Oscar Buzz – Interview with Cate Blanchett’s Makeup Artist for Carol
Cate Blanchett, arguably one of our greatest actors, will discover if she has won the Best Actress award for a seventh time, for her performance in Carol, at the Oscars on Sunday.
Adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s novel of lesbian love in repressed Fifties New York, Carol is an exceptionally beautiful film and Cate Blanchett has never looked more exquisite.
Halfway across the world, the woman whom Cate entrusts with her face, will be watching from her apartment in Rome.
Morag Ross a petite, raven-haired Glaswegian, whose luminous skin belies her 57 years, is the three time BAFTA winning makeup artist who has transformed Cate Blanchett on screen for more than fifteen years.
Morag says, “Cate is one the best actors of our generation. She’s also remarkably brave in her choices. Unlike some other A-listers she’s not interested in playing herself on screen. She’s not playing Cate Blanchett so she doesn’t want to be glamorous necessarily or insist on having the same colour hair or have that reference; she wants to truly inhabit a character.”
Testament to this was Cate Blanchett’s recent performance in Manifesto when Morag transformed Cate into 13 different characters as diverse as a homeless man and a newsreader.
Having worked with some of the greatest directors including Steven Speilberg and Martin Scorsese, Morag is renowned for her sublime beauty makeup and richly authentic, glamorous period work on Oscar winning films such as The Aviator, Hugo and Orlando.
Morag, who fought with her parents to attend Glasgow School of Art, has been BAFTA nominated eight times and went on to work with some of the most famous Hollywood faces including Cate, Tilda Swinton, Sarah Jessica Parker, Liam Neeson and Jake Gyllenhaal to name but a few, in a career spanning thirty years.
So how did the girl from Glasgow make it to Hollywood?
“My parents wanted me to go to university, I had a place to study languages. But I wanted to study art. My father, who sadly passed away before I made it to Glasgow School of Art, was very against me going. He kept telling me ‘you’ll never get a job’.”
Morag studied mural design but also became heavily immersed in the punk and new romantic scene. She worked on the college’s annual fashion shows as well as doing makeup for local hairdressers on fashion shoots.
And she and her friends made regular pilgrimages to The Blitz; a decadent London nightclub that was the birthplace of the music and fashion of the 80s. It became a hothouse for an explosion in creativity that swept across London creating the New Romantic movement as well as spawning the likes of Steve Strange, Sigue Sigue Sputnick and Boy George.
Morag says, “It was a very potent time and I did a lot of art makeup. One day someone said to me ‘you could do this as a living, you could study makeup and become a makeup artist’ which had never occurred to me. I did an interview plus a test and I got a place at BBC London makeup school, which sadly doesn’t exist anymore.”
“It was a different world. I hung up my degree show on the Friday .The following Monday I was sitting at the BBC in White City in a makeup overall.”
Morag found the traditional environment at the BBC particularly challenging, “I was a young punk anarchist at heart trying to embrace the restrictions of a very traditional environment, which with hindsight I didn’t fully enjoy at the time.”
Morag wasn’t at the BBC for long. She left in the mid 80s when Channel 4 was born and went on to work on pop videos where she met the producer of Derek Jarman’s film Carrivagio.
“They asked me if I would like to work on it and of course because of my art background I knew about him because he was a famous gay artist. I had many gay artistic friends and that was my world really so of course I said yes,” explains Morag.
This meant that Morag became the Makeup Designer on her first film at the tender age of 27 – a remarkable achievement.
And it seems that the stars were aligned as it also led to her working on The Man Who Cried, where she would meet Cate Blanchett.
“Cate asked me to be her personal makeup artist on her next film and that was it. I went on to work with her, on and off for the next 15 years,” says Morag.
So what is it that makes their relationship click?
Morag pauses for a moment, “I think a lot of it is personality and the rest is skill. Cate is such a perfectionist. She always pushes herself and questions herself. She really is amazing at her craft. I like to work with her because she pushes me, not with words, but she just wants to do even better than before. We are always striving to try and make something look better together.”
Clearly their collaboration is incredibly successful. On screen in Carol there is a visual softness to Cate that reflects her character’s vulnerability, as she is forced to choose between her child and the woman she loves.
Working closely with renowned costume designer Sandy Powell, Morag created an exquisite visual palette, “I’ve got a long history of working with Sandy Powell, who is a legend. It’s a wonderful thing to see Cate with those coral lips and the coral scarf and the matching nails – it’s like a gorgeous marriage that’s just so beautiful.”
Morag took inspiration from Erwin Blumenfeld, one of the most influential photographers of the 20th Century as well as references from Grace Kelly and other 50s icons. She is also an avid buyer of art books and has a remarkable personal collection which she hopes to leave to makeup school eventually.
Morag is also a huge fan of Italian film and especially Italian hairdressers whom she believes create some of the most beautiful hair design in the world. She’s passionate about sharing traditional techniques to enhance modern makeup design. Morag believes it’s vital for the next generation of makeup artist’s to have a solid grounding in traditional design approaches.
“I think the sadness is that everything has speeded up and generally, in everything in life now, it seems everyone wants a quick fix. Now people can take short courses and at the end of it they have a certificate saying they are a makeup artist, which is a big label to inherit in just a couple of weeks.”
She is well aware that she is one of a generation of makeup artists who were part of a golden era in makeup training at the BBC, which no longer exists. The standards were exacting and highly demanding. Today makeup artist training has changed radically.
Morag explains, “There are so many more people wanting to do the job now than ever before, but obviously there is only a limited amount of work.”
“But I would love to teach. I really like sharing knowledge and I think it’s very important. I’ve never been one to be secretive about how I create a makeup or design a character – it’s good to share,” says Morag.
With such a successful career one wonders if there are there any icons left that Morag still dreams of working with.
Her eyes light up as she replies, “Wong Kar-Wai. I love his films, especially In the Mood for Love. Everything about that film, the stories, the costumes, the hair and makeup, just make me melt, so delicious. I dream about that.”
If Morag’s father had lived one can only imagine how proud he would have been to see what his daughter has achieved and that her work will be on show again for the entire world to see, at the 88th Academy Awards ceremony this Sunday night.
Visit Morag’s Instagram page – https://www.instagram.com/morag_ross_makeup_artist/
A huge thank you to Morag whom it was a privilege to interview and who was so generous with her time.