Behind The Makeup Of 'Transparent'

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Have you seen Amazon’s newish show Transparent? If your answer is no, a follow-up: Why the hell not? It’s only won two Golden Globes, two Critics' Choice Awards, and a whole bunch of other accolades. And if you’re not particularly swayed by the critics’ opinions (I’m usually not), consider my personal upvote for the show. I mean it’s got Jeffrey Tambor (of Arrested Development fame) as the transgender patriarch of a dysfunctional family—really, the role was made for him. Plus each episode is only 30 minutes long (but given my experience, I recommend you prepare for a binge).

And in the realm of things that make it feel particularly “real,” hair and makeup play a significant role. I mean, figuring out how to master your hair and makeup is hard. Figuring it out when you’ve lived the first 72 of your life as a man? Decidedly harder.

Never not looking for a good beauty tip, I got in touch with the head of the show’s makeup department Emma Johnston Burton and key makeup artist, Molly Tissavary, about their experience making the actors look—but mostly feel—pretty. They were kind enough to indulge me and share a few trade secrets. The conversation was long—as all good conversations are—and particularly relevant given how understanding the transgender experience has gone full-speed ahead in our current news cycle (a good thing). Below is what I learned.

—Victoria Lewis

How did you initially get involved with Transparent?

Emma: I had worked with Jill Soloway, the show’s creator, on an independent movie in 2013. Afterward, she kept calling me to do makeup for her for press tour, and we really got along. She told me that her father had recently come out as transgender and that she was going to start living as a woman now. Jill said that she had already been writing a show about her family and that this experience would play a role in it. Transparent is loosely based on that. Her dad—Kerry now—came to set and we got to meet her. She would watch a few of the scenes, but she would get tired of them, so we would offer to take her to the makeup trailer for a few hours some days.

Did Kerry give you any input for your work?

Emma: She mostly told us about her life. She’s pretty new at this as well. She didn’t give us any makeup tips because she doesn’t really wear makeup. But, we had trans consultants on the show—Zackary Drucker, Rhys Ernst, and Van Barnes—who helped every department from the writers to wardrobe to really be true to the trans-person experience. They had tons of research books, plus they’ve lived it themselves. They kept me on track. Because when I was first approached, I thought, ‘Yay, drag makeup every day!’ In my mind, there were a lot of sparkles—and that was totally wrong. As I talked to the consultants, I really came to the realization that this is just doing feminine makeup on men’s faces.

Molly: When I was working with actors like Alexandra Billings, I would ask her about her character. I always approach character work as collaboration with the actor. They have ideas about who their character is, and I think it’s important to help them bring that out with makeup.

So where did you need the most help from the consultants?

Emma : They were so crucial when we did the '90s flashback scenes to Camp Camellia, the cross-dressing camp. They had all these amazing reference books with pictures of cross-dressers. They would wear these big press-on nails and a lot of pinks and reds—very feminine colors. There’s this one photo that I can still picture where a cross-dresser has really minimal makeup on, just maybe a little eyeliner, and he’s holding his hands up close to his face, and he’s got these big pink nails, and he’s tried to cover his beard up with foundation, and the foundation is like two shades lighter than the rest of his face. It’s an incredible picture. So, that helped us to make the whole thing a little more honest. We didn’t want to present some polished, shiny world where everyone was great at doing makeup and really in control, you know? The consultants really kept us in check reminding us that these are people’s secret lives that they’re getting to live out in public for the first time. So their own experience with it has probably been mostly hidden, and they’re probably not all that good at it.

Molly : I think also what was helpful was to recognize that the trans actors are not caricatures. Alexandra Billings is a trans woman. She’s not a man in drag makeup. She’s not a man trying to wear women’s makeup. She’s a woman who wants to look pretty.

Emma: Yeah, it was stressed to us from the beginning that self-presentation is how you address a person. So if they’re wearing female clothes or male clothes, that’s how you address them. And if you’re not sure, you can just say “them.”

Molly: Right, so for me it was really approaching it as, “OK, I need to make Alexandra look pretty within the character boundaries and within the boundaries of what Jill wants, which is minimal makeup.” She likes a more natural look, which doesn’t mean no makeup, but it means a real look. Not really glamorous. It was good to be reminded. Same with the trans men who transition from female to male—you’re not going to put makeup on them. Then of course we had the scene where we did a talent show and we did do drag makeup on Alexandra and Jeffrey. That was where we really got to spread our wings and do the full drag look. But that was because it was appropriate for the show in that particular episode and that particular scene.

And Jeffrey?

Emma: With Jeffrey’s makeup I remember at the beginning trying to do all these little things to soften his features and feminize his face, and I ended up piling on more makeup than I needed. Halfway through the season, I started using less and, all of a sudden, I took a continuity photo of him in his Maura makeup where he was sitting in a chair and we were looking at it, and Jeffrey was like, ‘Oh! Maura is elegant. Look at her! She looks beautiful!’ It kind of clicked then in my head. You don’t have to work so hard against a person’s face. Really, all I had to do was work with what I had, and she did end up looking like an elegant lady. When I had to go back to an earlier scene, he was very upset because he didn’t want to go back to looking like old Maura. He got used to looking pretty, so it was really a great acceptance moment for me to realize there was no reason to work against anything.

Let’s talk about products. What were your most-used tools?

Molly : Well, good skin prep is the cornerstone of good makeup. I really like Le Mieux skincare. I use it personally, so I’m really familiar with it. And then we used a lot of tinted moisturizers.

Emma: I used tinted moisturizers on Gaby Hoffmann, Melora Hardin, and I started using it on Jeffrey toward the end instead of something with heavier coverage. I really like the Laura Mercier Tinted Moisturizer. But for people who have more peach in their skin, I mix the Laura Mercier with Obsessive Compulsive Cosmetic's OCC Tint because Laura Mercier is more yellow and OCC is more peach. Both look great on camera and really even out the skin tone.

Molly : And there’s always RCMA. All you have to do is thin it down with some moisturizer, and it’s great.

Emma: It looks the best on camera.

Molly: It’s old-school tried-and-true foundation. Also, I used the Viseart HD T.I.Q. Foundation. That looks amazing on guys, too.

Emma: That did look good on guys! On the flashback scenes for Jeffrey and Judith, I used a lot of highlighter under foundation. Because we had to take these actors back maybe 30 years without prosthetics and stuff. So, it was a combination of face tape and highlighting and shading underneath their foundation. I really liked this Smashbox Halo Highlighting Wand in Gold, which is mostly gold shimmer. I put that under their eyes and on the high points of their faces underneath their foundation. And with Jeffrey, I would put it over his foundation as well. Our lighting was really minimal because everything on the show was supposed to be as natural as possible. So, it helped their faces to look brighter and fuller. I ended up going through at least three or four of those pens.

How was the approach different for the drag scene?

Emma: Well, there was glitter. And we did huge Ardell eyelashes.

Molly : We both tried to stay pretty true to drag makeup techniques for that particular episode. So it was a lot of contour, highlight, and heavy RCMA cream foundation. We had to block out eyebrows. For the eyeshadows I used a lot of MAC and Make Up For Ever.

Emma : I think I used OCC Pure Cosmetic Pigments. I just love drag. I think it’s so much fun. I have a couple of friends who do it, and I think it’s such a great art form. But my only experience with it before this was putting a bunch of makeup on my boyfriend from time to time!

Molly: I have had experience in the trans community for camera stuff and, of course, when I was a punk rocker in San Francisco, I hung out with a lot of cross dressers. So we would sit around and do makeup all the time. That’s pretty much all we did.

What might be some good makeup tips for someone transitioning?

Molly: I would say moisturize, moisturize, and moisturize. I mean, really—most guys don’t moisturize.

Emma: It’s not a joke! For Jeffrey it was all skincare. From the beginning to the end, his skin changed so much with proper skincare every day and cleaning makeup off completely. We had a lot of amazing products from Murad and Mario Badescu that he was using. Doing it every single day totally changed the texture of his skin. It got so much smoother, so much softer, and makeup went on easier—so I didn’t have to use as much. And really, for someone who is transitioning, I think that learning how to pick some part of your face that you like and learning what to put on to accentuate it instead of trying to hide yourself with makeup is most important. Just use it to bring out things that you like, and that will ultimately make you prettier. That’s what makeup is for.

Molly: My only other major advice would be to not over pluck your brows. I tell that to everybody. That’s a humanity suggestion! But other than that, experiment, find what you like, and find the products that work for you that you’re comfortable with. Oh, and make sure that your foundation matches your neck.

Emma: Yes!

Molly: Don’t test foundations on your hand. You need to test a foundation going from your jawline down to your neck. Seriously though, makeup is fun! And it comes right off. If you don’t like it, change it. It’s not permanent.

I’m such a fan of this show. I am so ready to binge on Season 2.

Molly: I never get tired of hearing that. I am just so proud to be a part of this show and the wider discussion about trans people. I think it’s really important, and it’s so timely. I mean, now we have Caitlyn Jenner, and I’m so proud of her. The people of the trans community are warriors, and they’re so courageous and so strong. Everyone who we encounter and are involved with on this show is so loving. There’s no judgment. I feel accepted for who I am because that’s what it’s all about. It’s more about what kind of a person you are inside than what you look like or what you choose to identify with. It’s very refreshing, especially in the entertainment industry in LA.

Emma: I second everything that Molly said. I think it’s such a special show, and it’s such a good education for how you should treat people. You have to be accepting for whoever someone is. And Molly’s right—for us, it does really transfer into the set world. We are all a bunch of weirdos here and nobody is ashamed of it!

Photos 1 and 2 courtesy of Emma Johnston Burton. Photos 3, 8, and 9 are courtesy of Amazon Studios/Autumn De Wilde. Photos 4,5,6, and 7 are courtesy of Amazon Studios/Beth Dubber. For more on male-to-female transition, read Marlyn Alarm's story on how she used makeup to find her identity.