Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto have earned an enormous amount of acclaim for their performances in “Dallas Buyers Club,” which has put them at the front of their Oscar races. But their work was of course assisted by the Oscar-nominated makeup and hairstyling of Robin Mathews and Adruitha Lee, allowing them to slip further into their characters and fully inhabit the roles of Ron Woodroof and Rayon.
Both natives of the South who can remember the mid-80s well, both Mathews and Lee say the project was a personal one. “I grew up in Alabama,” Lee says. “I had lost some friends to AIDS. I had a dear friend and I remember going over to his house when he found out [that he had HIV] and there was this blood-curdling scream. I owned a salon in Alabama at the time. I knew lots of ‘Rayons.’ Nobody really knew much about the disease. It was terrible. When you’re working on the film, it takes you back to a lot of different people that you knew.” Lee always wanted to work in this field ever since she was a kid. She even owned salons in Alabama and Nashville once upon a time.
Mathews – who started in the industry as an actor and studied makeup part-time early in her career – was born and raised in New Orleans. She was in Dallas frequently in the mid-80s as family lived there. “There was never too much hair, never too much makeup,” she says. The makeup on the film required meticulous research on her part, not only from the perspective of recreating the period but also accurate depictions of individuals battling AIDS. “I really throw myself into the research,” she says. “It had to be pure realism – that’s how Jean-Marc shoots. I spoke with the head of infectious diseases. He explained that AIDS patients, near the end of their life, always get three things: 1) very skeletal in the face; 2) seborrhoeic dermatitis, a patchy rash on certain parts of their face; and 3) lesions.”
The makeup was especially essential as it had to work in the absence of a lighting department (due to Vallée’s shooting style and attempt to create a realistic atmosphere), and also due to a reason many viewers may not notice – it had to guide the actors through various stages of sickness and health, depending on the stage of the story. But the film was not shot at all sequentially. “Everyone surely thought these actors lost a bunch of weight, then they gained some back and then they get really skeletal and they’re about to die,” Mathews describes. “That’s entirely makeup making them look, say, 25 pounds heavier. The film was shot in 23 days. There wasn’t enough time for them to gain or lose weight. It was really makeup that was part of the transformation. They came to us pretty much skeletal.”
This tight schedule, lack of sequential shooting and importance of the makeup led to some pressure, especially when the makeup was all that was standing in the way of shooting the next scene. The lack of a lighting change meant there was little for the rest of the crew to do between scenes. “Sometimes I had a two-hour makeup change as I take them from their healthiest to their sickest,” Mathews says. “The rest of the crew is sitting around. I was always under the gun.”
Lee also recalls the mechanics of shooting the film being tight. “The first actor I met was Matthew [McConaughey],” she says. “I met him for the first time in the director’s office. We needed to do everything to give him the look in the office – we didn’t have a hair-and-makeup trailer. Then I meet ‘Rayon.’ I went down to meet her and talked about wigs. I never met ‘Jared.’ Jean-Marc had a vision in mind. Some looks were ‘too good.’ Finally, I took a wig from [my car] across the parking lot, put it on Rayon and Jean-Marc said, ‘I love it.'”
Mathews made a similar comment, saying that she has “no idea what [Jared] is like as a person. I didn’t ever get to meet Jared – I still haven’t met Jared. He kept character the whole time. We would discuss regular business things, such as releasing an album for his band, 30 Seconds to Mars, but still as Rayon.”
Mathews recalls a particularly amusing anecdote that probably best describes this transformation. “My very first time meeting her, she sat down in my makeup chair and the first thing I asked her was how she felt about waxing off all of her eyebrows? She agreed and right before I was about to pull the strip of eyebrows off, she touched my hand and told me in her soft voice with a hint of a Southern accent to, ‘Make it quick sweetheart.’ Needless to say, I complied.”
At a broader level, Mathews describes coming up with Rayon’s look as a collaboration between her, Vallée and Leto, recalling how Rayon would say “in her little soft voice, ‘Oh, I quite like that.'” This required Mathews to put herself into the mind of Rayon, to figure out how she would have chosen her look. Mathews thought that Rayon’s first female influence would have been her mother, a woman of the 1960s. This resulted in influences such as “Bewitched’s” Serena, Bridget Bardot and Twiggy. At the same time, however, she is very much a child of the 1980s, with icons such as Pat Benatar and Dolly Parton also forming her look.
“[Robin and I] had to double-team a lot,” Lee recalls of the time crunch, “in the trailer at the same time when Matthew was going through his different looks, when Rayon was going through her different looks.” An example of the synergy occurred with Rayon as the character got thinner, when both Mathews and Lee decided to use headscarves to demonstrate that her wigs would no longer “work.”
As for the experience of being nominated for an Oscar? Having made the bake-off list in the category a number of weeks ago, Mathews admits she got up at 5am to have some champagne with a friend before the announcement, because even if she wasn’t nominated, “we still were drinking champagne.” Finding her name on the Oscar website was an experience she cannot describe.
Lee, on the other hand, was working in Puerto Rico. It was far from her mind during filming but when the news finally registered, “it was surreal,” she says. “The morning that I found out, I couldn’t believe it. It feels really good.”
Mathews and Lee now find themselves in the thick of the Oscar race for Best Makeup and Hairstyling. And they may have a lot more to celebrate on March 2.