Brush strokes of genius: An interview with MUA Siân Richards

By Sophia Coleman

Not many people are born directly into their career, but such is the case with Siân Richards, a film makeup artist whose work can be seen in upcoming comedy “Movie 43” and Golden Globe nominated “Cloud Atlas.”

Richards was born in England 1968 when her father, Hu Richards, worked as a makeup artist for “2001: A Space Odyssey.” She said her father was told his wife was in labor while on set and he immediately left for the hospital, and from that point on she was brought on to many of the movies her father was a part of. The smells, sights and sounds of his work very much influenced her infatuation with makeup, and as soon as she could get her hands on a brush and palette, she began painting her own path into the makeup industry. She first studied fine art and photography and eventually found herself drawn to film makeup.

The Chronicle had the chance to talk with Richards about her evolution as a makeup artist, her work on the film Cloud Atlas and what it’s like being Halle Berry’s personal MUA.

The Chronicle: When did you first know you wanted to become a makeup artist?

Siân Richards: When I was bout 6 years old. When I was very, very small I used to remember going into makeup rooms, and not knowing they were makeup rooms. I would see light and I would smell smells and, without knowing it, would be in studios. I had no comprehension of what they were, but influences were coming at me from a very young age—2 or 3 years old. My head was just about the level of a desk. I have a very vivid memory of seeing makeup on the countertops underneath a very bright light.

Around 8 years old, I definitely started to be very much more aware. So much so that at the age of 10, I went over to the British Broadcasting Corporation to see what it would take to get into their makeup school. Back then, the BBC training was the best you could get. And they laughed at me because I was so young, and they said they had never had anyone my age call them with such conviction of what they wanted to do. So they told me, ‘ Well you’ve got to learn some history, English and art. And you’ve got to have an understanding of periods and time—so come back to us when you’re 21.’ My school friends remind me that I knew it from that point and that I had never changed.

During your school years before makeup artist school, were you always experimenting with makeup and getting your hands on whatever you could do?

Well, you know, it’s weird. I wasn’t. I was definitely addicted to feature films. I watched them nonstop. I was engrossed. It was blind faith for me. I’m very peculiar. I looked at myself and thought, you just went forward blindly and never considered failure. You just went and did it, you know? I was into art, I was always painting, always creative. My family is very creative. I would always be looking at makeup in movies. When the “Starwars [Episode IV]” came out in 1977, oh my God, it was like the fulcrum of everything for me. I really wanted to hold to my artistic sensitivities. Although I wanted to do makeup, I knew that I had to be a good artist first. Being able to understand color and the freedom of a brushstroke brings things to life. It really is art. So I really wanted to study up and focus on [art] first. I didn’t really realize that it was my process, but I had to work at it. My dada had makeup artistry it in him. I mean, he came out of the war and went straight into makeup basically. He had never done it before, but he knew he had an affinity with color.

That is amazing. How did he do that?

His story is quite unique. You know, again, someone in the makeup artist industry liked my dad and they asked him if he wanted to give it a try and they said there was a chance they needed him. And he did it. He loved it and never looked back.

For me, I wasn’t a scientist trying things out. It was the passion, the infatuation with makeup artistry. And it was always about movies for me, beauty never came into it. I wasn’t aware of beauty makeup. I wasn’t even aware of beauty back then because I was a Tomboy. I lived in Dungarees and jeans. My mother despaired, even though she made great dresses for me. I had absolutely no comprehension of beauty makeup. It was all about film, prosthetics, creatures and special effects. That was what I wanted to do. It all sunk in.

Your most recent work in addition to “Movie 43” is with Cloud Atlas. Let’s talk about your work with Halle Barry—how intimidating was it to do such a complete transformation on such a renowned actress?

Well, you know, working with Halle isn’t intimidating because she is one of the most special people I met in the industry. She’s very low-key and she’s very real. She detests fuss. At the same time, it’s Halle—and everybody knows her. [Intimidation] was never anything Halle opposed upon me, it was something that I was very aware of in terms of what people would say. I did “New Years Eve” with her, which was beauty makeup that was lovely. “Cloud Atlas” was the big one because I had to change her ethnicity, her sex, [and] her age.  It wasn’t intimidating—I’d rather call it challenging. First of all, I didn’t have enough makeup tests. For all of the aging makeup that we did using the prosthetics, I only saw the pieces the day before and then I had to put them on live the next day. So it was completely an organic makeup process. I had someone help me—its impossible to do on your own. It’s all about doing it well, making it believable. It’s got to be real.

When I turned [Halle] into a European German Jewess, Jocasta Ayrs, that was an interesting story. We did quick makeup tests to see how the nose fitted and I wanted to play around with color—so I took my trusty Kryolan derma color palette—which is something that no makeup artist to be without— and I figured out how I would lighten her skin tone. I took some shots with my camera and then I had to go back [from Berlin] to L.A. While I was gone [the crew] had done a makeup test using Skin Illustrator. While it is a great product, it isn’t the solution to fit all challenges. Halle’s skin is so smooth, so perfect, that the product can look so drying on her. On the third test we were again told to use Skin Illustrator because that was what the rest of the department was using. Though I am Halle’s personal makeup artist, I’m not the kind of personal [artist] that does completely different makeup from the rest of the department. It has to be integral for me. So we used Skin Illustrator one last time. It just wasn’t working—the skin looked so dead. The director said we needed sheen, pores and oils—and I said ‘yes, I know!’ When we saw the screening, I had my iPad with me with those original makeup shots and I showed it to one of the special effects boys and he just went ‘that’s absolutely perfect!’ It was like I was showing him the most beautiful thing he had seen in his life. I showed the director, Tom [Tykwer] and it was exactly what he was looking for.

So one the first day of Halle’s shooting we did the makeup—her face, her hands, her prosthetic nose and décolletage—it was quite minimum trust me—people just went bananas when she walked onto set.  And actually, before I got to set when I was collecting makeup, Halle had met [co-directors] Lana and Andy [Wachowski’s] mother and she had a 10-minute conversation less than a foot away from Lana’s mom and when she went off to talk to Tom, Lana said to her ‘Do you know who that was?’ And she said ‘No, I just think it’s a very nice German actress.’ And then was told it was Halle, and she fell over in her seat. She has no idea because Halle had the German accent going on.

At the end of the shooting that day Halle came up to me in the trailer and gave me a monumental hug and said ‘I’ve got to tell you something.’ And I told her not to make me cry. She’s like ‘You’re going to cry. Tom said this is his favorite makeup of the entire movie because it’s real artistry.’ I was completely in pieces and I cried.

With the multiple looks that you created for Halle in the film—Jocasta Ayers, Luisa Rey, Ovid and Meronym, just to name a few—do you think you stuck to the depiction in the book and what Cloud Atlas enthusiasts would picture, or did you have to take your own ideas and make them happen?

It’s definitely about using your own ideas. When an author writes a book he is describing to a certain extent the character and his vision of that character. He never writes a book for an actor, thinking it’s going to become a screenplay. He writes it as his own. The makeup department heads worked very closely with one another to design characters. But when it came to Halle’s character, they left me to my own devices because they had such a huge workload. For Meronym, they wanted a reddish, earthy skin tone. Now Halle has a honey-olive skin tone. I wanted Halle to have a graceful, honest look. It was very bare. After all was done, I saw Halle in her true beauty. Doing the most delicate work is not simple—in these days of digital filmmaking everything reads. It’s all about blending, all about seamless work and making it real. I didn’t want Halle to look like an L.A. movie actress who had been transported into a post-apocalyptic world.

With her character Luisa Rey, a feminist in the ‘70s, she’s got a lot of things to prove and is definitely insecure about her ability. It meant that I needed to do a very nude look. God bless Tom because he wanted it that way, and God bless Halle because she was totally into it. There’s a difference when you have a real actor that really embraces everything. She calls me the boss and whatever I say is fine with her.

Yes, Halle’s makeup in the film is pretty breathtaking and all of her characters are completely different. You can see that it’s her, but there is this seamlessness of the makeup that is hard to describe—it just works.

When I was a kid, if we were watching a movie and we could see the makeup, my dada switched it off. It was the most frustrating thing, but I understand it. If I’m watching makeup and not the performance, there’s a problem.  Good makeup is invisible work. It’s not about the makeup unless it’s a Geisha look or something really dramatic. Even with prosthetics—if you’re reading it as prosthetic makeup, we have failed in some respect. We know you know that it’s prosthetic, but we want you to forget about it.

You used your own brush line, London Brush Company, during your work on the film. How did the design of the brushes help you make your work more seamless?

When I started out in the business, I started out with other makeup brushes—they were all good quality and made of natural hair. That’s what they used to be before the market went global and cheaper synthetics came along. When I designed my range of brushes, basically wanted to bring back that quality. The reason I wanted to do that was because when I moved to L.A. nine years ago I looked for makeup brushes and there was nothing. It was awful! I went to beauty supplies stores and retail stores—nothing. I went to art stores and that’s where the best quality brushes were. I had a chat with Nigel Dare, founder of Nigel’s Beauty Emporium, who has been in the business for 30 years. I sat him down and asked him, ‘ What I can I do? There’s nothing out there.’ And he said ‘Siân, you’re not telling me anything I don’t know.’ He went on to say that every makeup artist on a movie that goes to London from L.A. buys his or her brushes in London because the quality there is like nothing we get here. So that was a bit of food for thought and I asked him if I should start a brush line and he told me ‘absolutely.’ Literally the next day I got on the phone to England and searched for a brush maker. But what makes these brushes different? First of all, they’re all premium grade European hair. I don’t do cheap, not when it comes to brushes. There is no point. People ask me, why is my brush shedding, why is it spikey? Well, it’s because it’s a grade B or C hair, coated in silicon, and when that coat washes off, the hair is exposed and brittle. The reason that my brushes were so important to my work with “Cloud Atlas,” was because I used pure A-grade sable, pure A-grade European Pine Squirrel, and European Blue Squirrel. I just will not cut corners.  For 10 years I’ve used the brushes that my dada had used for 20-odd years, and they’re still doing their work! It’s beautiful watching these brushes like these work.

Is there any particular brush that you’ve designed that is your favorite, or do you love them all equally?

Well, I do love all of them. What I sell in retail is not when I sell in the industry, because with retail is has to be simpler. My whole goal with retail is to make women feel more confident by doing effortless makeup on their faces, if they so choose to. I designed brushes that help them do that easily, because makeup is not brain surgery, it’s meant to be fun.

One of my favorite industry brushes is the Queen Foundation brush. It’s beyond divine and it has a huge fan base. Every makeup artist that uses it falls in love with it. I can’t tell you the number of A-list movie stars that use my brushes, because their makeup artists use them, and then they go ‘Oh my God. It’s beautiful.’ I’ve had makeup artists write me and tell me they need more brushes because their clients have walked off with them.

Another favorite brush is the Ultra Luxe Blush Blender. It has exquisite design that enables really delicate color application. It enables you to do color washes on your skin, such as with a bronzer to give you a delicate sun-kissed work. Because the hairs are so fine, what is deposited on the face is very subtle. I want the face to be the face and for the makeup to be subliminal, even with beauty [makeup.]

What advice do you have for aspiring makeup artists? I know it’s a tough industry, but how can they stand out from the rest?

That’s a very good question. It’s a very tough business to get into and it’s always changing—you’ve got to be flexible. You must keep your humility, always.  It’s very, very important. Don’t believe your own hype. Present yourself professionally. Be prepared to do whatever it takes. Don’t think you’re too good for something, because you’re always replaceable. While in some respect, that’s not the right way to be—the way it is today—with such a deluge of makeup-folk in the world and the way the industry has broadened so much— you must make your work individual. Don’t color by numbers. Mix colors and try things out. Even make your own makeup. That’s what I used to do—I was always experimenting. I used all of the skills I learned in art school while painting. Don’t just focus on the beauty; you must focus on art as well. Learn about color, learn the color wheel, and learn how to use primary colors and secondary colors. Look at every magazine you can, not just other makeup artists’ work. Look at the work of people you aspire to be. Maintain your passion and show people that you have love for what you do. Maybe it’s just me, because I am a bit bonkers and am I really desperately passionate about what I do, but I feel so lucky to get paid for my passion. It is such a privilege. I’d say about 85 percent of people go to work and do a job they really aren’t that happy about. I go to work and see amazing talent in front of me. I have to pinch myself and thank the Universe. Never stop saying thank you, because you’ve got to appreciate the opportunities you’ve been given. When people stop seeing how lucky they are, they lose sight of reality.

For more information on Richards, check out her website