One of the most impressive things about Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is the uncanny physical resemblance of Daniel-Day Lewis to the 16th president of the United States. To be sure, Day-Lewis’ splendid performance goes a long way in creating the sense of authenticity. But without the masterful work of Oscar-winning makeup artist Lois Burwell there would not be the experience many moviegoers have of seeing not just a reasonable facsimile of Abraham Lincoln, but something akin to seeing him “in the flesh,” so to speak.
The objective was not to create a carbon copy. “Though it’s a wonderful challenge, with an iconic image there’s also something a bit daunting about it,” said Burwell. “You can’t just put one face onto another. You can only look at the face in front of you and create something that is Lincolnesque. You look at lots of images in the research stage, but then you have to divorce yourself from those and look at the person in front of you and take it one step at a time. From a makeup perspective it’s not so much a ‘look alike’ as a ‘feel alike.’”
During prep, Burwell looked at lots of daguerreotypes and photographs from the Civil War era. Photos had just come into their own a few years before. She researched not just depictions of Lincoln (Matthew Brady’s are the most famous), but of average people. In addition to the president, there are some 140 actors with speaking parts in the film, along with hundreds of extras, all of whom had to be made up to look believable.
“There were so many characters, and you wanted all of them to look as if they lived in that world,” she said. “For me it was one of the hardest films I’ve ever done. Every day and every moment I used every bit of the 20 years of experience I’ve had.”
Some of the busiest days were filming the debate in the House of Representatives about whether or not to abolish slavery. There were 58 speaking actors interspersed among 335 extras that had to be carefully made up. All were men. There was a lot of facial hair which was another make-up challenge – some actors grew that hair, but not all.
Mary Todd Lincoln, played by Sally Field, and two more minor roles are the only females. Field brought her own makeup artist. “She came with Sally but became part of the department,” said Burwell.
Making up Day-Lewis each morning was expedited by double-teaming the task with another colleague. Instead of the normal three hours, it was shortened to an hour and 15 minutes. The same was the case with Field. “Steven Spielberg wanted them on the set ready for the cameras as quickly as possible,” she observed.
Lincoln is the fifth Spielberg film Burwell has worked on, going back to Saving Private Ryan in 1998. The others include Catch Me if You Can, War of the Worlds and War Horse. She was nominated for an Oscar for best make-up for Saving Private Ryan. She won an Oscar in 1995 for Braveheart. Other credits include Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Last Samurai, Magnolia, Almost Famous and Collateral.