Melisandre’s Surprising Transformation on ‘Game of Thrones’

(Photo courtesy HBO)

In the final scene of the Season 6 premiere of Game of Thrones, there was a surprise that horrified and delighted, depending on how you feel about aging (obviously, spoilers ahead). Melisandre, the Red Priestess of the Lord of Light, who talked Stannis Baratheon into some king-making adventures that ultimately got him killed in Season 5, revealed her true age, in dramatic fashion.

Melisandre removed the ruby choker she usually wears and showed us the body she actually possesses, not the one everyone is glamoured into seeing by her magic skills, in its full glory. George R.R. Martin previously revealed that her character is over 100.

The actress who plays her, Carice van Houten, is only 39. The secret to making this incredible transformation happen, as GoT director Jeremy Podeswa told Entertainment Weekly, was using a nude body double of an older woman. They likely then layered the special-effects-makeup-covered face of van Houten on top, matching it to the body double.

Photo courtesy HBO

The process of building an aged face for an actor is very involved, Tony Gardner of makeup effects company Alterian tells us. “You start with a head cast of the actor, creating a duplicate of them. Then you design the older character’s look based on that using either Photoshop or clay on the lifemask.” That clay, which needs to be as thin and small as possible to avoid adding extra mass, can include multiple pieces designed to change the nose, cheeks, neck, forehead, ears, etc. The process of putting on an age mask can take up to four hours, Gardner says, and another hour at the end of the day to remove. 

One of the greatest challenges of taking a face from young to old is to not accidentally give away the actor’s age in certain details. Gardner says the eye and lip areas are usually his biggest concern. In his age-mask work — on the Jackass movie and transforming Katy Perry in her “Birthday” music video — he says aging has been about adding a droop to the upper eye to close it and a downturn to the mouth, as well adding weight that isn’t there in young skin. “You can add that droop sculpturally, but the actor also has to be aware of how to hold their posture in order to help sell the effects. Making age makeup believable is really a collaborative effort between the actor and the makeup effects artist,” Gardner says.

The other things Gardner does to disguise youth is to make the face as gaunt as possible. In women, he pays particular attention to the texture of their skin. “Men and women, after a certain age, look the same to be honest,” Gardner says. “With women, it’s about still getting a sense of the softness and delicacy of the skin. A man’s face can be more porous, but a woman’s face is smoother, softer, and the wrinkles are finer. It’s quite a challenge.”

With Melisandre’s transformation, Gardner points to the thinning of her hair as a particular selling point. The detail makes him think of the “big picture,” where the design of a mask like this is dictated by the features of the performer in 2D before building a 3D mask.

The true big picture, however, comes when we see the full body shot. The impact of van Houten’s face in an age mask combined with the body of a woman who is old, and not what the culture at large defines as sexually viable, is what made this reveal so shocking. There would have been impact simply seeing her aged face, giving us a sense of the depth of her power and magic. To know that the woman who has been using her sexuality as part of her arsenal of tools to get men to do what she wants is actually a haggard, aged woman is mind-blowing.

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