Interview: Makeup Designer Donald Mowat
Every child has a dream, whether it’s to be a superhero, a secret agent, a policeman or an astronaut. Donald Mowat, the Oscar-nominated makeup designer on Dune, Skyfall and Moon Knight, knew what he wanted to do at an early age, and he grew up to be the guy who makes our heroes look good.
“I loved films as a kid,” Mowat says. By the time he was 12, he was seeing films that were outside the norm for his age, such as Stanley Kubrick‘s Barry Lyndon, The Exorcist or the works of Federico Fellini. Mowat says, “I started to notice things—the details, the costumes, the makeup, the way people looked. I started to connect the dots and look at the credits. That really is what drew me to it.”
“Dune was a life-changing experience,” Mowat says.
Mowat now has over 100 impressive film and television credits in his filmography, ranging from Anne of Green Gables in 1985 to his two most recent projects, Dune, for which he received an Academy Award nomination, and Marvel’s Moon Knight. “Dune was a life-changing experience,” Mowat says. The veteran makeup artist has been working with director Denis Villeneuve since 2013, starting with Prisoners, and he ranks the collaborations as some of his best work and experiences.
Mowat finds that the strong, professional relationships created with each film are key to his success, including doing the makeup for Mark Wahlberg on every film the actor made for 20 years. “I did a lot of films with Mark,” Mowat says. “It took us 18 films to make 3 that I really am proud of, but that’s what it is.” Mowat sees this not as a reflection of Wahlberg’s choices, merely the way the film industry works. Mowat has also worked prolifically with both Daniel Craig and Jake Gyllenhaal. It was through doing makeup for Craig on Skyfall that Mowat met legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins. Deakins introduced him to Villeneuve, and it was through Dune that Mowat got the job on Moon Knight. “I was very lucky that Oscar Isaac had asked me to be part of it,” Mowat says. “Then, I ended up running the hair, makeup and prosthetic side of it and working with Oscar.”
“I really wanted the makeup to [show] Steven being fraught, like he’s the nervous, jittery, doesn’t-sleep, tired-eyes, sickly pallor.”
For Moon Knight, Mowat was tasked with creating distinct but subtle differences for Isaac to evoke the separate personalities of Marc Spector and Steven Grant encompassed in the character’s dissociative identity disorder. “It was crucial to make sure people understood [that] they’re not two different people,” Mowat says. “I think there’s confusion when people talk about personality disorders. People talk about it like it’s Jekyll and Hyde.” Mowat wanted to go for an approach that allowed for minor distances but respected the reality of disorder. “Tim Nolan, who looked after Oscar’s hair, had to really make very subtle differences,” Mowat says, “I really wanted the makeup to [show] Steven being fraught, like he’s the nervous, jittery, doesn’t-sleep, tired-eyes, sickly pallor. Then, Marc is kind of sturdy, you know, the American guy. He’s tougher, from Chicago. That was it, it works. Less is more.” For the sequences where Marc finds himself in a hospital, questioning his own sanity, Mowat turned to Roman Polanski‘s The Tenant and David Cronenberg‘s Spider for inspiration. Mowat put cotton in Isaac’s mouth and used dilated contact lenses that are slightly darker than the actor’s normal eyes. “He looks very stoned, like he’s on opioids,” Mowat says.
The most challenging aspect for Mowat and his team on Moon Knight came from the sequences where Marc and Steven (both played by Isaac) talk to each other face-to-face. “Everybody worked really well together to make sure that a match was seamless,” Mowat says. Isaac’s brother, Michael Hernandez, served as the actor’s double for some sequences, as did other actors and stuntmen. Mowat and his team went to great lengths to make sure that every detail matched perfectly, so that the effect is unnoticeable. “He would’ have to act opposite someone feeding him the lines. That person has to have the back of the head exactly the same,” Mowat explains, “so we put a nose on somebody, we put the hair on—there’s great detail in the doubling, more so then there is in the [original] actor.”
Mowat is currently in pre-production on the second Dune film, which promises to present a whole new set of challenges and exciting opportunities to create unforgettably looking characters.
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