Interview: Wakana Yoshihara Discusses the Hair and Makeup of ‘Spencer’ Going Beyond Mere History

When she was considered for the job of Makeup and Hair Designer for Spencer, Wakana Yoshihara set out to prepare and study and make an airtight case for herself as the top person for the job to director Pablo Larraín: “I started with the script. After reading it and what kind of story [Steven Knight] was telling, I went to research that time period.” That time period being the early 90’s, before the infamous “Revenge Dress” but after Princess Diana’s reported confrontation with Camilla at her sister’s birthday party.

So with that narrow timeframe in mind, Ms. Yoshihara “collected all of the images of Diana in the early 90’s. To get a sense of who she was away from her public-facing persona, I looked into pictures of her private life, with her children. I did all of this before I got the job and I sent Pablo my portfolio of photos I had collected before sitting with him.” And his reaction was… not what she expected: “Why did you send me all those photographs?!” he asked her with no small measure of surprise. “Um, well… just doing my research!” 

But it worked. She was ultimately put in charge of bringing out the mood and personalities of every character – both real and semi-fictionalized – in this “fable based on true events” through their makeup and hairstyles. “Pablo made it clear to everyone that we were not making a documentary. This was a specific story about a woman at an important time in her life. The decision of Pablo and myself was to have the confidence that this story would not need to lean on ‘historical accuracy’ as a crutch.”Instead of the collage of photographs she had studied of one of the most exhaustively photographed individuals of the 20th century, Larraín “sent me a single iconic photo of Diana from the late 80’s as a base template. From there, I added to that specific look for her he had in mind by getting into the paparazzi photographs of the rest of the royal family from all different angles that complimented that one picture he provided.”

Considering how such a huge portion of the British Monarchy’s job these days is (and I’m going to editorialize a bit with this phrasing, forgive me) providing tabloid fodder, the sheer number of pictures of every single member of the House of Windsor can be overwhelming to a creative team without a set idea of what they’re looking to portray. As Yoshihara notes, “There are so many images available. I was determined to find a common thread for each Royal and create a look for them that fit Pablo’s vision.”

But it wasn’t just the weight of iconography that presented a challenge; principal photography also took place during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, which meant she and her team “couldn’t see the actors very often. I could not fly to Germany for Kristen [Stewart]’s fittings. So there was a lot of remote communication and coordination that had to be done to fit the wigs properly. I personally came out of quarantine just two days before shooting was supposed to start and had to work quickly to finalize everything in time.”

Despite Joey’s rave review interpreting much of the film as “a ghost story,” Yoshihara did not intentionally set out to create that kind of spooky impression through her makeup work. Not even with Anne Boleyn, the tragic specter who frequently appears around the beleaguered Princess during her stay at the Sandringham Estate: “I was trying more to draw a contrast between how royal women of 16th-century England were expected to look compared to 20th-century royal women. They applied a lot more powder to their faces which did give them, perhaps, a more ‘ghostly’ look.”

I expressed my appreciation for her unobtrusive makeup and hair work, and admitted no small amount of frustration with the increasing use of prosthetics being caked onto a performer’s face with no regard for their needs to emote and react properly in other biopics. “The key mistake [with those movies] is when the audience notices there is work. If the wigs or prosthetics don’t look natural,” she observed. This decision to ensure Stewart, Jack Farthing, Stella Gonet, Richard Sammel, Niklas Kohrt, Emma Darwall-Smith, and the rest of the cast playing real royals would not be constrained by overdone makeup and hair work came from Yoshihara’s past experience – she was one of the hair stylists on Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Diana from 2013. That movie, depicting the short-lived romance between the Princess of Wales and heart surgeon Hasnat Khan, was nowhere near the critical darling or awards contender that Spencer is shaping up to be, but it was a very key learning experience for her. “It was a very positive experience. I was far less senior on that project and didn’t do any work on Naomi Watts. The crew had small gel-based prosthetics for the noses, and applying them was time and labor-consuming. Because most of the shoot was in the summer, the gel would melt in the heat.”

Those would have no place in her department: “I wanted to move away from prosthetics. Pablo didn’t want them, either. So for evoking the looks of the royals, we concentrated more on hair. When I was a junior hair stylist, I wasoften very wary of the wigs and feared the seams would show through depending on the lighting. When I made the wigs [for Spencer], I knew what materials I wanted and what to avoid.”

“We were not trying to make Kristen into Diana, we were making Diana into Kristen…. [with the cast] the goal is to bring the best of their features and trust them to evoke the spirit of the character through their expressions.”


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Written by Robert Hamer

Formerly an associate writer for recently-retired Award Circuit, Robert Hamer is a military veteran who now spends his time obsessing over movies and pop politics.

He is returning to film and awards season commentary to return to a sense of normalcy in these plague-ridden times of rising fascism and late-stage capitalist dystopia. Join him, won't you, in these somewhat unorthodox attempts at cinematic therapy?

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