The Makeup Behind HBO’s High Maintenance
Perhaps you’re binging a lot of TV these days—us, too. One show that team ITG can’t get enough of right now is High Maintenance. It’s a true NYC extravaganza that shows how wonderful, weird, and downright entertaining it is to be able to call this town of ours home. And the show really understands how to make New Yorkers look like, well, New Yorkers. It’s all in the makeup. We caught up with the wonder woman behind all the looks, makeup artist Sarah Graalman. We’ll let Sarah take it from here.
“When a character on television emerges from a shower exquisitely made-up or awakens with a freshly contoured face, I will shout at the screen. It smashes the world I was immersed in. TV shows are by definition not real, but that doesn’t mean the makeup needs to be completely unrealistic.
I run the makeup department for HBO’s High Maintenance. The show depicts fictional New Yorkers who are written to feel incredibly ‘real.’ I met co-creators Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair in 2012 when I did makeup for the episode ‘Elijah,’ and my first directive was to work on a character who ‘probably started her day with a smoky eye, but wouldn’t worry about touching it up all night.’ It was a succinct note to complement what I’d read in the script: College student, nonplussed to be home, gets stoned and winds up entwined with a chef.
High Maintenance, season one.
High Maintenance is a dream gig for me: I’ve always taken any job which afforded me close-up views of New York’s fringier worlds, and the show does that humanely without being precious. Characters are funny, sad, and flawed like every person I know. No storyline ends neatly and scripts translate readily into conversations about how these characters should look. There isn’t an overarching makeup style, since each story brings us into a new world. It’s real New York—my people-watching fantasia—where so many are gorgeous and creative hot-messes. These people put on faces to go out into the world, and it’s my job to express those personas in makeup choices.
Each face on the show matters, and small choices speak volumes: whether or not a character’s mascara is smudged, the presence of undereye circles, lipstick quickly drawn on. Attention to a beauty regimen says as much as a lack of one. We begin prepping scripts at the ‘looks meeting,’ where makeup, hair, and wardrobe join the creators and producers to discuss each character. Would that guy have a moustache? What style? When do they sweat? Would so-and-so own mascara?
A quasi ‘Glossier face’ from season four.
During our first season, we began using the phrase Glossier face to identify a modern character who loves a little flourish to complete a look—maybe a blue or green liner or an orange lip. They put themselves together but they’re not over-done. Some characters have Instagram face. Some have 10-minute work face or makeup they learned in the 90’s face—or 70’s, because many people get stuck in time.
The third episode this season, ‘Adelante,’ featured a post-jury duty karaoke party, followed by a foot-fetish party. So many types of New Yorkers were presented in the karaoke room—a controlling mother who lets loose was wearing a work face. An off-key secretary singing her heart out wore the same makeup she’d been wearing since the 80’s, and a young woman with a gorgeous voice was in a full modern face. Those notes aren’t in the script, but as casting happens and we see the actor’s wardrobes, looks come together. Sometimes the audience sees a character for seven seconds. Those seconds matter.
I hired a mani/pedicurist from Paintbox for the fetish party, then brought on four artists to help churn out faces. The party was a skewed mirror image of the jury-karaoke party: Another varied New York crew, out for arousal. The two female leads, Edi and Violet, are thrifty creative New Yorkers, straddling the Glossier face line. Violet is the fetish scene regular and has a routine—eyelashes, blue liner, and full coverage foundation. Edi, her best friend, is a foot fetish novice, using Violet’s kit to hurriedly slap on neon shadow. No time for eyeliner.
A ‘modern face’ from episode ‘Voir Dire.’
The sixth episode, ‘Voir Dire,’ follows a hard-working mother and dental technician named Nora. When working alongside her gloriously heavy-handed coworker Randi, Nora tries to put her best face forward with cheap glitter-shadow. Randi has purple lipstick, purple nails, and shimmers. Her look lets us know she’s loud.
When Nora goes out one night, she goes all out, relishing in painting up her face like she might have 20 years earlier. It’s an opportunity to show off after hiding for so long. I did her makeup from the angle that she ran her face though a few YouTube tutorials—she is open to learning new tricks.
Sometimes I work on sets where every character is in full face—skin perfectly matte and contouring effortlessly blended. I love full beauty makeup— it’s soothing and aspirational—but doing makeup for High Maintenance allows a different perspective: Who are we, in our complicated lives? When we’re vulnerable or alone, or wandering home at 1am after a perfect night? Who is that person across from you on the subway with tired eyes? What is the face you put on to be in the world, or to hide?”
Photos courtesy of the author and HBO.