One of the most attractive assets of the original Barbie doll was her luxurious blonde hair. Young girls would brush out their long golden locks, sometimes creating hairstyles of their own. Not so much with Ken, who was, well, just Ken, with an indistinctive head of hair made of plastic, perhaps not to compete with Barbie’s beauty. Fleshing out these plasticine toys into live-action humans, playing them as dolls in Barbie Land and then as “people” in the real world for the film Barbie, proved to be a stylistic challenge for Makeup and Hair Designer Ivana Primorac (BAFTA, Critics Choice, and Make Up & Hair Stylists Guild Awards winner for Darkest Hour, Sweeney Todd, Mare of Easttown, and The Crown, to name a few of her credits.)
Reuniting with director Greta Gerwig from Little Women, where she served as wig designer, Primorac and her team created 18 wigs and 30 hair pieces, all with distinctive qualities to match their Barbie character.
Croatian-born Primorac made her way to the States when she aligned her talents with filmmakers who would take her with them “everywhere they went.” She learned the art of character building from legendary costume designer Ann Roth, who took Primorac under her wing for several of her projects, namely The Hours and Cold Mountain. Primorac worked closely with Barbie costume designer Jacqueline Durran, director of photography Rodrigo Prieto, Barbie producer Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling (Ken), and of course, Gerwig to painstakingly match the hair coloring and makeup looks, such as the Barbie pink lipstick shade, with multiple costume changes and lighting designs.
Below the Line spoke with Ivana Primorac via Zoom video, where she discussed her early conversations with Greta Gerwig about creating the Barbies and Kens super-realism to look as natural as possible, achieving their doll-like perfection. She also talked about the inspiration for the character “Weird Barbie” (Kate McKinnon) and the discontinued “Allan” (Michael Cera).
Below The line: So talk to me about the early conversations that you had with Greta about what you were trying to achieve with the hair and makeup.
Ivana Primorac: It was the very first draft I read. I was completely amazed and thought this was such a clever story, but then how are we going to create this world? How are we going to do this? And luckily, we had Tuesday Zoom meetings between all of us creatives, and in a very fun way, we all discussed what we think it should be. In the end, it became something quite different from what we originally thought, but the original description was achieved of what Greta wanted.
BTL: What were the differences when you worked with Greta on Little Women and Barbie?
Primorac: She is so clear, and she totally gets all of our different departments, certainly makeup and hair, and her references are so clear and descriptive, and there’s always something that the character and the look of the hair and makeup would give to the audience as a piece of information. So it’s really important to her that if we are going to do something, it has to have something that speaks to the audience.
It’s very pleasing to work with her and challenging because you always think, “Oh my God, am I going to be able to deliver it to her?” It already serves the narrative, and the color is very important to her. Everything should be something that gives a message to the audience.
BTL: What was that original description, and then how did it change?
Primorac: Originally, we just thought about having to do something quite drastic to all of our characters to make them very clearly dolls, and you believe in a toy world. We didn’t really know what that could be. I prototyped a lot of different fibers for hair. We made custom body make-up that would have a plasticy kind of finish because I thought we had to try and achieve what we all know the Barbie doll looks like. By doing that, we very quickly realized that, in a child’s mind, she’s the most beautiful thing. You don’t see the plugs of her hair at the front coming out of a little plastic head.
What you imagine is that Barbie has the hair that’s the most luscious and the most beautiful down to the ground. And the skin is just perfect, lovely, beautiful, and different for each one. They don’t all look alike. Of course she has to have the most amazing hair, so if you have a friend at school who’s got the Barbie version of long, beautiful blonde hair, she would have to have the most beautiful blonde hair, and so on for each different type of person. It was a long road till we realized that, but it then became very pleasurable to realize that every Barbie and Ken has to represent the best version of themselves rather than anything else.
BTL: Did Margot Robbie have a different wig for each of her styles, from the flip to the straight to the wavy?
Primorac: I didn’t really think about how many changes she would have to make. Once we decided what scale it would have to be and started prototyping, we knew what the parameters were and how much more hair we had to put into every wig. But yet, she has to make it look natural coming out of her head, so it’s the most beautiful, because if you have something that’s too thick, it doesn’t look natural. But then it has to be wider than her shoulders. So I was preoccupied with the technical aspects of all of that.
BTL: What was the inspiration for all the looks in her hair?
Primorac: (costume designer) Jacqueline Durran, Margot, and I sat on her sofa one day going through the script, having fun with the idea that a stereotypical Barbie like all the other Barbies comes in their little box set of all her accessories. So there’s earrings, there’s a hat, there’s different hair, there’s jewelry, and there’s everything in each box set, and she has to have that for every single occasion.
Sometimes, three times a day, she would change, go to bed in one look, and wake up in another. Then it was like, Oh my God! So that’s 18 wigs and 30 hair pieces in the end. As we went through the story, we started having to change her into the real person as well, which was another additional three looks. So that was the biggest amount of change I ever had to build for anyone in any movie.
BTL: What about adjusting the hair to the lighting, the costumes, and all that pink?
Primorac That is a very interesting question. We first made a lot of wigs for Margot in that kind of yellow blonde, corn color, what I would call Barbie blonde. That color stayed, and we used that color on the original first Barbie ever made at the beginning of the movie, which is the exact copy of the first Barbie ever made in the striped costume, but it didn’t really look great with all the different pinks and all the different outfits. So then we found the best possible platinum blonde that suited the costumes, Margot’s peachy skin, and the pink lipsticks. But then, with every different pink, we had to tone the hair; it was very easy for the hair to become too ashed or too warm. So there were liters and liters of specially built toner that I would have to then match the costumes to.
Luckily, there were so many wigs that I could get prepared for what was coming up, but they were literally hand-dipped every night. Then (cinematographer) Rodrigo (Prieto), with his incredible lighting, had to neutralize all that pink on every set with different bounce boards, all sorts of different grays, and stuff to retain people’s skin tone and hair.
We got so good at it that I would know what to dip the hair into eventually. I wouldn’t know how to repeat that now, but it was literally very hard work keeping the world in the right pink shade.
BTL: I imagine you had to find just the right shades of pink for her lipstick as well.
Primorac: We had a shop full of the right colors for every different look. Margot would choose what she liked the best out of all the shades that we tested. She could literally go to her shop and pick a lipstick and put it on. There were so many different shades, and they kind of became just Barbie pink, but they were all different ones for different outfits.
BTL: Describe the differences between Barbie in the real world and Barbie in Barbieland and what really changed the most in terms of her look.
Primorac: It was very difficult to find what Barbie and Ken look for when they end up on Venice Beach in the real world. That took a long time because, as they’re rollerblading down Venice Beach, they had to noticeably be different. That was really difficult to find, but once we did, I think it was great fun. But then, once she goes back into Barbie world and the story pushes on and she finds herself face down on the floor, and she’s not Barbie Beautiful anymore, I thought, well, we’re going to have to do something because she’s upset because she’s not Barbie Beautiful; so it’s a self-discovery rather than making her look ugly in any way. There was a journey through three different stages of making her look like a real person. She had the same amount of hair that you and I have, and she became a regular girl. That wonderful scene that Greta wrote in the film when Margot has to go through that transformation really helped.
BTL: I don’t think Margot Robbie could ever look ugly, but that’s another story. I don’t think Ken’s look really changed all that much. Did Ryan dye his hair, or was he wearing a wig?
Primorac: (laughs) Yes, Ryan did dye his hair. And Ken’s doesn’t change because, as part of the story, he just goes to the beach. I think what was really fun and clever in the story is the departure when Ken comes back to Barbieland and thinks that being a boy is actually great fun, and that there’s horses, and there’s swords, and there’s games, and that’s when they change into our 80s kind of version of a movie star with mink coats and lots of gold chains and facial hair and long hair and shaggy hair, and that sort of storytelling was the only change that they had because really Ken’s just a Ken. He doesn’t really do anything. Barbie does everything.
BTL: How did you come up with that particular platinum blonde color?
Primorac: That was very, very tricky for Ryan, but when you have an actor who is so involved like Ryan, we tested and tried so many different things, and it’s his ideas that pushed us forward. It was so incredibly pleasurable to work with him because he was up for doing something extraordinary. I remember thinking and standing on set, looking at him, thinking he looks so normal to me and he looks absolutely not normal. He embodied that look and became this toy, this man, this person. He was hilariously funny in his attempt to be normal like that.
I have to thank him for that because he pushed it further and further, and we ended up with that look. I mean, it’s bleach, and then there’s a toner that goes on top, and it changed every few days as you were going through the movie and doing it once every week; it would have to be slightly tweaked because it was quite a difficult thing for his own hair and maintenance and the whole thing.
BTL: Let’s talk about Weird Barbie. What was Kate McKinnon’s input into that crazy look?
Primorac: I had the huge pleasure of working with Kate before (in Yesterday), and she’s all about character. She’s all about preparation, and I thought it was going to be an easy process. I thought it’s going to be fun, and we’re going to find we can do whatever we want, but in the end, it ended up being so difficult. She had to come back three times from New York. Luckily, we had time to remake all her costumes and all her wigs three times, because there was always something wrong with that. It was the wrong approach. It always resembled something from history, punk, or something that we’ve seen before. It wasn’t a Barbie doll that’s been played with too hard.
So every time we discovered something else about what wasn’t working, the third time was lucky, and we came up with those two looks that she had in the movie. We had to throw away all of our grownup ideas of tailoring, hair-cutting, and makeup to try and recreate something that would be pleasing to the eye in close-up that could come through that makeup and get her amazing delivery and acting skills. Yet it would become something that’s toy-like and childlike, and so it was a process. It’s so pleasurable to be with actors who are all about their characters, and certainly Kate is that person.
BTL: What about the other Barbies and their looks?
Primorac: By the time we got our actors in for their fitting process, we discovered what we already discussed: that we needed to make them individually designed to suit them best. I knew that was the thing to do. So I would ask and work individually with each Barbie on what they thought—what would be the hair color that looks the best? What would be the curl or texture of the hair that would look best? There were never two that were alike.
Issa (Rae) had the most hair, I would say. She had different textures and different scenes because she’s a president, and we did all of that. She chose what she liked for each scene. I involved every single Barbie separately in their process, and they could choose what they liked the best. That was fun because there are no limitations. So if someone wanted red hair, they could have red hair. You know, Hari (Nef) had red hair, and that was great fun, and she was the only redhead. Barbie Alex (Shipp) had blonde tips in her hair, and then she had brown hair with a different kind of texture. It was fun for the actors and fun for us to kind of try and create something that was individual to each one.
BTL: Speaking of redheads, nobody really talks about Allan.
Primorac: I love Allan. Michael Cera actually came to us quite late because of his previous commitments to another project. When we first discussed the look, I was like, We should make him look like Alan. There’s only one Alan, and he was up for it, and we were. So his costume was exactly like the doll, and I wanted to give him the red hair the doll had and red eyebrows and freckles. He just steals my heart. He is just brilliant in the movie.
BTL: What’s interesting is that you have this sort of super-realism, but yet you wanted everybody to look natural. What were the tricks that you used in terms of the makeup?
Primorac: It was to try and make everyone look as good as they could be. Their doll, in my mind, had to represent the best version of each person. I tried really hard to make the heightened version of everyone, but it had to look very natural because beauty comes from that.
An example is when we decided to make a mermaid Barbie into a toy-like thing because mermaids were these kinds of crazy colored with a crazy tail. So that was an homage to the real toy, because she was always in the surf as well. I thought we could sort of use the magic of the childlike thing of her natural flapping around in the surf. Once you realize that you’re in this world, you accept it as the most beautiful world, rather than being taken out of the world by exaggerated makeup and hair.
BTL: Did you also sort of want to achieve a certain kind of perfection, in a way?
Primorac: Yes, that is where the perfection came from. I wanted that to become normalized, so when everyone was perfect en masse, we would just think that was the departure from the plastic finish of the head and the body that we first prototyped. So being immersed in this world for so long, by the time the credits stopped rolling at the beginning of the film, we had more than 12 looks on Barbie Margot and three or four on all the other Barbies.
It had to be pleasing to the eye, and then once you got to the actual film, she got up in the real world quite quickly. I wanted it to be a world that you just accept as perfect, but you can relate to it. The most rewarding thing is for people—the audience—to believe what we’ve done and enjoy it so much.
Barbie is now available to rent and own on Blu-Ray.