Manhattan Wardrobe Supply sat down with the amazing Makeup Artist Nicki Ledermann to talk about everything from research, technical skills, working with actors, women in film and more!
Nicki Ledermann: Breaking Into The Business
MSW: What got you interested in makeup?
Nicki Ledermann: I always liked makeup, but I went to a performing arts high school in Germany, and then I studied music. I was a classical musician, and then I fell in love with a musician and we moved to NY together. And once I was here I thought about doing makeup because it had everything that I loved: it has painting, and psychiatry and being around people. It was a perfect marriage of everything I love. And I came from a very creative family. We were always making music and painting. I actually always thought it would be cool to be a psychiatrist or a doctor and help people get better.
MWS: How did you get into the business?
NL: When I came here I took a couple of classes and found someone to assist- my then boyfriend’s band member’s wife was a makeup artist, and I asked her if I could assist her. She completely took me under her wing. Her name is Laurie Hicks and she is amazing. For a year I was working with her and then she pushed me out of the nest and I’ve been working now for 28 years as a make up artist.
MWS: Can you tell me about any early lessons that you learned that were important to hold onto?
NL: On my very first film in ’92 I had no idea about continuity. And I realized that it’s never just artistry, no matter what you do in the business, the artistry is important but it’s also very technical and you need to learn those things. It doesn’t help if you know how to do the makeup, but you don’t know the rest of the stuff like continuity, designing the make up, what effect the light has. Also set etiquette. When to sneak in for last looks, and when you shouldn’t. All of these things. And I love bringing on new people and letting them shadow. I was so fortunate to have a mentor who was so generous with me and taught me so much. So now I believe in doing what you love and really sharing it. You can’t be afraid to bring new people on. Sometimes people are afraid to teach what they do because they’re worried someone will take their job or something.
MWS: You can’t really come from that fear place can you?
NL: No, you have to be pretty confident.
Nicki Ledermann: Work Vs Finished Product
MWS: You’ve worked on such a range of jobs- from really light to very serious and everything in between.
NL: Some are fun to work on, but the result is not so great, or some are amazing films that are really hard to work on. It really varies.
MWS: Have you had the experience of working on something and really sensing it was going to be special?
NL: I felt that very much on the last project I did! It’s called “The Greatest Showman” and it’s a musical about PT Barnum. It stars Hugh Jackman and the people who wrote the music for La La Land wrote the songs. I was blown away while we were working on it. Amazing performers, the best dancers in the world, circus acts, amazing music and everything was put together in a way that was sort of fantasy, meets modern, meets old world. I loved it! It was probably the hardest job I’ve ever done.
MWS: What was so hard about it?
NL: We had so many actors, and a lot of them were also dancers playing circus oddities, so we had make all of those oddities up. It was very challenging and very cool!
MWS: That must be so much preparation.
NL: It was about a month and a half to two months prepping.
MWS: Was there extensive testing on the actors?
NL: The week before we started shooting we were testing pretty much every day to make sure it would work. There were so many people working on the film. I didn’t execute all of the makeup every day, so we had to make sure everyone could do it and that everyone really had it down.
Nicki Ledermann: Creative Process
MWS: I’m so curious about the creative process. Do you ever have an idea in your head and then you try it on the actor and it just doesn’t work?
NL: Oh yeah, that happens. For me I often don’t like to think too much in advance about how a character will look, because when you sit down with the actor and the director it sort of just happens. Some things require more preparation… prosthetics and things like that… but often it’s better to just do it on the person and see where it goes.
MWS: So it’s more of an intuitive response?
NL: Yes, more of a journey. It’s kind of exciting because you don’t quite know where it’s going. You may have a direction, but not knowing makes the collaboration more exciting.
MWS: Do you collaborate closely with wardrobe and hair as well as the actors and director?
NL: Yes… each job is different. You have projects where you take most direction from the director, sometimes it’s the producer, or the actors. Some projects it’s really whoever designs the hair because it’s important that together we create one look. So wardrobe, hair and makeup really have to work together and feed off each other. And that’s so much more fun. The collaboration creates a better design.
MWS: You really can’t go into film if you don’t love collaboration, can you?
NL: No, you have to love it. You can’t have too much ego about it. I mean you can have a certain kind of ego, but you’d be stupid not to take in the inspiration of what everyone else is doing and make it grander. It just makes you look better!
Nicki Ledermann: Working With Actors
MWS: What about working with actors, I’m sure there’s a range of how they like to get in there.
NL: It’s always different. Some actors just say “you do what you need to do and I’ll do what I need to do,” and that’s great. And some actors have a very strong opinion on what their character should look like, and that’s also great. The only thing that’s difficult is when the actor and director disagree and I’m stuck in the middle.
MWS: Right, then you have to figure out who to please.
NL: Yes, and that’s when you have to become more of a therapist and try to work towards a compromise and understand what everyone is going for. But you can’t always please both.
MWS: It’s such an intimate experience with the actor, isn’t it? You have to have a lot of sensitivity and genuine compassion for what the actor is going through, despite whatever frustration comes up for you.
NL: Yes, on a deep level you have to have that compassion and be able to remove yourself, because you don’t know if the actor is doing certain things in the chair or when you touch them up, if they come across as rude or moody you don’t know what they’re working on, so you can’t take things personally. You can’t bring your own frustration or anger. I mean, I’m touching people all day long. So you have to figure out the balance of being supportive and bringing good energy, but not invading their space.
MWS: I’m sure people have expectations about actors being so confident, but really, no matter how big the actor is, they have insecurities, right?
NL: Yes, and they’re very hard on themselves. And you want to make them feel it’s going to be ok and that they can do it.
MWS: Do you think having a different makeup artist might actually change the performance of an actor? It’s so interconnected.
NL: I wouldn’t want to give too much power there, but it can contribute. Certainly we set the tone at the start of the day and having a sort of bitchy hair or makeup person can harm the performance maybe.
Stay tuned for the continuation of our interview with Nicki Ledermann!