Tim Curry Sees Movie Makeup As An Excuse To Fully Let Loose

In many Tim Curry movies, you may not even know he's there. Not because he lacks screen presence — far from it in fact — but because in many of his roles his face is concealed. Since his movie debut as Dr. Frank-N-Furter in "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," Curry has been an actor whose roles often require heavy makeup. Throughout both Curry's scene-stealing turn as Pennywise in the 1990 "It" miniseries and in his performance as the devilish Lord of Darkness in Ridley Scott's 1985 fantasy film "Legend," his true face never appears.

However, Curry never lets the makeup do his job for him. As an actor, it's his job to entertain his audience, and you won't get very far if you try to do that with just a costume. Case-in-point: the Pennywise makeup isn't especially scary on its own, but Curry's manic malice makes the villain nightmarish.

In a 1990 interview with Fangoria on the set of "It," Curry discussed how makeup helps his performances come alive.

Letting loose

During the "It" shoot, Curry's Pennywise makeup took three hours to apply. On "Legend," it had been six-and-a-half. Curry admitted that he could do without these intense application processes, but once he was actually performing, he enjoyed himself. As he put it:

"It's great fun when you're actually working it, making it part of yourself and finding out what it can do. And both with this and 'Legend,' the fun is that it's very difficult to go too far. These may be famous last words, but to a certain extent you have to work much more broadly in order to register at all, and that's interesting."

What does Curry mean by "[working] much more broadly"? It sounds counterintuitive, but when an actor is dressed in an eye-catching costume, they actually have to work harder to stand out. Otherwise, the audience will just remember how the character looks, not how the actor played the part. When Curry says this is "great fun," remember that he's a larger-than-life type actor. When he's playing exaggerated characters, an exaggerated performance doesn't feel out of place.

So, how does Curry stand out even when drenched in head-to-toe makeup? He relies on the one thing about himself that makeup can't change — his voice.

What's in a voice?

Speaking about his role as Frank-N-Furter in a 1975 interview with Mark Caldwell, Curry revealed that it took a while to nail down the character's voice. He recounted, "When I first read [Frank in the script,] I read [him] German ... that was a little used, I think, so then we tried it American, it was Jim Sharman, the director's idea to make him the sort of Belgravian hostess with the mostest."

It makes sense that Curry would read a Dr. Frankenstein parody as German, but going with an accent closer to his natural one was the right call. As a result, Curry's natural British charm radiates from his performance. Frank is a very vocal role — "Rocky Horror" is a musical, after all — and Curry delivers his lines with the same sensual energy that radiates off Frank's corset and fishnet costume. Notice when he runs his finger down Rocky's (Peter Hinwood/Trevor White) chiseled torso, and he lets his words trail off into an aroused giggle.

In "Legend," Curry performs a more terrifying villain than Frank, but also, an even more romantic one. Darkness desires not just a world covered in shadow, but also the hand of Princess Lili (Mia Sara). The villain's voice is deep with an unnatural echo but even distorted, Curry's suave intonation means it's still recognizably him. Curry delivers his line to Lili, "I offer you this, Princess ... my heart ... my soul ... my love," as if he's playing a romantic lead, pausing after each promise and putting more breath into the next than the last.

The contrast between Curry's voice and the red-skinned demon makeup makes the Darkness a more memorable character. Like the biblical Lord of Darkness, Curry's version is scary yet seductive all the same.

Curry the voice actor

That staccato rhythm would be vital to Curry's next made-up role as Pennywise. The most remarkable thing about Curry's Pennywise is how the actor manages to sound so little like, well, himself. The Dancing Clown has a brusque New York accent, totally unlike Curry's own British, and a harsher laugh than Curry's usual chuckle.

As Pennywise, Curry pauses so that individual words leave a greater impact. Take his lethal declaration to Georgie (Tony Dakota), "Down here ... You'll ... Float ... Too!", or his threat to the Losers Club, "I'm everything ... you ever ... were afraid of!" As for the words themselves, Curry draws them out, especially the vowels. Whenever Pennywise promises his prey they'll float, Curry pronounces it as "floooaaatt." Pennywise is enjoying his work and Curry is enjoying his.

Since Curry relies on his voice so much, it's not surprising he became a prolific voice actor. In Curry's voice roles, he samples from the same bag of tricks he used as Pennywise. As Ben Ravencroft in "Scooby-Doo! And The Witch's Ghost," Curry is initially subdued. Once the character reveals his villainous nature, though, his theatrical side (and British accent) reassert themselves. As Ben wields magic and recites evil spells, Curry draws out his vowels and makes pointed emphasis ("That makes me a waaarloooock"). Curry played the similarly two-faced villain Darth Sidious in "Star Wars: The Clone Wars." Like Ian McDiarmid before him, Curry also plays an affable Senator Palpatine, but as the Dark Lord of the Sith, he drops his voice an octave and reaches into the back of his throat for guttural delivery.

When an actor is as expressive as Tim Curry, hiding his natural features can enhance his performances instead of constricting them.