Carol Hemming climbs aboard the Orient Express

An American gangster is murdered on a train. The suspects are his assistant, a governess, a missionary, a count and countess, a butler, a princess and her maid, a widow, a professor and a doctor. Only the legendary detective Hercule Poirot can identify the killer, in a sumptuous new feature adaptation of Agatha Christie’s classic whodunit, Murder on the Orient Express. Starring Kenneth Branagh (who also directed and produced) as Poirot, the film features an A-list cast including Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, Willem Dafoe, Josh Gad and Daisy Ridley.

Lucy Boynton as Countess Elena Andrenyi

The make-up/hair team was equally illustrious, led by Carol Hemming as make-up/ hair designer and a longtime Branagh collaborator. “We were absolutely blessed with this team,” claims Hemming, “which also included the great Japanese artist Wakana Yoshihara, who took care of the nuts and bolts of production on a daily basis, while I usually had my hands full with Poirot.

“We sometimes had as many as three units working at the same time, so we all had those little duck calls that people use when they go hunting, because we often had to turn off our walkie-talkies, and because there were so many units and splinter groups going out, if we were in real trouble, we could use these duck calls to stay in touch.”

Branagh’s initial brief for Hemming was to immerse herself in the world of Christie. “He said, ‘Look at any other Poirot you want, but hear her words!’ so I looked up everything I could find and thought, ‘OK, let’s look at mustaches!’ so you start doing your research which was great fun and that was months and months before we started.

Carol Hemming touches up Kenneth Branagh

“I then looked at Belgians and Europeans and the American Wild West and the military. There was a 16th-century astronomer whose mustache was fantastic, so I got all that material together and then thought, ‘OK, Ken is really busy, he’s in the theater,’ so I had a bust, a lifecast made of him that I could work on for hours and hours without driving him mad.

“I worked on that bust for weeks, and when I went in to the theater occasionally to get him ready, I’d show him the bust and some of the new research and he would tweak things and say yes or no. It all had to be bespoke, because every mustache and beard has to suit your face. So, I came up with various ideas, and there was one reference picture in particular which, by the trick of the light, looked as though it was two mustaches, but it wasn’t. It was just the coloring, so the guy’s gray hair was on top with darker facial hair behind it. I said to Ken, ‘I’d love to try that!’ and he said, ‘Go ahead,’ so that’s how we came up with Poirot’s mustache.

“Because Ken was directing as well as starring in the film, he said, ‘I’ll give you several months to get everything ready, but you have to train you and your team to get me ready very quickly.  We can’t afford to spend hours on me, because I have all these people waiting!’ What we did was train on two lifecasts of Ken, so I could get the time down without my hands shaking because it was going to be 5 in the morning and cold, so it was literally like training for the Mustache Olympics.”

Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot

The director was so immersed in Poirot that, like his literary counterpart, he could tell if his mustache was off by a millimeter or two. “While I was trying to finish in record time,” Hemming remembers, “my assistant would measure everything to make sure it was right. At the end of it, Ken would open his eyes (because he kept them closed) and he would know without a tape measure if everything was correct. In the books, Poirot measured everything to the millimeter, so he was an absolute fanatic about precise measurement and equality, and so was Ken.

“If we had other actors coming in at the last minute who needed facial hair, we could send somebody to go and take measurements even if it was just something like a chin piece. Obviously, it would have been brilliant if we had a headcast for everybody like we did for Ken, but since we didn’t, we would measure every millimeter, and then everything was all bespoke. Some of their facial hair was real … they would grow something to start with and we laid on [additional] hair to make it bespoke.”

Unlike many period films where the make-up and hair team caters heavily to their female cast members, Hemming decided to change things up for Murder on the Orient Express. “Over the years, we’ve always paid more attention to the female characters,” she insists. “They take longer and get more attention, and need more pampering, but this time I thought, ‘Let’s pamper the men!’

Hemming (center) and Branagh behind the scenes

“I started auditioning barbers during our initial run-up and found a very good Greek barber, so if our actors wanted it—we offered it during rehearsals first—they could get a cutthroat shave. They got the massage, hot towels, cold towels; their skin was glowing and they loved it. In fact, we had one actor, Marwan [Kenzari, who plays Pierre Michel] who always had a problem. Because he’s mixed race, he had the hair that grew inward and he always had terrible problems with his skin, so we said, ‘Let’s give you this shave by this guy and see how it goes; if you like it, fantastic!’ And when I later wanted that barber for an extra shot we had to do, he was with Marwan who had already taken him on another film!’ So, I was really proud about giving the men some pampering.”

Although each character is initially seen within the context of Britain’s strict class system—which would certainly be reflected in their make-up and hair—nothing is as it first appears. “If you’ve read the original story,” Hemming elaborates, “they’re all playing a part in it, so that’s not who they really are. The most interesting thing was to find out who they really were, not the part they were playing. We had to figure out if who they really were dated back or came forward, not to mention the various ethnicities they were portraying on that train, so all of that went into the mix as well. And once the murder was committed, all the characters started to ‘regress’ as well, so you might catch glimpses of who they were as well as who they are.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, keeping track of several versions of each character, some of them quite subtle, made continuity problematic to say the least. “Oh my God, that duck quacker was coming out all the time!” laughs Hemming. “‘Quack, quack, please help!’ And, of course, if we were shooting outside too, they would say, ‘OK, let’s go to scene 20 or scene 110,’ so would think, ‘OK, holy cow!’ but I think we [finished] by the skin of our teeth; at least I hope we did.”

The crowd at Istanbul Station

In addition to the principal cast of characters, Heming and her team also had to deal with several big sequences that took place off the train. “We had some huge crowd days for Istanbul Station, for example, and we also went to Malta for the Jerusalem scenes, including a sequence at the Wailing Wall. We came off the train a lot, so there were a lot of those scenes, all of which required a lot of research, especially for Jerusalem in the 1930s. You have to be very careful, because you don’t want to offend anyone, so you talk to people who know the period, and they guide you through it.

“We had to go through the pious Jewish curls of varying types, which explain who that person is, and Ken has such a good eye, he wanted his crowd to not just portray a bunch of people looking like they’ve just come from the ’30s. He was like Poirot: he was the detective, and that’s why I like working with him.”

Branagh in character on set

As this conversation takes place, it’s less than 24 hours before the world premiere of Murder on the Orient Express at London’s Royal Albert Hall, and Hemming admits to being a bit nervous. “Ken has been really good about letting me in the editing room,” she elaborates, “so I actually got to see a couple of different versions of the film, but I’ve not seen the final version we’re seeing tomorrow, so I’ll just have to hold my breath and try not to run out of the theater saying, ‘I could have done so much better, but it was raining that day!’ or, ‘Is that mustache a bit droopy, because it was cold and snowing, or because the actor was sweating?’ So, fingers crossed. You always think, ‘If only I had done this …’ but all I can say is, even if I failed anyone, my team did not, because they were just phenomenal!”

Murder on the Orient Express opened Nov. 10.