The following article contains spoilers for Her Smell.
When Elisabeth Moss landed the role as reckless lead singer Becky Something in Her Smell, the actress wasn't exactly used to playing a heedless grunge icon. In fact, the music genre was new territory for the actress — on both a professional and personal level. She told Rolling Stone that she grew up listening to more Britney Spears than Courtney Love, making this on-screen transformation one of her most intensive yet (yes, even including Offred in The Handmaid's Tale). But turning into a glitter-soaked, sweaty, and occasionally even bloody heathen didn't just require thousands of hours on Spotify listening to Bikini Kill and a grungy wardrobe: A really great makeup and hair department was critical.
Her Smell tells the story of Something, a punk-rock musician on the decline who isn't just struggling with waning celebrity, but also substance abuse. Emotional breakthroughs seep into almost every scene of the two-hour and 15-minute film, often leaving Moss covered in distressed eyeliner that spends more time on her cheeks than it does on her eyelids and stringy hair that probably hasn't seen shampoo in weeks. These may seem like minor character details, but Something's deteriorating physical appearance was crucial to the story's narrative.
To get the scoop on the meaning behind the makeup and hair in Her Smell, we talked to the pros: the film's makeup department head Emma Strachman, hair department head Elissa Ruminer, and makeup designer Amy L. Forsythe.
Deconstructed Glitter Is Much More Than Punk Aesthetics
"We wanted her makeup to correlate to what was going on inside of Becky," Strachman tells Refinery29. But even then, the makeup had to look authentic, like this rock star was actually applying eyeliner to her lashline and letting it go for the next several hours without taking one look in the mirror.
She's not just messy because that was the image of the grunge subculture, but because she neglects herself. Something is a manic grunge tornado — and it shows, especially in Act 3 (of five in the film). After going further and further down the rabbit hole of substance abuse, Something emerges sweaty, damp, and covered in makeup. Her signature shadow-y eyelids, fuchsia lipstick, and stain of glitter are a literal hot mess.
Although the audience knows Something is spiraling thanks to Moss' emotional performance, it's her lack of self-care that can only be translated through her melting makeup. Forsythe describes it as Something being in so deep, with her god complex at an all-time high, that she can't realize that everyone around her (the entire audience, no less) notices. "Her messy cry is a week's worth of mascara and the glitter, from who knows when she applied it for the show, running down her face as if somewhere inside she’s trying to cleanse herself of the disguise she has had on for so many years," Forsythe explains. "The sweat, the blood, the mascara, the glitter, all mixing on her face is as if to say enough is enough."
Allowing the instability to show through her makeup was crucial; she couldn't be precise while hitting peak meltdown. This look in particular, Forsythe says, is one most audiences will resonate with the most because of how vulnerable and unhinged Something appears: She, in that moment, is succumbing to her demons, and it's on full display.
Courtney Love Meets Kim Gordon Hair
Moss and Ruminer agreed that Something's look had to shift, even if minimally, throughout the five acts to show both her growth and decline. The only thing that stayed the same was the color (an icier, Courtney-Love blonde) and length created with the help of some extensions. "The hair inspiration came from Courtney Love and Kim Gordon," Ruminer tells us. "If they had a sister it would be Becky."
Since the film takes place over the course of a decade, Something's hairstyles shift as drastically as the makeup. The audience watches Something's hair go from glamorously wild and voluminous — essentially, at its finest — in Act 1 to dull and thinning in Act 2 and 3. This immediate change signals that her continued substance abuse triggered physical side effects beyond addiction, actually stunting hair follicle growth.
In Act 3, Something, out of control and isolated, looks as unkempt as possible, which ended up including sweat-soaked hair that is matted and bloody by the end of the act. Thanks to the dramatic shift in lighting from her performance to backstage, Something's brunette roots end up looking darker and dirtier than usual, ultimately forcing the audience to wonder, Is this her rock bottom?
Chipped Nails Became A Signature
You can't complete a punk singer's look without including her nail polish — or lack thereof. "We did several nail paint jobs throughout the acts," says Strachman, who kept Something in a slate-gray polish palette throughout the film.
Of course, as the character's makeup and hair deteriorate, so does her fading manicure. "There was a lot of chipping involved," Strachman says. "It had to look worn."
During Act 4, when Something is getting sober and she's at her most vulnerable, her nails are without a strip of polish for the first time throughout the whole movie, essentially to match her stripped-down makeup and hair look. "That's like a breath of fresh air, kind of a rebirth for Becky," Strachman explains. "There's a stillness to the act, which is this total counterpart to what we'd seen up until that point."
It's still too early to say whether Moss will rake in any awards nominations for this role, but at the very least, begin your considerations now for Strachman, Ruminer, and Forsythe, who nailed the aesthetics of Something's rock-and-roll rollercoaster.
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