If you watch old episodes of Inside the Actors Studio, you’ll learn about the method and process that actors use to become other people. Leonardo DiCaprio slept inside an animal carcass to prepare for his role in The Revenant and Tom Holland secretly shadowed a student at a Bronx high school before filming Spider-Man: Homecoming. One thing you won’t hear about is perfume. But it has quietly become a character-development tool on sets and sound stages. Susan Sarandon, who wears a different scent for each of her movies, shared the strategy with Kirsten Dunst, who has used it too. So have Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Emma Stone, and Penélope Cruz. “It’s a wonderful secret weapon,” says Laura Linney, who has also used fragrance to get into a character’s headspace. “It just hits you in such a primal, deep place.”
To say scent is “primal” is not hyperbole. The parts of our brains responsible for memory and emotional processing evolved from a primitive olfactory cortex, and the intense connection between emotion and our sense of smell remains today. Unlike the visual or tactile cues of a costume, fragrance delivers its message immediately, with no need for contextualizing. “When I learned that fragrance could trigger receptors in our brain to change our mood, I thought it might be a tool to help me better transform,” says Eliza Taylor, who wears a different scent for each of her projects.
Jessica Chastain also relies on the technique. “My friend Fabrice Penot, the cofounder of Le Labo, helps me decide on the right one,” she has said. On the set of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, Chastain wore an orange blossom scent to become Mrs. O’Brien, the human embodiment of love and grace. To play the CIA analyst Maya in Zero Dark Thirty, she went with a smoky, mysterious oud. “Celia Foote [in The Help] was Chanel No. 5. Marilyn Monroe only wore Chanel No. 5 to bed, so I thought, Oh, this is perfect,” Chastain has told Allure. (Foote bears a striking resemblance to Monroe.) “Perfume says a lot about you before you even say anything about yourself.” It’s why other actors make more literal fragrance choices: Ana de Armas also wore Monroe’s signature perfume while filming Blonde, a fictional portrayal of the troubled actor. And when Michelle Pfeiffer played the manipulative, murderous artist Ingrid Magnussen in White Oleander, she wore lilac, just like the character in the book.