Working on Wednesday
Hair and make-up designer Tara McDonald discusses her Bafta- and Emmy-nominated work on Netflix’s supernatural mystery Wednesday, in which she sought to create modern looks for its cast of iconic characters.
Ever since they first appeared on television in the 1960s, the Addams Family have become synonymous with a certain gothic, ghoulish appearance. That look – inspired by the original cartoon strips created by Charles Addams – has followed them from their eponymous sitcom to a number of live-action and animated films, video games and comics.
So when the Addams Family was reimagined by director Tim Burton as Wednesday, with the focus shifting to the family’s eldest child, hair and make-up designer Tara McDonald was tasked with infusing their iconic images with modern style.
Starring Jenna Ortega in the title role, Wednesday is a supernatural mystery that explores the character’s years as a student at Nevermore Academy as she attempts to master her emerging psychic ability, thwart a monstrous killing spree that has terrorised the local town and solve the supernatural mystery that embroiled her parents 25 years ago – all while navigating her new and very tangled relationships at Nevermore.
Ortega stars alongside Gwendoline Christie as principal Larissa Weems, Jamie McShane, Percy Hynes White, Hunter Doohan and Emma Myers, with Catherine Zeta-Jones as Morticia Addams, Luis Guzmán as Gomez Addams and Isaac Ordonez as Pugsley Addams.
After the series became a worldwide sensation following its launch in November 2022, McDonald and her team were recognised for their outstanding work with a Bafta TV Award nomination and are now also in the running for an Emmy when the strike-delayed ceremony is held in January next year.
Here she tells DQ about her start in the television business, designing the look of Wednesday’s ensemble of characters and working with series director Tim Burton.
How did you get into television hair and make-up design?
I started my training in the mid 1990s. I had a good friend that worked in the hair and make-up department at LWT and not long after I graduated, she hired me to work on some of the shows that she was involved in.
I worked as a make-up artist on numerous shows there, such as The Southbank Show, alongside various arts, political and sports shows. As a result of my involvement on the political shows, working from Downing Street looking after prime minister Tony Blair or going on the road with Gordon Brown was like just another day at the office for me.
However, I was keen to move into drama. I wanted to be involved in creating the hair and make-up looks for characters in film. I joined an agency that represented make-up artists and designers for film and TV and my agent, Jayne, was instrumental in pushing me for some incredibly interesting jobs.
What was the project that gave you your break in the industry?
I think it was probably the low-budget film My Summer of Love back in 2003. It was my first job as a designer. It had a small cast and it was contemporary, so it was the perfect introduction into designing. The film did incredibly well; it won the Alexander Korda award for best British film at the Baftas. Nobody expected that.
How would you describe the role and importance of hair and make-up design in any project?
The role of hair and make-up design is integral to any film or TV show, as is production design or costume design. My favourite part of the job is the process – reading the script and imagining how each character might look, doing intensive research, creating mood boards, discussing these with the director and actor, liaising with other heads of department, all agreeing on an idea, doing the camera tests to see if it works and then finally bringing this idea to life on film. Hair and makeup design helps greatly to tell the story.
Do you have a favourite period or genre that you like to work in, and why?
I adore period make-up. Anything from between 1930s and 1950s is a favourite. I love glamorous make-up. I love the transformation. My dream job would be a 1950s musical.
You’ve been nominated for an Emmy for your work on Netflix’s Wednesday. How did you join the project and what were your first thoughts about hair and make-up for the characters?
I got involved with this project in the summer of 2021. I read the script and I thought it was absolutely brilliant. I found every character so interesting from a hair and make-up perspective.
Fantasy, horror, high fashion, glamour, wigs, special effects – it had it all. My mind was exploding with ideas. I couldn’t wait to start and become part of the creative team, and to receive an Emmy nomination for doing something that you love is the icing on the cake. I’m thrilled that the academy recognised and liked the work. The competition is very high on these international shows, so the nomination for my team and me was an incredible honour.
How were you inspired by the original Addams Family films and series, and where could you bring your own ideas to the series?
Our director, Tim Burton, was very clear on exactly how he wanted every member of the Addams family to look. He wanted a modern-day version of the family. For me, it was about paying homage to the creation of Charles Addams’ characters.
I wanted to add some high fashion to the make-up. I was greatly inspired by the make-up from runway shows. I wanted each character to have a strong, instantly recognisable signature look.
Did Jenna Ortega spend a lot of time in the make-up chair? Which other actors did you work with a lot?
Not particularly. Her make-up look was designed to be very simple but effective. It never took longer than 15 or 20 minutes. Her hair took a little more time. She had hair extensions applied daily to lengthen her natural hair for the two braids. I personally looked after Catherine Zeta-Jones, Christina Ricci and, for most episodes, Gwendoline Christie.
What was your experience like working on the show?
The job was very creative and I enjoyed that aspect of it. It was an absolute honour and joy to work with Tim Burton.
What challenges did you face on Wednesday, or are there challenges you face on every project?
There are always challenges on every job, but on Wednesday it was particularly challenging. We were in the height of Covid. I was losing team members daily due to the strict isolation rules, with no time to find cover, so there were days where I was really stretched.
I remember one day clearly as five or six of my core team were isolated at the last minute. They were sharing a vehicle when the call came to say their driver had tested positive. They were all sent home. There was just me on the make-up truck, and Jenna Ortega, Catherine Zeta Jones, Gwendoline Christie, Christina Ricci and Luis Guzman were all due in at 6am for make-up. That was a challenging moment.
What other TV series that you have worked on stand out, and why?
I have worked a couple of times for the director Stephen Poliakoff, on Close To The Enemy and Summer of Rockets. His style is impeccable. He pushes you to do your absolute best. I’m very proud of the work my team and I produced on both of those shows.
How has your role changed over the course of your career and how might it change in the future?
The role has not changed. The jobs have, the scale has. These days I find myself designing a show or a film with sometimes 75 cast members while managing a core team of 10 or 12. It takes years of experience to feel confident being in this position.
What are you working on next?
I’ve actually just finished a brilliant film called Joy with Bill Nighy. Spanning 1968 to 1978, the story follows three trailblazers facing opposition from the church, state and medical establishment in their pursuit of the world’s first ‘test tube baby.’ I’m also reading a couple of film scripts at the moment. Who knows, though, when they’ll get made in such uncertain times.
tagged in: Addams Family, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Christina Ricci, Emma Myers, Gwendoline Christie, Hunter Doohan, Isaac Ordonez, Jamie McShane, Jenna Ortega, Luis Guzmán, Percy Hynes White, Tara McDonald, Tim Burton, Wednesday