The suspense surrounding the release of the film adaption of the Swedish thriller The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo has been almost as gripping as the novel itself: First we learned that David Fincher (Fight Club, The Social Network) would be directing the project, then it was rumored—and later confirmed—that the not-so-Swedish Daniel Craig would star as the male lead. Next came the unexpected twist of casting the doe-eyed Rooney Mara as the film’s darkly seditious title character. And then the plot thickened even more: Legendary face-painter Pat McGrath was enlisted to be the makeup expert responsible for transforming Mara into a stone-cold, kohl-eyed computer hacker. After receiving a personal e-mail from Fincher—one that almost went overlooked—McGrath flew out to the set in Sweden to design more than 20 looks to be used in the film trilogy. Here, she talks to Style.com about bleached eyebrows, letting “raw” skin show through on camera, and why a red smoky eye reads better on screen than black.
How did the journey with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo begin for you? Had you met David Fincher before?
No, I had never met him before. He sent me an e-mail out of the blue asking me to do the makeup for the film in July, when everybody is on holiday and everything shuts down. I don’t think I saw the e-mail for weeks. Once I realized it was David Fincher himself, I was very excited. I immediately said yes, and the next thing I knew, I was flying out to Sweden to meet David, his team, and Rooney.
You’ve worked in many different capacities at this point, but had you done movies before?
No, this was my first. I’ve always wanted to do movies, and to start with David is amazing. It was all completely new.
Did you have an idea for how you wanted to do the makeup right away?
The moment I heard that Rooney got the part, I thought, wow, the hair has to be short and we have to bleach the brows. As soon as I saw her bone structure and her skin, I knew that I could take her look in so many different directions.
Did you do any other research for the part—or watch the original Swedish version?
I didn’t watch the original version. Instead, I immersed myself in the books for three weeks. I did a lot of talking and e-mailing with David about how Lisbeth should look, I went through punk archives, and just watched kids on the street. The goal was to be as authentic and real to the character as possible.
Rooney Mara wasn’t exactly known as the menacing type before being cast in the film. How did you transform her?
I told David, once we bleach her brows and dye her hair black, you’ll see—she’ll look threatening and otherworldly. She’ll become this dark, androgynous, and mysterious loner. And after the brows, I thought, oh my gosh, yes. The final look is very striking.
But how did you avoid that clichéd goth makeup effect?
It had to look like Lisbeth did the makeup herself. Not like a makeup artist did it for her. If you’re this ultra-tomboy, you’re not comfortable getting the perfect face in the mirror, right? So I knew that too much makeup would take away from that. Instead, we kept the skin really clean and raw and focused on shaping the eyes.
Her smoky eyes are no joke. How did you create that intensity?
We came up with about 200 different versions of this reddish smoky eye with many different dimensions. The trick was to take black and brown eye colors and add a tiny drop of red—that created a look that was vulnerable but hard and strong. I used a lot of CoverGirl LiquilineBlast in Black Fire and Brown Blaze, then highlighted with CoverGirl Intense ShadowBlast in Brown Bling. For the touch of red, I smudged in Dolce & Gabbana The Eyeshadow Quad in Vulcano—the shade on the lower left side—and CoverGirl Eye Enhancers 1-Kit Eyeshadow in Forever Fig.
And about that “raw” skin.
There was no foundation. I wanted her skin to be translucent and for it to change color in the cold. In fact, the most beautiful scene is when she was actually very cold.
Seriously, no foundation at all?
If you have perfect skin, it’s better not to see products. And I thought, why would this girl spend five hours putting on makeup? That wouldn’t track with the character. Also, Rooney’s got beautiful skin. So I just massaged my Olay Regenerist Deep Hydrating Regenerating Cream and SKII LXP Ultimate Revival Cream into the skin, so I could see the areas where it would get red. Then I did a tiny bit of contouring around the eyes and cheeks with Dolce & Gabbana The Makeup Blush in Tan.
How does the experience of working on set compare to being backstage?
It was really fun, and a totally different pace. We were all in a studio together; David had a camera and he was taking pictures. It was about experimenting and letting go. We spent hours morphing and changing Rooney’s look, playing with ideas. It was really amazing to watch the attention to detail. David and I would talk about her hands for an hour! There was that kind of attention to character.
I’m guessing you don’t get that kind of time backstage?
The way we work in fashion, we have to do one look 20 or 60 times. We have to find the character once we see a shoe or the color of a background screen. Everything goes so much faster in fashion. So it was great to study a person and a character.
How did Rooney like being experimented on?
Rooney, she loved it! She really enjoyed it, the whole process. She was a real joy to work with. She handled the piercings, shaving her hair short—she just embraced the character. And she loved all the makeup, from the natural to weird to the beautiful. She really became that character. In the end, we created 26 different versions of Lisbeth for all three of the films.
It’s already been hinted in the press that Mara’s look is a flawless interpretation of the original character. How do you feel about watching the premiere?
I’m really excited. But nervous at the same time. I’m taking a friend and we’re going together.
What’s next for you? Any plans to do another film?
Well, there have been a couple of offers, so yes. But let’s see what happens after we have some meetings! I think it would be so inspiring to work on more films, and to create many more faces.