Donald Mowat has risen through the ranks of television and film to what many would consider the pinnacle of both industries, as the Head of Department for Make-Up, Hair and Prosthetics on the latest Marvel Studios Disney+ mini-series, Moon Knight. In this interview, we explore not only his recent achievements, but the interesting projects from his past that got the veteran make-up artist to this point.
Adam Pope: You’ve been involved in many large-scale productions over the years, but certainly all-eyes are always on the next Marvel movie or series. Many people site a house style in the writing of Marvel Studios properties, but did you feel you had the freedom to use your well-honed skills and creativity on Moon Knight when it came to make-up and hair?
Donald Mowat: It’s actually very interesting that you as me that because, I did. I worked only once before with Marvel on Spider-Man [Far From Home, as Jake Gyllenhaal’s personal hair and make-up artist], but Oscar [Isaac] I gave a lot of ideas and everyone was very open to it. I brought in examples, I was using things like Tenant, Spider and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, but we had a younger crew as they tend to be on streaming and I suddenly turned into the older person going, “Oh, we’re talking about movies from 20 or 30 years ago that they’d never heard about”, but I think people respected that. [Directors] Benson and Moorehead and Mohamed were very open to ideas, like doing contact lenses for Oscar in Asylum, changing Ethan’s look with the wig and the moustache. Everyone was very open to that.
Adam Pope: Speaking of which, it’s very interesting that in this Disney+ series, Oscar is playing two different characters who look nearly identical. You made slight changes with the hairstyles to differentiate Marc Spector from Steven Grant. Is coming up with those subtle choices that represent certain themes of a story a fun part of the process?
Donald Mowat: We had a big team and Tim Nolan did Oscar’s hair, that’s his normal hairdresser in the real world. It was interesting for me, because sometimes bringing people from the commercial world or red carpet or press into this is a little harder, but it worked and he was able to pull it off. I was worried that real world of hair and make-up doesn’t transfer to the cinematic world, but he did a good job and it worked really well.
But we wanted to have subtle changes with Oscar, I mean look, he’s the same guy isn’t he? And that’s what people forget. You can’t just part the hair on the same side, you can’t grow a beard, so you have to look like you’ve been through something. In the course of some anxiety or some catastrophic thing in the course of the day, you’re sweaty, you’re vomiting, you’re nauseous, that’s what I was going for.
Adam Pope: Just going back to some of your earliest work, there was a movie called Junior or Hot Water from 1985. Was it a rite of passage for every aspiring make-up artist in the 80’s to cut their teeth on a slasher film?
Donald Mowat: I think so. It was so bad it was good. But you learn a lot and I do think you have to work on one of those and if you look at a lot of the Make-Up Artists in the business, a lot of them have those titles. Every single one of them. They all have these obscure titles and movies and you, “Oh my god”, but we all worked on one or two of them, that’s for sure.
Adam Pope: Not quite as obscure, as it was kind of big deal for a certain generation and a big promotion for you as Head of Department was in 1987 when you worked on Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future. How did you become involved in the production of that series?
Donald Mowat: It makes me a bit sad, it’s very nostalgic. When I came up in the business, I started working with such a great group of people. Way back then, often a Production Designer hired all of us. Costume, Make-Up, Hair, everybody. The Production Designer did it, Susan Longmire. Ivan Lynch, the hair guy and he said, “Yeah, got Donald Mowat because he’s blah, blah, blah” and then I met her and she recommended me and Sherry McMorran did the costumes.
It was a great time. It was tough because I didn’t know a lot of stuff either. I might have been in over my head, one could say. But at the same time, we did some very fun work and it was 26 episodes with some very nice people, very nice actors and I still know a couple of those people. Many have passed away and I was a kid, I can’t even remember how old I was, I was very young. But I have great, fond memories of shooting that and what we did in green screen, it was state of the art.
Adam Pope: Yeah, the computer animation and all the special effects, but outside of the razzle dazzle of all that, you were nominated for a Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Makeup as a kid. It shows your talent very early on.
Donald Mowat: Yeah, it was really amazing. The show didn’t come back and I was really devastated, because we left everything there. I don’t have a lot of the stuff, and I had finally let go in a locker room I had pictures and I finally shredded it all, because I thought “Who are you kidding? You‘ve got to let it go.” David Hemblen (Lord Dredd) just died last year, he was a nice man. He was a great actor. Peter Macneill (Major Hawk Masterson) is still around. Yeah, I have very fond memories of the people that worked on it.
Adam Pope: Now as we move into the 90’s, is a very fun movie, maybe not getting a lot of attention these days, If Looks Could Kill with Richard Grieco.
Donald Mowat: You are killing me. That movie made me want to leave the business.
Adam Pope: I was wondering, because that was a very big budget, Warner Bros. production. Was that very different than the TV work you had been doing and some small film stuff?
Donald Mowat: I felt very protected on Captain Power, because everybody looked out for me and Susan Longmire, she helped me. I didn’t know how to do a purchase order, she showed me how to do that. I knew how to do the timecards, I had a crew. One of my people on Captain Power, Judy Murdock is Will Smith’s Make-Up Artist now. But when I went to If Looks Could Kill, it was suddenly a big movie with really tough producers and the biggest thing, this is what I remember, that caused nothing but drama, nothing but trouble, was Richard Grieco’s eyebrows. And I took never-ending heat from the Producers and the Director, William Dear, who didn’t like me very much and I didn’t like him very much either, so fair is far. He wasn’t very nice. I loved the girl, Gabrielle Anwar, I thought she looked very pretty.
But that was the days of studios really overseeing the make-up and dictating. And I didn’t understand because I had been on Captain Power where everyone was so nurturing, and suddenly I was on a studio movie where everybody was so mean. Roger Rees and Linda Hunt, those were real actors, and Richard Grieco, he was a nice guy, but his eyebrows…
Adam Pope: Jumping forward a little bit to 2001. You mentioned how you come into productions as the personal make-up artist for a lot of actors, like Daniel Craig who you’ve done a lot of work with, but also Mark Wahlberg for a long period. In particular on Tim Burton’s Planet of The Apes film. Did you feel like you were missing out by mainly applying make-up to a human and not an Ape make-up or were you happy to let Rick Baker handle that? Any fun stories from the set?
Donald Mowat: I was kind of in awe because it was Rick Baker obviously, but I met a lot of people there that I knew like Kevin Haney and all these remarkable people who are still around. But no, I kind of liked what I was doing. It was a great film, it was a great experience, they don’t make those movies anymore. They would never make that movie today. It was a different time and place.
Adam Pope: I do have to ask you about another film that is a personal favorite of mine, that when I saw your name attached I was so excited and that is Rock Star.
Donald Mowat: That is what I tell people is the last time that making a movie was really fun. Mark and I, we were doing The Perfect Storm at Warner Bros. and Mark said, “Read this script” and it was called “Metal God”, and I thought that was a better title. And I read it and I went, “Wow, this is good”. And I saw some concepts and I thought Mark would be great in this part. And he was great in the part.
Adam Pope: In the film, Mark’s character applies a lot of make-up to himself to achieve the 80’s hair metal look. Did you coach him on how to apply it convincingly?
Donald Mowat: Yeah and Mark was great. We had such a great time, that movie was SO MUCH FUN. We partied. That’s when people still smoked on set. I’m sorry, I know #dontsmoke, don’t do anything, but whatever, it was fun. Jen Aniston was so much fun. Oh my God.
Adam Pope: I love to hear that. I have to say, I’m such a fan that the first website I designed was a fan site for fake band in that film, Steel Dragon. That’s how much I was into it.
Donald Mowat: Oh my god, all those guys. Jason Bonham, we had so much fun, I can’t even tell you. We went up to Seattle and everybody would crash each other’s room. Jen Aniston would knock on the door, “Room Service”. It was such a different time.
Adam Pope: Closing out with your more recent achievements, you received many nominations for a wide range of awards based on your amazing work with Blade Runner 2049, (personally I feel that film should have won so many more awards than it did). With such a heavy design aesthetic involved in that film, what was your pre-production process like?
Donald Mowat: It was daunting, but I had a lot of help and assurance from Roger Deakins [Cinematographer] and his wife James. They made me fee like this will really be good, we’re all nervous. And I called Denis [Villeneuve, Director] and said, “Why am I doing this movie?” It was overwhelming, I was really scared. We all were. But it was great. We all came up with lots of looks. It was daunting, but you have to face it and you know, fear is a mind killer, as they say. But you have to face it and that’s what I did on Blade Runner. Very much alone I have to say.
I think that’s what happens when you do what I do. You have your team, but sometimes the team don’t take the hits for you and sometimes you are alone. Where you kind of feel at the end of the day that it was Roger and James and Denis, and going to them to say, “I don’t know what to do” or “what should we do here?”. Such a great cast and Dune was like that as well.
Adam Pope: I plan to watch Blade Runner 2049 many more times in the future, so I have to ask, is there a secret in the make-up design for replicants that would give them away that I should keep an eye out for?
Donald Mowat: No, because I don’t really think about it that much, I think I’m really born that way, because I love Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner so much and I still use it as reference for so many films. Blade Runner is Blade Runner and ours is ours and Dune is Dune, I look at it that way as different interpretations. And when I went to work on Blade Runner there were things I wanted to try, but then I said, “Yeah, but if I do that it looks too much like Daryl Hannah”. And at the time, Daryl Hannah, that makeup was really spectacular, but I don’t think it would hold up today.
I think it’s a fair thing to say. Like when you look in your wardrobe at a jacket your mother bought you and you look at it now and go, “Would you wear that now?” No. It doesn’t mean her intentions weren’t good, it just doesn’t work today.
Adam Pope: Last question. You talked how you get these top tier actor who request to work with you by name to be their personal Make-Up Artist. Do you feel like longevity in this business has as much to do with personality as it does with skill?
Donald Mowat: I think very much, I mean there’s some people who are just brilliant. They are absolutely brilliant. I couldn’t even be in the same room as them, in terms of the level of their skill. But their personalities suck. A bit like doctors. Not that we’re the same. But you know how sometime doctors have a terrible personality? You think, “How did you get through this?” But they know how to look after you and save your life. And there are Make-Up and Hair and different people who do brilliant work, but you wouldn’t want them sitting next to you anywhere. Bad personalities. Not people people.
And there are other people whose work is maybe not the greatest and maybe not the most refined, but their skills are impeccable and they’re easy and people like having them around. And I think sometimes that goes a long way.
Adam Pope: Thank you so much for your time and I’m glad I got to speak with you today, especially about Rock Star, it just warms my heart that you enjoyed it as much as you did.
Donald Mowat: I’m so happy to hear it and when I talk to Mark, I always stay in touch with him. When I think that he’s 50 now, it just makes me laugh. He’ll be 51 in June and I can’t get past it, he was just a kid when we made that. So I love that you loved it, because I loved it and I miss those days very much. Yes, I do.
Moon Knight is now available to stream on Disney+ and it’s recommended that you peruse Donald Mowat’s IMDB profile to see just how many familiar productions he contributed to over the years. You can also view the full video version of this interview on the Popgeeks YouTube channel.