, the whole approach is different because they’re playing a different character and I don’t want to repeat the style we’ve seen before. So I research every character separately – I still buy and look at lots of books and obviously use the internet (and whatever I can lay my hands on!) and then I make moodboards of textures, colours and shapes, and I go out and look for things that do that particular job.
But one thing that I do use a lot is Actinica Daylong Lotion – it’s a 100% block sunscreen, actually developed for cancer patients, that has a lovely, luminous quality. I used it on Kate in Labor Day when she had to look really sweaty (but not greasy) and on Saoirse Ronan in Hanna when we wanted her to look slightly out of this world, almost reflective – it gives an ethereal feel to skin. I also used it on the mermaids in Pan so they looked pearlised underwater – and it fills the cracks in older skin, too. So you discover these kind of great, multi-functional products from time to time, often by accident.
L.E. You’ve worked on so many films, do you have any favourites?
I.P. Well I have to say I’m proud of all of them but Steve Jobs [out this October] could be one of the best I’ve ever done. It’s a really interesting piece and, though the makeup is very subtle, it changes quite a bit as it’s set over three periods. I loved working on all of Anthony Minghella’s films, like Cold Mountain and Breaking and Entering, because they were always character driven and we tried to change the actors quite a bit.
Stephen Daldry is also very important in my career because of Billy Elliot, which was the second movie I designed myself, and that led to The Reader, which is the film that changed my career. That was probably one of the hardest films I’ve done but I loved it because it told the story so well. Kate Winslet’s makeup in that film was quite crude in lots of ways because she had to be unrecognisable, and to make her unrecognisable for me meant getting rid of her eyebrows because they’re so perfect – so that meant a prosthetic forehead piece. One of the hardest scenes was when she was with Ralph Fiennes, who didn’t have any makeup on – it was a challenge to have a face full of prosthetics next to one that was completely natural!
L.E. I didn’t realise she wore a prosthetic forehead in that film, that was brilliantly done.
I.P. Yes, the face, the neck, the lot! And what I loved most was that no-one really mentioned anything about her hair, her wig, her makeup – so that means that people believed it, and I told the story.