Nominated for four Golden Globes, Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman (2020) has generated quite the buzz. In this dark comedy thriller, a young woman named “Cassie” (Carey Mulligan) seeks to avenge the rape of her childhood friend by making predatory men pay for their actions. Along with clothing, makeup plays a key role in Cassie’s game. I recently spoke with the film’s head makeup artist, Angela Wells, about the work that went into creating Cassie’s iconic looks.
RMM: How did you decide to work on this project?
Wells: Basically, it was Carey Mulligan. I had worked with Carey on Mudbound (2017), where I ran the makeup department. We had a good working relationship, I thought she was really lovely to work with and we just connected. Cut to three years later, and my agent calls and says that Carey referred me to this film. That’s how it started.
RMM: What did you think of the script before you started working on the film?
Wells: I was just blown away. I loved the subject matter. I thought it was something that needed to be talked about, that was for sure. But I remember when I was reading the first couple pages, I thought “oh my gosh, this is gonna be a mess.” Then when she sat up on the bed and said “what are you doing?” I was immediately hooked. I loved the surprise element. And then she comes home and checks those crosshairs off in a book and you’re wondering if she’s getting rid of these people. You don’t really know what she does to the guy in the beginning. So it was pretty cool, I really enjoyed the script.
RMM: I was really struck by its directness. I feel like you don’t really see that in films.
Wells: Yes, very much so. And I know that Emerald wanted it to be truth, so that’s how she wrote it. The twist towards the end really gave me a new respect for the script too. Naturally, we want everything to be peaches and cream but it doesn’t always work out that way in life.
RMM: Cassie’s personal style is very different from the costumes she wears when she’s out. Did you think much about differentiating between the makeup she wears in those parts of her life?
Wells: Absolutely. I wanted her to be a sort of blank canvas when she was just Cassie. So the makeup was really soft, really neutral. I used a lot of soft rosy colors. We didn’t even use lipstick. Instead, I used a tinted lip balm for those scenes where she was to look like just regular Cassie. And then when she was on her date, I just punched up the lip color and the eye color a little bit. But I wanted to have a distinct difference between the way she looked when she was Cassie as opposed to when she was out doing her personas. I call them doing her hits.
RMM: I was fascinated by the way Cassie used makeup to lure these guys in. There’s the intentionally smudged lipstick or messy makeup. What thoughts went into that?
Wells: I mean, that was definitely purposeful and very thought out. When I was reading the script, Emerald had some descriptions there as well. We took them and added more. For that first scene in the bar, she had written that she wanted smudged mascara. She wanted Cassie to look warm and a little sweaty. So we purposefully smudged the mascara and made it get worse so that by the time she’s at the guy’s place she looks like a hot mess. Those were all initiated by Emerald’s descriptions in the script.
RMM: I love the moment where she puts on this red lipstick and then smudges it with her finger.
Wells: Yes, that was a Joker-esque sort of moment. With her liner, I even drew it in a downward fashion before I took the wing up because I wanted to reflect a little bit of sadness and darkness in the character. I know it’s really subtle, and in a way, I wouldn’t really want people to notice it as makeup. I would just want them to see that there was something there that didn’t look particularly happy. And so there was that downturning of the eyes, a sort of illusion I created
with the liner to give a bit of sadness because on the inside she was sad, she was hurting. And angry.
RMM: What about the nurse look?
Wells: Oh, yes, everybody loves the nurse look.
RMM: I mean, it’s kind of iconic, right?
Wells: Yeah, I didn’t want her to have that red lip that everybody has. So the color she had was a really intense fuchsia. I thought of her as a crazed blow-up doll because of the outfit she was going to be wearing and what she was going to do. I wanted it to look sexual. Blow-up dolls have those wide eyes and big lips, so I did an illusion with her eye makeup where I put the liner underneath her lash line so that it actually increased the size of the eye. Then I used a flesh tone pencil inside of that and added double lashes. So she had lashes on the top and lashes on the bottom which gave her this very big-eyed, almost kind of a Chucky kind of feel.
RMM: It makes me think of Twiggy, that British model whose big-eyed look became really popular in the 60s.
Wells: And that’s how they would achieve that look, with makeup. I enjoyed doing it with Carey, changing the way she looked.
RMM: Well, as we know she gets smothered with a pillow. It definitely makes an impression when they remove the pillow and it’s just covered in makeup.
Wells: I mean, Emerald just thought of every detail. We knew what needed to be done to make things look realistic.
© Roza M. Melkumyan (2/27/21) FF2 Media
Angela Wells is an American Emmy-nominated makeup artist working in the film and television industry. She is known for her work on Mudbound (2017) and Harriet (2019) as well as the American sitcom Black-ish, among other credits.
It was such a privilege speaking with Wells about the makeup of Promising Young Woman, which you can read more about here. You can rent the film now on Amazon Prime!
Featured Photo: Cassie wears a multicolored pastel wig and dark makeup with her nurse costume.
Photo Credits: Merie Weismiller Wallace