Interview: 5 Questions with ‘Big Little Lies’ makeup head Michelle Radow on natural lighting and character development
Michelle Radow is a two-time Emmy nominee for makeup design, having earned her first last year as the head makeup artist for the limited series Sharp Objects on HBO. She got her second this year for the second season of Big Little Lies, for an episode that required a lot more than a contemporary television show usually requires. Face paint, facial hair, and fake teeth are just some of the things that brought Amabella’s disco party birthday alive in the episode “She Knows.”
I asked Michelle five questions about this episode, from that super glam party to how natural lighting affects her work and how she manages such a big team of artists and designers to achieve the Big Little Lies look.
Congratulations on your Emmy nomination! In the second season of Big Little Lies, we come back to the characters after “the” tragic event has happened. Can you describe how through makeup you showed the emotional toll that event took on each of these characters?
Artists Miho Suzuki and Claudia Humburg did a fantastic job of showing the ladies emotions through makeup and color. Miho so effortlessly showed an emotionally disturbed Bonnie by limiting her products and use of color. In some scenes, by adding shading, redness, and tears showed the emotional toll the lie has taken on her. Opposite to Bonnie, Claudia used a warmer color palette, more hydration, and an overall uplifting look on Jane to show her sense of freedom and relief.
There is an incredible disco party that takes place in “She Knows,” the episode you and your team are nominated for. Can you describe the makeup landscape of these scenes? There were so many extras, and each child/parent was dressed from head to toe, including face paint. It looked like an amazing feat to accomplish.
Amabella’s Disco Birthday Party was epic! It took Key Makeup Artist Erin Rosenmann and I a full 10-hour day just to set up 2 additional trailers in addition to the 3 we already had on a normal day… we employed 18 additional artists for almost a week. Each artist was assigned to a specific station, 70’s Glam, Facial Hair, or Face Painting. I really tried to make it fun and organized; inspiration boards, buckets of glitter, stencils, and clear instructions so each artist could feel empowered to be creative. We had about 80 kids, 2 groups of 40 to go through face paining everyday; kids were rotated out when they reached their max worked hours for the day. My favorite looks were the principal kids disco looks, I had such a blast designing and executing those looks.
Let’s talk about lighting. Big Little Lies has a very stylized look, which is characterized by natural light. What kind of challenges does that pose for you and your makeup team?
It’s true! Our amazing director Andrea Arnold preferred natural light which did pose some challenges, especially in evening and night scenes. Luckily most of those scenes were meant to be moody and sometimes sad so it worked with us. Sometimes with tired eyes, tears, bruises, etc. it kept us on our toes ready to pump the makeup up or down depending on what the lens saw.
I also want to talk about the challenges of continuity when working with many children. I’d read that there was a need for fake teeth? How did you work to ensure continuity?
We had six pairs of fake teeth among adults and children on this show. Four of the children were at the age of constantly losing teeth, so we had flippers made so they could easily pop them in and out during filming. The other teeth belonged to Young Mary Louise and Mary Louise to help shape the character into Perry’s mother.
Erin Rosenmann (Key Makeup Artist), Karen Rentrop (Makeup Artist), Molly R. Stern (Personal Makeup Artist), Angela Levin (Personal Makeup Artist). Simone Almekias-Siegl (Personal Makeup Artist), Miho Suzuki (Personal Makeup Artist), and Claudia Humburg (Personal Makeup Artist) — these are your fellow nominees. It’s quite a large group! Can you describe the workflow of your department and more in-depth your role as the makeup department head?
As department head, I am responsible for keeping the department running smoothly. I feel like the conductor of an orchestra — I know about each instrument, I share my expertise, but I’m always learning something new from my team. I hire the right people for each task, and then we all work together to create the best result. In the case of Big Little Lies season 2, I was extremely fortunate to have a makeup department of 11 incredibly talented artists — eight of which were personal artists to the leading six ladies. Each personal artist is solely responsible for the makeup look and design of their character. My role becomes backup and support for those artists, and any clarification or resources they may need for the director’s vision. I break down each script, scene-by-scene, and oversee things making sure the director’s vision is translating on screen correctly. Other tasks include production meetings, keeping track of all the continuity as nothing is filmed in story order, designing makeup looks for the rest of the cast, background, overseeing special effects, and fitting in makeup tests in between!
Michelle Radow, along with her team, is nominated for Outstanding Contemporary Makeup (Non-Prosthetic) for the episode “She Knows” from the second season of Big Little Lies, which is available to stream on all HBO platforms. You can also check out Michelle’s Instagram for more photos of the makeup from that episode.