MICHELE BURKE, A Hollywood make-up artist tells us how she turned interest into expertise and forged a CAREER THAT SHE LOVES …
Michele Burke was the Irish film industry abroad when there was no Irish film industry abroad. A true trailblazer, her ability to transform the features of A-list actors like Tom Cruise, Jennifer Lopez and Kirsten Dunst through the magic of make-up artistry has placed her at the top of her game. Yet she is refreshingly candid about her success, joking that she learned on the job – often “by the seat of my pants” – and was so convinced she wouldn’t win her first Oscar that she didn’t attend the awards ceremony (she’s won twice, and been nominated six times).
Burke is personable and witty. Her Irish accent remains despite decades of living and working first in Canada and then in Los Angeles, where she lives with husband, Michael Winter. She is elegance personified, clad in black, with a structured bob. She was, she says, a fan of “the pictures” long before she started working on them. “We lived right beside the cinema in Kildare, in a Georgian house. Our father was crazy about Hollywood and film stars. He had a collection of LIFE magazines. I don’t remember if it was The Three Stooges or Laurel and Hardy, but [a character] had his face on a hot plate burner and there was smoke coming out. I would look at it time and time again and say: ‘Daddy, how come he’s not getting burnt?’ He’d say it was tricks and I didn’t understand it – but later I was the one doing the tricks.”
After emigrating to Canada with her brother Mark, Burke says she “stumbled” into make-up artistry, and initially had no idea it could be a career option. After doing a beauty course, she did some work for a make-up boutique and modelled for a brief period, though she hated being in front of the camera. The discovery of a book on the craft by author Richard Corson proved a revelation. “In there I saw witches and demons and ageings and I thought: ‘I’m not a real make-up artist at all’. The changes you could make on a face fascinated me. This was a new discovery. It wasn’t that I wanted to be a make-up artist all my life – I didn’t know there was such a thing. When I found out, I was blown away – I felt like I’d been cheated! How come no one told me about this?”
I got a call to do this film about neanderthals in Africa. I said yes but what I didn’t realise was that they had called every other make-up artist in Montreal before me. I just said: ‘Great, I’m off.’ And then it won me an Oscar. And all my peers were asking: ‘Who’s Michele Burke?’
But for an Irish emigrant with no connections to the film industry, hers was never going to be a straightforward path. She sought out a make-up artist in Montreal who agreed to let her work as an assistant on a few low-budget projects: “I learned about the set, continuity, all the things that you needed to know about working on a film. It was a perfect learning ground and before I knew where I was, I was heading up departments. I was inventing it all as I went. I literally learned on the job. Even though they were kind of chintzy films, it didn’t matter. That’s what horror films were all about. I loved it – I couldn’t wait to get up in the morning and go to work.”
A job on the 1981 film Quest For Fire would be her huge breakthrough, though she did not realise it at the time. It would give her her first Academy Award, an award that came as a surprise to Burke, whose work on the left field film was up against the Goliath that was Gandhi. “I got a call to do this film about neanderthals in Africa. I said yes but what I didn’t realise was that they had called every other make-up artist in Montreal before me,” she laughs. “I just said: ‘Great, I’m off.’ And then it won me an Oscar. And all my peers were asking: ‘Who’s Michele Burke?’”
So convinced was she of not winning that she took a job in Alaska and missed the ceremony. She and her sister Adrienne later went to collect the gold statue from their local customs office. “The box was heavy and [the customs officer brought] it around to open it. He said: ‘Ooh it’s an Oscar’ and Adrienne said: ‘Well, present her with it’. At that point there were people around clapping, and that’s how I got my first Oscar.”
It’s very strange because you have all the publicists, all the paparazzi people, and we’re nobodies. It’s like: ‘Get out of the way, where’s Angelina Jolie?’ They want to see the stars. They want famous faces. But it is very exciting. For anyone who gets there, it’s an honour
The second Academy Award, years later, for her groundbreaking work on the Francis Ford Coppola-directed Bram Stoker’s Dracula, sealed her reputation as one of the finest in her field. “The stakes were higher really. With the second one, I thought: ‘If I win, I’d prove to them all that it’s not a fluke’. Coppola is an amazing director to work with. He knew what he wanted, he had the entire film storyboarded. The best part was working with Eiko Ishioka, the costume designer, a very famous Japanese designer. They didn’t want the normal Dracula, with the fangs and the cape and the widow’s peak. He’s an iconic figure and now we were making him into a different iconic figure, so there was a huge amount of pressure. But it was accepted, and people did like this new look.”
What is her memory of her name being called out? “First, you don’t believe it, people have to push you up because you don’t really hear it, you’re wondering if your mind is playing games. When I stood up on stage it took my breath away, because I looked out and it was this sea of faces. It was overwhelming, that moment.” She agrees that Oscar night in Los Angeles is a surreal experience. “It’s very strange because you have all the publicists, all the paparazzi people, and we’re nobodies. It’s like: ‘Get out of the way, where’s Angelina Jolie?’ They want to see the stars. They want famous faces. But it is very exciting. For anyone who gets there, it’s an honour.”
Now head of a group of make-up artists that she calls her “SWAT team”, Burke’s career continues to flourish and she’s worked on two new films this year. While she has always been drawn to variety in her work, she is synonymous with some very memorable faces. It was she who helped bring Austin Powers to life, she who enhanced J-Lo’s striking features in The Cell, she who transformed Brad Pitt and Kirsten Dunst into bloodthirsty beings in Interview with the Vampire. Dunst, says Burke, is “dear to my heart. She was only eleven when she did Interview with the Vampire, and got her first kiss from Brad. She’s a normal, lovely person.”
Tom [Cruise] called me a lot, but I didn’t always work with him, I did many other projects. Some actresses take their make-up artists everywhere, and they’re best friends. But I’ve seen it go the other way, where they get too chummy with them and then all of a sudden they are dumped.
Her collaborations with arguably the world’s biggest star, Tom Cruise, are now in double figures and include the blockbuster Mission: Impossible movies. It was she who helped “disfigure” Cruise following an accident in Vanilla Sky – and she who helped transform him into slimy producer Les Grossman in Tropic Thunder. “He requires total 100 per cent focus and excellence. On the other hand, if you’ve done a good job, he loves it and he is happy about it. We’ve collaborated on quite a few characters, good ones. He wants you to go super fast. He wants no more than an hour in the make-up chair – you can see he wants to get out and get on the set. He’s very exciting to work with. An adrenaline rush.”
Still, despite being on the radar of some of the world’s biggest stars, Burke is wary of becoming too closely involved with them. “Tom called me a lot, but I didn’t always work with him, I did many other projects. Some actresses take their make-up artists everywhere, and they’re best friends. But I’ve seen it go the other way, where they get too chummy with them and then all of a sudden they are dumped. My thing is to find work that’s creative and exciting for me, on a project that I want to do: I would seek out those projects. And also when I did his films I designed the whole show, I did all the make-up. I didn’t want to get pigeon-holed.”
Burke occasionally has to make-up an actor who can’t bear make-up, like Tilda Swinton in Minority Report. “Tilda hated make-up. She likes that bare-faced look and she’s created a whole beauty look around it. It’s gorgeous.” Burke’s career remains a work in progress and she is a shrewd businesswoman both on and off set. Her collaboration with make-up applicator manufacturers GEKA has led to sales of almost one million units in applicator designs to major cosmetics houses. Burke also paints. “Make-up design for film is collaborative, infused with the input and direction of actors, directors and producers, as well as studio and script requirements. I paint for my own pleasure. It helps me to perfect make-up skills and more completely explore the boundaries of light, shadow and blending.”
This Christmas, Burke will enjoy some downtime with family and friends, spending the festive season in Los Angeles. “Of course it’s impossible to top Christmas in Ireland. Nevertheless Christmas in Los Angeles is special,” she says. “My little town of Burbank has a Christmas decorating competition and everyone goes all out. I live in a very special horse-zoned community and there are group rides with Christmas carolers. Lots of dress-up – even for the horses and animals. As so many live here from all around the globe, the city fills with their extended families and friends. “Of course the weather is an attraction and work usually slows down a bit as Christmas approaches. It’s a time to catch up with close friends who have been working non-stop all year on film sets all over the world and a great time for parties and dinners.”
Michele Burke featured in IFTA’s In Conversation With series. For details, see www.ifta.ie.
This article appeared in a previous issue, for more features like this, don’t miss our January issue, out Thursday, January 5.
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