Makeup artist Burton LeBlanc has been working in film and television since 1998 and has cultivated an impressive resume, having worked on such films as My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Lars and the Real Girl, The Love Guru, The Incredible Hulk and last year’s hit The Invisible Man, which starred Elisabeth Moss. LeBlanc’s relationship with Moss goes back to 2017, when she, as one of the producers and stars of the Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale, hired LeBlanc as the makeup department head. LeBlanc has served as the lead makeup artist on every episode of the hit show, earning two Emmy nominations for his work so far.
As The Handmaid’s Tale enters its fourth season, I got to talk to LeBlanc about his work on the show, including the challenges of creating a dystopian look, those extreme close-ups that have become a show staple, and just how important it is to have a close working relationship with actors.
Catherine Springer: You’ve done the makeup since the beginning of the show. There aren’t any significant prosthetics or anything, but there is a world that these people live in, that’s very dystopian and distressed. They are generally not very happy, their world is in turmoil. How to you reflect that in the makeup?
Burton LeBlanc: Well, you mentioned the word distressed, so the makeup and the look on most of their faces is distressed and worn down. As soon as you see a character, the viewer has to feel that and see on their face what they’ve been going through. They haven’t been sleeping or they’re red-eyed, there are bags or dark circles under their eyes. They want to see all of those emotions, really quickly, as soon as they see the face. So I’ve got to translate that with makeup, you know, ruddy skin tones, dark circles under the eyes– a lot of them have red circles with red liner inside their eyelids, like they’ve been crying, or not sleeping.
You mentioned that you interviewed with Elisabeth Moss when you applied for the show at the beginning, and that you gave her some ideas that you said she liked, do you remember what those initial ideas were that sold her on you and your vision?
Yes, we did have a conversation on the phone, we also had a camera test as well after the phone call. When I look back, it was just more of an innocent time, with her being the leading handmaid, it was a more innocent look, compared to what’s going on now. It’s more of a basic look with foundation, a moisturizing tint to her face, but still luminescent—still looked like she had a bit of life, but a shade paler than her normal skin tone, because you also have to leave room for where the character is going to go. You don’t want to play it out really bad right away. So, just enough was leaving room for that.
Did you know at that early point, how much of the show would be in such extreme close up?
Uh, no. [laughs]
Because that would affect you, wouldn’t it?
It really would affect it. Luckily, the conversations that I’ve had with some of the executives, and Lizzy, obviously, they checked up on my work and we talked and they knew that I was a particular artist that had a certain style, so they already had an idea of that. And then we had camera tests with all the main players, to really get their looks down pat, just with a very main ones, like maybe six of them.
How would you describe your style?
Less is more. It’s very deliberate when somebody is done up with makeup, maybe for a big event or somebody that’s got, you know, a rich, wealthy family from old money, that heavy makeup, a really beautiful heavier makeup, whereas, with Handmaid’s Tale, it’s obviously super subtle. So I think I have more of a lighter touch, not going too far. And also knowing what the lighting is too, is huge. And working closely with the director of photography.
When you work in theater, you can cake on the makeup because the audience is far, far away and it needs to be more exaggerated, but when you have these extreme close ups as you say the light touch has got to be the most important thing.
It’s huge! Getting back to the close up, that knowledge was a huge thing. In the first few days and the first couple of weeks, it was still about watching, and if you have to step in and run in to make an adjustment, you do, until you get everything fine-tuned to the lighting, and you know the characters and exactly where they need to be. It was a hard adjustment, getting used to those super tight close-ups. [laughs]
And you can’t really hide much!
Talk a little about the continuity challenges with such extreme close ups. If the character is bruised or bloodied and they shoot over a few days, it’s got to be difficult.
Well, first off is taking a lot of pictures, and really good notes. All of that is given, right, you’re going to keep track of all of that. Every scene, every character. Like you said, continuity—that scene could play out two weeks from now, and you’ve got to match it exactly. In the trailer, when we’re doing the makeup in the morning on Lizzie, I’d rather go less, as opposed to putting too much on, especially if I’m not sure, depending on the lighting, or maybe it’s a new set that we have to get used to. But by this point, I would have already worked with the DP so I kind of have an idea of what the lighting would be. But I would make sure that I could always add when I got to set. I like to tweak it a little bit. But it’s tough. Those close-ups are tough. Really, it’s a lot of notes, a lot of pictures. And, really, outside of work, it’s about getting a great sleep if you can, working those crazy set hours. It’s really about taking care of yourself, physically and mentally.
So that’s obviously a close relationship you have with the actors.
I saw that Elisabeth Moss said something about how sometimes she sits down in the chair and you can instantly see if she didn’t have a good night’s sleep. There’s obviously a close collaboration and relationship there. How collaborative is it with the actors?
Well I think it’s a two-way street, it works both ways. She really does help me, we have those conversations, she’s very upfront, direct and honest, as am I. So we’ve built a great relationship that way. We don’t hide anything, we’re very clear. Sometimes, even if you think you can hide that you’re tired when you first see somebody, it’s going to come through maybe a couple hours later. So just to be able to know that, and to be on top of that, it’s going to help for the day, for what you had planned. Maybe you have to help her out a little bit by making her look a little bit better—maybe she’s not supposed to look too bad in the first scene. It’s just tweaking constantly like that. Having conversations is really the answer.
You probably have the most intimate relationship with the actors, because they have to be the most honest and they come to you literally stripped down.
I completely agree and actually one of the directors and one of the executive producers, a couple of years in, season three I think, described me as one of the most discreet makeup people. I don’t want to make it seem like others aren’t discreet, but he said, you’ve got a great relationship and it doesn’t go anywhere but you’re very honest. So you build that trust with them. Maybe somebody has gone out, they’ve had a crazy night, they haven’t slept, but they’re willing to tell me that.
Did you train for makeup, or is that something you just learn in this industry?
I did go to Joe Blasco Makeup School in Orlando, Florida, for film and TV. So I had really great training there, had a great time. That was 1998, maybe. And then I started in Toronto, in this business. Just getting experience. But yeah, I had some really great training at that school.
That relationship with the actors, that’s something you kind of learn as you go, right?
Yeah, I mean I think that was ingrained in me anyway, I think that’s just who I am. And I think that’s probably what, when my name came forward to be on the show, as far as with Lizzy and the other executives, I think that was very helpful.
Getting back to the extreme close-ups, is that something that gets you scared or excited? Because your work is going to be right up in there.
I’m better now. [laughs] I get really excited now, but the first season and even starting the second season, knowing about all these tight close ups, it was scary. And there were times where, you know I’m watching it, it was really scary for me. But it’s good because I like being in that mode, because it pushes me as well. It keeps me motivated and on my toes. [laughs]
Obviously, they were pleased with your work, they kept bringing you back.
Yeah! And you never quite knew in the beginning. Now, as the episodes are just being aired now, and I have a relationship with everybody, I get things sent to me, or we talk on the phone or over email, but back in the beginning, it was very scary because you don’t know how your work is going to get received. You’re really just having complete faith. And it’s something you’re doing it’s kind of quite different than a lot of other things. But it worked out.
How far in advance do you get scripts and how much prep do you do?
Normally, at the beginning of the season, we’ll get three or four right off the bat, and even besides that there’s constant revisions, right up to when we shoot. But we’ll get like at least a couple months in advance. So it’s really just getting prepared that way. Certain seasons may be a little bit slower getting the script, so we get fair warning and we kind of just have a good look, and I just quickly go through it and break it all down.
I want to talk about that scene in the first episode of season two…
When June rips her ear tag out and the blood goes everywhere. Tell us a little bit about how you made that scene happen.
Well that was a tough one. That was a tough one. It’s really in combination with a few people, there’s a team that has a blood rig attached close to her, because she’s on camera. There’s a piece like a tube that’s going up, you know ten, fifteen feet or so. And it’s got to be timed out properly, so it’s really all about timing and sometimes it doesn’t necessarily work for some reason, it gets clogged or caught on something. So it’s really just a bunch of takes and getting the timing right, and making sure it flows properly. And that scene with all that blood, it probably took, six, eight hours. So, when she’s off going to the restroom, you know, you have to retouch that up exactly the same. A lot of pictures. It’s constant referencing.
So it took eight hours just for that one scene?
Do you know how many takes it took, because to get all that blood everywhere, if you don’t have the timing, you have to start over with clean clothes!
I know…I know! But that scene wasn’t too bad! I would say minimum two, it might have been three takes with the blood, like the first take it might have spurted it out a little bit and kind of came down on one side of a shoulder, but it wasn’t enough.
What scene, so far, from the first three seasons, was the most challenging for you?
I think just keeping Lizzie at that right level to make it believable for the audience. Just the continuation for the whole of those little nuances and little adjustments to keep it real and keep the viewer interested, and realizing they’re not looking at makeup. It’s really been a challenge to keep that flow.
What about Janine’s eye? Was that your department?
Somebody else does that. But that was a whole thing in itself, too, because it wasn’t fitting, and it took a while to get that tweaked, and to get that right. And Janine, you have to remember when you’re wearing that all day for hours and hours and hours, Janine [played by Madeline Brewer] had slight panic attacks from wearing it. So it had to be timed out with the scene and when she would come in in the morning for makeup. So it’s really just getting all of those trying to get the timing right, which is really difficult.
Tell us a little about the flashbacks. We see so much of June and how different she is, how full of life, but also learning the roots of her rebellious nature. How do you reflect the change in characters between then and now?
The key is for me was giving people a bit of a glow and a bit of life into their skin. So, finding a foundation with a little bit of sheen in it, a reflective quality that kind of gives it a little glow that that kind of tricks your eye to think that they are healthy and kind of happy. It was this sheeny kind of look, whereas when they go into Gilead, it was dreary and dull. So take away that shine and take away that nice, iridescent quality.
Let’s talk a little about the men. I understand Commander Waterford’s beard is sort of a character on its own.
It is. It’s pretty great. And tracking that for four years. And the funny thing is, he [Joseph Fiennes] and I got quite close as well and we had some great conversations and, he and I talked about how we wished the Commander’s beard had been really big in the beginning like well you know it was a—what’s the word I’m looking for, when you build into something…
Yeah! Yeah, it was more of a progressive thing. He and I talked about that in the beginning so it was a little bit more structured. A lighter beard, obviously more so than it is now, so we could build up into this stronger character. He was pretty strong then, but then into the craggly, kind of like falling apart Commander Waterford when he was incarcerated. So just really using that, more structured in the beginning to more crazy and wild and long and full gray added painted on. And just crappy looking.
And what about Commander Lawrence, Bradley Whitford’s beard? His is so beautiful and perfect.
He’s more consistently structured, there’s a consistency about him. And that’s his character. So he’s pretty much the same, but he needs a trim every time he comes in. He’s not in as much as Commander Waterford, but, you know, nice and trim, but not too trimmed. More of keeping with a normal structured beard, without getting too wild and crazy but not too fashionista, just nice and clean.
And part of his character is making it seem like he’s totally in control, right?
Correct. Because you’re not quite sure what he’s up to, especially in the beginning. He’s got a guise he’s hiding behind. So that’s going to stay the same, I kept that the same throughout.
Serena Joy is such a fascinating character. How did you help to create her?
Yes, her character is very tough, more in control and wound up tightly so that obviously had to reflect in her makeup as well as hair and wardrobe. But, for makeup, it was just very simple, clean. Slightly rosy cheeks. Bare lipstick, a little bit of mascara, really simple and clean. I use her eyebrows actually to make her look more severe. That was the one element I used to try to help her look nice, but to add a little severity to her.
Talk a little bit about Emily, who really gone on the biggest journey. Anything about Emily that was unusual in the makeup and your approach?
Emily [played by Alexis Bledel] definitely is a big character, as far as makeup. Emily is still in this trauma mode, still traumatized, obviously, from what she’s gone through, so she hasn’t really gotten out of that yet. And the way she looks is still reflective of that. So really simple, she still looks very much affected. She’s still traumatized, so you don’t want her looking all back to normal and nice, pretty, so really just super simple with some darkness under the eyes. Maybe she’s tried to do a little bit of lip color, lip care, like she’s made a little of an effort, but not a whole lot. And she’s not there yet. That’s the other big question to fuel us, “why isn’t so-and-so wearing better makeup now?” Well, you know what, think of what they’ve been through. I have to always find the right timing as to when the makeup will start to improve on them, to show that in their character. To show when they are maybe coming out of that a little bit–it’s all about timing.
We can’t not talk about Aunt Lydia. I love Ann Dowd so much. Talk a little about the progression of this character. I don’t think the stress shows on any character as boldly as it does on her. Not just the physical bruises, but what it’s taken out of her, as a human.
She was one of the characters in the very beginning that completely stripped down. Nothing on her face. We want to make her comfortable, she’s such a great lady, great character. We love her, she’s like the mother hen. She comes in and takes care of everybody. But it was really just a stripped down, no makeup like nothing on her face, bare bones. Maybe she needs a little bit of cream or lotion to kind of make her feel comfortable, but she’s probably one that had to least because she’s the most hardened, of all the characters. Yeah, so it’s really keeping everything off her face. And, you know, the lighting really helps to accentuate that.
Speaking of the lighting and the costumes, how much do you work with the other designers and the directors? Are you pretty much left on your own, or is it a collaboration?
Well you know what, after I had my initial discussion, and we got the camera test, I’ve really had and have free rein to do what I want, which has been so unbelievable. It really helps to have Lizzie—a lot of shows you get on, the lead actor or actress, they’re not one of the producers. Yeah, so it helps when you talk to her, that’s the end of the conversation, because it doesn’t have to go and get approved by all these people behind the scenes right, so that’s a huge, huge deal. I pretty much have free rein but I obviously want to keep all those relationships well-oiled and healthy, in case something comes up or just to give you pieces of information that they might have about characters that you might not get otherwise. But I do pretty much have free rein.
Well, it certainly is working. I mean, I don’t think I’ve ever watched a show with so many close-ups, and it feels as if I know every pore on Elizabeth Moss’s face!
And I’ve had people come up to me and say, everybody is wearing makeup of some kind. They’re all wearing something. It was especially hard in the beginning, but now people are seeing and understanding and getting it. But yeah, you’re exactly right, with those close ups, it is so tricky.
Interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.