The Revenant‘s Oscar-Nominated Makeup Artist Sian Grigg Talks Dirtying DiCaprio

There’s a certain kind of person usually acknowledged in an actor’s acceptance speech: parents; significant others; publicists and agents; perhaps even influential teachers or directors; but rarely are fellow crew members honored in the quite the same gushing way. Not so for Leonardo DiCaprio, who thanked longtime makeup artist Sian Grigg at the Golden Globes after his recent win for his fabulously dedicated performance in The Revenant. But take one look at the transformative work Grigg contributed to turn “L.A. boy” DiCaprio into rugged trapper Hugh Glass, and it’s no wonder that the actor was so openly appreciative of her work.

His makeup artist since Titanic, Sian Grigg threw herself into the subzero temperatures of The Revenant at DiCaprio’s request, and ultimately helped to create the visceral prosthetic and wound work that garnered her an Oscar nod. Nominated alongside hair stylist Robert Pandini and fellow makeup artist Duncan Jarman for Best Makeup and Hairstyling, The Credits spoke to Grigg before the Awards to get intimate details on the unprecedented set conditions, detailed information on her meticulous makeup work, and the scoop on the now-infamous bear attack scene.

Well, first of all, congrats on the nomination.

I know! Can you believe? Well, of course, I can’t believe it.

So, I know you’ve been DiCaprio’s makeup artist for a very long, time but I’d like to hear the origins of getting involved in The Revenant specifically.

I was working on a film called Suffragette when Leo told me about this one. He’d mentioned The Revenant quite a long time ago, but it had never come to fruition, they kept missing their moment somehow. When he emailed me, I was in the middle of that massive 250 period extras, a lot going on. So I read the script and I said, “My god, there is more makeup to prep than the whole of the film I was just doing.” Which is sort of ridiculous when you think about the numbers I was dealing with. One boy in the wilderness, how can it be that big of a job? But it was just epic. It had “nightmare” written all over it from the start, really. You knew it was going to be. But, it also is a gift, really. They don’t come up that often and you know it’s going to be really hard when you get it, but that’s also why I love my job it’s the challenging jobs that make it really interesting. It’s the polar opposite from what I’ve just been on. I like there being a huge variety in my work. It was one I was terrified of and very excited by.

Director Alejandro González Iñárritu, Leonardo DiCaprio and DP Emmanuel Lubezki. Courtesy 20th Century Fox

You said you knew it was going to be a challenge, but were you prepared for how rugged the set really was?

I think in my head I thought it was going to be worse. [laughs] I don’t think I could have anticipated how bad the location of the bear attack was. That I did not anticipate. That was worse than I could ever have imagined in my wildest dreams. I thought some of it would be on a stage, especially some of the naked scenes. In a way, on one level, I thought me trekking up mountains would be very difficult. But that wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be because I got fit and I made sure I had the right clothes, so I was prepared for that. But it was things like, the location of the bear attack, I’ve never been anywhere so wet in my life.

What made it so rough?

I’m Welsh. I’m used to rain. [laughs] And it was just, I’ve never seen rain like it! I had to go buy a whole new set of wet weather gear because the stuff I had just didn’t cut the mustard at all. I had to get Fisherman’s rubber. It was relentless. To do blood in those conditions is like your worst nightmare. So that was quite tough. But we did get it done, and it does look great. I’m pleased with the end result, but it was one of those scenes you get so nervous about and kind of just want it over and done with, really. And then from there on, it was much more controllable, the makeup. More fun, to a certain extent. That scene was always going to be the toughest because of the nature of the location and the way Alejandro shoots. To get all the makeup gags in one take is really hard. But the end result is good, fortunately.

Photo by Kimberly French. Courtesy 20th Century Fox

I have to ask about the bear attack — I know you worked with Duncan Jarman, the third nominee in the hair and makeup category, on this. Was this the process that was the famous five hours in makeup?

Yes, well, Duncan I’ve known since we were just starting out. He’s a good friend and I love working with friends, it’s like working with Leo, it’s so much nicer when you all have a shortcuts, when you all know what you’re doing. I was shooting Suffragette when I asked him if he would come and join me. I wasn’t sure if he’d say yes because he’s got a family and I didn’t know if he’d want to leave, but fortunately, he did. And he loves a challenge as much as I do, and we’ve got very similar taste in makeup, which is why we like working together. Fortunately, he said yes, and it gives you such a sense of safety to work with someone you know is talented with you.

I’m confident that the actual reality is intensely complicated, but if you could give me an overview of the kinds of prosthetics and makeup work that you were doing.

On this one, the subtle changes, there were so many. Just for his neck wound alone there were seven different prosthetic sculpts to show seven different stages. The were so many stages, and the thing with this sort of makeup is you don’t really realize how much work went into it. The whole point is not to showboat your work. It’s to try and get it to look as natural as possible so people aren’t taken out of the film. You don’t want them to think it’s a good makeup job, you want them to think it’s real. The emmersive quality of this film, the way Alejandro and Chivo [cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki] shot it, even when I’m watching it, I feel cold. You feel like you’re in there with them, it’s quite extraordinary, I think. And, if the makeup had been jarring, it would have taken you out and ruined that experience, which would have been terrible.

So the challenge is to keep it looking utterly real, without drawing too much attention to it?

Yes, that was the biggest challenge for me, to make it look authentic and use reference pictures that were correct and to use lots of gradual changes. It was very story-driven, all of his makeup, it’s integral to the story because you need to understand where he is physically. When you read the script, from a makeup artist’s point of view, there’s a lot of makeup and all of it is necessary. Sometimes you read a script and you think, “Why did you have to put that in there? Now he has to have that scar for the rest of the film and that’s going to take 15 minutes a day, and it doesn't really say anything.” Well, this you read it and you think, “That’s four and a half hours a day, and it’s absolutely essential.” [laughs] It’s very nice to do makeup that is important in the story telling way.

I spoke to Robert Pandini who did a lot of the hair, and he talked about the fact that Alejandro found it important to connect those hair decisions to the character’s own personal history. Did you do that with Leo at all or was it sort of all based on the story of the film?

Before the bear attack, we established Leo as a character. Kathy Blondell did his hair, a fabulous job, she’s a brilliant hairdresser. So, to start with, my brief was that he’s to look like a real tracker. He’s spent quite a hard life in a wilderness and they’ve been on this fur trapping expedition for a year already. So all the dirt had to look really ingrained. Leo wanted to do the entire film with an underbite, which meant jutting his jaw out. And I said, “It’s going to be so uncomfortable and you’re going to forget. Let me see if I can come up with something with teeth.” So, from his idea, I went to a brilliant guy in Britain called Fangs FX, who made my teeth for me, and they made me a few options. I had them build up the height of his lower teeth and project them out a little bit to give his jaw a protruding effect. I also put a nose augment in to change the shape of his face a bit. It’s subtle, but it does make a difference. And then, I had to do loads of weathering.

You had to make him less handsome, I suppose.

He’s an L.A. boy, he’s never had to work in the wilderness, or have his skin ruined, so I had to put that in there. There were a few scars I did, lots of nicks in his hands. Alejandro wanted me to age him a bit, so I did that too, and the beard had to be greyed every day, which involves painting individual hairs with three different colors of grey. There’s a lot of work that nobody would have any idea was on there, but if it wasn’t on there, he’d look like an L.A. boy in a period costume. For the dirt, I used a certain type of dirt on his hands because it could stand up to being in the rain, and for his neck, I used a different type so it would go into the creases of his neck, and then I used something completely different on his face. It’s all that layering up that helps turn somebody into the character. Hopefully nobody notices it’s there, but I promise you, if he just stepped into his costume, you'd be like, “Well that doesn’t look right.” [laughs] It’d look really odd. But that’s sort of what I love to do.

I know you dealt with a lot of unpredictable weather on the set, how was that having to weather him and then deal with actual weather?

The time frame was quite tight, it was always so tense to get the shot in because the window was so tight. In terms of weather, yes, I care about if the prosthetics are falling out, but not as much as if he’s getting frostbit. You have to get your perspective. And although the makeup is important, it’s not as important as keeping the actor safe. So that was the biggest challenge was keeping that. To know he’s got to put his hands on that hair dryer or that bucket of hot water because he can’t feel them anymore, and just not have to deal with what happens afterwards. Try and make the best of it.

It was very sweet to see him give you a shout out at the Golden Globes. Clearly, he’s happy about it now, was the tone as gung-ho on set?

He’s always such a trooper. I wouldn’t want him to do what he did. Getting in that water, it was so cold. You know when he’s crawling across the floor, that’s his hands in snow and it’s real snow and it’s really cold. He just got on with it. We all tried to look after him, because it’s safety, it’s not just comfort, when the weather’s like that. Bless him, it was a long shoot. He read the script, so he knew what he was getting into, but the reality was quite hard. He was such a trooper.

I have one non-The Revenant related question which is that if IMdB is to be believed, you’re working on a film I’m quite excited about which is How to Talk to Girls at Parties. Can you tell me anything about it?

Oh! That’s my favorite film I’ve ever done. I had so much fun on that job. Creatively, it was a blast. It was the polar opposite of The Revenant, we shot it in six weeks with absolutely no money. That’s what I mean, I like to mix it up all the time. It’s 1977 punks and aliens. I mean… It was a dream come true, I loved that.

Well, I’m so excited for that one. And I’m excited for the Oscars, I have a good feeling about this year.

Oh, well, thank you. Regardless, it’s nice to get to the final three. They're my contemporaries, and they've said they like how it looks and I’m just thrilled with that. That’s not why you do a job. You always doubt your own work, so when people turn around and say, “No, actually, you did a good job,” it is really lovely.

Well, I think you did a fabulous job, I wish you well this year.

Oh, thank you. And I’ll do an interview with you about How to Talk to Girls at Parties whenever you’d like.

[laughs] You’ll be hearing from me.

Featured image: Leonardo DiCaprio stars as legendary explorer Hugh Glass. Photo by Kimberly French. Courtesy 20th Century Fox