From 007 to ‘Dune,’ Canadian Makeup Artist Donald Mowat Reflects on Getting up Close with Some of Hollywood’s Most Famous Faces
Donald Mowat headed up the makeup department for the new 'Dune' film, helping to create the look for the many unique otherworldly characters in the movie. That includes the Harkonnens — such as Dave Bautista, 52, above — for which the look was hairless, with bone-coloured/alabaster makeup, brow covers and bald pates, creating a very stylized look. Photo: © 2020 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
Donald Mowat’s face may not be instantly recognizable, but his faces sure are. Ryan Gosling, Charlotte Rampling, Oscar Isaac, Daniel Craig, Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Wahlberg and Emily Blunt are just a few of the larger-than-life leads who have spent time in the Emmy-winner’s makeup chair.
Montreal-born Mowat, 56, is one of Hollywood’s most in-demand makeup artists and the mastermind behind hair and makeup design for the upcoming Dune remake — helmed by fellow Quebecois talent Denis Villeneuve.
Mowat’s work spans nearly four decades and includes homegrown Canadian movies like Margaret’s Museum (1995) to Hollywood classics like The Fly (1986) to the James Bond films Skyfall (2012) and Spectre (2015) as well as other Villeneuve films like Prisoners (2013), Sicario (2015) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017).
Mowat grew up in Montreal — the son of a Scottish schoolteacher and a nurse — and these days divides his time between West Hollywood and Toronto. Journalist Nathalie Atkinson recently spoke with him to find out how a boy from Notre-Dame-de-Grâce neighbourhood who loved storytelling (“I was a Masterpiece Theatre kid — a geeky kid watching PBS!”) went from powdering extras on Anne of Green Gables to heading up the hair and makeup department of Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sprawling sci-fi epic Dune.
After working on the adaptation of Mordecai Richler’s Joshua Then and Now (1985) in Montreal, Mowat took a chance and moved to Toronto, where there happened to be freelance work on Anne of Green Gables.
“I was very lucky because I went to Toronto when all the movies started happening,” he recalls. He handled makeup for extras on the first series and worked his way up to assistant head of the department for the second.
“Then I got to work in the main trailer with all the cast — Megan Follows, Jonathan Crombie and all those kids. It was incredible and one of the happiest times of my life, when I think back.”
Another early gig was assistant to the creature effects team on David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986). “I was the glue guy,” he laughs. “It was foam then. I glued the hands and the feet and I looked after Jeff [Goldblum] on set. They prepped him and I did all the touch-ups.”
Freelance work on CBC’s Magic Hour eventually led to features and Canadian-made TV movies like Mark Twain and Me (1991), for which he won the Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Achievement in Makeup.
“And I keep coming back to my great friend Shirley Douglas,” he says fondly. “Shirley would call somebody, who would call somebody, who would call Norman Jewison.”
That’s how Mowat got his job on the Jewison-directed 1996 film Bogus, starring Whoopi Goldberg and Gérard Depardieu.
“It was because I could speak French, actually! They wanted somebody for Depardieu, who really didn’t speak much English. My French is not brilliant,” he admits, “but put it this way, to an American producer it was really good French.”
Smaller isn’t necessarily better in the film world, but modest movies can be rewarding. Although they “don’t have all the bells and whistles or crew of a studio movie, so you can’t make any mistakes,” Mowat says, “I kind of love it for the creative side, and I think some of the better films I’ve worked on are the smaller films.”
He singles out Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler (2014) starring Jake Gyllenhaal.
“Everything about it — even when it was a terrible schedule of late nights — I loved. It’s creepy and it’s intelligent. I hadn’t read a script like that in a long time. And haven’t since, to be honest. So that for me was a great project to be a part of.”
They Had Faces, Then
Period films used to be Mowat’s favourite to work on. But just as actors’ bodies have changed and often appear more toned than the average person these days, so have their faces.
“I’m reluctant now,” he says, “and not that interested. I don’t want to be arguing with an actress over the micro-blading eyebrows!”
He also thinks there’s such a thing as looking too good. The beauty standards and expectations now that “80 is the new 60” among actors have likewise had an impact. It can make the work harder for makeup artists, especially when they have to make actors up into characters that are more appropriately lived-in, like in The Fighter (2010) or Prisoners.
From 007 to Dune
“Being on a Bond movie, it’s really interesting because there’s an element of glamour and prestige” he says of Skyfall and Spectre. “It’s also really hard work — you do some crazy hours. But you don’t get a better human being than Daniel Craig, you just don’t.
“To be with him and around that environment is so not Hollywood,” Mowat says, “but at the same time the locations are the best of everything: you are on glaciers in Austria and then go to places like Rome. There’s very few films like that.”
Mowat has worked with Craig not only on Spectre and Skyfall but on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Cowboys & Aliens (both 2011). He was slated for No Time to Die, Craig’s last outing as James Bond, until production on the 007 movie was repeatedly delayed and the space opera Dune presented it.
“You very rarely get an opportunity, in anyone’s career, no matter what you do, to get to work on something like that,” he says of the sci-fi epic. “And I’m so acutely aware of it when I’m there in Dubai or Hungary or any of those places, because you forget that not many people get this experience.”
But it’s more than that.
“With Denis, I think we’re maybe just meant to be together. His eye, the way he thinks, he challenges you. It’s so funny after all these years, here we are two people from the same province albeit very different, working together. For me, creatively he trusts me, and I know what he’ll like and won’t like, and can present things to him. We’ve had a great working relationship. I think I’d kind of like to finish being in the business working with him. Wait no, I don’t think — I know that.”
Looks Can be Deceiving
Yes, the elaborate design for 70-year-old Stellan Skarsgård’s transformation into the villainous Harkonnen in Dune took 18 weeks and a team to prepare (and hours to apply), but the formidable Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam played by Charlotte Rampling, 75, was almost as much of a challenge.
“Simple is hard,” Mowat explains. “I had to go to Paris to do a little test on her. It’s not a complicated makeup but it’s still a look.”
The hair and makeup on Dune’s racially and gender diverse cast was all in-camera, Mowat says, meaning it was real. That’s rare in a time when so many blockbusters get a layer of hair or makeup overlap from visual effects (Blade Runner 2049 had some merges, for example). “All of the makeups we did, we put the makeup on. All of them. That’s really exciting for the craft.”
Making Up Men
In addition to credits on dozens of films and television series, over the years Mowat has also worked as the regular personal makeup artist to performers like Mark Wahlberg, Ryan Gosling and Eminem on their projects, appearances (like Dune star Timothée Chalamet’s SNL hosting gig), and even ad campaigns (like Jake Gyllenhaal’s recent spots for Prada Luna Rossa).
“Of course you have to have somebody!” he says of the fact that, yes, even men have their favourite makeup artists (or “grooming,” as the magazine credits sometimes say). “It would be like going to the doctor’s office and there’s no receptionist. How can you not have a makeup man! It’s old-school. It’s a culture, it’s show business.”
Establishing an artistic rapport to help develop characters isn’t about tricks for covering up imperfections. It’s about trust. It may seem counterintuitive, but Mowat thinks his rapport with leading men stems from the fact that, “the men rely on the makeup [department] more than the women do. The women know what they’re doing. And they’re tougher — actresses always have been.”
With guys, he says, it’s everything from looking good to looking beat up so, “there’s more relationship and more dependency on the makeup person. Guys don’t have the know-how the way women do. And I like doing it because I’m a creature of habit, too — I like seeing the same face as much as they do.”
Mowat was recently reunited with Craig, for example, during the promotional tour for No Time to Die and the Los Angeles ceremony for his star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.
Finding Wellness and Balance
As we’ve all learned from the recent tense ongoing contract negotiations between studios, streamers, and IATSE, the crew workers union, conditions for workers on set are gruelling. Between the long hours, hauling dozens of heavy makeup cases around and the physicality of the actual work both in the makeup trailer and standing by on set, days are punishingly long (and only made more so with rigorous COVID safety protocols). Many career makeup artists — and indeed, many below-the-line crew — have chronic physical issues.
“I was not a fan of Phys Ed in school,” Mowat recalls. “I have great endurance and strength now because of what I do — you stand all day, you work intensely, with eye-hand co-ordination, and you might go 16, 17 hours — which I still do. But it did wreck me.
“You see all these makeup artists that have had hips, knees, all kinds of problems physically and a lot of it’s from standing and not enough sleep and no recovery [time],” he adds. “So I tell the younger makeup people to please try to get or stay in shape. Try to keep your weight down. It’s so much harder when you hit 50 to continue. Now I’m much better,” he adds, and doesn’t miss the days when he ran on fumes and nicotine. “I stopped smoking — it took years for me to stop.”
Wisdom for the Next Generation
Experience has also made Mowat more willing to turn certain kinds of jobs down. Case in point: the 2000 Mark Wahlberg and George Clooney ocean rescue thriller, The Perfect Storm.
“Twenty years ago I would never think twice. Now? I would not do that film,” he says of the demanding conditions. “Because I don’t know if I could jump from one of those ships to the other like we did, five times a day, on the Pacific, in December. We did the film in Massachusetts on the Atlantic in October, which is hurricane season and then in L.A., on the Pacific, at Christmastime. Now, well into my late 50s, I don’t think I want to do that any more!”
These days, as he mentors the next generation entering the industry through outreach programs in Los Angeles, Toronto, and London, Mowat also urges them to cultivate better wellness habits.
“I should have been swimming a couple times a week. I should have watched my weight. But it’s very hard to be motivated when you get up at three or four in the morning,” he explains of the hair and makeup department’s typical early start times. “I’ve tried! You can’t do the 20 minutes on the [exercise] bike. Because sometimes it’s remarkable that you can even put clean socks on and get yourself put together for the day ahead.”
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
An Emmy, Gemini, Cable ACE and industry awards aren’t Mowat’s only kudos. He’s a past board member of the Actors Fund and of the Canadian Academy, and active as a community mentor. In 2012 he was awarded the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal, given to Canadians in recognition of significant contributions to their industries.
When we first spoke in the spring, Mowat had been long-listed in the Academy Award nominations for his transformative work on The Little Things, a thriller starring Denzel Washington, Jared Leto, and Rami Malek.
“People always say, ‘Oh we shouldn’t care awards.’ But you know what? People do,” he enthuses, with characteristic candour, of the honour. “And every once in a while it’s really nice to be in the top ten, with a lot of people you know. I was really touched by it.”
At the time, Mowat was close to wrapping the Michael Bay action-heist Ambulance (slated for February 2022) and had recently finished working with Jake Gyllenhaal again on Antoine Fuqua’s The Guilty, a taut thriller shot in Los Angeles in the middle of the pandemic over 12 days (now on Netflix).
Then, he would be off Budapest to work with Dune’s Oscar Isaac again, on the upcoming Marvel series Moon Knight.
But for now, and after much waiting, he’s savouring the moment the months of work he and his team put in on Dune finally get seen on big screens around the world.
And maybe there’s a little gold statuette in his future, too.