'Big Little Lies' Makeup Designer on Standout Season 2 Looks, Hidden Meaning Behind Tattoos

Big Little Lies - HBO Publicity-h 2019
Courtesy of Jennifer Clasen/HBO

"I had 18 additional makeup artists every day for a week working between three stations: disco glam, facial hair and face painting," recalls Michelle Radow about the disco birthday at Renata's house. "The kids loved it!"

Veteran makeup designer Michelle Radow (Sharp Objects, The Affair) is responsible for bringing the characters of Liane Moriarty's novel Big Little Lies to life in the second season of the HBO drama.

That includes the execution of their various tattoos, which is a collaboration with parlors; and the many bruises, cuts and burns that occur throughout the show.

Amid the heat of season two, which explores the aftermath of Perry's deathThe Hollywood Reporter spoke with Radow to learn the impetus that launched her interest in makeup, her process in creating the illusions and the hidden code she incorporated into different tattoos, as well as the way she collaborates with the camera and lighting departments to create looks appropriate for the visual style of the show. Plus, she shares her favorite looks from the season. 

Can you recall an early experience with makeup where you considered its relationship to character and self-expression?

When I was very young I spent a lot of time at my grandmother Bianca’s house. Every night she would tell me a story from her life, along with album after album of photos. She had 11 brothers and sisters; her mom, Maria, died when she was 12, her father, Sifredo, immigrated to Brooklyn from Italy, she got married at 19, lived in Japan for 9 years, she was diagnosed with leukemia at the age of 42 and doctors said she had two years to live...the stories went on. I was fascinated, especially by the photos. It made all the stories come to life. Pictures of my grandfather in the Navy, their home in Japan, my mom in Japan, my grandmother and friends in the late 1940s and beyond. Different decades, cultures, hairstyles and makeup. My mind was exposed to all these ideas and visuals of self-expression at such a young age, I think it was a perfect start that led me to a career of creating characters. 

What's your strategy for creating memorable yet also natural looks for the characters in Big Little Lies?

I credit both makeup department head Steve Artmont and director Jean-Marc Vallée, from Big Little Lies season one, for initially creating the looks for the characters in the series. As far as creating the looks for new characters in season two, I kept the first season’s look in mind and then enhanced it with some details. For example, in addition to Corey Brockfield’s (Douglas Smith) five tattoos I designed, I added a slight tan, sheen, and freckles to help create his surfer Monterey Aquarium nerd vibe. For Elizabeth Howard (Crystal Fox), Bonnie’s mother, I used a lot of muted purples, burgundies, and rich brown tones to give an earthy, relaxed vibe. In general, I kept a lot of moisture in everyone’s skin because of the environment and setting of the show. 

How did you execute the various tattoos and bruises?

For characters like Corey and Nathan Carlson (James Tubber), I teamed up with Alexei Dmitriew at HookUp Tattoos to custom-design them. Corey ended up with five, and Nathan had a few established from season one in addition to three new ones I added. Director Andrea Arnold expressed early on that she envisioned Corey with tattoos. I’m glad, because this character was a really fun one to design. Three of Corey’s five tattoos have hidden meanings. I was kicking around ideas and I thought to incorporate Morse code into his designs. Right forearm: sound wave-inspired design; the message decoded says there is always music. Left forearm: the design is a hybrid between a heartbeat and a sound wave; the Morse code says keep dancing. Left upper shoulder is two paper airplanes flying in opposite directions; the dotted and dashed trail left behind each plane says it is what it is. Corey also sports a vertical solar system tattoo down his upper back and an anchor on his right rib cage. Each Morse code message is something he says to Jane throughout the series.

For Nathan’s three new tattoos, I took some inspiration from tattoo artists like Dr. Woo. I wanted them to have a poke and dot vibe. Nicole’s [Kidman] personal makeup artist, Angela Levin, designed and applied the bruises for Celeste’s character. I did do several other cuts, bruises and burns throughout the series. I like to use all different mediums, like tattoo transfers, prosthetics, or painted-on highlight and shadow. I do a lot of testing and visual research and see what works best. 

How do you collaborate with the lighting and camera departments to achieve looks appropriate for a darker production?

It is a very collaborative process that involves constant communication. I ask the director and DP questions about how they plan on shooting a particular scene. I do this not just for a darker production, but for any project. I work closely with the DP for camera tests, especially when prosthetics and blood are needed. 

Do you have a favorite look from the show so far?

I had a lot of fun designing the kids’ party looks this season for the disco birthday at Renata’s (Laura Dern). I hand-mixed seven tubs of custom glitter colors for some principal actors, as well as for all the background actors. I had 18 additional makeup artists every day for a week working between three stations: disco glam, facial hair and face painting. We used Mehron aqua paints, custom-made stencils, MAC acrylic paints and pigments, and airbrush colors by Temptu & European Body Art to achieve some of the looks. The kids loved it! They had so much fun getting their makeup designed and put on every day. They would hang out in the makeup trailer to sit and watch each other get transformed.