by Doniella Davy | Trainee Make-up Artist

“Hi Randy, it’s Donni again, Doniella Davy. I need to go over the Local 706 eligibility requirements one more time—the ones that pertain to a film flipping. I know we went over all of this last week and also the week before, and I still have that list … But you know that nonunion feature in Miami that I mentioned I was starting? So I’m here in Miami, and I just got my first paycheck and it says ‘706’ on the pay stub, and that’s why I’m calling. I mean this is happening, right? Did the film really flip? Call me back when you get a chance. Hope you’re having a good Sunday. It’s called Moonlight.”

One month earlier…

I’m having an anxiety attack. I’m stuck in downtown LA traffic on my way to meet Barry Jenkins to discuss a script that contains subject matter I’ve never seen portrayed all in the same film. It’s black and poor and gay. It’s written tenderly and with a sincerity that has stayed with me long after I finished reading it. For these reasons, Moonlight will make history just by getting made. I really want to get this movie. I’m tying my boots at stoplights and rubbing foundation into my face with my hands. I’m shaking slightly from an almond milk latte on an empty stomach. I am “you’re OK, calm down, just breathe” nervous.

Mahershala Ali as Juan with Alex R. Hibbert as Little

I arrive the same time as Barry, we sit down, he orders wine, I order beer and I listen to his visions for Moonlight. The cast is black and he wants everyone’s skin to glisten on camera, he wants the special make-up effects and character make-up to visually contribute to the story but also be subtle, and for the grills to feel authentic. He acknowledges and praises the work I did on a film called Kicks, which also had a black cast, but he stresses again the glistening skin he wants for his film. In the rain, in the sun and in the moonlight, actors on Moonlight will glisten. “I won’t even bring powder,” I tell Barry.

The subject of my make-up background comes up, and I explain that I did not attend make-up school. A cold call to a seasoned department head make-up lead to a crash course in basic special make-up effects skills and parting words of “call me when you get into the union.” And so I turned to craigslist, where film students would hire me based on my online portfolio of make-up looks I did on my friends and family. Now I focus only on indie features and getting into the union. I’ve completed two out of three years of my eligibility requirements, and I have a huge binder full of paperwork to prove it. When I get hired for Moonlight, I am calm and cool. “OK great,” I say, but really I am overjoyed. My appetite returns, I order a grilled cheese and I am finally able to eat for the first time that day.

Back to Miami, right after speaking with Randy Sayer’s answering machine…

Trevante Rhodes as Black, with grill

“Hi, I’m looking for Jesus. I need gold grills, a whole mouthful. Not for me,” I explain to the man behind the desk at Kelly Gold Grillz. While I’m waiting for Jesus, several intimidating and charming gangstas with mouthfuls of gold make fun of me. One guy skillfully takes my phone out of my hands and saves his number in it. He tells me to call him if I want to get into trouble, or if I get into trouble and need my ass saved. Eventually, Jesus comes out of a bright hallway and invites me into an ordinary dentist office. He has caramel skin and light-green eyes and a big easy smile. I tell him I’m a big Hollywood make-up artist (LOL) working on a humble, but quality film about a little boy growing up in Liberty City, and I need gold teeth for the grown-up version of the main character (Trevante Rhodes). I need them in a week and at a discount, even though the actor is currently in New York. I even tell him that Brad Pitt is somehow involved on the production side of Moonlight and that it will be on a big screen one way or another, even if it’s just at the artsy movie theaters. “The price is the price,” he tells me, “if I go cheaper, so will the gold.” I learn that this means the gold will look more yellow and less gold. A week later, I would wait for Jesus at a gas station to exchange money for gold teeth.

I’m flying down the highway back to my rented studio, which reeks of cigarettes and sounds like the European discoteque I used to go to when I lived in Florence during the summer I turned 17. I contemplate giving up the communal pool, hot tub and big fluffy dog Coco, to find another place to stay; somewhere quiet and smoke-free. I stop at Whole Foods and buy an aromatherapy diffuser and decide to stick it out because I don’t have time to move, but mostly because I’m in love with the diner one block away. Jimmy’s diner is where Chiron and Kevin meet up as adults, but my relationship with the place starts way before that scene gets filmed. It’s the end of the weekend, my room smells like lavender and cigarettes, and the sun is going down.

Janelle Monae as Teresa

Thunder rumbles and torrential rain pours out of a dark-grey sky as we all seek shelter in our shared workplace; the staple on so many low-budget films. This particular shared workspace is a vacation motor home for a small family, in which the AD department, actors, costumes, hair and make-up are all kept. Like I mentioned before, I’m a nonunion make-up artist so I find this inspiring. It inspires me to fantasize about working out of a trailer one day that is designated only for hair and make-up. I sit on the little stool in front of the mini-Murphy table that Gianna Sparacino (Moonlight Department Head Hair) and I share, and I think about the forthcoming mission.

The filming of Part One is almost complete. We just started filming Part Two, and Naomie Harris will soon break away from her James Bond press tour to spend three days with us so we can film her coverage for Parts One and Two of our small film. I’ve been thinking about her for weeks, planning out everything for her character’s transitions in my head. The challenges are typical for me; no make-up test, no pre-fitted prosthetics, a $700 budget for the film, which has already been spent, and no time. Naomie’s character, Paula, is based on Barry’s mom. The make-up has to slowly reveal her crack addiction and aging 20 years. I have one chance and one day with each of her looks, and I don’t want to play it too subtle and regret not pushing it more, but I don’t want to overdo it and offend Barry. He didn’t say it out loud, but I pick up on the fears that he will face the following week when we shoot Paula’s scenes. I’m wondering if the real Paula is still alive and would be watching Moonlight one day. I decide to express her struggle with empathy, but I’m not sure yet how that will translate to make-up. I’m not making a villain. I’m making a mother who had made some irrevocable mistakes.

“You can do whatever you have planned, I completely trust in you,” Naomie says to me when she sits down on the little hair and make-up stool. We have known each other for 30 seconds. Barry enters the Moho to meet Naomie in person for the first time and when I consult with him about one of her looks, he contemplates for a few moments and says, “Donni, you know I trust you Ma.” Trust from the director and the actor empowers me. I recall times where an actor has not trusted me. I am highly sensitive to what others feel and I know when I’m being doubted. Like a vampire needing to be invited into a house, I can get the job done either way, but I can do so much more if I receive that invitation. When an actor trusts me, she becomes a muse and this is where the quality collaboration between us begins. I’m able to get to know her face, take risks, make and fix mistakes. I can go overboard and wipe it all away instead of pretending like nothing happened and silently trying to blend the mess away while putting on that “Everything’s Great in Make-up Artist Land” face.

If you exist in the moviemaking part of the make-up artist landscape, you may be like me and have to confess that you may have, once or twice, envied celebrity make-up artists who avoid the rough terrain and long faraway journeys; the ones who have paved out stealthy careers for themselves while staying close to the red carpet. You may be like me and have chosen to be a make-up artist solely because you wanted to help tell stories by working on movies. The pressure to fulfill the creative visions of the director, cater to the personal/emotional/creative needs of actors, do it all under the inevitable constraints of time and money, roll with all the punches with a compliant “copy that” and just the occasional burst of frustration, to show up for 12 hours and stay another six, eat rubber clumps of eggs in the cold, live on the brink of a UTI because you don’t want to pee behind a rock, and with the most challenge: to neglect your own health, wellness and personal relationships for the sake of telling someone else’s story. We are not heroes, but this is a struggle we keep coming back to and showing up for.

I barely breathe or blink as I watch the blood spill from Chiron’s mouth. Barry cuts the scene and we start again. After the second punch, Chiron (Ashton Sanders) swoops down and meets me outside of the frame where I load his mouth with watery blood. The camera swerves differently than it did during the last take, and I trip and scramble to avoid being in the scene, scurrying across the courtyard to the monitors to witness the rest of Chiron’s beating. Chiron’s full vulnerability is exposed, nurtured and shared by Kevin just the night before, and now the boys look at each other straight on, and Kevin has seconds to decide if he is going to throw a punch to avoid getting on the school bully’s s**t list.

I explore the set medic’s kit and use butterfly Band-Aids and a tiny ball of gauze to do a last-minute, deliberately half-assed, first-aid kit treatment on Chiron’s raw wounds. As he is gently interrogated by the school principal, Chiron’s silence turns to mumbles and stifled sobs, and the tiny ball of gauze keeps sliding further and further out of his nostril. I only fix it when it slides all the way out. We are dead silent watching this scene on the monitor. We are not on our phones. Some of us are looking down, and some of us have watery eyes. This is live storytelling and my contribution is powerful.

There are times when I’m content, even happy, with what I’ve chosen to fervently pursue as my career despite the real challenges I mentioned earlier. Then there are times when I’m so deeply entrenched in the present moment that I don’t even care who I am, where I’ve been or where I’m going next. All anxieties are gone, and it feels like pure, untethered joy. I’ve experienced this feeling just enough times in my career so far to be able to recognize it for what it is. This is what I keep coming back and showing up for.

“Hi Randy, it’s Donni. I got 30 days on Moonlight. Call me back when you get a chance. I look forward to meeting you.” •

(Editor’s note: Donni is now a proud trainee make-up artist member of Local 706!)