Lights, Camera, Makeup: A Q&A with Leslee Newcomb

“Veremonda, l’amazzone di Aragona”, a baroque opera playing at the Dock Street Theatre.

In her work, Leslee Newcomb gets really close to Spoleto performers and Hollywood celebrities. She is a hair and makeup artist who has worked on the cheekbones of film and TV stars, as well as the countenances of Spoleto performers since the early days of the festival.

Before the mirrored lights and leopard-print chair of the makeup room at the Dock Street Theatre, Newcomb was quick to show off wigs from “Veremonda” and the pile of Spoleto booklets at a window. She has kept the booklets from all 38 festivals that she has participated in.

Q: When did you become interested in makeup?

A: I’ve been doing makeup for 50 years. More than 50 years really. It’s what I do and I love it. In high school, I decided I wanted to be a makeup artist because of all the films. I loved their porcelain skin. That was the start. I was in Palo Alto, 45 miles south of San Francisco, so when I graduated high school I already had an apartment with a girlfriend in San Francisco. Then I found a guy who had a store that had makeup, and he was an old MGM makeup guy who took me on. He taught me things and I just got jobs. That was easy, for me anyway.

Q: What are some of the favorite films you’ve worked on?

A: My last film was “Jack” with Robin Williams, who died just last year. He was a lovely man. He was really great, actually. My favorite story is that for that movie they had to have prosthetics, so they got a guy from Hollywood to come up and they did a camera test and all that. I was there the whole time. He came at 7 in the morning, he had two breaks and he had a lunch, and he was lovely. At about 3:30 p.m., a young assistant director asked to come in and he asked the makeup guy, ‘How long is this going to take?’ Robin said right away to him, ‘Don’t you worry, you take as much time as you want.’ Yes! That’s the answer. It’s a thing that has to be absolutely right and this is the chance to do it. It ended at about 5 and they took some film of it to make sure everything was good. He was lovely to speak up and say that.

Q: Do you get really close to the actors?

A: Sometimes. Sometimes I know the actors already because I have worked with them before, and that is nice. Because we are intimately touching them, we are touching their faces and that is really intimate. Nobody else does that. I mean the lights light them, but they don’t physically touch them. While we are so close, we chat.

Q: What are some funny stories from your time at Spoleto?

A: I asked ... the production manager about the guy who held the job before me. He goes, ‘Oh, him, he wore a gun holster and he had a blow dryer in it.’ In opera, we rarely use a blow dryer unless their hair is wet and we have to dry them or they sweat or something. But we don’t use if for styling anything. Just the image of that is very funny to me — that he had a holster with a blow dryer in it.

Q: How is it different to do hair and makeup for the stage vs. a film set?

A: It’s really different. On film and television you get there really early in the morning, and you go really fast and get it done and then you wait. You wait, but you have to stay near the cameras and make sure you are available if there are touch-ups. It’s called ‘hurry up and wait.’ Whereas in theater it is timed, the curtain is going to go up at 8 and we have to be ready on time. It’s all live.

Q: How long does makeup take?

A: It depends on what they need. Sometimes in television you have to be more specific because the camera gets so close and you have to be really right. If they are getting aged or they are getting any prosthetics, it takes longer. We do aging, and that depends on who it is and how much they have to be aged. But there are a few people in this cast that are getting aged, and it can take just 15 minutes or 20 minutes more to get the indents and the wrinkles.

Q: Why are you retiring?

A: After 38 years, I’m tired. It’s done. I’m 74, so it’s time. But who knows? Maybe I will come next year. I think they will let me come next year.

Blair Sylvester is a Goldring Arts journalist from Syracuse University.