"Understand what everybody’s doing and ask questions" an interview with Makeup Artist Donald Mowat

Renowed for his work on the movies Sicario, Skyfall and Blade Runner, award winning and much loved Makeup artist Donald Mowat talks to Mandy News about his journey in becoming a Makeup artist and Designer and his up and coming work on Spider-man:Far From Home, plus he shares his advice for aspiring makeup artists who want to build a career in the film industry. 

11th January 2019
/ By James Collins

Donald Mowat - Prisoners IMDB

So Donald, please introduce yourself to the Mandy News audience and tell us how you became a make-up artist, and could you tell us how that drew you to theatre, film and TV?

I’m Donald Mowat, I’m a make-up artist and designer. I started really by accident, when I realised that people could actually make a living working in film, theatre and TV doing make-up and costume. I saw this when I was a kid, looking at the credits, you know. That fascinated me and that started this journey, especially as a teenager, because I wasn’t the best student! 

It was a place where I could find a focus. I couldn’t do maths or science or other subjects. It didn’t sit with my kind of oddness or eccentricity, maybe. And that was the beginning of my journey.

Would you say there was a place, or a particular movie or person that gave you a big break, or was it something more gradual?

You know, it’s such a great question, because I think people forget. I really try to be mindful, wherever I go in the world, whichever subject I’m speaking about or to whom, that it’s people who help you. So when I think of the first couple of make-up chiefs in Toronto, one on Anne of Green Gables, who took a chance and hired me. 

I was 20 years old! I was working in the background, people were giving me breaks, recommending me to other people, saying, ‘He’s young, he doesn’t know that much but he’d be great, he wants to learn.’

It was that kind of encouragement from many, many people in my first couple of films, Junior and The Fly – Chris Walas, Stephan Dupuis, and Shonagh Jabour. They took me on and I cleaned the brushes and helped take the suit off and things. I got to paint wee bits of make-up. Them taking me on spoke volumes because it solidified me being an assistant. I’ll never forget those people, no matter what changes happen and I move on.

Maybe that’s something that people forget. You’ve got to be mindful and I get annoyed with myself when I forget them and don’t thank them when something good happens. You know, thinking of actors who requested me, I go back to Kate Nelligan, who was such a fine actress, now retired and living in New York. She recommended me in Los Angeles to another make-up artist. She said, ‘You know my friend Donald Mowat, he needs a bit of help to get launched.’ And she helped me.

Incredible! You’ve had an great career so far… You’ve been working with Mark Wahlberg for over 10 years now.

I’ve worked with him a lot! You know, he rang the other day, out of the blue. I really stopped working with him for no other reason than I felt my work was done. Because when I met Mark, people forget, it was quite by accident. We’d worked on a couple of films together, we got on very, very well.

He helped me tremendously in my career. He helped me in my transition to LA. With actors this is very much how it works. Whether you’re a chief or a designer or an assistant, getting into the group where they say, ‘Who’s a great assistant? Who’s a great personal make-up artist, who’s a great chief?’ It happens in everything: directing, sound, costume… When I finished work on The Fighter, he started to get his tattoos removed. That was the big part of my job with him, covering those rather extensive tattoos.

Recently you were head of department for Blade Runner. You were talking about films based in reality, so what was working on Blade Runner like?

You know, Blade Runner was a career milestone because I was really frightened – I think everyone was, and that was what Denis Villeneuve said to me, ‘Don’t worry, we all are.’ Roger Deakin had said to me, ‘it’s a fantasy.’ And he was absolutely right because it could be whatever. We were getting into these conversations: replicant, non-replicant… about stubble, you know, how can they be bald? How can they have a beard? I mean, it was getting quite ridiculous.

Sometimes we put too much into that. Just let it go! Just make a beautiful film! He lit it and photographed it so superbly. We weren’t doing these crazy make-ups. It was very much based in reality, you know elements of Alexander McQueen and different films. We just pulled back on elements of it and that’s what I love about working with Denis. 

The film was very special to me, as was Sicario and Prisoners. These were some of the best films that I’ve ever been a part of.

Donald Mowat working on Sicario IMDB
Donald Mowat working on Sicario

As you were saying, there’s isn’t a particular genre of film that your work spans, which must be really great to get your teeth into. What’s the biggest challenge for you when you come to work on a project?

Well, I think we get used to what we know. I’m a bit guilty of that sometimes – the safety zone. However, I think it’s the same with actors. There are actors who want to change up all the time. That doesn’t work for everyone. There are styles of make-up where I go, ‘Oh gosh, I wish I’d done more caricatures.’ But it’s really not what I do. Other people do it so brilliantly.

We all help each other and work with each other. But I think, this is what I do, and I love it and I’m good at it. The people who are interested in it will follow me and come and work with me.

There are others who like fantasy, sci-fi and aliens. Even as a kid, I was fascinated by Barry Lyndon, or Blade Runner, Kubrick films. I think it’s great because there’s work for everybody and we can all have different interests.

Amazing. You said you’d been working on Spiderman and are now taking a holiday. What do you have planned for the future?

That’s a great question, because there’s a few things in the works. Spiderman was a great experience for me, because it wasn’t the hardest job. Jake Gyllenhaal and I had worked on more challenging films like Prisoners and Stronger, so I thought, ‘Well, I love being in London and I’m not in charge of the design, or the chief, so I can just go and do my thing for a month or so.’ Then First Man was finished so we were doing some press for that. Kind of another career milestone, very challenging project.

There’s a few things I’m looking at, I’m very fortunate to have a couple of offers. Things were pushed and schedules changed. I think people forget that it’s very stressful because it’s a domino effect. One film gets pushed, which happened with one film. It got pushed by three months so everything was affected.

It’s the feast or famine aspect of the job that I’ve not enjoyed. I think it would be the part of the industry that I say to newcomers - and I do teach and do outreach and mentorship – that’s the aspect that I do not cherish or enjoy. So I’m waiting for 2 or 3 very interesting things, I’m very fortunate in that.

But I’m also keen to work on a couple of smaller character-driven projects with newer actors coming up. I find that very interesting, to work with the newer generation, because they’re so good. I love working with them because I feel younger being around them.

Donald Mowat working on First Man IMDB
Donald Mowat working on First Man

That’s really cool! Talking about the outreach and working with younger actors, what advice would you have for young people wanting to be make-up artists in the film industry?

When I started and I’ll probably be criticised for saying this - when I was younger, there were more small films and co-productions in Canada and the UK. You know, like A Child’s Christmas in Wales. These were the true co-productions and I miss them. Where you had people from all over the world, getting together to make a small project, whether they were British, Australian, New Zealanders, American or Canadian. We learned from each other and we made contacts.

Starting in the business now, I’ve noticed, and I would say in the past ten years, everyone’s very departmentalised. It’s broken off and is autonomous. The camera department, the sound department, the costume, the make-up, the hair… everyone’s kind of gone off, which I felt we didn’t do.

We all sat together at lunch. Maybe because it’s grown, I’m not sure, I don’t like that either. It seems less about filmmaking and more about being stars, or well-known or successful. I can relate to that, but there is something about being a filmmaker as well as a make-up artist, or a costume designer, or a set designer or a camera operator. Now, it all feels very separate. I don’t encourage it. It’s making people frightened of each other, misunderstanding each other. I always knew what the grips did and the sparks.

We would all share experiences, and I would love to see that come back a bit more.

So I would say to new people coming in: understand what everybody’s doing and ask questions. I mean, what is sound editing? I still don’t really know! In all these years, I still don’t understand it. So, if I don’t understand sound editing, does the sound editor really understand make-up? That’s what’s changed for me, so I encourage young people to be filmmakers first, watch other films, see other people’s work, know the actors.

And certainly the actors should know other actors from days gone by. I think it’s really important, for a full education.

***** Do you want to become a Makeup Artist? Browse our latest Makeup Artists jobs here*****