NDG’s Donald Mowat
up for an Academy Award
One of Hollywood’s top makeup artists began his career working on Montreal theatre productions
By Irwin Rapoport
March 23, 2022
At this Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony, Donald Mowat, veteran and well-respected makeup artist in the film industry, will learn if his peers have chosen him to be the winner of the 2022 Oscar for makeup and hairstyling for Denis Villeneuve’s Dune.
Donald is a proud Montrealer who now lives in Los Angeles and Toronto, and whose skills have sent him travelling across the globe for film productions.
While this is the first Oscar nomination for Mowat, he has received three BAFTA nominations for makeup and hair – Nocturnal Animals, Bladerunner 2049 and Dune. It was on the set of a Guy Ritchie film in Spain that Mowat learned he was nominated for the Oscar.
“Jake Gyllenhaal was lying on the ground as I was applying makeup for a bloody head wound and he was listening for me and his sister Maggie because she would likely be nominated for a role,” said Mowat. “I said ‘Jake, you have to stop it, you’re making me nervous.’ He then had to go back to the set to film the scene, and then they called my name! Somebody held the phone for him, and he heard the news. I couldn’t believe it. The next call after the nomination came as a FaceTime call from Mark Wahlberg, which really touched me deeply as we have not worked together since The Fighter. I was very moved by the honour but I was a little bit sad because my dad died in October and I knew he would never hear this. I want to dedicate this nomination to my father, Thomas, who always believed in me and was there to support me. My mother Flora still lives in NDG. I am grateful to both of them for supporting me.”
“A lot of people think it’s taken a long time for me to get the Oscar nomination, I just jokingly say ‘I’m a late bloomer,’” he added. “I’m really happy and proud of the nomination. I’ve been part of the Academy for a long time. I am delighted and very happy that Jake, with whom I did my first Villeneuve movie in 2012, Prisoners, was able to give me the news. I feel it has come full circle.”
“It is a privilege to work at what you love to do,” he said. “You can’t buy creativity. You can take all the courses and classes but I created my own reality and made it happen. A lot of people helped me and I am grateful and try to always remember those who gave me opportunities. It’s funny meeting another person from Quebec like Villeneuve here in LA.”
I’m really happy and proud of the nomination… I am delighted and very happy that Jake [Gyllenhaal], with whom I did my first Villeneuve movie in 2012, Prisoners, was able to give me the news. I feel it has come full circle.
– Donald Mowat
So, who is Donald Mowat? He lived in Town of Mount Royal until he was five years old and then the family moved to NDG, where he attended Willingdon Elementary School, Royal Vale Elementary and West Hill. Upon graduation, he went to Vanier and Dawson College for CEGEP. This was a time when West End Montreal had many local theatres to see films, such as the Snowdon and Monkland Theatres.
“I saw a lot of films in the West End – it was alive with them and I lived in the Cinema V,” said Mowat. “Mr. Turnbull, who taught English and drama at West Hill – drama was the only course I liked – took us to see plays at the Monument-National theatre on St. Lawrence Boulevard. I loved it and it piqued my interest. I started reading up on design, costume, and makeup.”
West Hill then was a fairly good high school in the city and it attracted students from many communities. Reflecting on growing up in the West end at that time, Mowat explained that, looking back, it felt like a somewhat sheltered environment from the rest of the city and province.
Neither Vanier nor Dawson provided the creative atmosphere that Mowat was seeking or the courses available to pursue any type of career.
“I made some contacts at Dawson because they had a film and television program,” he said. “I didn’t stay long because I started getting some gigs with local theatres that no longer exist such as the Quebec Drama Festival and Children’s Creations, a bilingual group that performed children’s theatre. You didn’t make any money, but you got a lot of experience, and I was able to pick up jobs and build up a profile doing makeup and costumes.”
“I also took painting and sculpture, which is very relevant to what I do today,” he added. “I learned a lot from this experience and made contacts with photographers and people in film and television who would say ‘we’re doing a little movie for the National Film Board’ or ‘the CBC is shooting something, why don’t you come?’ That’s how show business works. I didn’t have an easy way with it because no one knew what to do with me. Children’s Creation was great because I met a lot of professionals in the industry, including renowned dancer Margie Gillis – she was extraordinary.”
The NFB and CBC contacts led to Mowat joining the Syndicat National du Cinema, which no longer exists.
“I did not get a job for a long time,” said Mowat. “Things were unstable in Quebec at that time and I faced an uncertain future in my chosen field. Many people, especially anglophones, were leaving Montreal for Calgary, Vancouver and Toronto. I went to London for about 10 months to think about what my next move would be. When I returned to Montreal, many friends suggested I move to Toronto for its budding film and television industry and so I headed out on the 401 like so many others.
“In 1984-85, I got my big break on Meatballs 3 for $12 an hour,” he laughed. “But people said ‘this kid is good.’ I was 20 and at that point, I started living in Toronto. I joined the union, ACFC. Everyone was very welcoming. It was a hard time finding an apartment with the population surge in Toronto and the theatre scene was also starting to ramp up. I knew people from Montreal who had moved as well, and everyone helped each other. I was also tested for the CBC/Disney production of Anne of Green Gables, crewed by the Association of Canadian Filmcrafts People. I got the job. And truly thankful to head makeup Shonagh Jabour who hired me and Donato Baldassara, the ACFC business agent, for the introduction.”
Mowat later returned to Montreal to work on the Warner Brother’s production of If Looks Could Kill, a film starring Richard Grieco.
“This was a big American production and I got the job having worked on an American-type project out of Toronto,” he said.
‘I was the youngest prime time Canadian creative artist to win an Emmy… I started to get jobs through the union and it was a turning point for me.’
– Donald Mowat
This led to working on more film productions in Montreal such as CBC’s Million Dollar Babies with Roy Dupuis and Celine Bonnier, as well as The Sleep Room. Mowat’s confidence and skills were increasing rapidly and in 1988/89, he was given the first opportunity to run a department, and in 1988, was nominated for a Daytime Emmy Award for Captain Power, a kid’s show that was filmed in Toronto. In 1992, he won an Emmy for Mark Twain and Me. This recognition opened the door to living and working in the U.S.
“I was the youngest prime time Canadian creative artist to win an Emmy,” he said. “I started to get jobs through the union and it was a turning point for me.”
In addition to running departments on productions, which includes the use and design of prosthetics and hair, he also works one-on-one with actors.
“I oversee makeup design, which is a big concept depending upon the movie,” said Mowat. “Dune is a bigger concept of makeup. I’ve got Stellan Skarsgård in six-hour makeup sessions, wearing a fat suit for his role as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. That design took 18 weeks to develop, in collaboration with my great Swedish friends Love Larson and Eva von Bahr. The rest of my Dune crew included key makeup artist from Toronto Jo-Ann MacNeill, makeup artist Rocky Faulkner and hairstylist Cheryl Daniels, along with many international crew from Canada, the UK, the USA, Sweden, Hungary and Jordan.
“Stellan is really into it,” said Mowat. “I knew him from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. He is a nice man and when Villeneuve said he was going to cast Stellan, I said ‘I know him, this will be great.’ When I put my team together, my prosthetics team, which has their shop in Stockholm where Stellan lives, was a perfect combination.”
“Some people are very business and you don’t get to know so well,” he added. “With others, you have strong relationships. Gyllenhaal is a really good friend of mine. I know him as Jacob and when I go to his house for Passover, we have great matzo ball soup. He is a very good cook. Next to the writer and the director, you are one of the closest people to an actor because you are creating a character with them. I’ve worked with the exceptionally kind Daniel Craig multiple times and I love working with Emily Blunt, as well as longtime friend Mark Wahlberg.”
Makeup artists have to know how their work will appear on film and what the director is seeking in terms of atmosphere.
“The biggest challenge for makeup in films is continuity because the suspension of disbelief can only go so far,” said Mowat. “If you are doing a movie where the story takes place over one night, you are actually shooting the film over a couple of months. And we have to maintain that look. You have to take this very seriously and have a good eye to ensure things look the same over and over again. Makeup has to be put on the same way and the best makeup is, in my view, makeup that is undetected and helps tell a story.”
‘I am very fortunate to have started in the business in Canada with a great work ethic and film history… I feel a great good fortune to make my living for over 35 years at something I love to do, which really is the Oscar in the end.’
– Donald Mowat
When asked about his favourite film productions, Mowat replied: “Sometimes the films you enjoy working on are not necessarily great… The ones you struggle with can be painful, but they teach you a lot and how to deal with adversity.”
Mowat is very pleased with his work on films like 8 Mile, The Fighter, The Departed, Prisoners, Nightcrawler, Sicario, Nocturnal Animals, Skyfall, Spectre, Bladerunner 2049, The Fighter, Three Kings and First Man.
“I am very fortunate to have started in the business in Canada with a great work ethic and film history,” he said. “I think back to 1995 and Margaret’s Museum, starring Helena Bonham Carter, Kenneth Welsh and Kate Nelligan – an excellent script and performances and lasting friendships to this day. I feel a great good fortune to make my living for over 35 years at something I love to do, which really is the Oscar in the end.”
Feature image: Donald Mowat touching up Ryan Gosling in First Man, courtesy of Donald Mowat
Read also: other articles by Irwin Rapoport
Irwin Rapoport is a freelance journalist.