Breaking through

Breaking through

December 5, 2023

Job Description

Cynthia De La Rosa, a hair and make-up designer and one of this year’s Bafta Breakthrough creatives, speaks to DQ about her journey from stage to screen, her work on Channel 4 comedy Everyone Else Burns and her efforts to tackle hair and make-up discrimination in the performing arts.

As a member of the Bafta Breakthrough 2023 intake, hair and make-up designer Cynthia De La Rosa is in good company.

Some of the other creatives chosen for the scheme – which is supported by Netflix and aims to showcase the next generation of talent across film, games and television in the UK, US and India – include actors Bella Ramsey (The Last of Us), Aminah Nieves (1923) and Shardul Bhardwaj (Trial by Fire); writers Adjani Salmon (Dreaming Whilst Black) and Pete Jackson (Somewhere Boy); and sound editor Sanal George (Aranyak).

On-screen talent including Florence Pugh, Tom Holland, Letitia Wright, Lydia West and Paapa Essiedu have all previously been recognised.

For Dominican-born De La Rosa, it’s acknowledgement of a 20-year journey that began in the US with an internship with Broadway hair designer Tom Watson, before she moved to the UK and joined the English National Opera (ENO).

She then entered the world of film and TV, working on shows including The Windsors, The Great, Stath Lets Flats, We Are Lady Parts and Dreaming Whilst Black, while her Bafta Breakthrough credit was Channel 4 comedy Everyone Else Burns.

The series, which is returning for a second season, stars Simon Bird, Kate O’Flynn and Amy James-Kelly in the story of a puritanical Christian family trying to navigate modern life while preparing for the end of the world.

Speaking from her East London studio, where she is now preparing for Lena Dunham’s Netflix romantic comedy Too Much, De La Rosa tells DQ about mixing stage and screen work, the abundance of wigs on screen and the charity she co-founded, Levelling Up, which aims tackle discrimination in hair and make-up.

Cynthia De La Rosa

Congratulations on being named as part of Bafta Breakthrough.
My family are amazed, happy and incredibly excited for me because this has been a 20-year journey. I’ve been doing theatre since 2005, so it’s been a lot of grafting. I’ve been called by a lot of people who have known me for the 18 years that I’ve lived in the UK and worked in theatre, and a lot of people I’ve worked with in TV and film who are very excited for me. It’s been a bit of a whirlwind and now I’m back to work.

How did your theatre background set you up to work in film and TV?
They’re very symbiotic. I got my degree in costume design in the US, and I kind of fell into hair and make-up because I didn’t realise it was actually a job I could do. I did this amazing internship in opera with Tom Watson, who designed the wigs for Wicked and worked at the Metropolitan Opera [in New York] as their head of hair and wigs. He mentored me and he trained me. I then came to the UK for a work-abroad opportunity and started working at the [ENO], and they sponsored me to stay.

It was an amazing place to learn because I was able to really hone my skills and learn how to dress different periods of different hair. We were doing four shows in a season, so I would have done something like 12 to 16 productions a year that were spread along different periods and different aesthetics. One of the amazing things that started happening at the London Coliseum [home of the ENO] right before I left was that we were filming opera productions and working with film directors like Terry Gilliam and Fiona Shaw, who had come in to do opera. It gave me a taste for what it would be like to film the theatrical work and actually think about how they’d translate from camera to stage.

Then, by chance, I was pulled into a crowd room [the main hair and make-up workroom] by a friend of mine who was working on a film, and that’s where I got started. I worked on a project called Guerilla with Idris Elba, and then the next thing I knew, I was working on a project with Rebel Wilson and Anne Hathaway called Nasty Women [which was ultimately released as The Hustle]. Before Covid, I started designing short films. Then right after, my career as a designer took off with Stath Lets Flats and Everyone Else Burns.

De La Rosa’s recent credits include BBC Three’s Dreaming Whilst Black

Do you still work in theatre?
Theatre is still my first love and I find it really hard to walk away from it because I feel like it exercises a different part of my brain, creatively, and it’s something I’m so grateful to as well. The stage is a place that gave me my first head-of-department credit and my first design credit, and I designed an amazing production called Standing at the Sky’s Edge, which won an Olivier for Best Musical last year. I’ve just done a show for the Donmar Warehouse, Clyde’s, and I also did Sylvia, which won a couple of Oliviers last year as well.

What theatre has taught me definitely translates into film and TV. You don’t have very much time, you don’t have very much money and you have to create really amazing things, be very creative and think outside of the box, which has really helped me as a designer. I work with a lot of people who have theatre backgrounds, and a lot of the best crowd rooms you’ll ever walk into in film and TV are full of people who started in theatre.

During Covid, when the theatre industry shut down, the film and TV industry embraced a lot of theatre workers and brought them in. And then with the SAG-AFTRA strike, a lot of people have gone back to their roots and gone and worked in theatre. Those skills never really leave us; they just pivot in the way we use them.

Simon Bird and Kate O’Flynn in Channel 4 comedy Everyone Else Burns

What was the brief for Everyone Else Burns?
There wasn’t really a brief. I interviewed for the position when they were looking to do it as a pilot. I read the scripts and I loved them, and I thought they were such clever characters that I hadn’t seen on screen before. I presented my ideas to Molly Seymour, the producer, and she really loved them. They kind of just unleashed me. They let me go in the crazy directions I envisioned these characters in. They just let me do what I wanted to do and they really trusted my eye and my designs.

With Nick Collett, the director, one of the things we really wanted to do was make the characters feel really outdated, but so that they weren’t from any specific period. We also researched how some of these more religious communities live, and whether they’d go out and get their hair cut or who would cut their hair. I just said to him, ‘I think his wife would do it. I think she would cut his hair.’ And so he was like, ‘Yeah, she’d put a bowl on his head,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, she’d just cut along the side of the bowl.’

The other really important thing was that, as Simon [who plays patriarch David] and Kate [as David’s wife Fiona] are actually quite young-looking, we needed to age them and make them feel dated so they looked old enough to have a teenage daughter and a young son. Amy James-Kelly, who plays [daughter] Rachel, is in her late 20s and I had to make her look like a 16-year-old girl.

Actually, 80% of the cast was wigged. [The producers] didn’t want our lead actors to look like any character they’d ever played before. They really wanted to feel like this universe existed around the family and that they were brand new people we were seeing for the first time. That allowed me to use wigs to really help transform the characters in that way, but also to create a family unit. Kate’s hair is black, and Amy is a light strawberry blonde. We just had to make sure they felt like they were familiar. Wigs were definitely a way to transform them and translate some of those designs onto the actors.

Wigs are a speciality of yours.
I would say that. It’s something I’ve trained in for a very long time and goes back to the training I had in theatre. When someone says we need to change somebody’s look, I don’t always think it’s a prosthetic. I think about the things we see every day that are really subtle. Maybe it’s changing their hairline; maybe it’s changing the length or the colour of their hair. That’s very easy to do with wigs or hairpieces, which is what we did on the show.

Adam (Bird)’s peculiar hairstyle came from discussions between De La Rosa and director Nick Collett

How commonly are wigs now used in television?
They are commonplace because it’s part of the language of creating a character, and they’re being done so beautifully now that you’ll watch something and never know that person had a back hairpiece or they’re wearing a wig at all. Especially in this country, we have such amazing wigmakers; they do such beautiful work. With the advent of HD cameras as well, the level of detail we have to put into the work we do has very much elevated the possibility of using wigs on a normal basis. And actually, if you think about modern culture, women, especially women from the global majority, wear wigs every single day, and we would never know that or we never really notice that’s the case. With the wigmakers we have in the UK, it’s definitely possible to use it as a tool towards transformation.

You also co-founded a charity, Levelling Up. Why did you set it up and what do you hope to achieve?
Levelling Up is a not-for-profit that is tackling Afro hair discrimination in the performing arts. It was co-founded by myself, Carole Hancock [Harry Potter & the Cursed Child] and Giuseppe Cannas [the National Theatre], and we’ve created educational courses that train previously experienced hair and make-up artists in textured hair and make-up for multi-ethnic skin. We also run mentor programmes, because it’s not just about training people in textured hair, but about creating a work environment that is very much representative of the world we live in. We’re working with a lot of barbers and textured hair stylists and make-up artists who have a little bit of experience but want to move into film and TV or theatre.

The importance of the organisation is that [the industry has] done amazing things in the UK, where we are casting more actors from the global majority, but we’re not creating departments to actually support them. We might have 40% more actors from an Afro background or Afro heritage, but no one can do their hair and people can’t do their make-up. There’s also a duty of care that has been lost at the collegiate level, where universities are not teaching actors how to take care of their own hair when they come into theatres, what’s expected of them, what they should have in their make-up kit. We’re also speaking to universities about how we can train actors so that when they come out of university, they’re well prepared for theatre, where you’re actually expected to do your own hair and make-up in certain situations, especially your own hair prep for under wigs.

We’re looking at a three-pronged attack of how we can change the industry for the better, and that’s collegiate education, education for pre-existing professionals and then also working on mentorships. One of the things we’re hoping to do in the next couple of years is move into high schools and speak to students who might already be braiding hair but don’t know how they can take that skill to the next level. We’re hoping that in the next decade, we’ll have left the industry in a much better position, not only for the actors we want to support, but also for the hair and make-up artists who really want to do the best job they can do.

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