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'Lincoln' pierced ears, 'Argo' pecs? Talk about period drama

Historical films take pains to get the facts right, but when it comes to the faces, modern appearances make period casting a tricky business.

February 04, 2013|By Rebecca Keegan, Los Angeles Times

With his concave cheekbones, lanky build and grooved brow, Daniel Day-Lewis replicates Abraham Lincoln more accurately than the head of a penny.

His performance in "Lincoln" has earned rousing endorsements from Civil War historians, but close watchers of the film have spotted one glaring anachronism in this otherwise honest Abe — earring holes.

Day-Lewis, a meticulous actor known for disappearing into his roles, had the tattoos on his hands and forearms covered by wardrobe and makeup. He removed gold hoops from his ears. But despite makeup, the piercings were still visible.

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"My Facebook friends were saying, 'Gee, I never knew Abraham Lincoln had a pierced ear,'" said Scott Stoddart, a cinema and theater scholar and a dean at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. "You can see it in this scene and that scene. People are so visually literate now."

Historical movies such as Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" have placed a greater premium on authenticity in recent years, with on-set researchers ensuring that costumes, production design and language accurately reflect the age. Filmmakers, however, have a more difficult time making sure the contemporary appearance of their casts doesn't strain a movie's credibility.

As a poor 19th century French factory worker in "Les Misérables," Anne Hathaway incongruously shakes out the shiny, flowing tresses of a Pantene commercial. As a hard-drinking 1970s CIA agent in "Argo," Ben Affleck peels off his shirt to show a torso sculpted enough for a Men's Health cover. As a cigarette-smoking 1940s mafioso's paramour in "Gangster Squad," Emma Stone reveals an improbably pearly white smile.


Teeth whitening, plastic surgery, body piercings, weight training, healthful eating and yoga have made it a challenge to find the perfect period performer. Add the unforgiving nature of high-definition video on which more movies are made and seen and the emergence of visually savvy audiences, and you often have a recipe for historical dissonance.

Actors whose faces seem to belong more to the era of the daguerreotype than HD are becoming rare.

"The period face is going away from our culture," said John Hawkes, 53, whose slight build and angular face have equipped him to play convincingly 19th century characters like a political operative in "Lincoln" and a merchant in the HBO western "Deadwood." "Younger people are so much more handsome and beautiful than they were when I was growing up. Teeth are better. There's better nutrition. We're mutating into a more attractive species."

Period dramas "Downton Abbey," which re-creates life on a turn-of-the-century English estate, and "Mad Men," which captures the style of the 1960s, have become staples on television. Historical films like "Lincoln" and "Les Misérables" have earned critical and financial success. Casting directors who can staff a period project are busier than ever.

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"'Mad Men' has movie people running scared," Stoddart said. "The scrupulous detail has made everyone pay more attention to detail in the visual quality of period films.... They need to tell great stories, but they also need to take you into that other world in such a way that it overwhelms you."

Avy Kaufman, casting director for "Lincoln," spent eight months selecting an ensemble of more than 200 characters, many of whom can be described as having wonderfully imperfect, 19th century faces.

Nina Gold spent more than a year — twice as long as usual — filling parts in director Tom Hooper's adaptation of "Les Misérables" with actors who could not only sing and act but also resemble 19th century French street urchins. Some of the musical's stars, including Hathaway and Hugh Jackman, dropped weight to suit the era of deprivation. For the smaller parts, Gold tried to find people who came by their haggardness naturally.

"It was Tom's fundamental note — these people have to look like they haven't eaten since 1830," said Gold, who also cast the period films "The King's Speech" and "Iron Lady." "They've never been to a doctor, and they don't use moisturizer. If actors look too well fed and comfortable and like they just walked out of their well-appointed Winnebago, it just wouldn't feel right. But to find the people who really are les misérables? There's not many people in musical theater who look like that."

Gold, who sifted through rafts of photos and sat through months of auditions, believes she has an advantage being based in London.

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"English teeth are famously bad," she said. "People are less perfect. If I go to lunch in a restaurant in London, there aren't many people who've had their faces reconstructed. In L.A., nearly everybody has. In England, it's easier to find interesting-looking people."

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