Donald Mowat’s Long Career in Movie Makeup
Since his first Emmy win in 1992 for Mark Twain and Me, Donald Mowat has infiltrated many projects beloved by film audiences. First entering the industry in 1982 by joining the SNC Montreal Union as an assistant makeup artist, Mowat quickly gained traction for his commitment to the craft and creating looks and designs that captivated fans across the globe. He received his first Emmy nomination in 1987 for Outstanding Achievement in Makeup for Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future and only gained more prominence with this recognition. Now, he’s obtained an Oscar nomination for his work on the 2021 summer block buster Dune which received high praise and many Oscars for its production elements such as costumes and set design. Continuing to thrive in an action/thriller movie setting Mowat served as the hair and makeup designer for the MCU’s latest Disney+ show Moon Knight starring Star Wars’s Oscar Isaac as the titular character. Through his dedication to the pursuit of creativity and his constant generosity, Mowat has created multiple opportunities for aspiring makeup artists, reminding us all that giving back and helping others succeed is more crucial now than ever.
Q. You’ve had a very prolific 30-year career as a makeup artist. How have you seen the industry change? What are some defining moments that have stuck with you?
A. Well, a lot of things have changed. Of course film to digital, that changed. I can remember now maybe 10 years ago or even longer when we worked exclusively in 35 millimeter. I remember 16 millimeter. I’ve worked with actors and crew, makeup and hair and costume people that have never worked in film. They’ve only worked in digital so the references I make they don’t understand. I guess the equivalent is kids at school do their work on the computer instead of writing it. You could really make an analogy in any way. I think there’s been some great milestones that have happened and also some not-so-great things. I think we see a lot of the same people in the same movies which I think is not always helpful. When I was a kid like 13, 14, we didn’t have the content we have today. So when a movie came out it was really exciting. I remember like Carrie, Brian De Palma’s Carrie with Sissy Spacek when that came out we all snuck in cause you had to be 13, we might’ve been 11. That movie played for months in the movie theaters.
It was a culture of movies and cinema and it’s very different today. So you saw the movies on a Friday or whatever day and you’d often see them two or three times. I saw Rocky Horror Picture Show as a cult film as a teenager and I loved it. I still watch it every year at Halloween. My friend Peter Robb King designed that makeup, he just retired. We saw Rocky Horror at repertoire cinemas and people went and danced and sang I think people still do. Also, I think there’s more self-importance of what everybody does on the job where we used to work together. I think people are not as community-minded as they used to be.
Q. You’re known for working on many action movies/ thrillers such as The Fighter, 8 Mile, and Blade Runner 2049. How is it working on the sets of these films?
A. Well, I never thought of 8 Mile as an action film [laughs]. 8 Mile is one of my favorite things because I love Eminem. He is so genius. I felt like I was part of something important that happened, being on a movie set that was so contemporary at the time. The Fighter was really touching. These are all stories about really difficult lives and difficult things happening to people. I’m very drawn to that.
Q. You received your first Emmy nomination for outstanding work in makeup in 1987 and won the award in 1992. You also recently received an Oscar nominee. What were you feeling in these moments?
A. It was pretty amazing. I was 27-years-old. It was an amazing thing to happen. I wouldn’t have been there without a lot of people’s help, a lot of friends and colleagues, some who aren’t with us anymore. You know Kevin Haney, he was really the one that got the Emmy for that show [Mark Twain and Me]. It was a beautiful night. The Oscar nomination took me 30 years. I was a late bloomer. To get nominated for Dune was the highlight of my life.
Q. How did you hear about Moon Knight? Were you excited to join the project?
A. I was! Oscar Isaac had asked me about coming on board and of course, I was very interested and they asked me to come on for hair, makeup, and prosthetics and look over the whole department. I put together [a lot that] I was very happy with. I had some people from Dune and some new people. I love having new people, old people, young people, just mix it up! We had a great team and May Calamaway who was an actress I hadn’t worked with before and it was very exciting to give her a modern Egyptian contemporary look and not what we sort of perceive as an exotic look because that’s not how women in Egypt look.
We wanted her to look like a contemporary woman and it was a lot of fun. We did lots of things, we doubled [Oscar] so that he could play opposite himself, optically, visually, and create all these special effects and costumes. We worked so closely to make these seamless transitions in visual effects. It was a lot of fun.
Q. What are some fun stories you can share from the Moon Knight set? What was it like working on an MCU show?
A. With the MCU, I had lots of preconceived notions but you know what it was a lot of freedom. I got to do all the blood and a lot of the things I like to do. What was fun for us was redesigning the tattoo that was on Ethan[Hawke]. He wanted some changes to it. We had created a generic tattoo of the scales and what we do in makeup is integrate something for a visual effect.
We have to take it from two-dimensional on a piece of paper, transition it into three-dimension onto the skin, and then make it a visual reference for visual effects. So we worked that out, put it on Ethan, and then it became sort of alive with VFX reference. So that was fun. We joked around a lot because there were days on set where we had zombies and heka priests and there were a lot of practical makeups, there were things that didn’t work. But we had a really good time together.
Q. As a BAFTA LA member, you’re committed to helping others interested in hair and makeup professionally reach their goals through education. Why is this so important to you?
A. I think it’s important because and not just hair and makeup, those are just areas I love, but I think whether it’s sound or editing or anything in the arts I think acting and directing and writing get lots of attention. I also think a lot of people don’t have a head start or a mentor. Not everyone can go to the schools, and get the information or have that at their fingertips. So, I think places like BAFTA or The Academy and organizations that are non-profit but especially BAFTA do such a great job and they have programs like BAFTA Connect. [These programs] introduce young people to something that they really wanna do and if we’re able to help someone who may not have the means to go to film school then let’s help get them some experience. I really believe in old school, that you learn your craft mostly because you are passionate and you love it.
But also because you have the opportunity and someone took time to talk to you and show you a few things and introduce you to a few people. Going to school is important but it’s not the be-all-end-all because you don’t learn how to be a costume designer going to school. That gives you technique and education but you learn being on a set and so I think it’s really important because not everyone can go to the AFI(American Film Institute) and all those schools. It means a lot to lend yourself and for me, I learn a lot by helping others and you learn about yourself teaching others. You take a minute to remember how it was when you were 19, or 20, or 21, and being unsure of yourself and how much anxiety one can have. I think it reassures people that it’s ok not to know.
Q. What can you say about working in the hair and makeup department? How do the technical behind-the-scenes aspects of a film or show enhance its overall production?
I think anything behind the camera really, I mean we all contribute. That’s part of telling a story. I think that whether it’s props or the sound or the makeup or whatever it is we’re all pieces to the puzzle. I think it’s incredible and everyone needs to embrace everybody working and I think it’s become a problem. It’s become a little bit too focused on above the line and below the line. It’s very divisive instead of we’re all working together. It’s more star-driven which is why you always hear about acting or how to become an actor. What that says is how to become famous to me and that’s boring actually. It’s not about how to be interesting or how to be good or creative or an artisan and it should be.
A. What’s next for you? Any exciting upcoming projects you can talk about?
Upcoming for me is Dune: Part 2!