After three seasons of seeing Elisabeth Moss languishing in Gilead, audiences were clamoring for something new in season 4. The stakes were high and everyone felt it.
For Burton LeBlanc, the three-time Emmy-nominated makeup department head of The Handmaid’s Tale, the overarching theme this season was more of everything —intensifying his makeup looks to reflect the increasingly distressed state of June Osborne and her fellow Handmaids.
Here, Burton shares his techniques and behind-the-scenes details from The Handmaid’s Tale. He also guides us through his Emmy-nominated episode, the season 4 premiere, “Pigs.”
Note: The following interview contains major spoilers for season 4 of The Handmaid’s Tale.
Shadan Larki: Let’s start with the season 4 premiere “Pigs,” which is also the episode tied to your Emmy nomination. What can you tell me about coming back into the world of Gilead?
Burton LeBlanc: Well, I think, because there was such a big gap between seasons, season 2 and season 3 were great, but I think viewers were just expecting a lot more this season. Everyone felt the expectation was there, so I knew that we had to bring it and deliver whatever they wanted. It had to be spectacular, especially being the season opener and introducing Mckenna Grace. We just went for it. With COVID, it made it ten times more difficult, but everything had to be more and more spectacular and more “give them what they want.”
For Ann Dowd, Aunt Lydia, I played up her beaten-up look. That was huge. People needed to see that people were getting their due and getting payback. When the girls jumped the guard, stabbed and murdered him— it was important to get those key elements. Really showing the pain and then showing payback.
Larki: I love the scene at the end of episode one when Mckenna Grace, covered in blood, falls asleep next to June.
LeBlanc: Yeah! There were always going to be these flecks and splatters of blood.
Particularly with Lizzy, I always made sure she’s dry-looking, looks like she’s been involved in something, but still in control, I never want to go too far. But with Mckenna, we would have to take her to the side of the set, and splatter her down. I thought there was something interesting about the blood splatter marks on her face and how they came right to the center of her eye—the way the camera caught the scene and how powerful it was. And she was covered in dried blood as she wraps her hand around June. That final scene there was really powerful.People needed to see that and feel good about something being done about the pain Gilead has caused all these people.
I have to say that I was really passionate about the season four opening episode, especially the first scene of episode 401 and the last scene of the same episode— the powerfulness and the music behind it too, which added a whole other element to the scene, the way it grabs the viewer, and the emotion behind it. I was really happy with how it turned out and thought it was important when I saw episode 401 to use that as my [Emmy] submission.
Larki: In terms of your overall approach to season four, did you do more of the same on a grander scale? Or did you try and introduce new elements with the makeup?
LeBlanc: Elisabeth Moss is already broken down and distressed. The Handmaids are already worn down, so it was really just going stronger with that. Strong with the undereye, stronger with the chiseling, the broken down and red eyes, distressed hands, fingernails. It was actually just going full force with a lot of the same elements I have been using, but just more and more, and being very dramatic with the makeup elements I had been using.
Larki: As we move through season four, June leaves Gilead and finds refuge in Canada. What was your approach to how you were going to transition Elisabeth Moss’ look out of that intense trauma? I’ve heard you discuss how you wanted her look in Canada to remain somewhat distressed. I was curious if you could dig into that a little bit further.
LeBlanc: That is an interesting point and something that definitely had to be played right. Again, with the expectations and the viewers, it just wouldn’t be right that she came to Canada and had this nice, pretty makeup. So, Elisabeth Moss and I had conversations about what we should do and where June is going. So, she still had a broken look, and she is still not quite there because of all the trauma. Still distressed but maybe slightly making an effort. She would have a little eye definition, but not enough that the viewers would notice, just enough that maybe she has some hope in her eyes—a little bit of mascara, a little brightening to her eyes without doing too much because she is still in that fight mode.
She kind of has a plan to take revenge, I don’t know if revenge is the right word, but just a little something, and then when she goes to court, she has a little bit of lip tint, but still keeping a distress level in her face and undereye because she is not there yet. Not back to her quote, unquote, “normal, pretty look.”
Larki: The men’s grooming, and facial hair in particular, also plays an important role in the visual world of The Handmaid’s Tale. I think we really see that with Joseph Fiennes’ Commander Waterford this season, as he spends more and more time in prison, he becomes increasingly disheveled and unkempt.
LeBlanc: Yes, I used a lot of darkening shadows on him, more undereye. The beard was definitely a big thing, more overgrown, more unkempt, rattier. More grays colored throughout his beard to show the passage of time and how he is completely unraveling.
He doesn’t know what is going to happen, so he is really distressed. I played out his beard and facial hair, which was a huge deal. With Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford) as well, when they’ve got him in that cell, he was very disheveled, very distressed, not as bad as Commander Waterford, but we still played with his beard to reflect where he was. When Commander Lawrence gets out of there, he is a little bit more cleaned up. But definitely, the beards and the facial hair are huge things that I use to play up where the characters were and where they are going.
Larki: One thing that has always fascinated me as a viewer is the “no makeup” makeup looks on Elisabeth Moss and all of the Handmaids. How have you changed how the Handmaids look over the course of 4 seasons.
LeBlanc: Absolutely. If you look back on season one, they are kind of nice, pretty-looking Handmaids— very innocent compared to how the Handmaids look now. This is the beginning of Gilead; you haven’t seen them quite in that affected stage yet. The viewers haven’t seen everything they go through. They are just simple, pretty faces without too much distressing. As we go into seasons 2 and 3, we see more distressing on their faces. We see more and more of what they are being put through, abuse, the ceremonies, and everything. So, definitely, they were a little bit nicer looking in season one and gradually kept getting worse and worse and more distressed.
Larki: You’ve also done so much bruising and blood makeup throughout the series. For the bombing scene in “Chicago,” you even had tiny building fragments on June’s face to show that she had essentially been attacked. How did you put together these very intricate bruising details, which I think from what I have seen, is the most intense bruising we have seen on Elisabeth?
LeBlanc: It is. Definitely, we always get samples from the production designer for the sets to color match and see exactly what is being used. We have to get it right, right down to that little bit of detail. We’ll get little pieces like that ahead of time; we have to play and break it down a little more because the bigger and chunkier fragments won’t stay on the face and clothes. I’ll break them down, so that the color tone is the exact same match, and it will fit the scene and the background of the set. But yes, I will put little pieces right into the bruise, right into the gash that she had on her eyebrow.
I think just in general, there was more of everything; more blood, more distressed hands and nails. The explosion was massive. For the first time, we used a lot of explosion dirt, and dust, and soot, and that kind of stuff, so it was really ground into their hands and arms and any skin showing. It was just more of everything. Just more intensified makeup.
Larki: What’s your technique for achieving that dirty look and grunginess?
LeBlanc: We have a spray, alcohol-based makeup. There are different ones, different levels, and colors. We just mix them and spray them with little bits of dust and dirt and levels of soot that came from the explosions. It is just color matching those things and making sure that I’m running in and spraying her hands and doing touchups, that was the big thing. Always get her hands, ears, and eyes to match and to have that same unified look. With every take and shot, I had to make sure I could get them back to exactly how they were.
Larki: I know one of your favorite techniques for making the Handmaids look worn down is putting lip liner in the waterline to make their eyes look more red. Do you have any other tricks of the trade that you like to use?
LeBlanc: One other huge thing is lip balm or a lack of any kind of luster to their lips. Taking away any shine or plumpness to their lips, so really just drying them out. When you look at June’s character, you see her lips are constantly cracked or really dry. We used a lighter foundation, just grazing over her lips, or sometimes a little powder—not allowing any lip balm on camera. (Laughs). It adds to the overall feel of what they are going through.
Larki: How much time do you usually have with these actors and actresses in the chair before you let them go?
LeBlanc: Well, I always like more time. In the beginning with Lizzy, I was like, “Oh, this is going to take 45 minutes,” and she was like “Well, let’s do it in 20.” We have a great relationship because she knows that I can be fast, but if I need my time, I need my time. I need to get those little details in. I will need an extra 10-20 minutes. The regular June look now takes about 20-25 minutes, but the extra blood and distressing are about 45 minutes. Lizzy will always try to cut it down! Time is money, and she has a million other things to do.
Larki: You’ve described The Handmaid’s Tale set as your “happy place.” And I have to tell you, I came across a great shot on your Instagram of Elisabeth Moss smiling, just absolutely beaming, as you apply blood to her neck. (Laughs). How do you keep that positive energy going when you’re applying blood to someone’s neck?
LeBlanc: (Laughs). We are all kind of a big family now. We all know that we are going to bring 100 percent. We are all going to bring our best. We are all going to be there for each other. We aren’t going to let each other down, so that allows us to relax and feel good about the day and not get too stressed out. I mean that kind of stuff, those are funny moments, because there are intense moments where we are fighting with time, or we are trying to get the day done; it can be intense, the scenes can be intense, so I guess it is just keeping some lightness to it, between all the blood splatters.
Burton LeBlanc is Emmy-nominated with Alastair Muir for Outstanding Contemporary Makeup (Non-Prosthetic) for the episode “Pigs” of The Handmaid’s Tale.
Photo: Sophie Giraud/Hulu