Depicting reality means including women who sometimes fall asleep in their makeup.
At some point makeup artist and designer Debi Young began talking about eyebrows and it felt as though a new window into film and television had been thrown open for me.
Young, Make-Up Artists and Hair Stylists Guild (MUAHS) Award-nominated for her work on HBO’s lauded limited series “Mare of Easttown,” had been describing her process for styling makeup for period pieces. She explained that if she’s doing a film set in the 1930s, she doesn’t want every woman sporting a 1930s eyebrow.
“Most people carry their looks. Whatever they think looks good on them, they don’t change every year with the trend,” Young said. “If somebody thought they looked good in the 1920s with a skinny brow, I like to pop one or two of those in [the design] because a person will carry that look from the 1920s into the 1930s.”
What she described is something that many women have seen played out in their own lives time and again. My mother’s blue eyeshadow, a remnant of the 1970s, bleeding over into the 1980s — and beyond. My grandmother’s Coty face powder (with powder puff!) a vanity staple for decades.
It’s an insight into human nature and habit I’d not previously considered, particularly with regards to makeup in the entertainment industry. This is just a matter of course for Young, who has made a career out of infusing her work with a keen eye towards human nature.
Part of that process entails making sure she understands the atmosphere of each project she enters into, the era, the universe, and the people that live there.
“With ‘Mare of Easttown’ and Delaware County, [Pennsylvania] I looked. When I was driving to the stage, I looked at the neighborhoods. When I’d go to the supermarket, I looked at the different women and how they did their makeup and how they dressed. I wanted the Delco County vibe for that show,” Young said.
Part of the reason she was so confident she could nail down that energy was thanks to her team, including Ngozi Olandu Young and Sandra Linn Koepper, both of whom Young collaborated with on “The Wire.”
“I did ‘The Wire’ and back during that time I always felt authenticity is the key to everything,” she said. “I love to see gritty. I love to see scars, pimples, those kind of things.”
For the four-time Emmy-nominee “The Wire” served as a sort of proving ground, an opportunity to translate her understanding of humanity and letting it wordlessly express itself on screen.
“Omar (Michael K. Williams) was a Robin Hood character. He would steal from the drug dealers and then help the people out in his community. So when he was doing good things for the people and the young mothers in the community, I had him looking softer,” Young said. “But then at night in the dark, when he’d have his long trench and his gun, I would put baby oil gel over his serums so that every angle of his face would shine when the light hit him, so you could see him .
“To me, it just projected him. If even a quarter of his face is peeping around the corner at night, you knew who it was.”
It is, as is often said, the little things that serve to take a depiction from good to great and beyond and the little things are what Young is so good at. On her Instagram, she posted photos of Jean Smart, who she worked with on both “Watchmen” and “Mare of Easttown” and whose characters on the two projects could not be more different.
On “Watchmen,” Smart played Laurie Blake, a glamorous FBI agent with a complicated past who takes shit from no one. On “Mare of Easttown” she is Helen Fahey, Mare’s mother, who time has been harder on. When Smart and Young were reunited on “Mare of Easttown,” Smart said that she wanted Helen to have “dishpan hands” and Young crafted tiny blooms of capillaries in her cheeks to mimic rosacea.
“I hate when everybody gets up in the morning, they look like they’re on the soap opera with a full face of makeup,” Young said. “So if somebody has running mascara, if they slept in their makeup, if they were crying, I like all those subtle things that make it look real.”
Michele K. Short/HBO
True to her word, behind the scenes photos on Instagram show clumpy mascara and makeup shadows, both all-too-real reminders of late nights gone wrong and the lingering effects the next day.
And yet, through all that, Young also understands that even authenticity needs to be sweetened a bit to better preserve truth, if not the accuracy, of the situation. Specifically when death is involved.
“There’s some things I don’t want to be so authentic because it’s heartbreaking,” Young said, referencing the death of Evan Peters’ character Colin Zabel, who is shot in the head.
Back on “The Wire,” because of Simon’s history as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun and co-executive producer Ed Burns’ experience as a homicide detective, the show was meticulous about its crime scenes, going so far as having a consultant from the medical examiner’s office on set to make sure things looked right. Young and her team also received a forensic pathology book full of (anonymized) victims as references for their work. It was, in a word, depressing.
“So what I started doing was calling the medical examiner consultant and I would read a part of a scene to him. I would just say, ‘Hey, how would somebody look if their throat was slashed and they were thrown into the harbor, salt water, in the middle of February? How would they look if they found him a month or so later?’ And let them describe it to me,” Young said. “And as they describing the color of the skin or the lips or what the gash in the throat would look like, I could then translate it to makeup without looking for a person with a real slashed throat.
“So then I could just say, ‘Okay, this is art. I can do this.’”