Where were you born?
In the Bavarian Alps and grew up outside of Munich Germany, in a town called Ebersberg.
Where do you live now?
Brooklyn. I have been a NY resident for 30 years.
What’s your sign?
I am your typical Capricorn: stubborn, hardworking, very loyal.
When you were young, what did you want to be when you grew up?
My first love was music. I wanted to become an opera singer when I was little. I went to Munich’s High School of Music and Art. Then I wanted to be a brain surgeon or a therapist. But because I was dyslexic, and back then kids weren’t diagnosed as they are
today, it was pretty clear that going the academic or scientific route wasn’t for me, that a creative field was a better fit.
How did that transpose into a working in makeup?
Although my parents had very straight forward jobs, there was a lot of interest and support for the arts. My parents made sure to include creativity into our daily lives. When I was 14 I saw the Exorcist and that sparked an immediate obsession with makeup for film. I was hooked. But I never thought I would actually become an award-winning makeup artist myself, I was just a little country girl from Germany, far away from Hollywood. The more I thought about it, the more I knew I had to make it happen somehow. I came to America when I was 20 with $1500 in my pocket. I barely spoke English and had a visa that would expire in six months. With a lot of hard work and the incredible support of some wonderful and open-minded Americans, I was able to live the American dream. To this day, I feel so lucky and grateful.
What was your first memorable work as an artist?
I think working on Sex and the City, where creativity was encouraged to come up with new fashion looks, which back then usually came from magazines. When our looks were copied as new fashion trends, it was really exciting, similar to when I worked on The Devil Wears Prada. That was the first time I felt I had become an artist, and that was after doing this for 10 years.
How did you know that the makeup industry was where you wanted to be?
Makeup artistry for film is truly a beautiful marriage of the three things I wanted to be when growing up. Besides practice and skills, makeup artistry requires creativity (not quite the opera singer, but works for singing along to music in the trailer), knowledge of anatomy (doctor) and caregiving (therapist).
What are the things about your work that you love?
I love to create characters and I love to paint, with makeup you
do both and it can be so much fun and so fulfilling. But, what I love most is being part of a community where every single person is important to create something big together. The community is what gets me excited and inspired. I don’t like to work alone, I like
collaborators, I like to teach and I like to learn, and all that happens when working with a team; not just the makeup team, the entire crew from director to actors, inematographer, costume designer, electrics, grips, art department, sound, everyone. It is so cool to be involved with so many different departments and their exquisite skills and artistry, as well as their technical talents, to bringing a great film or tv show to life, as only collaboration and teamwork can make that happen, not just one person. It is thrilling and it is a life lesson.
What are the things about your work that makes it the most interesting to you?
There are two things that are the most interesting to me besides helping to create a character with makeup.
1.) The research. I love doing the research before every job. I work a lot on period pieces, and I get excited when I learn everything about the political and social environment of that time, as well as the psychological drive of the story. To create your character, you have to have knowledge about the visual, physical and psychological
surroundings in order to get it right.
2.) I love the human interaction. I love the challenge of taming the difficult and making people feel safe. You learn a lot about people when working so intimately or having to diplomatically find the middle ground to please the studio, producers, directors and actors. It is all about people skills because even if you are the most skilled artist, if you don’t have good people skills, you will not go far.
What are the challenges you face as a makeup artist?
It is a bit scary to never know when or what the next job is. Financial insecurity can be tough. The film business is very ambitious and competitive, so you always have to be on the ball. It’s also hard to plan for the future, especially when you have a family and kids, because you don’t know when your next job is, how long it will go, and how much money you’ll earn in that time.
What should someone who is looking to develop a career in makeup know before getting into the business?
I recommend for everyone to study art history; take painting and sculpting classes, go to makeup school, and if you still want to be a makeup artist, go for it. Practice and experience, patience and hard work, making little to no money in the beginning is part of breaking into the biz; it takes time. I still learn every day on every job. Also don’t expect that you will have the freedom to create the look the way you see fit. You work for your director, and you need to be able to take directions and incorporate your skill and creativity to create for your director/studio/production. In film/tv there are often too many cooks in the kitchen, and you will have to please them all. So don’t take things personal, be polite, take directions, be diplomatic and always give the best you have. You will work your way up where you will have more say over the look, but that will have to be earned, over time with experience.
Would you say that you have a signature style?
I am rather light-handed. I am not a fan of heavy makeup unless it is part of a character. I don’t want to cover up a face with makeup, but rather alter it with subtle but skillful hints, as it looks more believable. I will use every color possible, I am a color junkie, I loooove colors.
How do you continue to grow your career as an artist?
As an artist you just can’t stop growing, it is your life. We are visual people that need to be visually stimulated or we go dark. I get inspired by going to art shows, museums, theater, movies.
Do you have a project that you’ve done that you are especially proud of?
There are a few, like The Notorious Bettie Page, Enchanted, The Greatest Showman, Vinyl, The Knick and The Irishman. But I would say I am most proud of Joker, because of the impact the makeup had in the film, but also because the impact the makeup has in the world. Besides becoming an iconic look that is going to be used for Halloween for years to come, it is also used by protesters all over the world in Lebanon, Hong Kong, Chile and Syria, who are fighting peacefully for freedom and equality. To have created the look that those brave fighters of social justice adopted is such an honor, no award could be better than that feeling.
What project was the most challening?
Besides The Irishman, which was a film that covered over six decades with the same cast and only the three main characters were digitally de-aged, it was a massive makeup job. But I would say Joker was in a way the most challenging. Partly because of the pressure of creating and executing a very much anticipated look, but also because the continuity work was very challenging.
What makes someone a good makeup artist?
By sharing your skills and always learning from others. Artists are best and most creative when being inspired by each other. Like I mentioned before, you have to be a people person, because without a person to paint there will be no makeup to be done.
Performers are often fragile and insecure and part of our job is to make them feel safe.
What would your actors say is the best thing about working with you?
That I am making them feel safe and don’t take forever to make them up.
What project did you have the most fun working on?
The Greatest Showman, no doubt. I was eager to go to work every day. Although it was one of the most challenging and demanding jobs I ever had, I loved every second of it! It was a dream job really. I was given almost full reign over creating the look of the film and all the performers, by using painting skills and mixing fantasy with fashion rather than using prosthetics. On top of it, we got to see all these incredible performers dance and sing to this incredible music. The cast and crew got along so well, that we all would hang out every Friday after work and close down that same bar like clockwork. It was truly a love fest. It was so sad when we were done filming. It was one of those jobs that I could have worked on forever. In fact it took me a long time to listen to the music without tearing up missing everyone.
How has social media affected your career or work?
It has not that much, except for promoting the film itself. Producers don’t hire you based on your Instagram followers, they hire you because of your resume. But it does help to keep your peers up to speed on what’s out there, and it’s handy when it comes to voting for award seasons.
Is there someone you have always wanted to work with who you haven’t had the chance to yet?
I always wanted to work on a Tim Burton movie, because his esthetic is so up my alley.
Whose work do you admire?
There are so many amazing artists out there. Ve Neil has always been my idol. I am in love with the works of Avant Garde makeup artists like Isamaya Ffrench and Joanne Gair, and I get inspired by my dear friends and fellow film artists Judy Chin and Kyra Panchenko, theater makeup artists like Tom Molinelli and Angelina Avalone. I worship my mentor Cassandra Saulter. I always fall back on old master painters like John Singer Sargent, Elizabeth Peyton and Paul Klee. I admire the work of photographers like Diane Arbus and Lee Jeffries, and of course these incredible FX artists: the great Dick Smith, Rick Baker, Mike Marino, Justin Raleigh and Christien Tinsley, to name a few.
What has changed most about the industry in the time that you’ve been working in makeup?
A lot has changed, especially in terms of technology. Makeup works in sync with lighting and camera. Makeup techniques are very different when shooting on film and their different film stocks then when shooting digitally and HD. There are also so many more products on the market than when I started out. You have to keep up with them too. The learning in this industry never stops, just like life, nothing stands still but moves along, and we have to keep moving with it.
What’s next for Nicki Ledermann?
I just finished working on the prequel movie to the The Sopranos, which is called The Many Saints of Newark, and it takes place in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s during the Newark Riots. Amazing cast, and great looks! I am currently prepping a show for HBO
called The Gilded Age by the creators of Downton Abbey, it takes place in NYC in 1882. I am super excited about it, the scripts are fantastic, and the look will be gorgeous.
Words Michael DeVellis
Photos courtesy of Nicki Ledermann