How Olivia Colman Transformed Into a Sickly Miss Havisham for FX’s ‘Great Expectations’

TheWrap magazine: Hair and makeup artist Niamh Morrison says that the Dickens character is “not living a healthy lifestyle” — the Oscar winner’s appearance had to reflect that

Olivia Colman in "Great Expectations" (Credit: FX)

This story about Great Expectations” hair and makeup artist Niamh Morrison first appeared in the Limited Series / TV Movies issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

Miss Havisham is one of the most iconic characters in English literature. The wealthy recluse from Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations” is so well known, she has become shorthand for heartbreak, revenge and being trapped in time — a person fossilized while still drawing breath. Her story — abandoned at the altar, she retreats to her mansion, forever dressed in her wedding gown — has been reimagined more than a dozen times on the big and small screens.

"Great Expectations" (FX)
Olivia Colman and Fionn Whitehead in “Great Expectations” (FX)

The latest adaptation of the novel, FX’s limited series executive produced by Steven Knight, is a darker, more modern interpretation, brimming with sex, drugs and four-letter words (not something you find in most buttoned-up Dickens adaptations). So when it came to creating the look for Miss Havisham (played by Olivia Colman), hair and makeup artist Niamh Morrison saw an opportunity to push the boundaries. “With the whole look of the show, we broke a lot of rules,” she said. “We were much broader, rather than staying very true to the 1830s.”

Morrison started with Havisham’s trademark shocking white hair, which she and her team achieved by tinting a wig until it had just the right tones and lived-in, unhealthy quality. “I made my own nicotine stain and we were able to wash that out to take the color up or down as the wig aged,” she said. To show broken hair around the hairline (which, she said, “would happen quite naturally, especially with somebody sleeping in her wedding hair — don’t do that, ladies!”), they applied bald pieces, complete with realistic veins and skin discoloration. To match the wig, Morrison used a special mascara to “knock back” the color of Colman’s eyebrows and lashes.

Havisham’s face needed to be abnormally pale, since she remains sequestered in her tomb-like home, toking on her opium pipe. The idea was to give the impression that she was rotting from the inside. “This is a woman who is mentally unwell,” Morrison said. “She’s not living a healthy lifestyle. She’s got some bad habits, let’s just say, and we needed to mark that in her appearance.” Here again, Morrison added veining — red on the cheeks and blue around the eyes — and continued those markings on Colman’s hands and chest.

There were also two sets of prosthetic teeth: one reflecting everyday decay and another worn while Havisham snacks on betel nuts, which turn her mouth a startling, grotesque red. Morrison made the betel nut juice from food coloring and glycerin, dabbing on just enough so that it “got caught within the dryness of her chapped lips. I didn’t want it to look like she’d gone all vampire,” she said. False teeth, she added, can be tricky. “I was very nervous about the teeth because actors normally need some time to get used to them because they can affect their speech. We made quite a few, actually, in anticipation of that. And Olivia, like a trouper, just before a take, would just grab them and pop them in herself.”

At the end of the series, Havisham (spoiler alert!) makes peace with her broken wedding dreams and for the first time in decades, ventures out into the sunlight in a blue velvet dress (whereupon she cathartically burns the portrait of the fiancé who jilted her). “It was a side of her we’d not seen before, and I was very keen to not push it too much so it was like a magic bath that she had,” Morrison said, laughing. To indicate that Havisham had washed her hair, Colman wore a different wig, this one with tresses free of the dry, dingy yellow tones and held in a loose updo with chopsticks. “It felt quite put together, much softer, which is what we wanted to put across. She’s got a little bit of color back on her skin,” Morrison said. “It’s almost like a rebirth.”

Read more from the Limited Series / TV Movies issue here.