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How 'Dallas Buyers Club' Makeup Artist Worked With a $250 Budget

Ahead of Saturday's Make-Up Artists and Hair Stylists Guild Awards, makeup maven nominee Robin Mathews shares how $250 transformed Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto into the film's characters.
Jared Leto in "Dallas Buyers Club"
Focus Features

There's no question that Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto have been dominating this year's awards season for their roles in Dallas Buyers Club. From McConaughey's shocking weight loss to Leto's unrelenting on-set persona, the actors played convincing AIDS patients — real-life Ron Woodroof (McConaughey) and Rayon (Leto) — with help from the film's makeup artist, Robin Mathews.

While Dallas Buyers Club isn't widely recognized for its makeup achievements, Mathews shared that it was her intention not to make it obvious. "There's so much more makeup in Dallas Buyers Club than people initially realize," Mathews -- a Make-Up Artists and Hair Stylists Guild Award nominee -- told Pret-a-Reporter over the phone. "It's meant to be that way, because if you're watching the makeup in the film, then it's completely taking you out of the movie."

PHOTOS: Anatomy of an Awards Contender: Behind the Scenes of 'Dallas Buyers Club'

In fact, Mathews used an abundance of makeup on both actors to show their various stages of experiencing AIDS. Whatever she did with McConaughey's image (highlighting the contour of his face and body to show sickness, and reverse-highlighting the contour and using dental plumpers to plump his cheeks from the inside to show good health), she did the same with Leto. However, with Leto, it required more work since she had to put beauty makeup on top of the contour makeup.

"It was really tricky because I had to make sure the level of sickness underneath still showed through the beauty makeup. It was a super delicate makeup balance, and a lot of work," said Mathews.

One of the most difficult looks to achieve included the final stages of the illness, especially for Leto, when their medication is taken away. Mathews explained how the process required hand-painting the rash on Leto's face, topping it off with three layers of gray and marble concentrate, and using a "stretch and stipple" method to age him. To give the rash a dry, flaky look, Mathews applied another layer made with pieces of grit and cornmeal. And why was she being so resourceful instead of, say, using prosthetics? Because her budget was only $250. 

"Normally, I would have made prosthetics, but we didn't have the money to do that," Mathews explained. Instead, she looked at photos from prior research and re-created the look on her own. "I looked at the photos and was like, 'I can get away with grits and cornmeal.' I did a test on my own hands and saw what it looked like."

EXCLUSIVE VIDEO: Jared Leto and 'Dallas Buyers Club' Co-stars on His Transgender Character, Rayon

Meeting Leto as Rayon for the first time in the makeup trailer was a memorable moment for Mathews. She recalled how Leto "was kind of sizing me up to see what I was all about." During their conversation, the makeup artist then suggested that he wax off his eyebrows. Right before she went to pull off the wax, Leto softly touched her hands and said in Rayon's soft voice, "Make it quick, sweetheart." After she was done, she noted that the actor seemed "impressed and relaxed at that point, and realized I was a good makeup artist for her."

Indeed she is. She is nominated at this Saturday's Make-Up Artists and Hair Stylists Guild Award, after all.

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