Talking Early 1900s Beauty With The Makeup Artist For 'The Knick'

Emmy-winning makeup artist Nicki Ledermann on how she does makeup for one of the most dimly lit shows on television.
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Emmy-winning makeup artist Nicki Ledermann on how she does makeup for one of the most dimly lit shows on television.

I have a pretty cool day job working as a location scout on movies and TV shows. It’s crazy and different every day. If I’m lucky, the people I like will show up again and again. One such person is the delightful and talented makeup artist Nicki Ledermann

When I first met Nicki she was one of the hottest names in the biz, having recently finished up a run on Sex and the City. The list of projects we’ve worked on together includes Sex and the City 2, the Boardwalk Empire pilot, Inside Llewyn Davis, and, most recently, the new Cinemax series The Knick.

Nicki and I sat down to chat about makeup, the film industry, and of course, products. The best part of getting to know her was the reinforcement of the idea that it’s OK to be obsessed with beauty in a non-traditional way. You can love makeup and not wear it every day.

On Creating The Makeup Looks For The Knick 

What’s been the most interesting part of researching the makeup on The Knick?

"Definitely all the medical stuff. I had no idea how primitive things used to be, but also, somehow very sophisticated at the same time."

makeup artist nicki ledermann

Holding her Emmy for her work on Boardwalk Empire. 

Do most of the female characters on the show wear a lot of makeup?

"They look like they don’t, but they do. We had to make them look like they don’t wear anything because back then, makeup was reserved for stage actors and prostitutes. However, ladies had their own subtle ways, like staining their lips with a little bit of beet juice and beeswax or dyeing their lashes with coal ash mixed with beeswax or Vaseline."

What are some of the challenges of a project like The Knick?

"Steven [Soderbergh, director of The Knick] barely lights anything, so I have to compensate for that with the makeup. The one thing that’s really helped is that I paint a lot . . . One of my best friends and mentors was a scenic painter who became a makeup artist. For two weeks before we started work on The Knick we did portrait painting--just studying the artwork from that time period. We really got a sense of what people’s faces looked like back then, and we could easily apply that to the makeup for the show.

The upper class was really pasty, but maybe with a very subtle rouge cheek and the working class was tanner and more ruddy. You paint on more eyebrows because nobody did their eyebrows back then but they have to look really natural, so it’s essentially really detailed fine art."

On Retouching & Making Up "Picky" Male Actors 

Do you feel like your job has changed with prevalence of Photoshopping in print and online?

"In film, they correct things digitally in post. There were times when actors had huge zits and there’s nothing I can do about it so we put a note in and later on they go in and take it out. So In that respect, [film is] very much the same as print. It’s just more expensive."

Do you prefer making up men or women more?

"I don’t have a preference. When they’re nice, I like working with them. But men often are more picky than women."

How so? More concerned with having their flaws covered?

"Yes! If I compare the actors I’ve worked with to the actresses, there are definitely more picky actors."

anne hathaway makeup

Applying makeup on Anne Hathaway. 

As a makeup professional, do you find your passion for your own beauty routine is diminished?

"I never did wear much makeup. I like makeup because of transformation but I’ve never really been into it for making people prettier. That’s why SATC got so boring. For me the power of makeup has always been about being unique, expressing yourself, and feeling comfortable in your own skin. Not about covering a zit or whatever. And if one eye is a little bigger than the other, or your lip is a little wonky, who cares? That’s who you are!"

On Personal Favorite Products & Skin Care 

Paw Paw Ointment and Joa Refresher seem to be in every makeup artist’s kit. What are some of your other favorites to work with?

I love Colorescience, they have a great concealer palette. I love Laura Mercier. I’m trying to be a bit more conscious.

There’s a great website called Skin Deep where you can check what’s in your products. They have an app, too, where you can scan the barcode on a product and it tells you what’s in it and how bad or good it is for you. They rank products from 0 to 7 (0 being the safest) and I told [my daughter] do not buy anything that’s a 4 or higher.

Eminence is another great line [and] I love Fresh.

I have to admit, my favorite pencil is the BAD Gal Waterproof Liner by Benefit and I never checked it on Skin Deep because I was afraid I’d find out it was really bad for you!

There’s this makeup and skin care line called In Fiore. It’s my favorite! Everything they have is so yummy and my skin loves it. Though you should always test anything botanically derived, because sometimes people have bad reactions to certain plants. They have these perfume creams. The packaging is divine and the scent just kills you. My favorite is the ambre. The Vetiver Body Oil too… Oh my god.

Are you really into skin care?

"I’m very lazy but it’s important that I look clean and well taken care of. Like when you go to get a haircut and the lady with the crazy hair comes out and you’re like “I don’t want her touching my hair!”

"I do emphasize skin care for my actors… I send them to get facials to clean up the skin since they wear so much makeup."

"But remember, there’s only so much you can do with skin care. It’s not gonna make you 10 years younger, it’s not gonna take your wrinkles away, it’s not gonna lift your saggy chin! All you can do is maintain what you’ve got."

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So, should I talk to some hair stylists or special effects makeup artists next? Also, do you love The Knick as much as I do?! 

Cover image via Cinemax's The Knick