Like costume designer Alexandra Byrne—her friend and frequent collaborator—Jenny Shircore was daunted by Mary Queen of Scots, trying to find a new angle on Queen Elizabeth I after covering her era twice before. Winning her first Oscar with Elizabeth in 1999, the hair and makeup designer is an expert in period work, whose attraction to the project came down to everything that made it fresh. “The script was very, very different, and I was encouraged by the script,” she says. “I was encouraged by Alex, when I heard her thoughts on the costume design, and I was encouraged when I heard that Saoirse Ronan was playing Mary, Queen of Scots, even more so when I knew Margot Robbie was going to play Elizabeth.”
From director Josie Rourke, the Focus Features release examines the complicated relationship between the Queen and her cousin, the titular Mary Stuart, who comes after her throne. Women of power in a world dominated by men, the pair share an experience no one else can understand, but are otherwise different in most every way, as most overtly emphasized in their looks. While Mary is young—a natural beauty with a fair complexion—Elizabeth is aging fast, stricken down by smallpox almost to the point of death. Through chalky makeup, an assortment of wigs and an overabundance of boils, Shircore found her way in with Elizabeth, transforming one of the industry’s most recognizable actresses to represent the character on screen like never before. In doing so, she wound up on this year’s Oscar shortlist for Best Makeup and Hairstyling, which sets her looks against those crafted for Bohemian Rhapsody, Suspiria, Stan & Ollie, Border, Black Panther and Vice.
To you, what fundamentally set this film apart from your previous portraits of Elizabeth? How did your approach differ?
What was exciting was that Alex Byrne was going to put a modernist twist on it, with the costumes. I loved the idea of that, and the idea of pushing the hair and makeup in that direction. When you do a film about Queen Elizabeth, you’ve always got to end up with that iconic look of hers, the red wig and the white face. We’d done that with Elizabeth, and I thought, “How do I do the same thing? How do I get to the red wig and the white face?” But of course in this story, Elizabeth gets smallpox, so I thought, “Ah, that’s going to be my route to covering her face in white makeup, and using a wig at the end.” With smallpox, you are left with a very badly scarred face, and your hair falling out, so I used that route to try and change Margot Robbie’s features, by placing the boils of the smallpox along her bottom lip.
It would mean that there were scars left there, which she’d need to cover, which would mean she wore a thick white makeup, blocking out that wonderful bottom lip of Margot Robbie’s. And of course, I used the same technique [with] her eyebrows. Elizabeth had very fine eyebrows, whereas Margot’s got lovely, big, dark eyebrows. So again, it was placing the blisters and the boils along the areas that I wanted to eventually cover with makeup, thereby changing Margot Robbie’s face, and getting her to the iconic look.
Revered in the theater world, Josie Rourke here makes her feature debut. What were your conversations with Rourke like, and what made her stand out as a collaborator?
She’s very good on her notes, and she also gives you a good free hand, and takes advice. She, of course, knows the period, but there are areas that I know more about than her, hair and makeup-wise. She gives you very good broad strokes, and then you can narrow them down. You can take the meat off those bones and really work with it then. In the beginning, when she cast Margot Robbie, I did say to her, “Now, Josie. You’ve cast Margot Robbie. Everybody knows what Margot Robbie looks like. She doesn’t look anything like Elizabeth I.” I said, “Do you want me to leave her alone? Is that how you want Elizabeth I to look?” Usually with a film, they’ve got their stars. The money people don’t like them played around with too much, because that’s where the money is. They want them to be recognized.
So, I said, “What do I do? Because I would want to get Margot to look like Elizabeth I.” This always happens to us in the UK, because we’re so entrenched in history. It’s very difficult for us to get the history wrong intentionally. For me, it was like the holy grail, to get Margot Robbie to look like Elizabeth I, or as best as I could. So I asked Josie, “What do you want me to do? Do I leave her like that, or do I take her gradually through to eventually have that iconic image?” She said, “No, I want you to take her through, to get that look.” So, that was very exciting for me.
In the film, Mary and Elizabeth I are set up as foils to each other, visually and otherwise. Could you touch on standards of beauty in Elizabeth I’s time, and how you worked to juxtapose your two leads?
Josie always said, “This film is about the two women: the power between the two women, the jealousy between the two women, the love between the two women, the beauty between the two women, the physicality, and the intellectual side of the two women.” [Elizabeth’s] white makeup look comes in for practical reasons, whereas Mary, Queen of Scots had a beautiful complexion. So therefore, any little blemishes that Saoirse had, we just kept her skin beautiful all the way through, with any remedial touches that we needed to make. We bleached up her eyebrows; we had a little bit of definition in her eyes, but not a lot, so that she would look like she was wearing makeup.
The idea of beauty in the day was, they liked very high foreheads. I think that was there anyway, before Elizabeth’s hair fell out. But of course, when her hair fell out and she started wearing wigs, that again cemented the fact that high foreheads were fashionable. It was usually the case that a fashion, in those days, would stem from practical reasons, so therefore women adopted this thing of a pale skin, and a white skin. The nature of makeups in those days, they contained mercury and all sorts of horrid substances that could kill you. It was beauty, and beauty must suffer.
Could you expand on the process of sculpting Robbie into Elizabeth, and arcing out the Queen’s descent into illness?
When Margot Robbie was first cast, I felt that everything about her was obviously very beautiful, but I desperately wanted to give her a nose that would break into that very modern beauty, and give her a sense of period. I spoke to Margot about it, and she was absolutely up for it, so we started doing tests. I tried out three or four different styles of noses on Margot. We camera tested them, everybody looked at them, and in the end, a decision was made that we’d go for Nose B.
We start the film with her looking pretty, as Margot Robbie with a nose, [but] just as Margot Robbie is, as you would recognize her. Then, she falls ill, and Queen Elizabeth nearly dies of smallpox. I started the process by just painting dots onto a photograph of Margot Robbie, because you can paint dots onto somebody’s face, which are eventually going to be boils. And although it’s not very nice to look at, there still has to be a sense of geometry about it. You can’t have them all under the left nostril of the nose; they have to be scattered around the face and have a sense of balance. So I started off like that, just doing dots on pictures.
We reduced her eyebrows, and we started to change her features, always keeping that end portrait in mind. Having decided where the scarring would be, where the boils would be, I then mapped out the whole look of boils, scars, scars with thinning hair, scars starting to be covered with a fine makeup, hair even more thin, scars being covered with a thicker white makeup, hair even thinner. Then eventually, when we get to the conversation between Elizabeth and Mary, we go into a heavier white makeup—not the heaviest in the film, but heavier—and we have her first wig on her head. Although Margot Robbie has worn wigs all the way through to that point, they are meant to be her own hair. So when she talks to Mary, Queen of Scots in that scene, this is the first time that she has what is supposed to be a wig on her head.
How long did Robbie typically spend in the chair, for makeup and hair applications?
When she was having the pieces applied for smallpox and the scarring, it was quite complicated to do. It takes a long while, because all those pieces have to then be made up, or you have to add more by hand. Then, she had a bald cap on, as well, which gave her the thinning look in her hair. On the days when she had smallpox and scarring, all of that took two and a half to three hours. When she didn’t have that, it was obviously much quicker.
So, there was never any dyeing involved, to transform Ronan and Robbie into redheads?
No, they were complete wigs. Of course, this is the first film where I had two women who had to be redheads, so I had to choose very carefully. I had to have two redheads, but two distinctive redheads, so that at a distance, you would know by the redness, “Oh, that’s Mary, Queen of Scots. That’s Elizabeth.” Not easy, but I also have a wonderful wig maker who worked with me on it, and we spent a lot of time choosing the colors. The colors also had to go with their costumes, and red is not the easiest color to go with all of those colors that Alex Byrne was using. So, we took a long time, and thought deeply about both the red colors, and I think they’ve worked out well.
How did you figure out which shade of red would work best for each actress?
Because Margot naturally has more sallow skin than Saoirse, I felt that the deeper, stronger red would sit more comfortably with Margot, even though we did pale her down a bit. For Saoirse, I thought that that soft, golden red would sit better with her very pale skin.
How many wigs were created for Saoirse?
Saoirse had two wigs, and she had a lot of hairpieces. She wore her real wig, and then I had lots of false shapes made, where the hair was dressed over those shapes. These shapes are either in the form of sausages and stuffed rolls, or very delicate, beautiful frames, so the hair was either wound around these frames or dressed over them.