Never before has a superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe been asked to “embrace the chaos” until now, but that’s the wonderfully chaotic world of Moon Knight for you. The Disney+ series follows Steven Grant (Oscar Isaac), a British, mild-mannered museum gift-shop employee, as he discovers and embraces his dissociative identity disorder, as well as his American alter ego — a mercenary named Marc Spector.
Created by Doug Moench and Don Perlin, the six-episode series features powerful Egyptian gods such as the moon god Khonshu (voiced by F. Murray Abraham), who has Marc do his bidding back in Egypt as Moon Knight. The hooded hero, dressed in silvery-white armor, must do whatever it takes to stop Arthur Harrow (Ethan Hawke) from resurrecting Ammit, the deadly Egyptian goddess of retribution.
Blending realms of fantasy and reality, Moon Knight was further brought to life by makeup, hair, and prosthetic designer Donald Mowat. It’s one thing to design makeup for beauty and glamour, which Mowat has certainly done, but he also relishes the opportunity to make his handsome leading men look “bad,” creating faces over the years that have been through traumatic experiences and emerged with bloody scrapes and bruises.
For example, Mowat served as the personal makeup artist to Daniel Craig on Skyfall and Spectre. Over the course of his Emmy-winning career, which spans 30-plus years, his impressive MUAH credits include The Fighter, 8 Mile, Sicario, Nightcrawler, Prisoners (Saturn and MUAHS Award wins in 2014) Nocturnal Animals (won the MUAHS Award in 2017), Stronger, and Blade Runner 2049. Mowat was even honored by British royalty, receiving a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal for his service to the film industry and various charities.
Below the Line spoke with Mowat via Zoom from Budapest, where he is currently working on Dune: Part Two. He talked about reuniting with Dune star Isaac on Moon Knight and reveals the subtle differences in creating the hair and makeup designs for the Steven/Marc personas, and what inspired those nuances. Mowat also sheds light on the on-the-job training he received early in his career when he worked with legends such as Gene Hackman, and how he has perfected the art of making actors look “bad” over the years.
Below the Line: How did you differentiate the makeup between Steven Grant and Marc Spector, both of whom were played by Oscar Isaac?
Donald Mowat: It’s really interested because a lot of people thought it would be this huge Jekyll and Hyde. I spoke with Oscar about it and I always work that way. You need to give the actors a great reference, visual references on a board or something. I gave him One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with Jack Nicholson, Roman Polanski and The Tenant, and the other one was really showing him Ralph Fiennes in Spider. They’re all the same person whether it’s split personality or schizophrenia, and I think it’s very important people knew that. You would hear people say, ‘now he’s changing into Marc,’ and we would have to wait for this huge three-hour makeup. It can’t be because it’s the same guy. I remembered Sally Field in Sybil; she’s the same person.
So what we decided is that Steven doesn’t sleep and he’s sweaty, sunken in eyes with dark circles, red eyes, chapped lips, looks kind of jet-lagged, and that sickly pallor, greasy. Whereas Marc is together, he’s the American Chicago guy. There’s a slight change on the hair and that’s it. The hardest thing was the doubles because we had 20 for Oscar to perform opposite himself and that’s like Dead Ringers with Jeremy Irons. I think less is more. It was a fine line with Oscar and they were really happy with it and he was [too], but the performance does a lot of it. I liked the nuance of Steven/Marc, yet it was distinct. It was a lot of fun for me.
BTL: How did you create the doubles’ makeup and their nuances?
Mowat: If you’re doing a close-up of Oscar as Marc and you have to have someone feeding the lines as Steven over the shoulder, their hair has to be a perfect match, so we put wigs on all the doubles. We dressed the hair and did the makeup. We even put a nose on the double, Michael Benjamin Hernandez for Marc/Steven, because you’d catch the profile. It had to work seamlessly between visual effects, costume, makeup, hair, and our great cinematographers, so it becomes a kind of dance.
BTL: How else did the makeup help to tell the story?
Mowat: Then I helped tell the story with another part of it, with the texture and the quality. Then we do Episode 5, the asylum scene where he wears contact lenses for dilating his eyes to look like he’s on opioids. He’s drooling and he’s got cotton all up in his cheeks. He looks stoned and totally out there. For Ethan Hawke’s look as Arthur Harrow, I fit him for a wig, so he’s got the shorter hair and the mustache.
BTL: What were the prosthetics that were designed for Moon Knight?
Mowat: Love Larson, who is a wonderful artist, made great pieces for the father because he has to age. When we do the flashbacks [with] a young Steven and Marc, the father has age makeup where you see him at two stages with prosthetics. All very subtle, less is more, but they’re all transfer appliances.
BTL: You’re such an accomplished makeup artist. Where did you get your training?
Mowat: I’m really lucky in a sense that I learned very much on the job, which they don’t do anymore. There’s no room anymore to teach on the job and the way we used to learn. Even as early as high school, we did drama and theater and in college, I took courses in TV and film. I learned fundamentals about lighting and camera work. I didn’t learn makeup [by] taking any classes. I learned doing extras in a tent on a lot of bad movies!
BTL: Why is makeup for men your specialty, in a sense. What is it about that?
Mowat: One of the oddest things is when you work as a head of a department or as a designer, you’re in charge of it all. You have to be able to do it all. I did lots of films with lots of women but what happens inevitably is makeup tends to favor men in films because typically with most films with actresses, the makeup is pretty. It’s beauty makeup and I loved doing it, lots of gorgeous actresses like Emily Blunt. But that’s typically about being attractive, so for me, the makeup is less interesting. Lots of people do beauty makeup but fewer people do specialized character makeup. So unless you’re aging an actress or doing a specialty makeup, nine times out of ten it shows you the sexism, just in that the makeup is for beauty.
But when you’re working with a man you’re doing sweat, blood, tears, and wounds. It’s military, where they’re prisoners of war, they’re a hostage, they’re beat up. It’s creating a character, so unless you’re doing Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher, there are a hundred people who can do beauty way better than I do. How many people can do Oscar Isaac and make him look bad? Because it’s hard to make him look bad! [laughs] Once in a while, it’s a movie like Monster with Charlize Theron where they’re gonna go through something, which is very rare.
BTL: It’s hard to make Daniel Craig look bad too!
Mowat: It’s very hard to make him look bad and I did it in Skyfall. I’m very proud of making him look bad in Skyfall. Emily Blunt called me once and said, ‘I wish you were available because nobody can make me look bad like you.’ That was the greatest compliment.
BTL: Speaking of James Bond, what was it like to be awarded a Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012?
Mowat: I was born and raised in Canada and I was in the UK for the Queen’s Jubilee. That was really special because it was the year of the Olympics and I was with Daniel Craig at Buckingham Palace. It was about the work I do, [and] a lot of other stuff that people don’t always talk about. My mother came, which was special because she’s just not interested in all this. I love that my parents are not starstruck. That made me laugh, that my mother actually wanted to come to that, where you get the medal.
BTL: It’s also quite a testament to you that you keep being requested by the same actors
Mowat: They do request you, until you’re not available. That’s happened to me with Gene Hackman. It’s a high-class problem and that’s what I tell them. With Gene, I did Heist and Extreme Measures, but he’s long retired, so… but what a wonderful man. He was a remarkable man and one of the nicest people, up there with Daniel Craig. Daniel and I were raised with many of the same values. Gene was of a generation that doesn’t exist anymore of how people were, which was different. He did things that would shock you. My favorite Gene Hackman story is, we were working on this movie, and it wasn’t fun; he wasn’t having a good time and in fact, he retired shortly after. He would’ve been about 80. He couldn’t wait to get off the movie and he used some words. He was driving in L.A. and some kind of paparazzi was following him. Gene pulled over, got out of his car, and punched the guy. Bam! Nobody is condoning violence, but the idea that it was this old man being pursued and harassed who punched this young guy was very impressive. He was a marine and he wasn’t Hollywood, which I really admire.
BTL: You have worked with some major movie stars sitting in the chair. How have you managed to not be starstruck?
Mowat: Sometimes, they get nervous with us, I think. I’m not really starstruck. I think maybe it’s been a help to me. It’s really important for people who would like to be in the industry to learn not to be starstruck. It’s part of the problem in our culture. I would get starstruck to meet a nurse during the pandemic. People who do really remarkable work are the ones who I get starstruck by, and impress me a lot. I’m in Budapest and people who volunteer on the weekends to go to the Ukraine border to help women come across with the children — I’m impressed by that.