The Oscar and Bafta winner, 58, on trying not to throw up on Brad Pitt and going to the pub with Hugh Grant dressed as a tramp
Travelling the world as a make-up artist on some of the biggest films ever made sounds like a dream job. Was it yours?
No, I always wanted to be a vet but I wasn’t academic and left school at 15. I became a hairdresser for punk bands as I was a punk myself. I set up Scallywags in London’s Kensington Market, then moved to Stevenage and opened a salon. I was quite a colourful character and I had a big clientele but after a couple of years I realised hairdressing wasn’t my endgame and that I needed to get back to London. I sold the salon and used the money to retrain in make-up. After a three-month course I was employed by LWT to work on Hale And Pace.
How did you make the switch to films?
I felt into it accidentally. I was asked to do Life Is Sweet and that’s where I got to know director Mike Leigh. Mike asked me to do the hair and make-up design for his next film, Naked, and we’ve worked together ever since. It was on Naked that I struck up a good friendship with [Harry Potter star] David Thewlis. He became godfather to my children.
You’ve worked with many of the greats in some far-flung places. What’s that like?
When I went to do Seven Years In Tibet in the mid-1990s I found out I was pregnant with my first child, Stanley, who’s now 21. I was in a campsite on a mountain with David Thewlis and Brad Pitt, and I had to let them know I was in the early stages of pregnancy. The next day we jumped on a helicopter and they were giving me sick bags as I was trying not to throw up. While I was in Kenya filming The Constant Gardener we had two Masai warriors, Samuel and Jackson, as our guardians. As we were doing the make-up in Nairobi I was sent the script for my next film — Doom. I was sitting in a tent in the desert listening to Samuel and Jackson’s jangling jewellery while reading a futuristic sci-fi script about ‘nano walls’ — it doesn’t get more surreal. Closer to home, I worked with Hugh Grant on Paddington 2 and we really bonded. We had this hysterical moment when we were doing night shoots in Primrose Hill and he was dressed as a tramp with a wig, false nose, broken veins and a beard, and we decided to go to a pub quiz. No one realised it was him.
Tibet treat: Brad Pitt PICTURE: REX
You won an Oscar and a Bafta for best make-up and hair for Mike Leigh’s 1999 film Topsy-Turvy. That must have been incredible.
My second child Alfie was six weeks old when I won the Oscar the following year. I went up to receive the award – my partner wasn’t there to see it because he went to the toilet at the wrong time – and as I came back I threw my Oscar at him, grabbed my milking machine and ran out of the auditorium. As I did so I heard this: ‘Oi, Blundell!’ It was Brad Pitt jumping over chairs to give me a hug. I had to wave my milking machine at him and say, ‘No!’ It was like a scene out of Carrie or The Exorcist — I was about to squirt breast milk everywhere.
Winning those awards must have been the high point of your career?
Yes, I’ve been shortlisted for an Oscar since with Legend and had various other Bafta nominations for Finding Neverland and Mr Turner but you can’t let it rule your life. It’s fun and a very generous nod from the world to say, ‘Well done, we recognise you’, but it doesn’t mean you have the Midas touch. After the Oscar my next film went straight to video!
There must have been low points too…
When I was filming Casino Royale I lost my brother to cancer. You’re working on the ultimate glamorous film while something awful you can’t control is happening in your personal life. What got me through was working with people who knew me on a professional level, not a personal level.
You’re now a make-up designer rather than make-up artist. What’s the difference?
I make sure the whole thing runs properly. Now I’m working on Joss Whedon’s The Nevers and it’s set in Victorian London. I have to work out if I want people to have facial hair, how long their hair should be and if people need wigs. It’s a huge undertaking and you’ve got to come in on budget.
Mistakes, you’ve made a few?
In Thailand filming Around The World In 80 Days I didn’t have enough facial hair for Jackie Chan’s army so I had to get a lovely helper to bring me some goat hair.
Is filming movies as glamorous as it seems?
I’ve just asked my trainee that and she laughed out loud. We’ve towed her car out of the mud three times this week — once at 9pm and once at 4am. It’s not glamorous. You need nerves of steel and strong self-belief. You’ve got to love it and be really committed.
Is that why you set up the Christine Blundell Make-Up Academy?
I was doing Casino Royale when I had the idea to open a make-up school. The quality of training after the BBC stopped their course was very low. I kept a notebook of what needed to be taught and 12 or 15 years ago we opened the academy. We’ve worked hard to make sure it’s not elitist and we’ve got bursaries available. It’s an industry that’s open to all and once you’re trained, it’s a career for life.
Learn to tell when someone does or doesn’t want to talk. We’re working with famous people but at 5am they don’t always want to chat.
Salary: A trainee can expect about £120 a day rising to the junior’s rate of £240. Experienced make-up artists can earn about £350 a day.
Regular hours? No, and expect early starts and late finishes.
Short and sweet advice: Get the best training you can.