An Interview with Heba Thorisdottir
Heba Thorisdottir, the forty-something makeup artist, has one of those enviable peaches-and-cream complexions generally associated with prepubescent girls, or the backsides of babies and women who get crooned about in R&B songs. It’s no surprise, really, as Heba’s trade is skin. You’ve most likely seen her work, artfully inconspicuous, though omnipresent in the faces of Kill Bill: Vol. 1’s anime-eyed teenage villain, Gogo Yubari, the relaxed natural beauty of Cate Blanchett in The Life Aquatic, the spy superhero femme fatale Scarlett Johansson in The Avengers, and various characters in Bridesmaids, Hanna, Inglourious Basterds (Heba is Tarantino’s go-to brush master), The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and We Bought a Zoo. Her red-carpet and print portfolios are also nearly endless. She works most regularly with Blanchett and Johansson as their personal makeup artist.
Heba and I spoke for more than two hours at her home in Los Angeles. Before I left, she offered me a bag of fresh lemons from her tree and a free makeup consultation, during which she swished and poked a few of my own makeup products onto my face with smooth, expert fingers. Two and a half minutes later, she pointed toward the mirror behind my head. When I turned to inspect my face, it seemed as though it was bare, yet I’d never looked better.
THE BELIEVER: Did you have a natural predilection for color or the human face?
HEBA THORISDOTTIR: I remember going through my mom’s makeup bag and trying all sorts of stuff, putting on tanner, playing with color. For me, it wasn’t just about trying to make myself pretty or have longer lashes. I was experimenting with it in ways that went beyond beauty.
BLVR: What did you like about it?
HT: It seemed artistic and interesting. What I think I picked up—but didn’t realize until later—was the psychological aspect of the job. I think I’m a better psychologist than I am a makeup artist. Because when you have actors in your chair, you have to be aware that makeup, hair, and wardrobe are the last steps before they go on camera. And because we’re the last people they see, we can change an actor’s attitude. Sometimes I’ll get a really nervous person in the chair, especially when we’re working with Quentin Tarantino. Actors especially adore him, and they don’t want to do anything wrong. They are so stressed by the idea of letting Quentin Tarantino down, and so they’re wrecks by the time they get to me. It’s my job to make them comfortable… And I’m sometimes not necessarily doing something that is comfortable for them! I’m not making everybody beautiful.
For example, the first scene he shot with Diane Kruger in Inglourious Basterds was the one where she’s taken a bullet to the leg. Remember that scene? She’s in the veteran’s office, and Brad Pitt pokes his finger deep into the bullet wound. And so Quentin is shooting the first scene, and Diane is lying on a table. Not that she asked for it, but we put her in full hair and makeup, because we needed to know what she was going to look like to begin with, so that we could then tear her down. In her very first scene on set, we had to help her look her worst. We took this beautiful actress and stripped her of everything. She was such a trooper, but it’s a good example of how uncomfortable it can be: to take someone so pretty and make her pouring with sweat, no makeup, messed-up hair, then, “There you go, now go act for Quentin Tarantino!”
BLVR: How did you prepare her psychologically before you started the process of tearing her down?
HT: I can’t remember specifically in that instance, but a lot of times what I’ll do on set is make it so the actress isn’t sitting in front of the mirror. With Diane, after we tore her down as much as we could, we got on set and Quentin said, “More sweat, more sweat. She’s been shot! She’s pouring with sweat!” So whatever little bit left of her there was, we took it away. She was gone.
BLVR: Were you ever tempted to become an actor?
HT: No! Probably because I’m a control freak.
BLVR: How steady is your hand?
BLVR: Do you think a person is born with a steady hand, or can you learn it?
HT: I think you can learn certain techniques, but I think you’re born with it.
BLVR: Maybe it would be difficult for an indecisive person to be a makeup artist.
HT: Yes, it would be a hard job for an indecisive person. Especially when you’re working with actors. You need to be clear on your intentions, because you’re not always doing what the actor wants. You’re doing what’s right for the movie, and what the director wants, regardless of who hires you. You have to provide a middle ground—of course you want to please the person and make them comfortable—but you might be doing something that’s making the person uncomfortable.
BLVR: Can you remember a time when the actress’s idea of what she wanted really clashed with the project?
HT: I worked on a commercial and the director told me, “We need to tone down the actress who’s coming tomorrow.” When she arrived, she had gigantic hair and a lot of makeup. She was an Orange County girl with all this rolled-up hair and a complete look. But she wasn’t hired as a personality, she was hired as an actress. The first thing she did was hand me her eight-by-ten. She said, “This is my look.” And I had to deliver the news that the director didn’t want that. So there she is, sitting in my chair, crying. After I finished her makeup, she went into the bathroom and redid it all. It put me in the position of having to tell the director and the producer, and they decided to handle it by getting another girl from casting to do her job.
BLVR: What did you learn about yourself as a makeup artist—or as a person—during Kill Bill?
HT: I was really green, but the experience benefited me. I had worked a lot with David Lynch when I first started, which kind of made me not want to do movies with anyone else because he’s so amazing, but when I walked onto Quentin’s set there was the same energy: everyone was so happy and having so much fun. I thought, This is what it’s supposed to be like. We had a lot of freedom on Kill Bill, too. It wasn’t a period piece. With Kill Bill, our hands were free. He didn’t want any makeup on some people. And then you have a character like Gogo, who needed to stand out a bit. I didn’t want to do a lot of makeup on her, but we also needed to make her look cartoony. So I did big eyes, but fake lashes on her, top and bottom. Lashes were not easy to find in China. We had to ship everything in from the States.
BLVR: Is the eye the most interesting part of the face to make up?
HT: Absolutely. Actors can be silent and speak to you with their eyes. Sometimes it’s all they need.
BLVR: Is that the first thing you notice when you look at a human face?
HT: I don’t think it’s the same for everybody. Scarlett Johansson has gorgeous, full lips. We often have to tone them down to make the eyes more noticeable. Of course I want the eyes to stand out, because they’re the things that talk to you. You don’t want anything else distracting from them. But all you want to do is put red lips on her! But you don’t, because you need to see the eyes. There’s nothing that beats a beautiful smile, but that doesn’t necessarily work on camera.
BLVR: Are there shapes of faces that work better, that receive makeup more effortlessly?
HT: The more open a face is, the better. Like Cate Blanchett, Kristen Wiig, and Angelina Jolie. Their faces are a little wider, with the eyes more set apart. Those faces are easier to light when they’re on camera. I met with an actress—and I won’t name who it is—who had a face with her features very close together. I was recommended for the job, and I love this actress. She’s a fantastic, a smart actress. And I was sitting there in the meeting, just looking at her face and talking myself out of the job. I was convincing her to use the same people she’d always used, blah blah blah, and as I’m saying this, I’m looking at her and the bridge of her nose. I can’t stop staring at the bridge, and there were no highlights on her cheekbones, and nothing to open her face. She was narrow, and her eyes were kind of closed. Everything was pointing inward.
BLVR: What do you see as makeup’s role in a movie, as opposed to makeup’s role for a magazine spread or at a red-carpet event?
HT: In films you are creating a character. If I go in as a personal makeup artist with an actress on a film, I develop it with the actress more than the director. And when I do that I miss the relationship with the director, because the director doesn’t talk to me about what he wants. Once a director came up to me and thanked me for doing exactly what he wanted and I thought. You’re really lucky because I could have gone in a completely different direction!
BLVR: What director was it?
HT: Wes Anderson for The Life Aquatic. I had mainly talked with Cate about the characteristics of the woman she was playing—we knew she was partly inspired by Jane Goodall—long hair, a little outdoorsy, tanned, safari clothes. But Wes and I hadn’t had a conversation about it.
BLVR: Talk to me about color palettes. Are there certain colors that automatically evoke certain feelings?
HT: It’s definitely something I’m interested in. I have to be very aware of how a color will work in the lighting or filter a director is using. That affects whether I use warm tones or cool tones. I don’t necessarily use color for feeling. You don’t use bright colors on camera unless it’s called for. But it can affect the feeling of the actor, so it can be useful in that sense. If a character is depressed, you go with blues and grays, and if they’re happy, you go more glowy, with ambers and browns. For example, in The Avengers, Scarlett plays a character called the Black Widow. Scarlett has an interesting eye color—green that goes into blue. And I doubt what I did will ever come through on camera, but when she was Natasha—her non-superheroine character—I used more green around her eyes, to play up the more human side of her. When she was the Black Widow, I used more gray and navy tones—I didn’t want to go black because that often looks like a black hole—and the grays and navy blues highlighted the coolness in her eyes. It’s something you could see if you were standing right in front of her, but I don’t know if that would ever translate onto camera. But I know that I did it, and that’s enough for me.
BLVR: And you are giving her a tool to enact her character.
HT: If she looks cooler and more steely, more machinelike, maybe it helps her in a subtle way to get into that character.
BLVR: Do you think makeup should be used to cover up the process of aging?
HT: I would much rather you do it with makeup than Botox. I went through a minor crisis when I turned forty. Suddenly things that I had done for years didn’t work for me anymore. I had to change my perfume. I gained some weight. I needed foundation—something I had never really used on a daily basis. The whole chemistry of my body was different. I had to go through a little bit of an experiment to find myself again. I can see how women freak out about it. I’ve actually done a couple of “over forty” seminars at a medical clinic in Sweden. I always joke with my friends that in my twenties and thirties I could leave the house fifteen minutes after I woke up—shower, makeup, hair. Now it takes two hours and I barely make it out the door.