Recently, Awards Radar spoke with Alisha L. Baijounas about her work as the makeup department head on the multi-award winning series Abbott Elementary. Created by and starring Quinta Brunson, Abbott Elementary follows a group of teachers as they navigate working in one of the worst public schools in the country.
Alisha elevated this season’s makeup, creating a more sophisticated look for Janine and adding meaningful, thought-out elements to all the character’s makeup. Using important moments as benchmarks for changes in makeup, Alisha’s work helps to tell the stories of TV’s most beloved teachers. In this interview, we discuss these benchmarks, how she elevated the looks of the characters this season, and her collaboration with Quinta Brunson and the rest of the cast and crew.
Can you please tell us a little bit about your background and how it led you to getting involved with Abbott Elementary?
Alisha L. Baijounas: I started out 20 years ago in theater in the Bay Area. My theater teacher, Amy Morrey, put a makeup brush in my hand during a stage design course, and I was instantly in love with the process of character building from the perspective of appearance. I have spent my career chasing work that allows me to do both beauty and special makeup effects, because that’s the sweet spot for visual character work taking place on the screen. Abbott Elementary was a perfect fit for me because the story this season called for quite a few creative elements: Janine’s James Harden beard, Mr. Johnson’s Lil’ Uzi Vert Lemon Drop, Jacob’s “Ava Coldmans” under-eye patch freezer burns, and an episode of Janine’s “tuna sweats” makeup layered over her everyday beauty look. Not to mention, there were a couple of returning and new guest characters that were going to require some unforgettable designs.
What was your design process like for Janine? How about the other characters?
AB: The design process always starts with the script. Our writers are incredible and give us a lot of scripted makeup moments that we get to run with. I then take my ideas to my team and we talk through what we want to achieve. I like to foster a collaborative creative process in my trailer.
How did you elevate the makeup looks this season?
AB: I found moments of foreshadowing and moments of growth in the scripts that acted as benchmark points for us through the season–especially with Janine and Ava. For Janine, I focused on her personal life growth points as places that made sense to add subtle maturing details to her look. When Janine’s new/old friend Erica gives her a club makeover for the “Holiday Hookah” episode, we switched out Janine’s dark brown everyday eyeliner for a black and kept it for the rest of the season until Janine’s mom makes a guest appearance. I also changed her out of the pinky clear gloss into a warm-toned lip duo that would even out the color palette of her overall look. Janine’s Mom is a force to be reckoned with, so to quietly signal that family dynamic in the episode “Mom,” I regressed her look to the earlier episodes color palettes. For Ava, her makeup artist, Jenn Bennett, and I wanted to set up the reveal of her dating Andre Iguodala in the “Holiday Hookah” episode by making her look upscale and expensive in the prior “Sick Day” episode. Jenn Bennett created a custom lip palette for Ava through the season that were not only colors actress Janelle James loved to wear but served the storyline for her character Ava.
What was your collaboration with Quinta and the rest of the cast like in creating these looks?
AB: Quinta has such a clear vision of who these characters are and who they are going to be, so I always had solid guidance if there was something new we wanted to try but were unsure if it would make sense in the long form of the story. My team and I would read the episodes, discuss, and collaborate on our character ideas for each episode. Every Thursday, we had a watch party in the makeup trailer at lunch the day after the episode aired, so we could see how everything played out in the edit and openly discuss any artistic notes. We created a lot of mood boards, sometimes created character maps, and pulled a lot of inspiration images to illustrate the direction we wanted to go. The cast was so supportive with the direction we wanted to take the looks throughout the season. It was a top to bottom collaboration from Quinta all the way through the entire crew.
What are some of the key products and techniques you used?
AB: For Janine’s Holiday Lip, we used MAC Cork Lipliner and Nars Aragon lipgloss. We had hundreds of lip color options on hand at all times: Mented, The Lip Bar, Tower 28, Milani, Gerard Cosmetics, etc. We manufactured the custom tattoos used throughout the season, and made Mr. Johnson’s Lemon Drop prosthetic from “Candy Zombies” in the makeup trailer. Out Of Kit makes some of my absolute favorite custom tinted transfer prosthetics, so I had them create Krystal’s lip piercing appliance. We employed a wide range of makeup techniques through the season; facial hair application, prosthetic fabrication and application, tattoo covers and application, face painting, etc. A lot of the techniques we used make the work “invisible” to the viewer, but it’s just as fun to add to the character as it is to “take away.”
Do you have any favorite looks that you designed this season?
AB: My favorite look we designed this season was every look we did for the character Krystal, played by Raven Goodwin. I brought in makeup artist Emilia Werynska specifically for this makeup because what I wanted to achieve with her was so far outside of the box. Emilia’s art style lined up perfect with the vision I had for her. Krystal was a character we made a full body map for. We placed all of her tattoos first, including her infamous “Bitch” tattoo. We added in some arm, leg, hand, and finger tattoos as well. I gave Emilia a few inspiration photos that I would describe as “cyber-goth versions of Rico Nasty,” but gave her creative freedom to translate that in her own art style. We used a lot of Half-Magic beauty to create the eye looks. Every day we see Krystal in the story she has a new custom set of long stiletto nails that I would design to fit her overall aesthetic – mostly gothic, supernatural, or astrologically themed. One of my favorite moments for her is when she shows up after school with a new lip piercing. She is unapologetically herself, and I find her to be quite inspiring even though she isn’t Barbara’s cup of tea.
Can you give some examples of moments where you used makeup as a storytelling device this season?
AB: Some of the storytelling we did with the makeup tells part of the character’s backstory. Barbara reminds me a lot of my grandmother in that she was a source of reason and a pillar to her family and community. My grandmother would also never go anywhere without a handbag full of lipstick options “just in case.” I imagine Barbara leaving the house each day with a few options for refreshing before interfacing with students, coworkers, and the doc crew. We slightly altered her lip color scene to scene, as if she had just touched up with whatever was nearby. Sometimes it’s a little more lip gloss, sometimes it’s a deeper lip liner. It is a very small detail that may go unnoticed, but it adds to Barbara’s buttoned up appearance.
What challenges did you encounter while working on this project?
AB: Part of my creative process is to identify real life examples of the characters we are creating, so I can pull from their way of life for their designs. I had a great base to work from, so deciding how far and how fast to create character elevations that would feel natural in the story was particularly challenging. The goal is that our artistic intentions translate but don’t take the audience out of the story.
Is there anything else you’d like to share about your work on this season of Abbott Elementary?
AB: My core team–Jenn Bennett, Constance Foe, and Emilia Werynska–were instrumental to achieving the goal I set for this season. Everyone who came to work with us in the makeup department over the season contributed significantly. It is a unique experience for the cast and crew to feel as much of a family off screen as it does on screen, and I am so thrilled we have created such iconic television moments together.