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Everything you ever wanted to know about doing hair and make-up for films

Oscar-nominated hair and make-up artist Nadia Stacey – best known for her work on Cruella – reveals what it takes to make it in the industry

From digital artists to photographers, body sculptors and hair stylists to make-up and nail artists, in our Spotlight series, we meet the creatives tearing up the rulebook in their respective fields.

“I think what I do is different somehow. I like taking risks and never playing safe,” says hair and make-up artist Nadia Stacey. From the incredible towering pastel wigs of The Favourite, for which she won a Bafta, to the vibrant make-up looks of Pride and Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Stacey is behind some of our favourite filmic beauty looks of the past decade. Now, she is nominated for an Oscar for her striking punk looks in Cruella, for which she drew on inspirations ranging from John Galliano to Tallulah Bankhead. “I’ve always liked anything left of mainstream, anything different,” she says. “I think that is starting to show in what I do.”

Growing up, Stacey moved around a lot with her family, spending time in London and the south of England before settling in Nottingham as a teen. She credits her eccentric upbringing in a house full of obscure music, art and poetry for shaping the aesthetic sensibilities she has today. “Sometimes [my upbringing] feels like a superpower,” she says. “It’s given me all these gems of reference that I use now in my work.” 

It was watching The Elephant Man and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” music video, however, that really inspired her to become a make-up artist. After studying at York College, she worked her way up through the ranks – trainee, junior, artist, then designer – and has since designed the hair and make-up on films like Beast, Tolkien, and Spike Island, alongside The Favourite, Pride, and of course, Cruella.

Over the course of her career, Stacey has emerged as a beauty maverick, equally at home with punk and New Romantic sensibilities as she is with rococo and old Hollywood, but always giving her own twist. “The Favourite took period styling and turned it on its head and I think that is quite indicative of what I like to do,” she says. “I felt the same with Cruella. I don’t think anyone would have done the same as I did. I don’t mean better, I just mean it would have been different.” 

We caught up with Stacey ahead of the Oscars to find out more about the process of working on films and what it takes to make it in the industry.

Growing up, what informed your understanding of beauty and identity and the way you presented yourself visually?

Nadia Stacey: I have very strong memories of being very young, living in the middle flat of three in a converted house in Camberwell. On the bottom floor lived Betty, a drag queen who would let me wear her feather boa. I was kind of transfixed by her and how different she would make herself look with make-up. Maybe I was always into drag! I was also very aware of the punk scene from older siblings and I love Debbie Harry. I think grunge was very influential on me as I felt different to everyone and suddenly there was a movement saying that it was fine to be different.

What drew you to film make-up and hair over editorial or celebrity?

Nadia Stacey: Editorial is all about the moment. Capturing that perfect image. Film characters have arcs and change and that really interests me. I have always loved storytelling and I’m a complete book nerd so to be able to use make-up and hair as a way to create a character is incredible. You get to tell a story with your craft and I love that.

What is your creative process when starting a new film project? How do you translate the initial creative vision into final beauty looks?

Nadia Stacey: I read the script over and over. I watch everything the director has done. If it’s based on a book, I read that. I have a large amount of [visual] reference and photography books, so I then start to see what was happening in the world at that time; what music, fashion and art was on the scene. I feel like this then allows me to imagine myself as the character and think about how I would style myself.

I then have lots of conversations with costume, production design, directors, actors because then starting to put the world together. Costume is always on board first, so they will have already started to map out what they are thinking and that then helps to inform me.

Many of the films you’ve worked on over your career have been period pieces. Is that something you particularly enjoy doing?

Nadia Stacey: I like to recreate things and put my own stamp on them. I also love the process of getting an actor in the chair in their normal hair and clothes and by the time you have finished you have created a completely new person. When that happened on Cruella it was magical. To have Emma transform in front of us was really something. Her voice changed, her physicality, and we knew we had something. I also adore researching different periods, it’s like constant history lessons. I tend to not be as excited by contemporary projects.

You’ve called working on Pride one of the greatest moments in your career. What was the process like to design the beauty looks for that film and how was the experience filming it?

Nadia Stacey: From the second I knew I had that film it was an utter joy. To recreate real people and to tell their incredible stories was a complete honour. I had such an amazing insight too because the people bought in their old photo albums and talked me through their looks so I could ask about tiny details that I was able to incorporate into the design. It was really important for me not to make it cliche 80s. Sometimes you watch things and everyone has perms or Mohawks and you think real people didn’t look like that.

It was also a challenge because half the characters were in London and half in Wales in a tiny mining town so they wouldn’t have been as up-to-date with the fashions like London, so it’s almost like designing two different periods. Wales felt very much late 1970s and London very much in the 80s. We watched the trailer for that film in the middle of Pride in Trafalgar Square and the original people got on stage to speak to the crowd – one of the proudest moments of my career. A dream job.

The aesthetic of The Favourite was restrained but then had these elements of absurdity, which were also reflected in the beauty looks. How did you decide when you were going to keep true to the time period and when you were going to add a more surreal touch?

Nadia Stacey: I researched it so much, I devoured everything I could on the period so that when I started to make those touches they were obvious rather than looking like we got the period wrong. I also had a director, Yorgos Lanthimos, who didn’t worry about that. When I pointed out a specific detail that people would have done he said, “how do we know, there wasn’t photography,” so I knew there was creative freedom to have some fun.

The Favourite was a very collaborative process with costume and production design. Sandy Powell the costume designer had a black and white palette for the clothes and the ballroom had a black and white checked floor, so I wanted to bring that into the wigs and make-up. I wanted the make-up to mirror the black and white lines around the room so this banner across their eyes happened and actually landed itself perfectly into the badger make-up. I also wanted all the looks to be done very naively with limited products as it would have been at the time.

Congratulations on your nomination for Cruella! A lot of the looks were inspired by drag and the gender-blurring aesthetic of artists like Bowie. Why did that feel right for the project? 

Nadia Stacey: The make-up in Cruella is like its own character. She uses hair and make-up as a tool of deception all the way through the film, she paints her face and changes her hair to create a new persona and it occurred to me that is exactly what drag queens do. I love that moment on Drag Race when they take off the wigs and make-up and you don’t recognise them at all, they have used powder and paint to transform so it felt like exactly what I had to do with Cruella.

This was also the first time that Disney had a queer character in one of its films and I thought that was so fantastic and also it’s 1977 when music artists were playing with gender fluidity in their looks. Ziggy Stardust had been on the scene in the most incredible way and changed people’s worlds and I thought that would be something so prevalent in Estella and Arties’s surroundings that I could explore that in their looks.

What is your dream project to work on?

Nadia Stacey: I’d love to do something set in maybe like the underworld of Paris in the 1920s/30s, the brothels, the clubs, performers. I have a book, Paris By Night by Brassai, and I would love to recreate those characters in that book! I would also love to work with Guillermo del Toro – I love the worlds he creates.

What advice would you give to young artists hoping to get into film make-up and hair?

Nadia Stacey: Learn hair and make-up, if you are a good all-rounder you will be hired over someone that just does one of those. Watch films and look at the kind of artists you want to work with. Get as much experience as possible because it’s about people meeting you and knowing who you are as a person. We work such long hours that it really is about personality as much as it is skill. When you get in with people they recommend you to others so it’s good to get out there and meet people. Also, there is so much online now to learn so immerse yourself in what you are passionate about.

What are you currently working on?

Nadia Stacey: Snow White – it’s a lot of fun.