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Oscars 2014: The makeup of 'Dallas Buyers Club' and creating a realistic portrait of AIDS

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When you think about the look of Dallas Buyers Club, makeup probably isn’t top of mind. Everyone knows about Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto’s extreme physical transformations and Jean-Marc Vallée’s preference for natural light and handheld realism, but to the untrained eye, beyond the transgender beauty makeup on Leto’s Rayon, it might be hard to see on the surface why the film is one of the three Best Makeup and Hairstyling Oscar nominees.

All Matthew McConaughey had to do was gain and lose that weight, right? Wrong.

“People don’t realize how much makeup is actually in the movie, but that’s the ultimate compliment. That’s exactly what I was trying to do,” makeup lead Robin Mathews told EW.

In the film, audiences see McConaughey’s character Ron Woodroof fluctuate between various stages of sickness. On a bigger budget movie, production might have halted to allow him to gain or lose weight for the different parts of the story. For Dallas Buyers Club, Vallée’s 23 day shoot sometimes necessitated going from sick to healthy and back again up to five times in a single day.

“He shoots without any lighting, it’s all ambient lighting, all handheld. The camera is up and ready to go in five minutes,” said Mathews. “The only time that the camera wasn’t rolling was during makeup changes and lunch.”

She added: “Normally makeup and costume changes are scheduled during the lighting and camera set ups and everything balances out. When you remove one of those aspects it upsets the whole balance. Suddenly there are 150 people sitting around waiting for the makeup to be finished.” The schedule was one obstacle. Budget was another.

“I had to figure out a quick, inexpensive way to make it look as if [Leto and McConaughey] had gained 25 pounds when they were fully healthy and had their medications, and then to look at least 25 pounds lighter with all these other physical symptoms (lesions, rashes, sunken-in eyes) that occur when you have full-blown AIDS. That was a serious challenge to get done on any budget, and so quickly,” she said.

The film’s overall budget was $4.5 million. Her makeup budget? “$250,” she laughed. “And I had a hard time getting that $250, let me tell you.”

Mathews dove into heavy research to make sure she understood the look of HIV and AIDS, working alongside their technical advisor (the head of infectious diseases at the National Institute of Health) to make sure they got it right. “We didn’t want this to be a caricature at all. It had to be pure realism,” she said. She also collaborated closely with her two leads. “Matthew and I went through every scene in the film to decide how he was going to look and what were those changes. [We determined that he] had fives stages of sickness. It was a great help.”

To make Leto and McConaughey look their sickest, she highlighted every bone and tendon on their face, paled them out and added lesions and rashes — often referring to medical photos representing AIDS patients and photos of skulls and skeletons that lined the trailer walls for reference. “To make them look heavier, I used dental plumpers. They’re little pieces that clip onto the upper and lower teeth. The dental material pushes the cheeks out from the inside to look fuller,” she said. She also used a reverse contouring technique and added a little bronzer to give them a glow.

For Leto’s Rayon, all this had to be done, and then Mathews had to start on the transgender beauty makeup. Mathews created an elaborate back story for Rayon, involving how often she might miss taking her hormones and how the stress of her party lifestyle would manifest physically.

She also needed to figure out who might have inspired his makeup choices. Mathews settled on Rayon’s mother. “Her mom would have been a woman of the ’60s, so I thought she would have been influenced by stars of the time, like Twiggy, Serena from Bewitched. One day I brought in a very kitten-ish photo of Brigitte Bardot and Rayon says in her soft little voice ‘oh yes, I quite like that.’ We also got in some ’80s stars such as Dolly Parton and Pat Benatar.”

Mathews is up against the teams behind Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa and The Lone Ranger for the Oscar — much more showboat-y displays of hair and makeup prowess. Her work in Dallas Buyers Club is so subtle, it’s almost in danger of being dismissed. But, that doesn’t really bother Mathews. As she says: “If you’re watching a film and you’re seeing the makeup then I haven’t done my job properly.”


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