The delightful make-up transformations of Domhnall Gleeson and Margot Robbie for Goodbye Christopher Robin
At first look, the make-up for Goodbye Christopher Robin seems fairly straightforward. The poignant tale of how author A. A. Milne came to create one of the most beloved children’s books of all time (Winnie-the-Pooh) features four main characters and takes place mostly at an English countryside manor. The only creatures lurking about are the stuffed toy animals that provided the inspiration for Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends.
But that’s the beauty of the understated-but-intricate make-ups Sian Grigg, Duncan Jarman and Rachael Speke have created. The work smoothly takes the characters through four eras—from the end of World War I through the Second World War—and includes some jolting imagery of the horrors of war.
“It was one of my favorite types of make-ups—a stretch where we aged the actors about 20 years into their mid-40s,” says Grigg, the film’s department head. “You’re not covering the face in appliances. You’re doing just a little bit with pieces. It’s a really subtle make-up that makes a massive difference.”
“Aging someone convincingly is always a very tricky thing. It’s trying to find the right balance and what works for that particular actor’s face,” adds Jarman, who created the prosthetics for Goodbye Christopher Robin. “The challenge was to make young, good-looking actors look convincingly older. The answer was to keep the pieces small. I’ve been playing around with very thin transfer appliances since Harry Potter, so I knew it was the way to go. The prosthetics were made from Bondo and applied directly from the mold.”
Domhnall Gleeson, who plays Milne, wore eye bags, crow’s feet, upper eyelids, a two-piece forehead and nasolabial folds for the scenes set in the 1940s. As his wife Daphne, Margot Robbie was given similar pieces, except for nasolabial folds. Kelly Macdonald (playing Olive, the family’s nanny) was fitted with the same pieces as Gleeson, but Jarman also gave her a neck wattle.
Grigg aged Gleeson. Jarman applied the pieces to Macdonald and Robbie. Speke, who was Robbie’s personal on the film, lent a hand when the actress was aged. Samantha Denyer, who also did hair and make-up, assisted Jarman on Macdonald’s application.
“The make-up probably took about an hour to an hour and a half,” says Jarman about the aging process. Hair added another hour. “They were all great sports and very patient in the chair.”
Of the three, Robbie turned out to be the most challenging. Only 26 when Goodbye Christopher Robin was filmed, the actress’s skin is so young and so taut, Grigg and her team couldn’t figure out where the wrinkles would actually go on her face.
“I asked to see pictures of her mum,” Grigg remembers. “She showed me some. Her mum looks amazing. I told Margot, ‘You have nothing to worry about.’ She is going to age beautifully. Some people are lucky like that.”
Grigg decided the make-up shouldn’t be forced. Seeing in the script that the character of Daphne is somewhat vain and consumed with her appearance, the team decided to play into that notion.
“You don’t push something like that too far. If it’s overdone, it starts not looking real,” continues Grigg. “We had to make her age, but in a very graceful way. We did just what would happen to her naturally in 20-odd years.”
Grigg realized Daphne’s hairstyles would be one of the best ways to show the various eras of the story. During the film, Robbie wears four different wigs. All were created by Peter Owen and applied by Speke.
“My budget virtually all went to Margot’s wigs,” says Grigg. “Fortunately, M.A.C., Dermalogica and Jurlique all helped me enormously with products so that I could spend what was left on the other hair I needed to buy/hire for the show.”
When the film opens, World War I has just ended and the actress sports an Edwardian hairstyle indicative of England in 1919. “They started cutting off the front of the hair and the bun moved down from the crown of the head in early Edwardian to the nape of the neck in late Edwardian,” explains Grigg. “This paved the way for the bob in the next decade. The front came first and then girls got brave enough to cut off the back.” Grigg cheated the Edwardian wig using the wig Robbie wore for scenes set in the 1930s and added a switch at the back.
Everyone on the production loved the Edwardian look and were hesitant to move away from it. Though she tested several styles on Robbie, Grigg knew that the 1920s meant a short bob wig. “I insisted,” she says. “It ended up being my favorite.”
Next came the 1930s, which featured a longer, softer hairstyle more reflective of the period. For the 1940s, Grigg used a shoulder length wig. Touches of gray were added to reinforce the aging.
The decision was made to lighten Gleeson’s hair. Having worked with the actor before, Grigg knew she’d have to take steps to keep the red of his own hair from being an issue.
“I had it colored to a natural blond with slightly darker roots. The roots could be colored every week without having to do the highlights,” explains Grigg. “Every Monday evening throughout the shoot, Sam Denyer and I double-teamed on coloring his hair, eyebrows, lashes and arm hair. We put Wella Color Touch 7/0 through the roots and shorter sections of hair. About once a month, we did fine bleach highlights and a little balayage through the front to make it look naturally sun-kissed.”
Getting the look right for the 8-year-old version of Christopher Robin proved to be a unique challenge. No one was concerned that either Gleeson or Robbie exactly matched Milne and Daphne. It was just the opposite for their son, portrayed by Will Tilston. “Christopher Robin had to look like Christopher Robin,” explains Grigg. “He is such an iconic image. Everyone knows what he looked like.”
But the more reference pictures Grigg gathered, the more she thought she couldn’t subject Tilston to that hairstyle. “I have no idea what Christopher Robin’s mother was thinking,” remembers Grigg. “His hair didn’t really fit in at all with that period. I think they wanted a girl and that’s why she didn’t cut his hair.”
There was one image Grigg thought could work. The style was along the lines of a pageboy cut. She decided to stretch a little and also work off the drawings from the book. It was good that the actor had slightly longish hair, but as the time neared to take scissors in hand, Grigg could feel the pressure. She said it felt like everyone from the producers and director on down were obsessed with the way the hair would look.
“I thought, ‘I have to cut it myself.’ It wouldn’t be fair to make my assistant Charlie Rogers do it,” says Grigg, adding Rogers oversaw Tilston’s make-up. “So, I cut it into something that definitely looked like you absolutely believed it was what Christopher Robin would look like. But it was a slightly softer version than what his mother actually did to him.”
Though only seen briefly in a few quick flashbacks, World War I plays a pivotal role in Goodbye Christopher Robin. Devastated from his time on the battlefield, Milne can’t shake the images he witnessed. As a result, he had trouble resuming his writing career. His attempts to escape the memories of war drew him closer to his son and ultimately led him to write Winnie the Pooh, the biggest success of his career.
Jarman took the opportunity to create a prosthetic piece that stemmed from his fascination with military history. Some WWI veterans returned home with large facial wounds. Often these were covered with prosthetics made from tin and hand painted to look like skin.
“We thought it might be cool to have one of the background characters with a period facial prosthetic,” explains Jarman. “I made ours out of fiberglass, hand painted it to resemble tin and attached it to a pair of period glasses. To tie the look together, I added some Bondo scarring peeking out from underneath the prosthetic.”
For another scene where Milne wanders into a bomb crater filled with dead bodies, Jarman produced prosthetics for the extras. He and Brian Kinney fitted them with limbs, facial shrapnel wounds and exposed intestines.
“I remember doing make-up checks while desperately trying to remain upright knee-deep in mud in the bottom of a bomb crater at 2 in the morning,” Jarman says. “And the whole crew is standing watching.”
Grigg says she can’t remember when she’s had more fun on a shoot. She gives a lot of credit for that to director Simon Curtis. “He creates this great family atmosphere. The weather was perfect. It was just a lovely, lovely job,” she says. “This is the first time I have worked with Simon, hopefully not the last.”
Goodbye Christopher Robin opened in theaters on Oct. 13 (limited).