23 days. A $250 “budget” for makeup. That’s all Best Makeup Oscar nominee Robin Mathews had to transform her Dallas Buyers Club actors from healthy to sick. To make sure she didn’t bust the budget, at one point during the 4 1/2-week shoot Mathews had a PA drive over and gather up grits and cornmeal from her mom’s house to create the look of the dermatitis rash for the characters. Mathews is from New Orleans, where the film was shot. “As I was applying this mixture of grits and cornmeal to Matthew [McConaughey], I was thinking this could be the end of my career or it’s going to be OK, but I had no idea which way it was going to go.” When she saw it on camera, she could breathe again. “We tried it … and it worked. Had I had my choice, I would have used prosthetics, but we didn’t have the time, help or the money for that.”
Mathews had worked on such films Oz The Great and Powerful and Django Unchained. But Dallas Buyers Club (Focus Features) was only a $4.5M budget, shot with a handheld camera by director Jean-Marc Vallee and (every makeup person’s challenge) only ambient lighting so Mathews — depending on the scene — had to bring them from health to sickness and back again many times within hours. “Some days, I’d have to take them from their most skeletal, sickest look to the 25-pound-heavier, healthier look five times a day as quickly as possible with little time in between.” For research, she looked at photos provided by an infectious disease doctor, David Hardy, who explained three conditions that people with full-blown AIDS suffer from: muscle wasting, which causes the faces of those afflicted to become very skeletal (sunken eyes, protruding cheekbones and recessed temples); seborrheric dermatitis, which causes a rosacea rash on different parts of the face (red, flaky and dry with boils); and, finally, lesions that can develop anywhere on the body. “Our actors came to us at least 40 pounds lighter each, and they maintained that weight during the entire four-week shoot … so I don’t think people realize that a lot of what they look like is just makeup.”
To make the actors appear skeletal, she first “paled them out” to look ill, and then — with a photo of a skeleton as her guide — she used makeup for the rest of the effect. “I contoured every bone I could find and even the bones that I couldn’t see but knew were there and drew them into existence,” Mathew said. “I did that for wherever the body was exposed.” For Jared Leto, who portrays the transgender beauty suffering from AIDS, she used the same kind of pancake makeup that was available in the 1980s. “Jared’s character develops the dermatitis very early on in the film, so the rash is always peeking through that foundation.” So as Leto’s character becomes ill, Mathews not only had to repeat the entire makeup process that she did for McConaughey’s character, but then cover it with the beauty makeup while still making sure the level of sickness showed through. “She has the whole process of the lesions, the highlight and contour, the hand-painted rash and layers of green marble concentrate topped with food products under a thick layer of pancake make-up as she tries to hide her condition,” said Mathews. “It was such a balancing act. It was a lot of work.” In the world of movies with big prosthetics, there’s extensive work, but in Dallas Buyers Club they used no prosthetics except for dental plumpers. “We did everything we could possibly do working with the budget and time constraints to make it great. If you are watching a movie and looking at the makeup in the film and it takes you out of the film, I haven’t done my job.” She did her job — and very well. The Academy gave Mathews her first nomination this year. Hairstylist Adruitha Lee is nominated with Mathews.