How To Make It (Look Good) In America
The new HBO series How to Make It In America wraps its freshman season this Sunday—and hopefully the finale won’t be the last we see of it. The show follows the struggles of creative young hipsters trying to make it big in New York City while tooling around the Lower East Side. The cast features stunners like Lake Bell, who plays an up-and-coming interior designer, and her quirky boss, Martha Plimpton, who frequently rocks an offbeat coral lip and keeps a stash of Ecstasy in her top drawer. While fans debate its fate online, we’re more fixated on the beauty looks, which manage to be cool in an effortless, unscripted kind of way. We caught up with the lead makeup artist, Bradley Stenson, to find out how crafting realistic looks actually requires a lot of product—and a little bit of illusion.
The show has drawn a lot of comparisons to Sex and the City for its location and narratives about relationships. But unlike SATC, the looks are not over-the-top trendy. How did you play it subtle-but-distinctive with the makeup?
Well, the thing is, the setting is gritty but the characters should look good. So I focused on fixing imperfections and enhancing an actor’s look, not changing it.
What’s your secret technique?
I take a Polaroid first and look at what needs to be fixed. Mostly it’s a little lift and minor adjustment to make someone’s features more symmetrical. I can line eyes in a way that makes them appear more balanced, or shade a nose with foundation to sculpt it. You have to be like David Copperfield—a master of illusion.
Well, your magic must work because Lake Bell doesn’t appear to be wearing any makeup, even in hi-def. It just seems like she patted on some blush and lipstick.
Oh, you have no idea! You’d be surprised at everything I used.
Please, do tell—spare no details!
OK, I start by putting Sonya Dakar Omega-3 Repair Complex oil all over her face for serious moisture. Then I layer on La Mer Hydrating Infusion, the one in the green bottle, and the La Mer Crème—the really rich one. Next I prep with Laura Mercier Hydrating Foundation Primer and Vincent Longo Water Canvas Base #4 under her eyes and T-zone to give her a new layer of skin. I follow that with La Mer Tinted Moisturizer #3, which is off the hook. I put in on with a sponge and just spread it all over. It gives you a glowy effect that’s amazing. Finally, I swipe Yves Saint Laurent Touche Eclat in that half-moon area under her eyes so the light bounces off her face.
Your makeup kit must weigh a ton. I’ve noticed that you don’t really do the smoky-eye thing, which is pretty pervasive these days. Why have you steered clear of it, for the most part?
Lake’s character has a clean look; she’s easy breezy. I take Yves Saint Laurent Eye Pencil in Deepest Green, which isn’t piercing black, and ridge her lash lines sometimes, but that’s it. The hue has a certain level of intensity, but it’s not screaming “obvious.”
Let’s talk lipstick. It seems to be what makes each character stand out. How did you pick the colors?
Yes, exactly. I wanted the colors to reflect their personalities. Lake is a natural beauty so I chose Vincent Longo Lip & Cheek Gel Stain in Liquid Kiss. For Edie, Martha Plimpton’s character, I went with Clarins Color Quench Lip Balm #4, an offbeat coral. And for Gingy, the downtown gallery owner [played by Shannyn Sossamon], she really has her stuff together, so she’s NARS Jungle Red.
Where do you get your inspiration from? How do you stay up on what’s actually worn on the street?
I love to people-watch all over New York. I spent a lot of time walking around the Village, Harlem, parts of Brooklyn and Queens. I find it really inspiring to see what’s up there. But the subway is actually where I get most of my imagery from. You see everyone on the subway.
So any word on whether we’ll see a second season?
I’ll let you know when I know! No official word yet.