Why Do Actors Have to Wear Makeup?

I’ll start off by saying that I have an odd dislike for makeup. It isn’t a judgment against anyone who wears it–I’m just not a fan.

It’s because of this that I find it totally weird that not only do women have to wear a lot of makeup if they’re appearing on TV or in the movies, but even men have to wear makeup for those situations.

Again, there is really no reason for me to think this is weird. It’s just weird to me.

I think part of that is that I just don’t understand the reason for it. I’ve heard that for stage acting, without makeup, it’s really hard to see the features of an actor’s face. That doesn’t make sense to me, but maybe it’s due to the lighting?

The other reason I’ve heard is that due to HD, actors’ skin would be offputting to see on the big screen without thick layer of makeup. But is that really true? And even if it is true, is it really a problem that movie stars don’t look quite as smooth-skinned and perfect as makeup tricks us into believing?

I know, it’s an odd topic, and I’m fairly uninformed about it. Maybe you know something I don’t, so feel free to share.

18 thoughts on “Why Do Actors Have to Wear Makeup?”

  1. Long ago during my undergrad years, I took a class on theater makeup and learned not only how to apply certain makeup techniques, but also some of the reasoning behind stage actors wearing makeup. I don’t remember everything we learned in that class, but I do recall the basics which might be helpful in explaining why makeup is necessary (at least for the theater).

    Without makeup highlighting features, it can be difficult for the audience to see the actors clearly in stage productions, due to distance, and also to the lighting of the production. I think the tones/colors of lighting used affect how the actors skin tones and other features can appear, so the makeup artists often have to work closely with the lighting director to make sure that everything in the production is cohesive and that the actors features aren’t being washed out by the lighting. Additionally, the makeup can be used to completely alter someone’s appearance, so you can have a young person portraying someone much older just by applying the correct balance of shadows, lines, etc, which I think is pretty cool (I still have my portfolio with pictures from the assignments of that class, and have some interesting pictures of Granny-Katy and Car-Accident-Victim-Katy where I had to sketch out how the makeup would be applied and then use my own face as a canvas for the assignment).

  2. I went searching, here is a video of some stage makeup for aging which up close you can see the big difference.


    Here is another good one for theater

    its used less in Filming as you can change the camera perspective much easier.
    I’ve also heard because of all the artificial lighting in Video filming. Lights in the past have been hot, and cause for you to sweat and natural body oil to shine when it wouldn’t normally, with the advent of LED lighting I can see it being used less.

    This is a interesting video that looks at basic makeup, and the difference can be seen if you jump from the beginning to the end to compare.

    • Neilan: Maybe subconsciously? It wasn’t a specific aspect of Westworld that triggered this, but I wrote it down the same evening after watching the pilot, so probably? What made you think of this after watching Westworld?

      • My girlfriend mentioned that the makeup on a lot of the characters (male and female) stood out because it was excessive and (in the case of the female hosts) not period appropriate. Led to a discussion on the intentionality of makeup in film, and how we got to this point, and why we’re seemingly stuck here.

        I have no idea why, except also vaguely “something to do with lighting”, as other commented are confirming.

        • Perhaps it’s over the top on purpose? (I don’t want to spoil anything for people who haven’t seen the pilot, but you know why some characters in the show might look more perfect than others).

  3. There’s an element of lighting causing issues with cameras without a layer of makeup to… Not cause glare issues on the camera due to those lights reflecting off of you, as I understand it.

    • (Actually… My favourite television detail stories that sort of fall into the same very broad bucket as stage makeup involve puppets. Why does sooty have a black nose and black ears, and why is he called sooty, for that matter? His first appearance was on old, black and white, really low fidelity, cameras, so to make sure his face read right on camera, Harry Corbett put a dab of soot on his nose and ears to help those features read as a nose and ears on the camera (and later versions of the puppet where black and yellow rather than plain yellow to keep his appearance consistent) – Meanwhile, in the much more recent show, Mongrels, to help make the eyes come across as being alive, they had special lights to make sure the eyes always ‘sparkled’. And occasionally apparently wound up having someone running round reminding people “Eye lights!” because that’s such a weird part of a production to have lights shining on the eyes of the characters so sometimes it needed reminding, based on the dvd commentary tracks.)

  4. Jamey,

    As I live with a Theater performer and next year a Performing Arts major at the Savannah College of Art & Design, I can tell you that it has everything to do with lighting. The intensity of the light packages used by most theater groups would wash out the color of most stage performers even the most tan actor of all time (George Hamilton). I’ve witnessed the productions during what the students affectionately call “Hell Week” (this is the Monday-Wednesday from 4 pm-10pm, prior to Thursday’s Opening Night) and you can absolutely see the difference on stage when they’re performing without make-up.


      • Jamey,

        About six months ago, Kat and I took a road trip, starting with the longest leg from VA down to Savannah, GA to visit SCAD. Over the next few days, we visited five colleges and universities and I had a chance to talk to both the instructors/professors engaged with the acting side of production as well as those who handle the technical side (affectionately called “techs”). When I witnessed, first hand, what the “techs” do with regard to the sound and lighting, I figured you would need, at a minimum, an engineering degree to understand the layouts, schematics, and other aspects of this these highly technical positions.

        I chatted with one of them, and she told me that it’s a carefully calibrated dance between the actors moving on-stage while the tech-lead operates the equipment from 50′, 60′, 100′ away or more from the stage. If I were operating the equipment, they would have retinal burn…but for these whiz-kids it’s all in day’s work.


  5. Like, Katy, I also had taken a theater makeup class in college. It was a lot of fun! All that heavy make up is really because of lighting and for audience who are in the nose bleeds seats as she mentioned. And another thing, I had a beard. It was braided.


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