Promising Young Woman. Emerald Fennell’s directorial debut, is a stylish, contemporary thriller rich in candy-colored hues. Sylvie’sLove features Tessa Thompson and Nnamdi Asomugha in a lush, jewel-toned, 1950s love story. Two wildly different films showcasing the incredible range of one very talented makeup artist — Angie Wells.
In an interview with Awards Daily, Wells shares her visions for both projects, including Carey Mulligan’s many Promising disguises. When Wells isn’t on the set of buzzy films or collecting Emmy nominations, she also happens to be a world-class jazz singer, a personal connection she drew upon for Sylvie’s classic makeup looks.
Read more about her iconic creations below:
Awards Daily: Tell me about your vision for Promising Young Woman and how that all came together in reading the script and your discussions with Carey [Mulligan] and Emerald [Fennell].
Angie Wells: Sure. You know, after reading the script, I realized that this was a woman who was dealing with some issues. But she also had those wonderful characters that she used—these pseudo-disguises that she put together. The makeup, to me, was a character in its own right.
As I read scripts, I get these visuals and begin to jot down rough notes. Then I start pulling images of things that inspire or speak to me as a place to start. That’s my usual process. I pulled a few pictures, submitted some stuff to Emerald, and she was on board. She liked what I was doing. I know that there was just one very, very slight adjustment to the intensity of eyeliner for one thing. But that was it. We were pretty much on the same page, and Carey was very open to doing whatever needed to be done for the character. She gave deference to Emerald and Emerald’s vision. It was great because she would sit right down and allow me to do what needed to be done. I have to say, it was pretty easy to work with both of them. I worked with Carey before [on 2017’s Mudbound], she’s lovely and just a delight to work with. The process was not that complicated other than the fact that I knew that I needed to also pull in the psychology of the character.
She does these looks and these disguises, but it needs to look like she did them herself. I didn’t want to make them textbook perfect because it would look like they were done by a professional. And that, to me, would take you out of the story. That’s my feeling.
AD: I noticed that there was a lot of imagery with her lips throughout the film. On the poster, we have those, now iconic, hot pink lips. And, she also has that moment in the mirror when she smudges her lipstick. Was that intentional?
AW: You know, it’s interesting, we didn’t talk about lips as a specific feature. These were just things that I was inspired to do based on the description in the script of what the disguise would be. For instance, for the scene where she’s in the bar with the hair pulled back in a ponytail, I knew based on the script description what type of a woman she was supposed to look like. I thought to myself, ‘Okay, this is overdrawn lip liner outside of the lips, lots of gloss— that classic look.’
I liked the idea of using pink-toned colors, deep pink or reddish-pink. The one we used for the nurse is very intense, based on the lighting, it’s sometimes red, sometimes pink. I felt that pink was an interesting color to work with, so we used a lot of shades that have mauve or pink tones to them. In reality, the strongest parts of makeup are lips and eyes.
I also felt that having some really interesting and defined lips when she was doing the characters, as opposed to just being Cassie, was important. And if you notice, there’s a very distinct difference when she’s Cassie; she only has on tinted lip balm.
AD: I noticed that the film plays with pink a lot and shades of pink depending on her mood. I love that imagery.
AW: Yes, the pink was not only part of the story but also a good color palette to work with for Carey’s natural undertone.
AD: Her natural day-to-day look is that classic sort of all-American, little flick of eyeliner with the soft pink lip, and then it transitions to something more intense with her characters. Can you talk more about establishing that visual dichotomy?
AW: I wanted no connection between the looks of Cassie when she’s Cassie just being Cassie, as opposed to when she’s whatever character she becomes. It was very important to me to have that middle-America, all-American clean look and reflect a little bit of innocence. I went with a clean, lightly blushed cheek. It makes her completely different than these characters that she’s playing. They had a definitive edge. Whereas I wanted Cassie to look like there is a softness, a sweetness—I wanted you to feel the edge from her acting.
For instance, in the coffee shop, her makeup is a clean look. When you see her at home, it’s a clean look—her energy has the edge. Whereas when we go into the characters, I wanted the makeup to reflect that edge.
For her regular Cassie look, I worked with very sheer colors. I used a brown eyeliner in the lash-line instead of a dark black liner or a colored liner. I chose colors that were very harmonious with her skin, to look like they were part of her, instead of makeup sitting on top of her face. So you feel that you’re seeing the real Cassie, and the other Cassie is wearing her makeup like a mask.
AD: You don’t have to share your inspirations if you don’t want to, but some of her looks reminded me a lot of Heath Ledger’s Joker.
AD: Was that intentional?
AW: There’s a definite darkness to it. It’s almost like the tears of a clown. Her character is in no way silly at any time. But it speaks to wearing a mask—it speaks to the deterioration. If you notice, she starts to look harsher later in the story when she’s starting to spiral. We went into a little bit of a goth look with her black eyeliner. I pulled it down on the outer corners of the eye to bring a bit of sadness and a darkness to the face.
And even though it’s subtle, it is something that apparently people are noticing because someone else said to me, ‘Oh, it kind of reminds me of the Joker.’ So people are getting the darkness of that and the anger behind that. The scene where she smudges the lipstick—that to me was the place marker in the story where it’s like, ’Okay, it’s changing now. She’s really spiraling down’—the disguise becomes edgier. And even with the nurse, the nurse is sexy, but there’s something a little scary about her, which I wanted.
So yes, there was a bit of a subtle homage.
AD: What can you tell me about Sylvie’s Love and your work on that film?
AW:Sylvie’sLove was a really special film to be involved in because it was a story being told from a perspective that had not been seen on screen before. Usually, when there are stories about black people in the ‘50s, and there really haven’t been many stories about us in the ‘50s, but we were usually a side character that didn’t have much development, typically poor, no type of life, and often, portrayed through the eyes of another ethnicity, not our own. I found Sylvie’sLove intriguing because it was our story told from our perspective of the middle class, black life in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.
And yes, people dressed beautifully. I had pictures of my dad, who was a sharp-dressing man. My family was, too. When I spoke with [director] Eugene Ashe about the story, he sent me some of the photos, and I started sending him pictures of my family. For me, it was a wonderful chance to be part of something that had not been done before—a story that reflected a bit of innocence in our lives. And the fact that we also did things that people think only white people did—we had charm schools, we had cotillions. There was a middle-class black society that this is speaking to, and it was wonderful to be a part of it.
The second thing which made Sylvie very special for me is that I am also a professional jazz singer.
It’s an interesting story as to how I got pulled into the job—they called, I was submitted, I sent in my resume and that stuff.
And then Nnamdi started asking about, ‘Oh, well, what is your Instagram or Facebook?’ So I sent the handles over, and the next day, I woke up, and there was a text from Nnamdi saying, ‘Wait a minute, Angie, are you also a jazz singer?’
Because when he went on IG, there are two of me that come up—Angie Wells jazz, and Angie Wells makeup—look at the pictures, and you’ll see it’s the same person, one’s very glamorous, the other one’s in her work life.
So I said, ‘Yes, that is me.’ He said, ‘That’s it. You’re hired! This is kismet. You’re a jazz singer, and you do this, too! You’re going to have perfect insight into this.’
It’s funny, in the film when Nnamdi says that his favorite song is [Nina Simone]’s ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is,’ it made me smile because it’s one of my favorites. The day we filmed the theater scene, I actually sang that in the theater while we were waiting to set up.
AD: Sylvie’s Love has such a rich visual palate. How did you incorporate that into the makeup looks?
AW: It’s like beautiful Technicolor. [Costume designer] Phoenix Mellow sent over the costumes, and I went to some of the fittings to see what kinds of things she was pulling. I was inspired by that and the story and all of the photos that I researched from that time period. When you look at the makeup and the photos, they were beautiful and richly colored. Women usually had red, pink, or burnt orange colored lips. There was no nude lip until the ‘60s. So in the late ‘50s, if you’ll notice, most of the time, the lips were red, pink, coral, or some form of orange and bright. And then, once we moved to the ‘60s, I infused a few nude shades in there for Tessa’s character to wear. I wanted to make sure that we used appropriate colors. We used colors that looked like colors from the actual photos that we pulled from the time.
We wanted to make sure that we used things that were realistic looking for that era. There were two to three colors of eyeshadow during that time period—green, blue, and lavender. However, we did have to adjust the makeup to look good on darker skin tones. If someone back then used a lavender shadow, it would be a lot lighter in pigment than what would look good on brown skin. When the skin is darker, things tend to go white or very patchy looking. We made proper adjustments and used product lines that had colors that work with brown skin [Wells credits products from vintage-inspired brand Besame Cosmetics, as well as Lime Crime and MAC Cosmetics in helping her to create period-appropriate looks].
AD: In what ways does your career as a jazz singer influence your work as a makeup artist? Do you pull inspiration from the role of music in your life?
AW: Well, you know, it depends on what I’m working on, obviously for Sylvie, this was great, because of the whole musical aspect. I must say that with period pieces, which I’m kind of known for, I will often use some influence from my music, depending upon what the period was. Anything taking place after the 1920s that involves music, particularly in the jazz world or blues, then I do pull from my history with music.
But most of the time, it doesn’t really cross over. It’s two different worlds.
AD: It’s just so interesting that you have these two different avenues for your artistic talent.
AW: Yes, they are both very good outlets for me. And I get to sort of live between the two worlds. You know, I’ll fix my schedule so that I can tour in Europe in the summer if my projects allow me. Of course, this year, I can’t because of COVID, but it is nice for me because it gives me a chance to sort of rebuild. And then I come back and do my makeup. I love it.
AD: What’s next for you? A film? Are you working on music?
AW: Well, I am writing lyrics right now, and I’m hoping to start on my next album in the spring. I’ve got a project that we’re in negotiations for now, but I can’t speak on it, but that’s going to probably start in March.