In order to portray real-life prison-escape accomplice Joyce “Tilly” Mitchell for Showtime’s limited series “Escape at Dannemora,” based on the 2015 events, actress Patricia Arquette had to completely transform her physical appearance. She gained a significant amount of weight — mostly by introducing “a lot of milkshakes” into her diet, the actress says — but she also had the aid and artistry of makeup department head Bernadette Mazur.
“It’s always a challenge when you have to do a likeness or a resemblance, because you want to make a character, not a caricature,” Mazur says.
The goal for director Ben Stiller, whom Mazur has worked with on films including “Zoolander 2” and “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” was to be as true to life as possible. This meant Mazur had to “strip down” Arquette’s “natural radiance.”
Using photo references from Mitchell’s earlier life with her husband and son acquired by the series’ researcher, news footage when she was arrested, and conversations with people who knew Mitchell, Mazur came up with a plan that included giving Arquette false teeth and brown contact lenses — but didn’t use prosthetics.
“We started mottling her skin, adding freckles, age spots, broken blood vessels on her face. We sunk her eyes in to show the fatigue of the Dannemora life,” Mazur says. “[Arquette] didn’t want movie makeup. She said, ‘I’m ready to expose myself, so do whatever you can.’”
For the actress, the contact lenses proved the biggest challenge at first because they “created a barrier to connecting with other actors in the scenes.” But because she realized her character had an emotional barrier concerning relationships, she says the contacts ultimately helped her find the performance more fully.
Mazur worked with Yoichi Art Sakamoto on the teeth, which created an underbite that “stuck out almost like a little dog,” Mazur says, and ended up pushing Arquette’s jaw forward, camouflaging her naturally high cheekbones. Mazur enhanced the new face shape by “putting a little light under the cheekbone” to make her face look even rounder. She added stains to the front two teeth.
Mazur also worked closely with hair department head Suzy Mazzarese-Allison to formulate the arc of looks as time passed in the story.
“In the beginning, Tilly’s life with [husband] Lyle is so mundane, and I think that’s where she looks her worst — where she’s just going to work every day in the prison,” Mazur says.
As Tilly became sexually involved with inmates David Sweat (Paul Dano) and Richard Matt (Benicio Del Toro), she began to take better care of herself. Mazur used less of the skin blemishes for this part of the story and also “added a little blush here and there and a little lip balm.”
After the men escaped and she realized she could get caught for her part in the plan, Mazur brought Arquette’s skin back closer to where it was at the start of the story and even included new flaws, including a herpes sore.
The typical daily process, regardless of which look Mazur was putting on Arquette for the day of production, took only about an hour. “[Mitchell] had an attitude that she was more beautiful than she was,” Mazur says. “Once we got the design down, it was easy to do. [Arquette] was 100% committed.”