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Transforming Michelle Williams Into Marilyn Monroe


Jenny Shircore is a master at bringing the makeup of the past to contemporary faces.  Her film credits include “Elizabeth,” “Ned Kelly,” and “The Young Victoria,” to name a few.  411 Publishing recently spoke with Shircore about the challenge of recreating the look of icon Marilyn Monroe in the Golden Globe nominated film “My Week with Marilyn.”

411:  When this project came to you, what attracted you to it the most?  Was it the challenge of the hair and makeup, or was it the people you would get to work with?

Jenny Shircore:  Well, I was working with a producer, David Parfitt, who was involved with W.E., the Madonna film, and he said his next project was going to be “My Week with Marilyn,” and would I be interested in doing it.  And, of course, I jumped at the opportunity.   The whole period was a nice period to do.  And it is only afterwards that it dawns on you that you are taking on Marilyn Monroe and that’s when it becomes a bit scary.

411:  For this project, with such a prominent historical character that people are rather familiar with, did you go back and look at some of the material that isn’t so accessible to the public, to really get a sense of who this character was in her personal life?

JS:  Yes, absolutely, I bought practically every book that is available on Marilyn Monroe: books that involve her childhood, photographs of her mother, her as a young girl, recent books on her poetry, on her drawings, so that you get to know the person.  It’s not just pictures of the icon that you look at, it’s pictures of her everyday life.  And especially with “My Week with Marilyn,” because the story was about the person behind that image, which I think the majority of people don’t know too much about.

411:  What was it like taking Michelle Williams and using her as a canvas to create a likeness of the character?

JS:  When I first glimpsed Michelle, I was getting ready to go into the makeup room and set up all the makeup.  This was before Michelle had even accepted the film.  She wanted to see how this test would turn out before she committed to it.  I felt the pressure of that, but I also felt very relaxed in knowing “well, you can’t push somebody’s face in a direction it doesn’t want to go.”  Michelle is very beautiful, but she is very beautiful in a different way.  We had to start working on how she’d get a lot of Marilyn into her face.  Once Michelle accepted the film, we had several makeup sessions.  First we decided that we were not going to use any prosthetics.  Michelle was very against using anything stuck on her or changing her in any drastic way.  We were going to do it with the makeup and palettes.  The two of us did tests together, just kind of painted it this way, that way, tried this, tried that, and eventually we settled for what you saw.  Michelle and I were happy in knowing we had captured a very strong essence of Marilyn.   In the end she has to use it and interpret it, and put it there on the screen, which I think she did brilliantly.

411:  There are scenes, such as the swimming scene and the bathtub scene, that have elements that can affect the makeup.  I was curios as to what types of makeups you chose to use for these scenes?

JS:  The bases I chose to use were Georgio Armani.  I chose them because they are light and have good coverage, so they give you a lovely quality of skin.   They have fantastic range of interacting makeup: the blushes and shades and everything work well together.   And this is mainly for her natural, everyday look.  Even as an everyday person, I was contouring Michelle’s face, to try and add length, the Monroe type of structure, and therefore, the makeup had to have a sort of depth to it, without drifting too far into the iconic Monroe look.  On her eyes I used mainly Mac makeup, because they stay where you put them and they can be as light or as strong as you want them to be.  I particularly had to work on Michelle’s eyelids. Marilyn Monroe had very wide eyelids, and Michelle has a very narrow one, so to open her eyes,  I used white eye shadow on her lids to give her a bit more width, and then shawdowed around that to shape her eyes, but always with very flat colors.

411:  I’m sure in trying to get the look of the historical figure, you also have to take into consideration the palettes prominent of that time period.   What color palettes were you using primarily on this film?

JS:  I found myself using very soft blushes, the peachy colors, the foundation bases were skin tones.  I found that they didn’t go terribly heavy with the blusher, the blush was a lot of shading.   I’ve actually seen pictures of Marilyn Monroe where she is very heavily made up, abnormally so.  Apparently she took five hours of makeup to get ready, that was a complete body makeup, etcetera.  I used quite soft colors in the peachy area on the face.  Lips at that time had practically any color really but not as much as you got in the 60s where the oranges and the yellows and the pale,  baby pinks but we were coming out of the 40s with the heavy, dense red lipsticks, and a softer color was coming in.  The hair wasn’t so viciously waved, it was soft around the face, so the same thing happened with the colors on your face, they were much softer.

411:  I wanted to ask about the hair: was her hair dyed, or was that a hairpiece?

JS:  That was a full wig.  Oh yes, absolutely, but bleached, real hair.  Like Marilyn Monroe’s.

411:  How do you care for a wig like that?

JS:  Well, it is very important that you do care for the wig, because the more care that you give it, the better it looks.  The wigs are very lightweight, so the most important part of the wig is the very front edge, which we call in England the hair lace.  That is the bit that you stick down to the forehead, and when it is well stuck, it makes it look like the hair is growing out of the head.  Michelle’s wig went onto her head-shape block every night.  It was cleaned and it was pinned meticulously to the block so that it kept this fun shape.  We either washed it, conditioned it, and set it for the next day, or if it didn’t need that, it certainly got set and redressed.   We are very careful as to what products we use in it, not too much strong lactives, not too much direct heat because it all goes to dry the hair out.  It is human hair and it will respond the way human hair does.

411:  Would you use a curling iron to get that right amount of curl and wave that she had in her hair?

JS:  Sometimes we used wooden sticks because there is no actual heat applied directly.  Then we had a little oven which is just sort of dry, circulating heat, and we pop it in the oven and it bakes in there, and it gives it a lovely soft curl.  There is no actual heat applied to the hair as such, like a curling iron or the old heated rollers or things like that.

411:  Also very interesting to me was to see the different styles that were integrated into the men’s hair.  How did you go about finding the right styles for the men’s hair?

JS:  Well, with Ken Branagh we already had someone to follow, so we created the Laurence Olivier hairstyle for him.  It is a very interesting time that we were in, because we are moving out of the 40s which was a very structured Brylcreem look for the men, very short back and sides, very rigid parting, very precise combing.  We are also moving now into the 60s, which gives us a lot more freedom.  So we are bang in the middle of those two periods.  So the men’s hair was in between, not everybody had this precise, short back and front haircut, not everybody had a whole load of Brylcreem in their hair.  You also have to make the style of the period suite the face, depending on the character, so for all the men we had makeup tests.  We combed the hair this way, that way, center parting, side parting, a lot of Brylcreem, less Brylcreem, until we found what worked on that actor’s face.

411:  Relating to that answer, with the continuity, how do you make sure you have that same measurement day after day so the look remains consistent?

JS:  Well, you know when it is right.  It’s in your eyes, you see it, and it is in your soul, you feel it.  I mean, you obviously don’t start with a great dollop of something, you start slow.  I suppose over the years, you carry on doing it until you got it and you know that it is right.

411:  With some of the new digital cameras, it is hard to get colors to match accurately and requires a bit of finagling  Do you have issues with some of the makeup colors that look perfect to the eye but just doesn’t come out right on the camera tests?

JS:  Yes of course.  I mean, it is not as bad as shooting on high definition, which I have not done yet, and I dread the day, because I work mainly on period films with wigs and types of makeup.  But we still have the same issues.  I have conversations with the director of photography and he will tell me if they are using a particular type of film and we also have lots of camera tests before we start shooting where we find out these important points.  But also you know, it might be the fact that the technology of the printing of it all later will take away what you do with it anyway.

411:  One last question: in addition to speaking with the costume designer and director of photography, do you also have conversations with the other department heads before shooting?

JS:  Yes, of course, we all talk together, and we have several meetings before we start shooting.  Everyone is very clear as to what each other is doing and what is happening for each scene.  We did have many conversations constantly, not just at the start of the film.  Everyday, when you bump into each other at lunch, you know, you would say tomorrow is so and so and so.  We do keep a close watch on each other.