Below the Line: Makeup Artist Nicki Ledermann

Below the Line: Makeup Artist Nicki Ledermann

Nicki Ledermann is an Emmy Award-winning, Academy Award-nominated Makeup Artist. Born and raised in Germany, Nicki made her way to New York in the late ‘80s and quickly stepped into the exploding independent film scene.

In the early 2000s, she worked on culturally iconic projects such as "Sex and the City," P.S. I Love You, Enchanted and The Devil Wears Prada, the latter earning her a BAFTA nomination.

Nicki then went on to work with some of the most significant directors of our time, including Martin Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh, and the Coen Brothers, and design for massive projects like "Boardwalk Empire," "Vinyl," The Greatest Showman, The Irishman, Joker, and "The Gilded Age."

I’ve had only brief but lovely chats with Nicki until this interview and always found her to be a warm and fun-loving presence, who no doubt puts whomever is sitting in her chair at ease. This, combined with her obvious talent, make it easy to see why Nicki is one of the most sought-after collaborators in the business. And I was lucky enough to call her up one rainy Sunday and pick her brain.

Hey, Sommer! How are you?

I'm good, Nicki, how’ve you been?

I've been good. I mean, you know, the strike sucked. But other than that, pretty good.

Oh, I hear you. So, you're from Germany, and I understand that you were a music student originally. How did you get into makeup?

I went to a music high school and studied at the Conservatory of Music. I played trombone, bass, and piano a little bit. I always hung out with musicians. But I felt like music was not really my thing. I was too shy to be onstage and didn't want to practice rigorously like the real musicians do.

I used to draw and paint a lot as a kid. And I loved movies. When I was 14, I saw The Exorcist, and I thought it was just so cool. Like, how the hell did they do that? I wanted to know more about it. And being this little kid growing up outside of Munich, in a little town, I thought, ‘Film? How? Where? What? When? This is Germany. I mean, we make good movies, too. But you would have to go to Hollywood to do that, right?’

Then one day, I was hanging out with my friends at some jazz club, and I met this really cool band. I fell in love with one of the members. They were living in New York at the time, and I thought, 'Oh, shit, I should go to the States. This is my chance!' They convinced me to come along with them, and I moved to New York. I took classes at HB Studio—they had makeup classes for theater. My boyfriend at the time, he went to NYU and was in the music department. I thought, 'Oh, let me go over to the film department. Maybe they need some makeup people for their thesis films,' you know?


I met some people who said, 'Yeah, come along.' And, through friends, I met this wonderful woman, Lori Hicks, whose husband is also a musician who knew my then-boyfriend, and she was already a working makeup artist in TV and Film. She took me under her wing, and for a year I worked with her on indie projects. That’s how that all started.

You came up in the ‘90s, would you say?

Yeah, I came to New York in the late ‘80s. What was amazing was, at that time in the early to mid-90s, the independent movie scene was like, big.

Oh, yeah.

Everybody was making indie movies. And good ones, too. Killer Films and Good Machine were production companies I worked for who, back then, did a lot of very cool and award-winning indie movies. The people I met at NYU, we kind of all rose up together and grew up together. And that was so lucky. I really came in at a time when it was much easier to get your foot into the door.

I'm so jealous of the 90s independent film era. That seemed like such a fruitful time.

Yeah, it was pretty amazing.

And it was all truly film, with no playback, right?


So, how did you know how the makeup was going to look? Because makeup in person is not necessarily going to translate the same on film.

No, it's very different. That’s why we went to go see dailies almost every day after work. We would go to a screening room and watch dailies and see what happened and sometimes think, ‘Oh, shit.' But then you see what's on film and you adjust. A lot of it is trial and error. And then it just becomes experience, you know? You learn how you have to adjust makeup to certain lights or certain film stocks.

Well, I'm a Costumer, and I know how closely Hair, Makeup, and Wardrobe work together. I would also imagine that the relationship with the Gaffer would be super important for a Makeup Artist. Is that a collaboration that happens often?

My collaboration is mostly with Hair, obviously, and with Wardrobe, Production Design, and the Director of Photography. I need to know, from the DP, how they are shooting it. Now we don't shoot so much on film anymore, but the DP will still know, like, 'The reds will be more exaggerated in this scene.’ And all those things you learn when you do the camera test before you start shooting, so you can adjust.

Today, when I'm on set, I usually hang out in the DIT tent. I can watch what’s on the screen to make sure that I adjust if I have to, or maybe nudge the DP saying, 'Hey, can you just give me a little bit more fill? She has an imperfection that needs to be disguised.’ Or, ‘She's tired today. Can you help me there?' Or, 'Can you help me hide a prosthetic piece better by moving this light?' All kinds of things. It’s a huge collaboration with the DP. Very, very important.

For sure. I want to talk about prep for a second, because it's just so crazy to me that we're all working towards one goal, but we're all kind of working in a vacuum for a while before we get together.


So, when you get hired on a project, what does your prep look like? Are you painting on your own? Are you trying out looks on people? Because often, you only get to see the actors a couple days before shooting.

Well, it depends on what kind of a project it is. On a lot of period projects or character projects, you have a little bit more time to prep. I’ll pull images from the internet, from books, from libraries. I go to museums and take photos. Sometimes I paint a little bit. It all depends on the job.

After I gather my own ideas, my inspirations, I always talk to the Costume Designer. 'Hey, can I see the clothes? Can I see the color palette? Can I see the textures of what you put them in?’ That's all extremely helpful to me. I mean, Hair, Costumes and Makeup—I like to be tight. That’s the only way for the character that you're working on to become realistic-looking. Because if the makeup doesn't match with the hair and the clothes, then it makes no sense for the character to look like that.

When you’re on a show with a lot of background actors, "The Gilded Age" or "Boardwalk Empire," for example, how do you cover all those people? You may have dozens of Additional Makeup Artists working, but it seems like you'd have to be kind of close to somebody's face to really approve the work, no?

Well, we have fittings, like you guys have. Once the background actor is established, we get a photo and make notes. Sometimes the background actors also have a photo of what they are dressed in, which is helpful.

In general, we, as the Makeup Department Heads, tell our Background Supervisor, 'These people need to look like this and these other people need to look like that.’ And there are always mood boards to check against. That’s how everybody gets processed, pretty much.

Now, when an actor comes in with their Personal Makeup Artist and you're the head of the department, do you still get the final say?

You know, that also depends on what the project is. If it's a contemporary rom-com, let's say, I probably would not get involved when there's a Personal. Rarely have I been approached by the department head when I was a Personal, if it's just a contemporary, generic movie. If it's a stylized piece, it can be different.

When we did Joker 2, Lady Gaga brought in her personal makeup and hair teams. I oversaw her makeup design, and her makeup artist, Sarah Tanno, understood that and was great to work with. When you have very specifically stylized films, you need to really make sure that that Personal follows the guideline of the look of the film. Because that actor needs to fit into the film. They need to come into our world, we don't need to come into theirs.

So, it's really important that it all is in sync. And you know what, collaboration is the key. It doesn't mean, 'I want it like this, and they want it like that.' There’s always room for collaboration.

Absolutely. When you are dealing with CGI, are you involved in that post-production process? Are they coming to you?

Sometimes. It depends on what kind of CGI they're doing. For example, on The Irishman when they made them younger … That was such new technology, I wasn't involved in it at all. But usually when there are prosthetics or CGI to alter certain looks on people, I’ll be around to advise.

There's a separate team for prosthetics, right?

Yes. I mean, again, it depends. If it's minor prosthetics then my regular makeup team, or I, can handle it. But if it's heavy duty prosthetics, like The Penguin, for example, yeah, that's a whole team that's dealing with that.

So fascinating. I would love to talk about Joker quickly, because it was just incredible. When you first got that job ... if it were me, I'd be like, 'Oh, shit!'


That's exactly how I felt! Like, holy shit!

'I have to now create the next iconic Joker look for however many generations,' you know, that's a tall order. But it was just so precisely imprecise, completely grounded in the character and the world ... It was just absolutely brilliant.

Oh, thank you.

My question is: How the fuck did you keep continuity?


Well, to be honest, that was the hardest part of the movie, keeping continuity. I mean, I was taking photos, photos, photos, photos. My phone was constantly on me. Let me tell you, it was a bitch. Continuity was a bitch. And it was definitely a challenge. It made me a better artist, that whole experience. That was really hard.

Well, you gotta be so fast. Because you're hand-painting him, right?

Yeah, so I'm hand-painting him every time. It's all freehand. You just do the best you can. After a while, it also becomes a little bit of muscle memory when you do it so many times. And Joaquin [Phoenix] was also that kind of person who couldn't really sit still for a long time. So, I really had to go fast. Which taught me that sometimes you just gotta do it, and do it fast, and don't think. Because if I had all the time in the world, I would probably take hours to do that makeup. I would never finish, because I’d just want to keep doing it, and doing it, and doing it.

When things come in a way that's more spontaneous, sometimes they're actually better.

Totally. And that's filmmaking, too. I think a lot of people, especially the money people, just try to choke it out of you, but you have to leave space for the magic, as well.

Absolutely. Because a lot of times, things change. Unexpected things happen that are like, 'Oh, wow, this is cool. Now, I have to change everything around that because it's so much better.' Happens all the time.

And makeup is such an ephemeral art form. It's so finicky—somebody might have a zit one day, somebody might be sweating. I would imagine that continuity would be less about the photos and more just your eye and your instinct.

Yes. Completely, a hundred percent.

Now, this is kind of a strange question. When we have principal fittings, the actors come in, and they get literally and metaphorically naked. Like, the conversations in that room are always intimate. You, however, are touching these people's faces …


Can you talk about the psychology of that? What has it taught you as a person, as a professional, as a creative?

It’s very interesting. You work with somebody, and you literally touch their face all day long. It's a very intimate situation for you, and for them. And it's different with every actor who sits in your chair. Some people are just a canvas, and you can totally shut yourself off. Or they're very much meditating while you do their makeup and practicing their lines. Sometimes you have a great rapport with people, and sometimes, God forbid, you have an actor in your chair that you don't get along with so well, and then you just really try to get through it. And then you have people who are nervous, and you have to become the mother, the parent, to kind of calm them down. It’s all about breaking that personal intimacy, because you're doing a job, and sometimes it's weird.

You have different scenarios, every single time, with different people. And if you're a good makeup person, knowing how to deal with certain circumstances is just as important as being a skilled artist. It goes hand-in-hand. You can be the best makeup artist in the world, but if you don't get along with people and can't read the trailer, the room, the atmosphere, the actor … If you don't have that, then you will never make it in the film business.

Oh, yeah. The whole business is all just reading the room.

It's all people skills.

Now, just so people know, how do you join the union?

Okay, so our union, 798, they have a website— If you go on the website, you can find what you need to do in order to join the union. In a nutshell, they want you to work a certain amount of days, within a three or five-year span on any kind of indie film, student film, commercial, PSA … anything that's not a fashion shoot. It has to be with a rolling camera, no matter what it is. You have to keep all your proof that you worked on it, whether it's a call sheet, a paycheck stub, anything. And that's really the most important part—you need your days, you need recommendation letters, and you need a portfolio.

706 may have different criteria—I'm not quite sure how it works on the West Coast. But on the East Coast, it's, and you can see what the deal is.

What do you look for when you're taking a job?

The Director. I usually work for the Director, no doubt. I mean, it's tough. You know, when you have big movies, the Director is usually not the boss. It's the studio. But I feel the Director is the one who has the vision, so I work really for them.

You did Joker 2, recently, which I cannot wait to see. Because Joker was what it was, and it was so big, did you feel the pressure coming back for the sequel? Do you still feel pressure at this point in your career?

Always. I'm terrified every time I start a new job. And you never stop learning because everything changes. You always have to be on the ball with the newest technology, cosmetics products, whatever it is. You have to be on your toes, like forever. You want to do a good job, you don't want to repeat yourself, and you want to bring new cool things to the table. And that's hard, no matter how long you've been doing it.

Absolutely. Like we said in the beginning, the climate is so much different now than it was when you were coming up, especially with social media, which could either be a tool or a hindrance, I would imagine, for somebody with a portfolio. What advice would you give to somebody really trying to make it these days?

Well, because social media is such a big deal today, I think it's good to have Instagram, it's good to have a website. I mean, nobody really uses Facebook anymore, except for the ...

My aunts.


Right! I mean, once you start working and you have your little community, you find yourself working with the same people more often. Because you do get a reputation. Until then, it's always good to have an Instagram account and a website for people to find you and look at your work. For sure.

What’s next for you, Nicki?

Ah, well, we’re going back to "The Gilded Age." I'm supposed to do The Bride next. I’ll be co-designing with the makeup artist Nadia Stacey, who did Poor Things. I'm looking forward to that, the script is incredible. Really cool.

I mean, scripts are always being written, I just hope that A.I. is not going to fuck us, you know? I just hope that I can do one cool movie a year. That would be so amazing.

*Feature Photo: Nicki Ledermann with Joaquin Phoenix on the set of Joker

Writer and local menace. Currently working in costume shops around New York. For press and inquiries, reach me at my couch.
More posts by Sommer Rusinski.
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