Looking Like a Star at the Oscars
A Q&A with the show’s head makeup artist
Remember when Ben Stiller came out on the Oscars stage dressed like an Avatar? Or when Shirley Bassey led a 50-year tribute to James Bond? We have, in part, Bruce Grayson to thank for these moments.
Grayson has been the Oscars’ head makeup artist since 2001. He got his start in television and trained in that medium for years.
“I was a very young, wide-eyed makeup artist, and I was addicted.”
“There’s no doubt about it. Once you do live TV, you can’t really go back. It’s like a completely different medium.”
He was always intrigued by the award-show process, a slight departure from his father’s line of work.
Following in Dad’s Footsteps
“Watching my dad go to the Oscars with celebrities and get dressed in a tux was always intriguing to me,” Grayson said.
As a makeup artist for feature films, David Grayson worked with the likes of Kirk Douglas, Barbara Stanwyck and Lauren Bacall.
“So I spent my time on movie sets, growing up with these big actors,” Grayson recalled.
“I went to Hollywood High School right across from where the Oscars shoot. When I was young, and John Wayne was nominated for an Oscar for True Grit, it was a big deal because we used to hang out with the Wayne family.”
Grayson’s first encounter with the Oscars was when he accompanied his father to rehearsals.
“I had to wait in the dressing room. It was the Saturday before the Oscars. That kind of stuff leaves a big impression with a little boy,” he said.
“I got into makeup when I was very young and never really turned back. My dad was very influential in driving me towards walking in his footsteps.”
The Pressure’s On
While there are no second chances in live TV, Grayson appreciates getting to see the results of his work in real time and having immediate feedback.
There are many reasons he keeps returning to the show, but it often comes down to the people he works with.
“All these departments are so intertwined… it’s just almost like working on an aircraft carrier: the USS Oscar.”
And it has to do with his clients.
“It’s a people job. You have to get along with people. It’s great giving people that extra confidence to go out and do what they do. That’s the most simplistic part of makeup.”
For him, as for many departments, “the Oscars is basically two shows that run in tandem. You have presenters and you have production or performance pieces.”
Performances require the most prep work, but it all happens in a short timeframe. “We start prepping as soon as the word’s out, but that can be as little as a week before the show.”
The team usually relies heavily on the five-hour rehearsals at the Dolby Theatre that week. “When talent come up to rehearse, if it’s a big act, we usually try to figure out our game plan ahead of time. Everybody’s got to know their assignments.”
That’s why Grayson makes sure to assemble a team of artists “that I know can handle anything. Because you’re running against the clock.”
On the other end, there are the presenters, who Grayson helps make “look as good as they can after they’ve walked the red carpet and spent a lot of time in the theater.”
“I have two or three people working with me in the green room, which is right offstage,” he said. “Those makeup artists, and the people that surround the stage, are making sure the stars get a little touch-up before they walk out on camera. That’s done during the live show.”
Simultaneously, a crew of makeup artists downstairs are getting the dancers, musicians and singers ready for their acts.
“Then there’s also a lot of runs to dressing rooms. We’re very mobile. It’s very fluid.”
Behind the Looks
Of all the years Grayson has been working the show, a few moments stand out, like the Les Miserables performance in 2013.
“We had Anne Hathaway, Russel Crowe, Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, the list goes on. Being a fly on the wall in their dressing rooms, getting them out of their red carpet looks into their show looks for that one number, and seeing Hugh Jackman pull together this great group of actors, was pretty spectacular. It was like seeing a great football player bring his team on the field and giving them that pep talk.”
Some of smaller moments also make a big impact, like when Grayson and his team turned Ben Stiller into a character from Avatar.
“It took us two hours for this one little bit. He went on the red carpet and then came right backstage so we could apply this prosthetic makeup and paint, and watch him get into this character. I had worked with him many times before, and being there for him through this process is something I remember vividly.”
And just as quickly, they had to take his makeup off. “That’s part of it. We turn them around on the other side to get them looking more like themselves.”
“It’s never not exciting. I think that it only gets better, and it’s a nod to the Oscars that everybody tries to emulate them. This is sort of the pièce de résistance, and then everything else follows.”
“A lot of the professionals that work here do other shows too, but this is always the one where we try to think of everything, so that nothing will go wrong.”
“As we set up, there are stages that I call ‘fail safes.’ If they don’t come to the green room, they’re going to have to get through another couple makeup artists before they get to the stage who take a little blotting paper and take a little shine off, or make sure that they don’t have anything on their teeth.”
“We have several fail safes so that when they get right up to the stage, they’ve at least been looked over. We help get them to a place emotionally where they can walk out on stage and they’re solid as a rock.”
HD Changed Everything
When high-definition TV came around, Grayson had to change his approach.
“There is more detail on an HD camera. I always say that HD was created for the Super Bowl and the NBA, but complexions on faces don’t need that much detail.”
“In the days when it first came out, it was like, ‘Oh my God, this is tighter and more detailed than anything I’ve ever seen before.’ So you had to make adjustments for that.”
He acknowledges that it has gotten better with time, “but there are still certain products that we want to use, tricks that we’ve learned about the reflection off the skin or how a glow can help or be a hindrance, depending on how much or little.”
“I always go back to my basic rule of thought: simple is better.”
“And you have to remember that you’re doing makeup on a celebrity, so you want to use their attributes that everybody knows and just enhance them. That’s what they’re known for on camera, and you don’t want to transform them. You just want your makeup to integrate with their hair and their wardrobe. It’s all a package.”
“When they overthink it, or they want an aspect of their glam to stand out, that’s where I think we get in trouble.”
Emotional Support Staff
Aside from the practical job at hand, Grayson finds that his team also functions, in a way, as “emotional support staff.”
“ We’re there for simplest or the most random tasks, like taking out a contact lens that might go askew and putting it back in at a moment’s notice. We’re monitoring backstage anything that can possibly alter somebody’s look before they hit the stage.”
“I’m always watching what celebrities need,” Grayson said. “If an actress is wearing lip stick and kisses a presenter, and then they walk in, we handle it. We’re constantly vigilant, and then there’s the emotional aspect, where people walk in and sometimes don’t want anything except to be told that they are camera-ready good to go.”
And, of course, he has dealt with his fair share of tears.
“There are some people that walk in and have just watched an emotional acceptance speech and they’ve got tears running down their face, and you don’t know when they’re going to stop crying. You just have to work within that element.”
But at the end of the day, he acknowledges that he is working with total professionals.
“Some just walk in and love the process of getting ready for something as important as being a presenter. They want to throw on their own lipstick, they want to smooth out their own complexion, and you just hand them things.”
“Because that is their moment. They’re like baseball players lacing up their shoes before a game.”
This interview is part of “Only I Know,” our series dedicated to taking Oscar fans behind the scenes with some of the key players that make the show happen.