In Netflix’s “The Crown,” BAFTA-nominated makeup and hair designer Ivana Primorac (“Anna Kareninna,” “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”) was tasked with transforming the slender 6-foot, 4-inch John Lithgow into the plump 5-foot, 6-inch Winston Churchill. The two men of course look nothing alike, but with a little bit of movie magic (and a towering, award-winning performance), Primorac and Lithgow brought the famed Briton back to life.
“What made Ivana’s Churchill makeup so great was how little there was of it,” Lithgow says. “It was important to her (and to me) that it be inconspicuous, lifelike, and not remotely mask-like.”
Besides a minimal amount of base and a few liver spots, there were really only three elements to the design: a balding wig, a few extra strands of long eyebrow hair and a set of plumpers inside Lithgow’s mouth.
“The plumpers were little pink resin blobs that clicked onto my back teeth and swelled my jowls to Churchillian proportions,” Lithgow says. “They were created by the English toothmeister, Christopher Lyons, who creates all of Tilda Swinton’s fabulous character teeth and who made Meryl [Streep]’s Maggie Thatcher choppers. In my case, they made me not only look more like the man but sound like him, too, helping me replicate the slushy lisp that emanated from the two sides of his tongue.”
Lithgow also utilized balls of cotton jammed up his nose to make it more bulbous and “help simulate Churchill’s nasal honk,” he says. And wardrobe got in on the action, too, with the actor’s request for tight shirt collars to shorten and fatten his neck.
“These simple touches made the process very short — I was never in the chair longer than a half hour — and made me feel uncannily like Winston,” Lithgow says. “But sadly, I had to acknowledge a brutal truth which Ivana took merciless advantage of: At age 70, I was starting to look an awful lot like the old man. Even without makeup.”
Primorac spoke to Variety about the detailed but unexpectedly brief process.
What was the most distinguishing characteristic of Winston Churchill that you wanted to carry across in the makeup?
Churchill is such a known character to all of us in history. What I made sure to do was achieve the likeness, that when he walked into a room, you knew exactly who he was, that you didn’t mistake him for any other old man or politician. So certain proportions, like his hump, his double chin, his jowls, how close his hair was to his head, all those things, I think, make Churchill. If you see his profile, he has that English Bulldog look or big baby look. That’s what we concentrated on, rather than creating an exact carbon copy likeness.
How long did it take to complete John Lithgow’s makeup every day?
About 20 minutes. It was very fast! We painted his face and widened his nostrils and shaved his head and put his wig on. Then we made his jowls with a plumper that we put in his mouth, and his neck piece was under his costume. All of those things were quite quick. It was very important because on “The Crown” you shoot four directors at the same time, sometimes, and you move from one side of the country to another, or you go to another country. So it was very important to have something that was efficient for him and for the directors.
Were you forced to innovate at all or were you able to lean on the time-tested techniques of the trade?
We got together and decided it was very important to make John feel comfortable and for all of us to be really fast at making Churchill. Once we realized what was needed and what worked, we just perfected those things and tried to be fast, so that’s why it took so little time in the end. But at first it took a long time testing all those sorts of things.
What has the high-definition age done for your industry, where you can’t hide the work anymore?
I think that the discipline of knowing how to be flawless on film translates well to digital technology. What’s hard is knowing how the filmmakers will manipulate the digital image, as everything suddenly becomes possible. This especially affects hair color and skin tone. One thing is certain, that the old way of working on film is truly over. The discipline of waiting until the last minute and having time to fix things after the rehearsal is truly over. I find that I have to be picture perfect all the time as there could be multiple cameras working at the same time, and some in close-up, so digital technology made me even more of a perfectionist.