Oscar 2012 Behind the Scenes: How Meryl Streep became 'The Iron Lady'

One of the most astonishing elements of Meryl Streep’s Oscar nominated performance in The Iron Lady is how much the actress resembles former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. EW spoke with one-half of the film’s Oscar nominated makeup team, Mark Coulier, about how he collaborated with Streep and her longtime makeup artist J. Roy Helland* to come up with Streep’s look as Thatcher both in her political prime and in her later years as an 85-year-old woman struggling with dementia. (*Fun fact: Helland has been working with Streep for over 35 years, but this is his first nomination for an Academy Award.) 

There were two methods that Coulier and Helland could have used to transform Meryl Streep into Margaret Thatcher. The first — cover practically her entire face in latex prosthetics — makes no sense: Why prevent our greatest living actress from using her best tool, her face? “Meryl had very strong ideas about how much she wanted covering up [her face],” says Coulier, so quickly he and Helland settled on a second approach: “Just find elements of Margaret Thatcher, and keep prosthetics to a minimum so you can use the natural facial features.” To that end, they used only a simple nose piece for Thatcher’s younger years (as well as teeth inserts, of course). Creating the octogenarian Thatcher, however, was a trickier prospect.

Coulier first took a life-size casting of Streep’s face, and then sculpted the elderly Thatcher from it in plastiline clay (pictured, insert). He then began crafting thin latex prosthetics for Streep’s face, and a thick piece to capture Thatcher’s more fleshy neck. But pretty much everything from the eyes up was all Streep. “Margaret Thatcher had a much fuller face than Meryl,” says Coulier. “She’s got great cheek bones, and we wanted to get rid of that. [But] you get the real eyebrows, the real forehead, the real wrinkles under the eyes. And then matching in with prosthetics that we’d developed, with the teeth, the neck, and the nose — it fools the eye more, having something real and something fake mixed together.” Coulier has worked closely with other actors before on dramatic transformations — including Ralph Fiennes’ serpentine look for Voldemort in the Harry Potter films. But for The Iron Lady, he says, “it was a really, really close collaboration to try to get to the end result, which is why it works quite well.”

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