Makeup of “A Mouthful of Air” – interview with Cynthia O’Rourke

December 8th, 2021

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Cynthia O’Rourke. In this interview she talks about the often-invisible art and craft of makeup, the evolution of it in the world of high-definition productions, the role of storytelling in our lives, and the impact of the ongoing pandemic on her industry. Around these topics and more, Cynthia dives deep into her work on “A Mouthful of Air”.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and the path that took you to where you are today.

Cynthia: As a kid I always loved movies and storytelling. But as I got older, I started wondering how they did certain things. When you’re a little kid and you’re watching a horror movie, you’re so wrapped up in it and you’re not thinking about the technique behind it, because you’re thinking it’s real. But as you get older and more mature, you understand that that person didn’t really just have their leg chopped off or whatever. But how did they fake it? I was so fascinated by that question

I had a part-time job in middle school making $20 a week. I’d take that money, I’d go to the video store and I’d rent a movie for myself for the weekend. I have four siblings, so being able to pick a movie that was my choice and nobody else’s was this special little treat I gave myself. I started watching silent movies with Charlie Chaplin, and old classics as well as the new releases. I remember “Braveheart” having a big impact on me. I’d fast forward and rewind and watch these big battle scenes to understand the illusion of these people dying when I know they didn’t die.

Around high school I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life for college. I was really good at science so I was thinking pre-med or I was going to apply to film school – so I made a deal with myself that if I got into film school, I would do that. I ended up going to Tisch School Of The Arts at NYU for film and television, and that was my undergrad. There, I fell even more in love with film because now I was learning all about behind the scenes, how to do it. I was fascinated with the storytelling element of editing, and when I graduated, that’s the direction I took. This was right after 9/11 and in the middle of a recession. A lot of the post-production work that was happening in NYC had left so there weren’t many great job opportunities or places to work your way up into the craft. I ended up becoming disenchanted with post and I started looking for other avenues that I could pursue while still staying in film & TV.

One of the things that I loved in college was the special makeup effects class I took. So I took a leap and left my assistant editing job. I went to makeup school, did a course for character, beauty makeup and special effects, and started freelancing until I got into IATSE Local 798 – the union for makeup artists on the East Coast. That’s my origin story!

Kirill: Do you feel sometimes, and maybe it is more pronounced in the US, that we expect young adults to know what they want to do for the rest of their lives when they just graduated from high school?

Cynthia: I know I felt that way when I was a senior in high school. Now as an adult, with kids of my own, I know that you can be interested and pursue many different things. You don’t have to be locked in. But there’s this expectation on kids: “You’re going to decide what you want to do, you’re going to go to college, you’re going to get on that path, you’re going to keep on that path and then eventually one day you’ll retire”. It’s an illusion. It’s not real. But I know I felt it as a kid, all this pressure to make up my mind right now, and to know and decide.

Kirill: Looking back at your first few productions, as you were seeing all the behind-the-scenes tricks of how “movie magic” is made, did it diminish in any way your enjoyment of watching a story unfold before your eyes when you go to a movie theater?

Cynthia: I have a hard time watching projects that I’ve worked on, because I’m thinking of being on set and what happened that day. But if I’m watching someone else’s work , usually I can suspend my disbelief. I’m a makeup artist, and sometimes if there’s something really distracting about the makeup, it can take me out of the story. But usually, as long as it’s not something I’ve worked, I can get into it and get enveloped in the story.

Kirill: If you look back at the last 15 years, do you find that you are expected to do more? Our screens are getting bigger in size, and have higher resolution, and perhaps that is raising the expectations from every department.

Cynthia: As a makeup artist, it’s not necessarily that we’re doing more for HD. Sometimes we’re doing less. When you have lower resolution and smaller screens, contrast is more important and you’re able to do optical illusions in a way to change shape and textures.

When you’re working in HD, your approach has to be quite different. I don’t want to say it’s less work, because actually I think it’s more work. You have to be really subtle. Think about painting: You can throw on the oil paint, and it’s thick and textured, and up close it’s a bit of a mess. But step back and you have Monet’s Water Lilies. Or you can have a watercolor painting where the texture is so subtle and the surface is completely flat but the image looks real enough to touch. Working in HD is a little bit more like doing the watercolor part of it and it takes a lot of work to achieve that. You have to really be subtle about it.And because the makeup is so subtle, there’s this mistaken idea that we haven’t done much to that actor’s face [laughs]. People don’t really understand or see what it is we’ve done, because it’s so subtle. That’s something that comes up a little bit. Even our colleagues in other departments might have no idea what went into making that person look completely flawless.

Kirill: Does that make your blood boil a little bit to hear people say that it’s a “natural” look without realizing how much work might go into that?

Cynthia: When I was younger, my blood would boil, but now it rolls off my back. There are people in the business who know better, and those are the people I like to work with – the ones who appreciate what the Makeup department brings to the table.

There’s so many different people and departments who work on a film and make it happen. We’re all collaborating, we’re all adding something. The Makeup department is not there for no reason. We’re there for a reason, and we have our own little part to contribute to the whole thing.

Kirill: Is there such a thing as your favorite style of makeup?

Cynthia: It depends if I’m doing it or if I’m enjoying it as an audience member. I love all kinds of makeup, but my forte, where my strength is, is the natural, you-can’t-tell-they’re-wearing-makeup makeup. I enjoy doing that because to me it’s challenging. You’re trying to make somebody look like they’re not wearing makeup, but you’re also using the makeup to tell a story. In a way, you’re pushing the audience’s eye with the makeup where you want them to look. I find that to be a wonderful, fun challenge. That’s what keeps me excited.

And that was what got me so excited about department heading the film “A Mouthful of Air”. There was period, there was natural looks, there was a little bit of special effects, but everything was about being subtle and creating a character with the makeup.

Kirill: How do you choose your productions? Do you prefer to work with people that you already have collaborated with, or do you also choose to go with somebody new, somebody who you haven’t worked with?

Cynthia: I’m always open to new opportunities and working with new people. That keeps things fun and interesting. But I’ve also had really good experiences with people that I would love to work with again if the stars align. If you can go to work, and it’s fun and enjoyable, then it’s not work, it’s not hard when you’re having a good time.

Kirill: What do you bring with you to the interview?

Cynthia: Going to that first interview after you’ve read the script is about coming with your ideas of how you imagine the makeup to be, and getting the producer and the director excited about your ideas, while also being open and receptive to their input. It’s the director’s vision, and you want to execute their vision, but as the artist, you are bringing your expertise and your knowledge to the table. That’s the collaboration, that’s the fun of it. You get to work with the director, with the other creatives to realize this vision.

On “A Mouthful of Air” there was going to be aging, wounds, scars and it was a period film with flashbacks and flashforwards. I came with multiple ideas of how we could approach those elements that need to be in the film and discussed the pro/cons and costs of each. I had a tiny budget for the Makeup department so managing expectations from the get-go was also important. I don’t usually do sketches unless requested because so often the conversation is discussing with the director what is or is not possible with makeup, rather than selling a particular makeup design. But having thought it through, and having the beginnings of a plan on how I would go about approaching this script and this project is what’s most important.

Kirill: How much time did you have on pre-production for this movie?

Cynthia: Not a lot [laughs], it was less than a week. From my interview to us starting it was less than a couple weeks. It was very fast. Figuring out the plan, ordering the product, shopping for the length of the show, finding who else is available to help, crewing up – all that happened very quickly.

Kirill: How hectic does it get once the shooting phase begins?

Cynthia: It’s full speed ahead. Having enough time to prep and plan makes the shooting go so much smoother. But we don’t always get that. Once shooting starts, you take a deep breath, and you start moving forward, and you don’t stop till you’re wrapped.

Kirill: If you look back at your productions so far, has there ever been such a case that you look back and you say “Wow, that was just the right amount of money and just the right amount of time, and I didn’t need to stress?”

Cynthia: That has never happened.

Kirill: Do you see it as a part of the job description, and those who can’t handle it, don’t last long?

Cynthia: There’s this famous triangle of “you can have it fast, you can have it cheap, you can have it high quality – pick two, but you can never have all three. ” If you ever find a situation where you have all three at the same time, then sign me up! I’d like to be on that project.

I always try to bring quality to the table, that’s just who I am. But you don’t always have the time or the money to do the best work. On “A Mouthful of Air” had a lot of subtle special effects work that needed to happen. So I had to figure out how I was going to do that with the time constraints, and with the budget constraints, and without sacrificing the quality. It can be part of the fun, and it’s part of the challenge of being a creative. How can I put forth my best work with these constraints that are in place? If you don’t enjoy functioning in that paradigm, the entertainment industry’s probably not for you, and that’s OK.

Kirill: There’s this saying that camera adds ten pounds, and I’ve also heard that makeup, at least for TV studios, is quite heavy. Do you see with your eye what the camera sees on the set, or is it significantly different?

Cynthia: It’s different. When you see somebody in person with your two eyes, you’re seeing in stereo. And when you are looking at a flat image on a screen, it’s no longer stereo. You’re going from a 3D to a 2D image. Your brain needs to process these signals differently, to make certain accommodations to view what you know is a 3D thing as a 2D image.

As makeup artists, we are translating something that’s flat to make it look more 3D. This is where we bring in contouring, highlights, shadows, etc that we’ll paint onto somebody’s face to make them look more 3D and not so flat. When you’re flattened on a screen, you tend to look wider – and that’s when people are saying that the camera adds ten pounds. You’re taking a 3D object and you’re making it into a 2D image, and suddenly that thing looks wide and flat.

Kirill: Did you have a personal connection to the story, perhaps as a mother yourself? What drew you to this production?

Cynthia: Absolutely, that’s the main reason why I signed on and was so interested in doing this movie. I felt it was a powerful story that we don’t see enough of. We don’t see enough stories of women in general, but definitely surrounding motherhood, where the mother’s not perfect and the mother’s vulnerable. That really drew me. I felt that this is a story that needs telling, that I haven’t seen before.

The caliber of talent that was attached to the movie drew me in. There’s so many amazing actors in this movie, so I knew that they were going to bring it. All my creative juices started flowing for the makeup of it. I saw that we could do some fun period stuff, we could get to dabble in special effects stuff, and on top of that we were going to get to help tell the emotional arc of this woman as she’s going through childbirth and depression and recovery.

The character of Julie Davis is really on this roller coaster ride, and I got to use makeup to help tell that story, and again, doing it in a subtle way where the audience isn’t even going to know that the makeup is tipping them off to her mental state. The makeup, the clothes, the production design, the actors and direction are all going to come together – and you won’t be able to tell that any one of us had a piece of it, because it’s just going to be one gorgeous whole. You’re going to be in this character’s world.

Some of my favorite parts of the makeup were also the most stressful parts. We had to age Finn Wittrock by twenty years, and he’s this gorgeous, handsome man with flawless skin, and I somehow had to make him look like a grandfather. It felt like pulling a rabbit out of a hat, but I think I accomplished it at the end. So that was one of my favorites, but it was also the most challenging and nerve-wracking.

Kirill: You just said how many departments work together so that the viewer stays immersed in the story. Do you wish, sometimes, for an occasional critical review that does mention the individual work of specific departments – or maybe your department?

Cynthia: I think everyone appreciates being appreciated and having their work seen. I certainly appreciate when people compliment my work. But if I’m doing my job right as a makeup artist, I want the audience to be completely immersed in the story. I don’t want them distracted by the makeup, even if it’s complimentary, even if it’s beautiful. I just want them to think that the character is flawless. I don’t want them to think that the makeup is beautiful, because then maybe I failed a little bit as a makeup artist. Unless it’s part of the story, I don’t want them to be distracted by the makeup. I want the makeup to blend in and become part of the character. I want to be a part of telling the story, not showing off my makeup skills.

Kirill: What do you do between productions?

Cynthia: I want to unwind and detach. I’m a beach bum. I love going to the beach, I love being by the ocean with my feet in the sand.

Working in film and TV is hard on relationships, families, and kids. So when I’m not on a job, I try to give that time and attention back to my family that they’ve been cheated out of [laughs] while I was working. I try to double down on the family quality time when I’m between jobs.

Kirill: Is it easy to talk about what you do? When somebody not in your field asks what you do for a living, how difficult is it to convey all the parts that go into it?

Cynthia: I find it very difficult. I’m not good at the humble-brag. I don’t like calling attention to myself. I’m very much a behind the scenes person. I tend to downplay what I do

In terms of discussing with a “civilian” what it’s like working in the film and TV world, the important thing that I try to convey is that it’s not that glamorous for those of us behind the camera. We’re working long hours in cold and heat and rain and snow. It’s more like being in the army or the circus than it is walking the red carpet. It’s hard to convey that to the general public, especially when you’re working in makeup. They think it’s all lipstick and winged liner.

I could talk about it all day, but it’s hard to actually explain what it’s really like to people who aren’t involved in the industry.

Kirill: Do you see sometimes people joining these productions and getting disillusioned about the “lack” of glamour, seeing how much work goes into it, and maybe flaming out and leaving the industry?

Cynthia: The way the industry is, most people have to work their way up. The low budget non-union jobs are even less glamorous than the big union jobs. So by the time they’re working on something big, they’ve gotten the hint that it’s not glamorous.

In terms of burnout, as I said before, the toll that the job, and the hours, and the conditions of the work take on a person, a lot of people get to a point where they need to make a decision of continuing on this path and having their personal life imploding, or finding something else to do and nourishing their relationships.

The working conditions of the industry lend themselves to people burning out or leaving the industry altogether. The job, the hours, and the conditions of work take a toll on a person physically and emotionally. It’s not sustainable for a long term career, not the way things are right now in terms of hours and conditions. And that’s not just any one production. That’s the industry as a whole.

Kirill: Getting to the current state of the industry, would you say that your department was one of the hardest hit by Covid, given how close you have to work with the actors?

Cynthia: I don’t know if I would put an umbrella over it saying Makeup was the hardest hit. But we are working so closely with the actors. An actor can wear a mask while they’re getting dressed. An actor can wear a mask while they’re getting wired for sound. But when you’re working on somebody’s face, they can’t wear a mask.

While the protocols that were put in place by the unions to protect us when we went back to work were pretty universal, it was still stressful and scary for me to go back to work. I felt more vulnerable than anyone else on the crew. We’re still following all the safety protocols, but it’s not so scary. It’s more of a routine now.

Kirill: Does it feel that you’re almost back to normal?

Cynthia: I don’t think it’s back to normal. It’s a new normal because we have the testing protocols, the masks, all the stuff that we’re supposed to do.

Here’s the thing of it: Makeup artists were already, before Covid, the most sanitary people on set because of what we do, and who we’re touching. We’re touching people’s eyes and mouths and noses, so we were already being sanitary and watching hygiene before Covid. So, in a lot of ways, what we do hasn’t changed that much. But now there’s added pressure and responsibility.

These days people aren’t as afraid as they were a year ago, but we still have to go through these protocols. We still have to clean our stations between the talent and limit the number of people in a room. It’s not back to normal, but I’m starting to feel like production is getting impatient and pushing to get back to normal, because all these safety protocols take time and cost money.

When people aren’t as scared and nervous about getting sick, some start saying let’s hurry up, we don’t have time to be careful.

Kirill: Looking back at these 18 months or so, do you think that storytelling itself is almost ignoring this global pandemic? I watched “A Promising Young Woman” yesterday, and I finished “Marriage Story” and “Nine Perfect Strangers” before that, and I am struggling to name even one movie or TV show that even mentions this times that we’re living though. I remember reading an article about stories – books, plays, movies – that were being told during and after the Spanish Flu, and how, if you read the most prominent works from that time like “The Great Gatsby”, you wouldn’t even know about that took lives of tens of millions of people. Is this, perhaps, about the escapism part of the visual storytelling?

Cynthia: Maybe some film scholar needs to write a paper on it. The only movies that even reference the pandemic are about the pandemic, or they use the pandemic – and the question is, why?

A big part of that is the escapism. During the shutdown we all realized how valuable arts and entertainment are to people, especially when you can’t have other social interactions. We’re all binging Netflix and TV shows, and it’s an avenue of escape as people do need a break from the craziness and the mess.

The other thing is that we’re talking about a visual medium. Let’s say it’s a movie that is taking place in the pandemic, and everyone’s wearing masks all the time. You’re not going to be able to see the actors’ faces, and that’s their tool of expression. How do you act, how do you emote on camera, if half your face is covered? So you have the big lofty idea of escapism, but also the real, practical execution parts of it, which is how do you know what the actors are feeling or saying if they’re covered up by a mask half the time.

We’re trying to provide fantasy land for the consumers, but also there’s this real practical issue of how do we even do this if we have to wear masks all the time. There’s plenty of people and actors who can be expressive with just their eyes, but you’d miss a lot. Just like in every day, we miss a lot because we can’t see people’s faces. I end up doing a lot more eye makeup than I usually wear, because there’s no point in wearing blush and lipstick. It’s all eyes when we go out with masks on.

Kirill: Are you personally happy to see movie theaters coming back to business? At one point it felt to me that the entire exhibition industry, or at least here in the US was going to collapse and disappear. Do you think we need movie theaters as a society?

Cynthia: I think “need” is a very strong word. To be fair I have not been in a movie theater since the pandemic started. I think there’s something special about it. We all watch TV, we all watch streaming, and it’s a great way to consume media. But there’s something special about being in a dark room with other people – strangers – watching a story on the big screen. Just like there’s something special about seeing a live performance in a theater with actors on stage. You can film it and put it on TV, but it’s not the same experience.

So I don’t know if I would classify it as a need. Is painting a need? Is sculpture a need? There’s all these different artistic expressions, and sitting in a dark room with light projected on the wall is one of those mediums. It’s a disservice to eliminate it and not have it just because we have another way to watch a story on the screen. It’s an artistic expression, and it’s a unique experience for the audience that you can’t replicate in your living room.

It’s something about the projection and the light and the screen. It has that special quality that you can’t get from a TV screen. It might get less popular or more rare, but I don’t think it will go away.

Kirill: There’s this expression dating back to the Roman Empire – bread and circus. Give the masses something to eat, give them something to be entertained by, and they will never revolt against you. Maybe it is a built-in need for this entertainment at a grand scale. Obviously not gladiators killing each other, but maybe that screen in a dark room feeds our emotional needs a way that a TV screen can’t.

Cynthia: And another part of it is because it’s a communal experience. When you’re watching TV at home, even if you’re doing it with other people you know. But in the movie theater you’re sharing that moment, that experience with a large group of strangers.

It’s funny you bring up the bread and entertainment thing, because there’s another expression from the labor movement, “bread and roses” — “We need our bread, but we need roses too.” Meaning, we can’t just sustain ourselves on food alone. We also need to have beauty in our lives to sustain us spiritually.

It’s an interesting idea. Art, even when it’s commercial art like we do in film and TV, is such a huge part of our culture, but also our need as humans. We need to have beauty and fantasy and storytelling in our life to have rich, meaningful lives.

Kirill: If I give you a piece of paper and a pen, how many different color names would you be able to write down?

Cynthia: How much time do I have? [laughs] With no dictionary and no Internet, I could definitely put down hundreds of names. And then if you include the names of cosmetic colors, I’m going to need more paper.

Kirill: Is there such a thing as your favorite color?

Cynthia: I don’t have one favorite, but I am drawn to certain colors. I like jewel tones, vibrant, deep, saturated colors. If I had to pick one, it would probably be teal. I’m wearing it right now [laughs]. It’s so hard to pick one color. I’m an artist, I like all of them.

Kirill: If you look back at some of your productions, what do you remember? Do you remember the pressure, the budget constraints, the long hours, or do you have a somewhat rosy filter looking back?

Cynthia: There’s an expression that people don’t remember what you say, but they remember how you made them feel, and that’s my answer.

I definitely don’t remember the money [laughs], and I don’t necessarily even remember the makeup design or the actor’s name. For me, it’s how I was made to feel on the production. Was it a collaboration? Did I feel that I was respected and appreciated? Did I feel like I was being rushed all the time? Did that make me anxious? How tired was I on that job? Was it ridiculously cold or hot? Was it long hours every day? That tends to stick too. Was it physically demanding? Hard on my body? I’ll remember those jobs [laughs]. I’ve been lucky that nine times out of ten I’ve had great experiences and good memories.

Kirill: You buy a lottery ticket tomorrow, and you win enough money to not worry about it for the rest of your life. Do you buy that beach house and stay there, or would you still want to be a part of this creative field?

Cynthia: My partner and I just bought a house, and I’m looking at a crack in the wall right now. So I’m thinking that if I had a million dollars, it would probably all go right into fixing up this house [laughs].

But if I won such a large amount of money that I wouldn’t need to think about it anymore, I don’t think I would necessarily leave the business. I would just become very particular about the jobs that I take. I would choose projects with utmost care and only do the things that I felt would grow me as an artist or a person. And maybe also buy that beach house.

And here I’d like to thank Cynthia O’Rourke for taking the time to talk with me about the art and craft of makeup, and Leni Weisberg for making this interview happen. “A Mouthful of Air” will be streaming in early January 2022. And if you want to know more about how films and TV shows are made, click here for additional in-depth interviews in this series.