There was a moment for Robin Mathews two years ago, while she was spreading grits and cornmeal all over Matthew McConaughey’s face, when she thought, “This is either going to be the end of my career or the beginning of it.”
Fortunately, it turned out to be a major new beginning. Mathews’ work as makeup department head for the film Dallas Buyer’s Club earned the New Orleans native an Oscar nomination.
The film is also nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture. It stars McConaughey and Jared Leto as Ron Woodroof and Rayon — a cowboy and transvestite, respectively — who are struck down with the AIDS virus in the 1980’s.
While Mathews oversaw the entire makeup department for the film, her work focused mainly on the two male leads.
"Both the boys, Mathew and Jared, came to us, very, very, very thin. I think everybody knows that,” said Mathews from NPR West in Culver City, CA. “They each lost somewhere around 40 pounds apiece to play these roles, but we shot the film in 23 days, which is really not a lot of time at all. Most movies are much longer than that, and we shot it extremely out of sequence.”
That forced Mathews to bring McConaughey and Leto back and forth from looking healthy to deathly ill up to five times a day.
“So when you see them in the film, they came in at that lower weight, about forty pounds lighter and they maintained that weight throughout the entire shoot,” Mathews said. “And the weight loss and gain that you see when they’re healthy and about 25 pounds heavier, because they’re receiving the proper medications, and then when the FDA takes the medications away and they lose about 25 pounds and look very skeletal and emaciated — that’s all makeup.”
Mathews also used something called a dental plumper — a form-fitting device that clips onto the teeth that pushes the cheeks out from the inside to make it look like McConaughey had gained some weight. She lined the walls of her makeup trailer with pictures of skulls and skeletons to help her visualize the bones underlying the skin.
“Then I just started in with highlighting and contouring every single bone and tendon,” said Mathews. She highlighted the veins in their face and hands, making them look extremely skeletal. “Wherever I couldn’t find a bone, I drew it into existence.”
And when they’re healthy, “Quite the opposite,” she said. “For Matthew, in particular, I used a little bit of tan on him, and then for both of them reverse highlight and contour.”
Mathews had to recreate specific symptoms of AIDS, including lesions and a facial rash called seborrheic dermatitis. It’s a rosacea-colored, oily yet dry rash that forms on different spots around the nose and hairline.
But with a makeup budget of just $250, Matthews had to get very creative. Cue the breakfast foods.
“I looked at the photos of the people who had this rash, and I said, ‘well, It kind of looks like grits and cornmeal, and so that’s what I used,” said Matthews. “I took a little bit of grits and cornmeal and mixed them together for color, and pressed them into this green marble concentrate as it was drying, and that’s how we did it. As a matter of fact, I didn’t have enough money to buy the grits and cornmeal… and I had to borrow them from my mom’s pantry.”
The creativity paid off. Hearing her name announced as an Oscar nominee was a moment Matthews will never forget.
“I was here in Los Angeles, my best friend from Lakeview came up to be with me, and we decided we were going to wake up at 5 a.m. nomination morning and have a wonderful bottle of champagne,” said Mathews. “If anything great happened, terrific — and if not, we were having champagne at five in the morning as most New Orleanians do, so it was fine.”
Mathews is up against the makeup artists from Jackass: Bad Grandpa and the Lone Ranger movie, and she says it’s hard to handicap her chances at winning as those two films employ a much more overt style of makeup. Johnny Knoxville’s Bad Grandpa is covered head to toe in prosthetics, and Johnny Depp’s face paint as Tonto left him unrecognizable.
But this wasn’t the way to go for Dallas Buyer’s Club, said Mathews.
“Most people think, ‘oh, there’s no makeup in Dallas Buyers’ Club,” she said. “There’s Jared Leto’s transgendered makeup to make him look like a female, but that’s it. But it’s the subtlety of the makeup that is really the true art."
“I guarantee when you watch Dallas Buyer’s Club,” Mathews added, “you’re not going to see the makeup in the film, and it’s not going to take you out of the movie, and that’s how I know it was a success.”
As for her future, Mathews said she’s gong to take it slow and enjoy the Oscar ride for a little bit. One thing she is sure to continue to enjoy, however, is more work in Louisiana. Over the past 15 years, she said she’s shot three movies in Los Angeles and maybe 25 in her home state.
“Hollywood South is no joke,” she said. “It’s a wonderful place to shoot. I think people really enjoy shooting in Louisiana. If they had the choice between a few different states that had an equal tax incentive benefit, then they probably choose Louisiana to shoot in, just because people really enjoy it so much.”
Mathews finds out if she’s an Oscar winner at the 86th Annual Academy Awards Ceremony on March 2. To learn more, visit www.nolavie.com.