Immersed Movies: Lois Burwell Talks 'Lincoln' Makeup

For makeup designer Lois Burwell, it wasn’t merely enough to help Daniel Day-Lewis become Abraham Lincoln. She needed to reveal his decline during the waning months of his life in “Lincoln.” We needed to see the stress on his face; the tremendous physical toll that it took to pass the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery. Indeed, we needed to see how Lincoln was in a battle with himself as much as with his team of rivals and the House of Representatives.

And Burwell, who specializes in period makeup and won an Oscar for “Braveheart,” had to find the most comfortable technique possible to satisfy the demanding Day-Lewis. “We had to have a makeup that Daniel could perform in, that didn’t hamper him, that didn’t eat up hours and hours of a working day on very tight schedule,” she explains. “The remit was to get him as close to Abraham Lincoln as was humanly possible without it being too long a technical process or too long a time so that he feels self-conscious about it. What you can’t do is move one face onto another because clearly Daniel is not Abraham Lincoln. But he’s got a good canvas to work with. The features aren’t the same and he’s only a few years younger but it’s a different time, different health issues, a different person, so you put it all into the mix and see what you can come up with.”

After immersing herself in daguerreotypes and photographs from the Civil War era, Burwell became well acquainted with Lincoln as well as with everyday people. Day-Lewis of course came prepared after doing a year’s worth of research, but relied on the makeup designer to figure out the best strategy as they spoke on the phone and she did a few tests.

There were two major concerns: the aging and the overall look, which included getting the beard dye-colored correctly and maintained easily for the length of the shoot. Burwell decided on a subtle application with no prosthetics (except for the gelatin mole) so Day-Lewis could forget about it once it was on.

“I think there were two issues: one was finding the right makeup and then once Daniel was wearing it he could forget about it,” Burwell continues. “So we settled on a process called stretch and stipple for the aging, which is an ati-gel and green marble concentrate mix. You paint it on dry every day and then you move it into the shape that you want the crumple and wrinkle to be. And then sometimes you build up in certain layers and certain areas. There’s a progression you work out. It had to be a makeup for inside and outside, all weathers, and all lighting. It was underpainted and then overpainted. But then you’d have to take it back again. Working with Kenny Meyer, we cut the time each day from three hours to an hour and 15 minutes (including hair and costume).”

It’s old-fashioned makeup using modern materials. There’s even a poignant scene toward the end that sums it up when Lincoln watches the troops go by and General Grant (Jared Harris) remarks that he looks like he’s aged 10 years.

“It was a challenge for all of us,” Burwell admits. “The things we were doing, which were slightly serendipitous for me, didn’t go ideally every single day. Material would respond differently. Either he was hot or he had a cold. Or the material was in the trailer and it froze over night, so we had to make up a new batch and that affected how it worked.

“But Daniel has a wonderful eye. He’d question certain things. I know for a certainty he would’ve liked it if we didn’t have to do it at all. He was absolutely professional, completely disciplined, and went along with it. It was finding that compromise. And now, subsequently, he said he was pleased with the work. Don’t get me wrong: he found it a challenge to actually go through. But obviously the performance is the thing.”

And you could argue that Day-Lewis gives a performance for the ages, which is why he’s the Oscar front-runner. Meanwhile, we’ll find out on Thursday if Burwell gets nominated for her vital if transparent contribution to “Lincoln.”

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