BBC One’s Taboo (directed by and starring Tom Hardy) shocked, compelled, repulsed and enthralled viewers. Learn how the dark and twisted characters of Taboo were created in this exclusive interview with make-up and prosthetics designer Erika Okvist as she discusses her work with trainee Stefanie Kemp. The two get into the nitty gritty (literally) of the make-ups of the characters, as they reminisce about their time on the show.
Stefanie Kemp: Firstly, Erika, thank you for agreeing to do this interview about the show. Who knew over a year ago when we were sculpting fake hearts on a make-up bus that we’d be here today having this chat.
Erika Okvist: A year ago!? Time flies when you are covering people in dirt and blood! Absolutely my pleasure, I cannot wait to share some hopefully interesting insights into the make-up and prosthetics design in Taboo.
S: Seeing the characters come to life before my eyes from what I had read on the pages of the script was truly inspiring as a trainee. I am interested to know what kind of research did you do to make the make-up historically accurate? Or was accuracy of importance in the show or was it more about creating a particular style?
E: When researching to design a show like Taboo it is all in the small details and making them into something interesting and tangible to the world in which the characters inhibit. I would research widely into the period and pick out interesting information that would tell the story. Anything gritty or subversive I would select and pick apart and then apply it to the characters. Accuracy is of course important to set the scene and make sense of who these people are but a style is also very important, these characters had to be a part of that world which was dark, gritty and slightly off-kilter, so I would say very much that style and accuracy were of as much importance as one another.
S: I recall it was like our own 19th-century tattoo parlor on the bus, minus the needles and ink! Make-Up Artist magazine loved the tattoos used in Taboo, Atticus’ (Stephen Graham’s) compass head tattoo. Can you tell us more about how the tattoos were made, how were they replicated from day to day and did they mean anything?
E: With every character, you begin with something that identifies them against the other characters, so for Stephen’s character we established that he was a sailor, a traveler and this would be something reflected in his design. We would brainstorm, research and think about sailor tattoos of the time and their symbolism but most importantly where that tattoo would make most impact visually, so we decided that placing the tattoo on the head would be very striking to the audience.
The design itself was based on the idea of hand-drawn tattoos, which the sailors would have done on one another. I would paint out the design and this would then be made in-house by my team on transfer paper. We would have a book full of character tattoos ready to go when called upon. Tattoo making and application was a huge part of our working day.
S: I think it’s true that nearly every single character had some form of prosthetic. How did you go about working out the logistics, so there were enough prosthetics for the entire show?
E: From a tiny cut to the full-face smallpox scarring on Nicholas Woodeson as ‘Thoyt’, you are right, nearly every principal character and background artist had some form of prosthetic. As many of our characters were in repeatedly, I had to come up with a time- and cost-effective way of making, storing and maintaining such a high turnover of prosthetics. An interesting method I really liked to use on Taboo was the acetate and transfer method as an alternative to the traditional Probondo transfer mold method. The make-up bus became a prosthetics factory; I would sculpt new pieces and mold them with the help of my trainee and assistant. Every single day we ran at least three sets of each principal cast member’s appliances, then once or twice a week a set of generic pieces to be used for background artists. We would make the appliances and then keep them stored on sheets filed under their character, which was amazing as we were slightly limited for space so having say 50-plus transfer molds filled with Probondo would just not have been possible.
We had to be really inventive with the prosthetics aspect of the show and as we made everything in-house from scratch, it meant if all of a sudden we needed a bullet wound to the head ready for the next scene, it would be there made and ready to go … which as you, Stef, know all too well, was quite a regular occurrence.
S: I saw you collaborating throughout Taboo with hair designer Jan Archibald and Tom Hardy’s personal make-up and prosthetic artist Audrey Doyle. Can you tell us anything about Tom’s look and how this worked with the characters you designed?
E: In a word, Tom’s character Delaney was the wheel in which all the other characters stemmed from. Delaney was the hub of where we could begin to design and consider how the characters would look and fit into Delaney’s world. Some were similar to him, like the Atticus gang and some totally opposing, like the ladies and courtiers.
S: Some of the characters had specific character traits like crooked teeth, gold teeth or missing teeth! How does this process work when designing a character, and is this a collaboration with the company making the teeth.
E: The teeth aspect of the show I found fascinating to research and implement into the character design. I came to understand that dentists didn’t even exist in the early 1800s and as such dental hygiene was appalling, even the rich had grubby teeth. Keeping that in mind I had to look at the actors’ teeth and see what could be done to remove that 21s- century Hollywood smile and to add a naturalism to the whole look. So, in some instances, it would be using tooth enamel or in other cases teeth would be made by the team at Fangs FX here in the U.K. I would design the look of the teeth and the amazing team lead by Chris Lyons would make them. Helga, the brothel owner’s teeth were one of my particular favorites as to me they read as fake teeth, they didn’t seem to fit her mouth properly which was the intention as in the day teeth would have been taken from corpses and would not fit the mouth of the wearer. Likewise, she has a really interesting detail in her tooth in that it was very fashionable to have animals carved into ivory teeth, so for Helga we had this tiny sculpture carved into the tooth and then to finish the design I had it appear as if the tooth had been secured in with gold ribbons, which was again very fashionable for the time. The teeth were such a part of the character and were a work of art in their own right.
S: I have heard the phrase “Taboo level of dirt” many times since we finished filming, which always makes me smile. It is a phrase that has set the standard for what could be classed as extreme dirt. What does that phrase mean to you Erika?
E: *Laughs* I am very proud that we have coined a phrase in the industry! I established very early on that from the poorest of the poor to richest of the rich these people would not have been clean, so everyone had dirt at varying levels. With dirtying down, my main thing is layers, building up textures, colors and irregularities, which I feel really ingrains the dirt into the skin making it believable; as you can imagine, our actors had wonderful skin so breaking down their skin texture was so important and quite a challenge but a fun challenge.
S: Among the blood, gore and dirt there were some beautifully clean period make-ups and hair. How did you go about creating that ‘angelic’ look on your female artists with hair designer Jan Archibald?
E: You said it, “angelic” was exactly what I was aiming to create with these make-ups. For example, Oonagh Chaplin who played Tom’s sister has naturally beautiful golden undertones in her skin, sadly this wasn’t suitable for the look of Taboo so I really had to take out the warm tones in her skin. Everything had to be cool and transparent; I am so pleased that is apparent when watching the show.
S: Who can forget the brothel workers, the “Mollys.” Make-Up Artist magazine loved the cracked, worn-in make-up of the men in drag. Can you tell me more about how that look was created?
E: We all loved the Mollys. Doing the make-up was so much fun, seeing your everyday guy changed into a flamboyant female before your very eyes was fantastic. With the Mollys, I really did want to keep that masculine aspect of their identity, so some would have stubble showing through their make-up, hair on their hands etcetera. The design itself, again, was taken from extensive research into make-up styles of the time that were associated with degenerates, such as heavy white make-up that was meant to emulate the societal ideals of pure, clean white skin and turn it up 20 notches to make their look really over the top.
S: When building a team that covers everything from wigs, to prosthetics to period make-up and hair, how do you pick your team and do you look for when making your dream team? In particular, with your trainees, how do you get them involved on your productions?
E: Mainly I build my team on trust. Not only trust from me in my team but their trust in me as a designer. I have to be in awe of their knowledge and skills and I love to be surprised and amazed by what they can do as artists. I allow my team to shine at where they are strong and pick people with different specialisms to balance out what skillset I have in the bus. In a show like Taboo it was important to have people with sculpting, making-and-applying-prosthetic know-how but also people with hairstyling and basic make-up skills.
Having fun is so important, if we are not happy then we do not produce good work. Most importantly for me, when taking on trainees as you know, Stef, is that my trainees are not employed to simply clean brushes and file paperwork. What I believe is that the new generation have so much to offer and if I can learn from them, as they learn from me, then that is the perfect harmony.
S: Finally, are there any standout moments, mishaps or anecdotes you would like to share with everyone that they will not know about the making of Taboo?
E: By the end, after months of dirt flicking, prosthetics sticking, blood spattering and hard work, the make-up team well, and truly, could have walked out of the make-up bus onto the set and fit in seamlessly! At the beginning, we looked like the East India Company, clean, poised and put together. By the end we were Atticus’ gang, dirty, grubby and degenerates. We gave it our all creatively and physically but we loved every moment.
What I take with me from the whole experience is that I would say less is never more. In every sense of the phrase, less just wasn’t an option on Taboo.
- Make-up and Prosthetics Designer: Erika Okvist
- Hair Designer: Jan Archibald
- Tom Hardy’s Personal Make-up & Prosthetics Designer: Audrey Doyle
- Crowd Make-up & Hair Supervisor: Rachel Buxton
- Audrey Doyle’s Make-up & Prosthetics Assistant : Lara Prentice
- Main Team Make-up Artists: Beatrice Millas & Lidija Skorucak
- Main Team Trainee Block 1 : Georgina Conway
- Main Team Trainee Block 2: Stefanie Kemp