If you've seen Vikings, you'll know just how legit its characters look — everything from the runes tattooed on their skin to their clothing and appearance, everything down to their beards. We talked to on-set stylist and makeup guru Tom McInerney to get the low-down on how the show recreates 13th century Norse men and women so accurately.
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CS: I think of makeup in a cinematic setting as being a relatively new invention, but it's obviously a long running tradition in different cultures around the world. What are some styling and makeup quirks that the Vikings used in their everyday lives?
TM: Well in a cinematic setting , make up is older than celluloid, it’s as old as theatre, as old as performance itself in every form of context you can imagine, from the relationships we have with our reflections, to the relationships we share with others and telling stories. As for the Vikings — no one really knows. There is archaeological evidence that suggests they groomed and bathed regularly. There are manuscripts from the 10th century that describe them physically at a particular cultural epoch in their history.
They did some weird shit.
They were proud of how they looked, but had odd morning rituals. They would gather together and clean themselves daily from one communal bowl. The first Viking would wash his or her face and hair (a tops and tails affair if you like), clear their nose and throat into the bowl and the pass the fucking thing on!!!! To about 10 of them, all doing the same thing! We did a scene in season 1 of Vikings to copy this ritual... it went down like a cup of cold puke and we never did again.
They wore eyeliner, men and women. We know so little about them we can only interrupt and embellish from what little documentation we have about them ,they were tough as nails, the men and the women, but it’s hard to put make up anyone playing a character of that paradigm without making them look contrived or “Hollywood” , which I try my best to avoid.
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CS: What kind of research did you and the team do to build out the styles of the characters on the show? Is everything historically accurate, or have you taken a bit of artistic licence or been restricted by current fashions?
TM: We went to a great deal of trouble to create an authentic look within the context of the drama of the show. We’ve taken some liberties for sure, but all of those liberties have caveats we adhere to. It allows us to form a protracted pallet in which to paint the patina of the show of the Vikings with relative creativity.
There is some documentation that accurately describes a tribe of Vikings from 10th Century in Russia... The document outlines what they looked like at that period, so we made a leap from there. We’re watched very closely by lofty historians that are very quick to put the creative breaks on any ill-fitting aesthetics.
For example, every tattoo on the show is directly lifted from an archaeological wood or stone or metal carvings. There isn’t one piece of artwork from the makeup department that isn’t an authentic Viking piece of art work... we do “rearrange” the knot work to make it fit into bends and corners.
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CS: How much time and effort goes into building the look of a new character on the show? Do you have much say in a character's makeup or styling, or is it led by a director? Do the Vikings have any particular flourishes that you can lean on to make one character stand out from another?
TM: A great deal of energy goes into developing the look of a new character of the show. I have a large team of really creative people at my back, we don’t always have a whole lot of time so we do the best we can. In terms of how much say I have, it’s a collaborative process between the Director the Producers and me. I have veto on looks I don’t think will work. I am very lucky that way.
The producers of the show have really invested in us over the years and have imparted a good deal of trust to the Department Heads. We have a healthy creative dynamic here in Ireland and it’s that dynamic that develops new characters of the show. I suppose in a nutshell, my job is to make sure that whatever decisions are made concerning new looks from my department, I am able to deliver them... (And make them look awesome).
As far as any flourishes the Vikings had that I can lean on to make a character stand out from another... Well I know they wore eyeliner and had tattoos, so let’s look at Floki, he could be one face in crowed of fifty extras and you will always spot him. Eyeliner and tattoos.
Vikings Season 4 Volume 2 is out now on Blu-ray & DVD.