Why ‘Poor Things’ Actress Kathryn Hunter Was Covered in ‘Mad and Wonderful’ Tattoos | Exclusive Photos

Hunter (“Andor”) and Oscar-nominated makeup artist Nadia Stacey tell TheWrap about the “tattoo storybook” designed for one scene in the film

Kathryn Hunter in "Poor Things" (Searchlight Pictures)
Kathryn Hunter in "Poor Things" (Searchlight Pictures)

If the body is a temple, Sylvia Plath said, then tattoos are the stained-glass windows.

While working on “Poor Things,” actress Kathryn Hunter discovered first-hand how one’s tattoos can tell a whole life story. Hunter, well known as Syril Karn’s mom on “Andor,” Arabella Fig in the “Harry Potter” franchise and as the Witches in Joel Coen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” appears onscreen midway through “Poor Things” as brothel owner Madame Swiney, who befriends Bella Baxter (Emma Stone), offering employment and philosophical advice.

In one scene, Swiney is wearing a corset and reveals nearly a whole body of ink and artwork. Each tattoo – on Swiney’s arms, legs, back, shoulders and upper chest – suggests a vast history about this successful 19th century woman and her life’s journey.

“The girl riding on the elephant, the octopus, they all make up a backstory for Swiney,” Hunter told TheWrap, referring to the art on her neckline and upper back. “This tattoo of the moon was for that lover, this one was to remember that lost child, another was for an unforgettable lover.”

The tattoos were the brainstorm of makeup artist Nadia Stacey, an Oscar nominee this year (alongside collaborators Mark Coulier and Josh Weston) for Best Makeup and Hairstyling. Stacey was also nominated two years ago for another Emma Stone fantasia, “Cruella.” Last weekend, she took home a BAFTA trophy for “Poor Things.”

Swiney’s tattoos were not written in the script of the Yorgos Lanthimos film. But for Stacey, inspiration came in an old black-and-white photograph from the early 1900s of a woman with full-body tats.

“I had the photo for 10 years and it was something I was shocked and amazed by,” she explained to TheWrap. “This woman was tattooed from the neck down. And I never imagined there would be a film where I could use that reference.”

But then Stacey thought of Madame Swiney. “Where had she been in her life? What had led her to the brothel? And with tattoos, it’s an incredible way to map out her whole life, with only a quick bit of time on screen.”

Like a less ominous version of Robert De Niro’s Max Cady in “Cape Fear” (“I don’t know if I should look at him or read him,” a stunned observer says in that film), Swiney is decorated with a tattoo storybook of her experiences.

“There are lots of creatures, like the octopus and monkeys, fish, sharks and things that move a certain way,” said Stacey. “Because Kathryn has this amazing physicality – she’s small but very powerful – and we were thinking about how Swiney would have physically moved through the world.”

There are also hearts with the names of men. “Maybe some sailor had come through Paris and stolen her heart while visiting the brothel. Kathryn and I talked about that before the application process.”

Once Stacey has sketched all the body art – see her drawings and renderings below – she and makeup artist Ellen D’Andrade Brown applied the ink to Hunter in a two and a half hour session. The temporary tat company Tattoo Now! created the designs via stick-on sheets. Stacey shared photo tests on her Instagram page.

"Poor Things" Concept Tattoo Art (credit: Nadia Stacey)
“Poor Things” Concept Tattoo Art (credit: Nadia Stacey)

“The application process took time but it was like playtime,” recalled Hunter. “We did a long and glorious trial session before the shoot. Nadia took a lot of photographs in preparation for the shoot day. I embraced the adventurousness of Nadia’s proposition 100 percent. It was mad and wonderful.”

"Poor Things" tattoo concepts (credit: Nadia Stacey)
“Poor Things” tattoo concepts and as seen (below) on actress Kathryn Hunter (credit: Nadia Stacey)
Kathryn Hunter during “Poor Things” makeup test (credit: Nadia Stacey)
“Poor Things” tattoo concepts (credit: Nadia Stacey)
Kathryn Hunter during "Poor Things" makeup test (credit: Nadia Stacey)
Kathryn Hunter during “Poor Things” makeup test (credit: Nadia Stacey)

After filming her corset scene in the movie, Hunter assumed that the tattoos would wash off after a shower. But as she remembered with great humor, the ink didn’t fade right away.

“Being a bit of a yoga fanatic, I rushed off to my hot yoga class,” she said. “I wore shorts and I could see the young people looking at me with a deal of admiration: ‘What tattoos!’ and ‘At her age!’ Like they’d never seen anything like it. And I was not displeased.”

The actress, for sure, embraced the vibe. “I never imagined having tattoos but I began to think, ‘If they don’t come off, I think I quite like them.’ Eventually they did all disappear, but I have been thinking of getting some tattoos since. But of course, they would not be just any tattoos – they would have to be one of the ones Nadia found. My favorite is the girl riding on the elephant.”

Since “Poor Things” opened, most of the acclaim for Stacey and the makeup team has focused on the prosthetic transformation of Willem Dafoe as Baxter’s scientist father. Stacey, of course, is elated by the praise for that accomplishment. (She laughed when recalling the classic Hollywood actor who Dafoe mentioned while looking in the mirror: “Kirk Douglas – and now we can’t unsee it!”)

But she added, “I did an audience Q&A in Los Angeles the other night and someone asked me what was one of the things I was proudest of. And I said Madame Swiney’s tattoos. And the whole audience cheered.”

Stacey was deeply touched. “What I love is how the tattoos give one more element to Kathryn’s incredible performance,” she said. “Kathryn is such an amazing performer and it’s literally another layer to her character. It suggests a life lived on her own terms. The film offers a feminist statement and I think the character of Swiney is absolutely the epitome of that.”

Jimmy Kimmel hosts the 96th Academy Awards, airing March 10 on ABC.


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