Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Interview: Donald Mowat Talks ‘Moon Knight’ Hair & Makeup, Oscar Isaac, and More [EXCLUSIVE]

Marvel Studios’ most recent addition to its growing Disney+ television series lineup is Moon Knight. The series stars Oscar Isaac as Steven Grant, a mild-mannered man who lives a mundane life, plagued by blackouts and mysterious memories of a life somehow separate from his own. After one fateful encounter, Steven discovers that he has Dissociative Identity Disorder and shares a body with Marc Spector — a former mercenary and the ruthless avatar of Khonshu, the Egyptian god of the moon and vengeance.

Following the conclusion of its wildly entertaining six-episode run with its epic finale, “Gods and Monsters,” Nerds & Beyond had a chance to chat with Moon Knight‘s Head of Department for Makeup, Hair, and Prosthetics design, Donald Mowat.

Mowat’s extensive career, which spans over 30 years, most recently includes work on titles such as Dune, Blade Runner 2049, Spider-Man: Far From Home, Nocturnal Animals, Sicario, Skyfall, and much more.

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Note: This interview has been edited for clarity.

Nerds & Beyond: How did you become involved with working on Moon Knight?

Donald Mowat: Well, Mr. Oscar Isaac had asked me when we were finishing up Dune. He mentioned it to me, and I thought, “Maybe this could be interesting.” We talked about Scenes from a Marriage or something like that. It didn’t work out — pandemic, New York, a lot happening. So I got a call from the Moon Knight people, and next thing I was prepping it, and there I was.

Nerds & Beyond: Can you give me an overview of what your job on the show entailed?

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Mowat: In a nutshell, I ran the hair, makeup, and prosthetics for the whole show, the six episodes. I guess it looked easier than it was, but I guess everyone says that. And then you think, “Oh God, this is really more complicated.” Because what looks simple, as you know, is always more complicated.

Steven/Marc, we’ve got to make him a little different but make it look like there’s something distraught about him as Steven, which I felt we were doing. I called it a sort of jetlag look: sweaty, distraught, tired eyes, glazed over. Prepping May [Calamawy], Mohamed [Diab] said “I want to have a modern, non-exotic [look].” I think in the press, he talked about how people exoticize Egypt, and I agree with him. So we gave May a contemporary look in her hair and makeup, and I’m really happy we did that.

Marvel Studios

One of the challenges would be, we talked about twinning. I referenced One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Oscar … like Roman Polanski and The Tenant, which is a super creepy psychological film from back in the day. But also the twinning doubles like in Dead Ringers, Oscar has got to act opposite himself. In order to do that, it’s got to be a seamless combination of costume, makeup, hair, visual effects, and cinematography. Then blend it together where you get a photo double, put him in a perfect match of a wig, makeup, a prosthetic nose. So you feel you’ve got Oscar Isaac, but it’s a double. It’s a stand-in. That has to be done really, really well, and it takes a minute to do. So that was kind of a challenge for us.

Nerds & Beyond: I thought it was really cool when I found out that Oscar’s brother Michael [Hernandez] was a stand-in.

Mowat: Yeah. So he delivered all the lines. We made a custom wig for him, we did makeup on him, and then we had doubles. We had stand-ins who are visually maybe closer to Oscar. His brother delivers the acting, the performance, much better, closer, as he knows him really well. Obviously, it’s his brother, and they’re closer than anything. And Michael’s wonderful and an actor. Then you have better visual doubles for like the shoulders … so it really took a lot of people to make that work.

Nerds & Beyond: How did the fact that Moon Knight was based on a comic book series affect your preparation and approach going into the show?

Mowat: Well, I looked at the comic books. I went to a couple of bookstores in LA near where I live, and I picked up a few copies of it. I didn’t know it. I mean, I read a little bit about it, and I got a sense of it. But then I very quickly had to come up with my own reasoning and references. That’s how I came to things like The Tenant or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. If you don’t know it, you just figure it out. When they talk about the past, similarities, the MCU and that kind of thing, which I’m not familiar with, you have to quickly come up with ideas. Oscar liked the way I was referencing things

Gabor Kotschy/Marvel Studios

Nerds & Beyond: In addition to Oscar, Ethan [Hawke] and May were brilliant in their roles. What was it like working with both of them?

Mowat: So David Atherton came along to do Ethan’s makeup, and May I looked after. Ethan, I’d worked with him on a couple movies like 15-20 years ago. It was great because, spoilers, we had to do a change for him [for a later episode] … something happens on his face. I did that, fit him for something. There’s a couple of changes. We looked after that for him. It was great, because it could have been really corny. The way we established him at first, I wasn’t sure was the right way to go. But I realized, in retrospect, it was the right way to go. Because if you start somewhere and make a decision early on, you have nowhere to go. I think it was the right move.

May was great, because it was really about making her look [modern]. You have to believe her, because of the action side of it and the interest between the two of them [Marc/Steven and Layla]. They have to parallel. You’ve got to believe there’s a couple. That’s important, the way people look. You know when you see couples, people say a couple looks like brother and sister sometimes. But there’s a reason for that. You have to believe they belong together.

I thought there was something a little odd about [Layla], just a quirkiness about both of them. She’s a delight. She really is a breath of fresh air. I love that we were part of creating this natural hair, this curl in her hair. I love that we made it bigger for [the finale]. I think there was something about her that’s really beautiful and natural.

Nerds & Beyond: Coming back to the fact that you knew Oscar beforehand coming into this, what was your working relationship like with him in developing the looks for the multiple facets of his character?

Mowat: Pretty straightforward. We had a good working relationship. I think he’s such a strong actor. He’s very committed. He makes it look so easy. I have to really say that to people over and over. He really does, and I know it’s not. It’s really impressive, what he does.

Nerds & Beyond: As you had discussed, there are certain things that may look simple, but there’s a lot of work put into them. Can you highlight some of your favorite achievements contributed by your department for the show that we haven’t already discussed?

Mowat: Love Larson, we’ve worked together for a long time, he had to kind of redraw the whole tattoo concept for the scales. Marvel presented me this idea for a tattoo, and I thought, “But that won’t work. It just won’t work as a tattoo.” But that’s very Marvel, and I really love that about them, because they don’t take offense when you say that. That happens always in films. People come up with tattoos from the art department that you have to say, “Yeah, but we have to redo it.”

We had to do the father, a little prosthetic transfer work, because you see the kids younger. Mom and dad go through two periods, so you have to do that. There are little things. There’s a flashback, you see the mom. The Heka Priests, I don’t think you saw enough of them. We had some supporting players that work in the museum, I thought they were great characters. We didn’t see quite a lot of them. The man, Crawley. I think those guys are great, those supporting players.

Nerds & Beyond: What was it like for you to change speeds a bit and work on a six-episode Marvel series versus doing a feature film?

Mowat: I think you still do what you do. There’s not quite the detail or the setup that you have on a feature film, but at the same time, I think you still have to give it the same respect in treatment and prep. You have to treat it as though you’re going to shoot it this way. And the detail of it, you don’t have the detail you have in the background or the extras or crowd, etc. But you still have to treat it the same way. There’s no difference in that. I think you have to work a little bit faster, well, a lot faster. But that’s just the reality of shooting [for] streaming.

The business has changed fundamentally. There’s so much more streaming. It’s new for me, but it’s something I’m not afraid of anymore. But a lot of people come onto films now who are frightened of it, because it’s the big screen. I think they should be afraid. It is different. Makeup on television has been too heavy, too makeup-y. I’m from a world of … it’s based in reality, I don’t like to see or notice the hair and makeup.

Nerds & Beyond: With all of your years of experience in the film industry, what’s an important sentiment or piece of advice that you like to carry with you?

Mowat: I think you want to make your job look easy. Because there’s something where everybody makes it all so fraught and difficult, and that kind of bothers me a little bit now that I’m older and wiser. Once upon a time, you know. I think less is more, it’s just the way I’ve always been in terms of the work. Maybe I’m afraid of things, but it’s okay to be anxious. It’s okay to worry. It’s okay. I think people worry about being worried. The anxiety should be so you’re not worried, that you don’t think twice. There are times you should just let it go. It doesn’t matter. You shouldn’t worry over, “Is the hair this way, or is it here?” It’s overkill. It’s a very difficult business because it gets so myopic. That’s what it is. You have to know what to let go: little things you let go.

All six episodes of Moon Knight are now streaming exclusively on Disney+. In case you missed it, check out our full series review here.

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