Tarra Day is a 6-time Emmy nominated makeup artist with credits like Crazy Heart, The Book Of Eli, Breaking Bad, Hell Or Highwater, Godless, and Rampage.
Here she shares with us the art of her craft. What it’s like to work in different mediums and on projects large and small. We discuss her need to be fast on her feet while working with filmmakers at the top of their game and how it’s all a bit of a “functional circus”.
What is the life of a makeup artist like?
You give up a lot. You work 12-16-hour days. I’m working nights right now. I’ll go in at 6 and leave at 6-7 in the morning. I’ll sleep on Saturday. Visit my dad on Sunday. And do it all over again on Monday. The great thing is if you want to take time off you can. But we are all living with “what’s the next job?” You’ve got to live off your savings until the next job. I call it a “functional circus”. We become this tight knit family and then we shut down the show and we go to the next town.
Make up in film has changed mightily over the years. I was thinking recently about Gary Oldman’s old-age make up for Churchill versus something like Bette Midler and James Caan in For The Boys back in the early 90’s. What have been the greatest advancements?
I consider myself a well-rounded make up artist. I can do basic effects, silicone pieces, 3D prosthetics and transfers. I would say the 3D transfers where you mold it just like a prosthetic piece. The negative and opposite are used with a different component, and we put it on what’s called waterslide paper, and you apply it just like a tattoo. You take a mold of a wound or a scar, you cure them, put the ingredients into the mold. I did a recent pilot and the character was supposed to have a deformed hand and instead of doing an entire prosthetic for it, or a silicone piece, we had his hand lifecasted and did it as a 3D transfer. Which I basically applied on to the hand. You clean the hand with 99% alcohol. You take the piece that goes on top of the skin. Place the waterslide paper over it. Saturate it with water, and just peel it back. It comes right on to the skin. Of course, Gary Oldman in Churchill, who I’ve worked with and adore, his make up was so brilliant. It was truly one of the best.
In your work on the Netflix series Godless, the scar on Michelle Dockery’s chest. It was so well done, it made me wonder if she had received a real-life procedure.
Actually, that was out of the kit of effects. We had not planned for that. As Scott (Frank) and Michelle were discussing the scene and how to be respectful to her since she was going to be nude, she was the one who said I should have something reminiscent of the attack (from earlier in the series). We hadn’t prepped that or had a piece made. I basically created that with Third Degree which was out of the kit. You take two ingredients, mix them together, and it creates a mold, and you can make basically whatever you want out of it, and you can do it right on the skin. I placed the mold on her. It cures in about 15 minutes, and then you can paint on it. Those transfers are not all that expensive, and I always keep them in my kit just on case.
Since Michelle was exposed in the way that she was during the scene, did you get the sense that it gave her an additional sense of security, if not armor for the scene?
I actually do. Her and I discussed it quite a bit. It provided her with the tools. As Michelle became Alice, once she got her hair and makeup, it allowed her to become that person. We created a safe environment for her and once she walked out of the trailer she didn’t have to think about anything but the character. I think it added a layer of confidence for her, and her allowed her to get into that place.
Something I noticed on your resume is you have recently made three westerns. The Magnificent Seven, Godless, and the modern western, Hell Or High Water. Is that a genre that appeals to you?
I did Appaloosa years ago with Viggo Mortensen and Ed Harris, and Into The West for Stephen Spielberg, so I have a lot of history with the genre. I do gravitate toward it. I’ve done a lot of research in that area and I love the creativity it allows me. I like any kind of period piece. My biggest hope is that I have a choice on the projects I work on. When Godless came along, I was intending to work on a movie and then I got the script from Scott Frank, read it, and said I am going to work on this series. I gravitate towards storytelling and something that has substance.
Looking at your history of credits, I was thinking of how if you were an actor, you would love to have these projects on your resume. Outside of top-line talent, I think many people assume that the technical staff on film and TV projects are focused on getting the next gig. When you are reviewing a script, I get the feeling you aren’t just looking for opportunities to apply your craft, but also asking yourself is this something you would want to see yourself.
I was just having a conversation with a friend of mine yesterday who also does make up and we were talking about how we want to be considered filmmakers. We don’t want to be considered just makeup artists. That is our primary craft, but we also are in collaboration with the director, the costume designer, the production designer, and the actors. It’s all a part of telling the story. You have to rely on each other to do that. I’m so grateful for the choices that have come to me. I want to make sure it’s a great fit for me, as well as a job. I recently turned down an offer for a big budget film that was going to pay me more than I’d ever made before. But every time I thought about it, my gut tied in knots, and I told myself you have to listen to that. I’m thankful I was in a good place to say no. There is so much content out there now. I really want to be a part of the filmmaking and storytelling process.
There’s quite a large argument out there right now, and it really bubbled up at Cannes, abut whether Netflix movies should be considered movies or not. Like there’s a taint to streaming. On the other hand, I think what streaming services have done is allow for a lot of projects to be made that might not otherwise exist. Would Godless for sure have been picked up by HBO? You’d like to think so, but I don’t know.
Well, Scott actually intended Godless as a feature, but there was too much story to be told to fit into two hours. For him, when he connected to Netflix, that was the perfect avenue to put that out.
For a long time, TV was considered behind film in term of prestige. Especially when the big 4 networks were producing most of the work. Because of cable and streaming, you can now tell these longer stories without having to concern yourself with the censorship guidelines of network TV.
It’s so ironic, my boyfriend and I were watching Westworld the movie about 4 or 5 years ago, and we both were sitting on the couch thinking that would make an awesome series. I wish we had done something about that! But it’s true, we are basically shooting 10-episode movies. We aren’t shooting these projects in an episodic fashion. We have to be concerned about continuity and the passage of time. We are talking about 10 hours of footage, that once it gets into the editing room, it better all match.
That mole better be in the same place.
Right! That cut better be on the right side. I went to a screening last weekend of the last episode (of Godless). We had a panel with Scott Frank, and Michelle Dockery, and Jeff Daniels. It’s always a little terrifying to see your work on the big screen. You are always worried if you got everything right. I was very proud of what came out.
On something like Godless, Michelle’s scar is a noticeable piece of your work, but what smaller things might we the viewer miss that creates a seamless experience?
The goal is always to keep the audience engaged. If one thing about make up throws you off, if it looks too contemporary, it can take you out of the experience.
You recently worked on Rampage. A huge budget film. Can you talk about the difference between working on a large-scale budget vs, something more subtle like Godless?
When you are doing make up, regardless of the budget, the process ends up being the same. You do have more money and time on something like Rampage. I think sometimes when you don’t have as much make up, your creativity kicks in because you are trying to create something where you don’t have the luxury of the additional budget. One thing you have to consider is the size of what you are doing. A film is shown on a screen as big as your house. On Rampage, I was really concerned about matching the scrapes on Naomi Harris from scene to scene because we are going to be seeing those on a large screen. You have a little more leeway on the small screen, but the truth of the matter is now that everything is in HD and 4K, you have to be just as much on your game for TV as you do for film.
How has CGI affected your work?
The good thing about digital. Say you run into a mistake on a bald cap. You have digital to go in and fix it. You don’t want to. The goal is always to have your piece or whatever you put on camera to be a practical. That’s what we strive for. Being able to go in and fix it can be a plus. I don’t want to work on a project where we fix everything later. What’s the point of my craft?
For the heavier make up applications that require a long sit from the actor, how do you keep them comfortable?
We strive to create a well-rounded trailer environment. Reading your actor is important. If they come in and want to engage, or just have music on that’s what we do. If you can tell they are going through their lines and they really need to concentrate, you give them quiet. You try to make the trailer a home away from home. Not only are they in it, but you are in it for hours at a time. It’s our living space. If you create chaos, you are going to have chaos. You want the actors to walk out of the trailer not thinking twice about their makeup, just what job they have to do.
You were the personal makeup artist for Jeff Bridges on Hell Or Highwater. What was it like working with him?
I’ve worked with Jeff three times. The first project was a crazy movie called Masked and Anonymous that everybody wanted to be in because of Bob Dylan. Jeff has been an incredible teacher for me. He basically taught me how to think in 3D. What we did for Crazy Heart, we basically dissected Bad Blake. We broke down the script together. In his trailer we pasted up all his scenes. He would bring in his boombox in the morning and play his music, and we would go through it together. He’s an incredible actor and a great human. When he won the Academy Award for Crazy Heart, he mentioned me in his speech. It was a little mind-blowing. I hand painted his broken capillaries every day on Crazy Heart. Talk about continuity! His expectations are high, so you have to rise to his level. He was then nominated for Hell Or Highwater. I felt very privileged to be with him on those journeys.
When you talk about your kit, it almost sounds like you carry around a little doctor bag. What all goes in there?
I was fortunate enough to be taught by a couple of old-timers, Harry Blake, and Maurice Stein. You were taught you had everything in your set bag. You needed to be able to pull whatever you need out of that bag. Whether it’s a burn or a scar, scrapes and scratches. You have to make sure you are prepared for everything. I once cut up a mustache from the kit to make eyebrows.
You worked on what I think most people will agree is on the shortlist of greatest shows ever, Breaking Bad. Can you talk about that experience?
It changed my perspective on television and my attitude towards that medium and what could be brought to it. I think it’s changed everybody’s. I was not on the first 4 seasons. They decided to make a change for the last 16 episodes. When I got the call, I had heard of Breaking Bad, but I didn’t really know what it was. When I got off the call I told my boyfriend at the time and he said “Oh my god! You have to do it!” The thing is I had worked with Anna Gunn before and it was great to reconnect with her. Working with Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul and the whole group of them was really great. What Vince Gilligan taught me that I have taken with me to this day is to test everything that’s going to go on camera. We normally do, but Vince is so meticulous. He’s a perfectionist and I work really well with that. And then we won the makeup hair and guild award for that year. Being a part of that history was incredible. It raised the standard for me.
You’ve been nominated for 6 Emmys. I know you probably don’t think about that while you are on a project. I suspect you are focused on doing your best work. That being said, would you like one?
I’d like one! (Laughs). It would be really silly if I said I didn’t. You are nominated by your peers and when they think you are good enough to be honored…to be nominated is an amazing and wonderful experience and I’ve enjoyed each and every one, but yeah, I’d like one!