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On Set with... Michele Burke

by Natalie Wright
On Set with... Michele Burke

Michele Burke is one of the most versatile makeup talents working worldwide today. Originally from Ireland, she emigrated to Canada and now resides in Los Angeles. She is the recipient of numerous professional awards worldwide, including: two Oscars for Best Makeup as well as six nominations. In addition, Michele is the winner of two British Academy Awards and an Emmy. Her clients include the cream of the crop of actresses, actors, Directors and Producers working worldwide.

Michele has never been one to limit herself.  She is accomplished in all areas of makeup development including but not limited to: Design and Application, from beauty and fashion spreads for print media, to her signature character, prosthetic, fantasy and period work in feature films and television. She's worked all over the world in far-flung locations. Her custom designed lip applicators are now being sold by many of the top brands.

Michele says, "Being a true and complete makeup artist means being able to do everything."

Check out more of Michele’s work here : and on Instagram:

Michele Burke in studio

 When did you know you wanted to become a makeup artist?

 I had desires to become an Artist of some type, early in life but was heavily discouraged by my family because, “you could never make any money doing that”.

I come from a family of ten children in Ireland. Due to the severe economic conditions at the time and other family issues I emigrated to Canada. I did honestly land in Canada with $30.00 to my name.

I “fell into” modeling as I began exploring my career options. A group of us decided to stage our own fashion shows. We drafted a Makeup Artist for our models. As I watched him work… it all came together. I could finally satisfy my hidden yearning to be an Artist. Skin would be my canvas. I actually had no idea (it was a different time) that being a Makeup Artist was a profession. I thought possibly that I could do it has a hobby.

Minority Report Burke  

 Which 5 items could you not live without in your makeup kit?

  • Zeiss Monocular – It helps me see the entire makeup flaws and all…. As the camera will see it. I can maintain a distance from the actor without hovering and disturbing them.
  • Tattoo Inks – They stay put. And are great for details, flaws and cover ups
  • Shader Palette – a must for light and shadow
  • Concealer Palette – A must for cover-ups and touch-ups
  • Hand Sanitizer – Unscented – We must keep our hands clean when working on multiple actors

I will leave to you all to decide on your favourite brands. It’s an individual choice. 


Which iconic makeup / sfx look do you admire? And why? 

“Nosferatu” (1922) – One of the films that originally inspired me

“The Hundred Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared” – Absolutely seamless and flawless silicone ageing as well as fantastic hair work.

“Pans Labyinth” – Its outside-the-box designs and characters are inspiring!

Merchant Ivory Films – “Room with a View”, “Howard’s End”, “Remains of the Day” – Sets the standard for simply gorgeous period makeup and hair.

“Apocalypto” – Its unique, real makeups really put me straight back into those times.

“The Theory of Everything” - Jan Sewell’s work in conjunction with Eddie Redmayne’s acting and body language was a perfect harmony in simplicity and synergy.           


What is your top tip for starting out in the industry?

 Presuming that you have taken some makeup courses and are doing makeups actively as well as realising that you still have a lot to learn…

Networking for work is my key tip. Makeup shows, seminars, workshops and social media are great ways to promote yourself and meet other Makeup Artists. Mind every makeup opportunity. Low budget films, fashion shows, photo shoots. Create a body of work that shows your creativity, diversity and artistry. Build your portfolio beyond makeups that you have done on yourself. Competition is fierce. It’s simply not enough to be a great makeup Artist. You will have to sell and show your work and yourself. Learn everything you can. Remember.. On a film set, you are part of a makeup team and a film crew. Finally…. You are an Artist; think like an Artist, you are much more than an applicator of makeup products.


What is your life mantra?

 When I started my career the field of Makeup was not as evolved as it is today. I had very different challenges. At that time my career mantra was, “ Don’t rely on anyone, do it yourself”. I am very much self - taught.

As far as my “life mantra” today… Well, I have many and they do change with my evolutionary growth. I do strongly feel that we should “ Treat everything on earth equal in the way that you want to be treated”  and, “Don’t judge and compare”


What do you feel is your greatest achievement to date? 

Well, to date there have been a few achievements of note, although I am always of the mindset that I have a few more to come!!!

 I’m usually low key about this stuff. I am however proud of my recognition by the Motion Picture Academy and the B.A.F.T.A organization – my peers as well as being one of the first women to win an Oscar for makeup. 

I am particularly proud of my work on, “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” … specially the iconic hairstyle that I designed for “Old Age Dracula”.



“Quest For Fire” -  My decision to accept a job that all other more experienced makeup artists turned down ( I left my home on three days’ notice for Africa, Scotland and Canada with no deal in place) led me on the adventure of a lifetime and put me on the map.

A Quest for Fire

“Interview With The Vampire” - The challenge of being the Makeup Department Head and Designer on a  film that required subtle makeups with impact shooting in New Orleans, London and Paris with multiple crews all following my designs and colours was a challenge. 

“The Cell” Working with Tarsem Singh our Director and Eiko Ishioka our Costume Designer was exhilarating! Both of them were insatiable in their demands to do more and go beyond the wildest imaginations… with very little money!!

 “Cyrano de Bergerac” - I had to come up with a design for an iconic characters nose and makeup design on actor Gerard Depardieu. While in the in the director’s (Jean Paul Rappineau) office in Paris with Derma wax, I sculpted the nose on the actor, had  them approve it then and there.  I then took a plaster cast of it, flew back to L.A. made the noses, and returned to Hungary to shoot it  a month later!!!!! It had to be right, no room for second thoughts!!!!!!! 

Michele Burke

“Les Grossman Makeup and Hair Design” for Tom Cruise – Full on, top to bottom challenge in every way imaginable.


What’s your favourite film and why?

I have no one singular favourite. There are simply too many! I love to laugh. My choices don’t actually qualify as “films”

I love all of the “Monty Python” productions and “Little Britain” .I actually start to giggle a bit if I even start to think about them.

I always have a new favourite!


If you could travel back in time, where would you go?

I would have loved have lived and worked in what was called, “The Golden Age of Hollywood” – 1930’s and 1940’s. Of course there are many aspects of that period that were very bad for reasons that are well known.

On a personal note, I would make better decisions when I first emigrated from Ireland to Canada. My convent boarding school upbringing made me too shy and afraid of authority.


What were you doing this time yesterday?

Coincidentally enough, I was giving a private custom class to a very talented Makeup Artist in the horse stables at the back of my property that I have turned into a Makeup Studio. She approached me after one on my public lectures and then began to follow me on Instagram.

I very much like working with students in small groups or on a one-to-one basis. I communicate with and teach Makeup Artists from all over the world. It’s very rewarding for me as well as the students.