Television makeup and hair designer, Anne Oldham, has been a staple in the Downton Abbey family since the series started a decade ago. She also worked on the 2019 film adaption and is back at it again for this year’s Downton Abbey: A New Era movie (in theaters now!). So when we had the opportunity to chat with the legend who has won three Emmys and two BAFTAs, we wanted to get as much of a scoop about life behind the scenes as we could. With this caveat, of course: “I’m never allowed to tell any secrets,” she says. But she still had plenty of insider info to divulge, from the actors’ personalities to secrets of their flawless skin.
Hugh Bonneville “Was a Little Bit Naughty”
When the Earl of Grantham first appears in A New Era, he looks rather tan. Was this intentional? “No,” says Oldham with an exasperated tone, followed by a laugh. “He should not have been tan. Because of lockdown, he’d spent lots of time in the garden and jogging.” And even though she requested SPF 50 and a hat, “I think he was enjoying the fact that he looked healthier [with some color]. So even though we had various conversations about that, he was a little naughty.” And she couldn’t reverse it: “The problem is, if someone has a tan and you try to take it down, it doesn’t work. So we did the best we could under the circumstances.”
But Others Followed the Rules, For the Most Part
Did Oldham give the actors any other rules before filming? Not really. “Most of them know the characters so well, and they all look after their skin so very well. Like Jo Froggatt [who plays Anna Bates] says, ‘I know I’m not allowed to be in the sun.’” She did have “a chat with the newbies” about what was expected, and for the most part, they obliged. “Dominic [West, who plays Guy Dexter] was a little bit brown for my liking. But again, the boys are naughty sometimes. They were all delicious, so they were easily forgiven,” she confesses.
Products, Pimples, and Preferences
How does skincare work on-set? Do they bring their own, or does she give them recommendations? “A combination,” Oldham says. “We check if they’re sensitive to anything or if they have products they like. Michelle [Dockery, who plays Lady Mary] was filming [Netflix’s] Anatomy of a Scandal, and she found some new skincare products on that set that she was loving.” So the actors can tell Oldham what they use, “and we’ll buy them in” to have on set. Do all of the actors have skincare preferences? Nope. “Some say, ‘plonk anything on.’” As long as it works. She knows the value of looking after the skin: “If anyone gets an irritation, you have to deal with that.” After all, in the world of movies, it can take weeks to film a scene that takes place on the same day, and you need each person’s face to look consistent.
Mustaches: Real or Fake?
It wasn’t just about bob haircuts and bow-shaped lips in the ‘20s. Men also made some transformations, especially with the advent of movie stars popularizing looks, including the pencil mustache, made famous by actors Ronald Colman and William Powell. Although the Downton residents and staff are a non-mustached group, two of the newcomers to the set (West and Alex Macqueen, who plays Mr. Stubbins, the movie’s sound engineer) did sport pencil styles. So were these upper-lip masterpieces real or fake? “Dominic’s was real,” Oldham shares. “He grew in the facial hair for me, and then we trimmed it down every day and shaped it…some days more successfully than others. They’re tricky to do,” she confesses. For Macqueen, “That was a mustache I saw in a photograph of some army guy of the period, and I fell in love with it. It was so bizarre. So I drew it in, showed everybody, and said, ‘Please let me have him in this mustache.’ Because he was such a quirky character, they kindly said yes. It’s my favorite thing in the film, Stubbins’ mustache.”
Oldham and Costume Designer Anna Robbins Influenced the Story Line
“When we read the script, and it said there was a film within a film, Anna Robbins and I both went, ‘Ooh, that’s nice. We should do a completely different period.’ Everyone thought, ‘Oh, that’s interesting. We hadn’t thought about that.’” Oldham knew it would be a “visual treat” to show a different year — in this case, 1875 — and the hair, makeup, and costumes that would’ve been worn then. “And Simon [Curtis, director] said, ‘Oh, that’s a lovely idea, so let’s go with that.’ We were delighted.”
On-Set Chemistry: Likely and Unlikely Pairings
“Dominic West was completely in love with Maggie Smith [Violet Crawley], so he was always delighted when he had a makeup call with her,” recalls Oldham. “He’s a wondrous flirt, and that was lovely to watch. They’re both very funny and talented, and they enjoy each other very much. And then you get Imelda Staunton [who plays Maud Bagshaw] coming in, and she’s just a joy from top to toe. And of course, she has a lovely banter with Jim [Carter, who plays Mr. Carson] because they’ve been married for centuries. There’s lots of laughter. It’s a real family. People are very fond of each other.”
Which of the actors took the longest to prep? “It was Laura Haddock,” Oldham says of the actress tasked to play actress Myrna Dalgleish. “Her late ’20s look was as extreme as her film-within-a-film look. It was very precise. We wanted her to look a particular way, and it had to be perfect because it was very much a makeup look. I had two people looking after her, hair and makeup—they were completely brilliant. They did a phenomenal job. The result was gorgeous.”
Foundation or No Foundation?
Since Downton’s debut a decade ago, Oldham has been tasked with making the women look natural, elegant, and radiant, so the focus has always been on a clear complexion. That doesn’t mean she’s foregone foundation, however. Each one of the actors gets foundation, though “not much on the men,” she shares. “I’ve always tried to make it as light as possible because they are at home a lot of the time. We want them to look lovely and in-period, but we don’t want the girls to look like they’re made up. And downstairs [with the servants], we do as much natural makeup as possible.” Oldham’s foundation application technique? “Makeup brushes and sponges so you can alter things based on what’s needed on the day.” No airbrushing? “I’ve never understood the technique of airbrush. It’s all too matte.”
The Servants Go Wild
Oldham shares a moment in the movie when the servants get dressed up, which was fun for both the cast and crew. “Lesley [Nicol, who plays Mrs. Patmore] said, ‘I want to look like Kew Gardens — I want to throw everything at my hair’; so Elaine [Browne, hair and makeup supervisor] was putting in flowers and feathers. It was a bit of a joy to be extravagant.”
A New Hair-a?
A New Era picks up only nine months from 2019’s Downton movie. “We weren’t moving along that far, so the looks of the period hadn’t changed that much.” However, some of the things that did change: “Michelle [Dockery] wasn’t in a wig this time, but she was in the first film. We added a bit of gray in some of them — for Phyllis [Logan, who plays Mrs. Hughes].” And Miss Baxter [who plays Raquel Cassidy] got a bobbed haircut for this movie, which was her natural hair, not a wig. Most of the other female cast members wore wigs or hairpieces, Oldham says.
No Pandemic Pause
The cast and crew had to juggle each of their roles within the parameters of the covid pandemic, which meant location scouting in France was limited; filming in France was an iffy endeavor for the U.K.-based crew. Oldham and her team had to be “masked up” and try to “work out how to make people up and them having to wear masks or visors. All the protocols that came with covid made it very hard indeed,” she recalls. “When we were in France, for instance, you would put your mask on when you left your hotel room, and the only time you ever took it off before returning to your hotel room 14 hours later was when you had lunch. It could get quite brutal.” But it paid off. “I don’t think we had one covid case while we were filming, and that was in England and France, and I think that’s because everyone was respectful and we looked after each other. But we all did it. We got it done.”
They certainly did. Want to get skin as glowy as the characters on the show? Score a limited edition Sunday Riley x Downton Abbey: A New Era Wake Up With Me Kit for your complete morning routine.