INDUSTRY INSIDER – Marietta Carter-Narcisse
Born and raised in Barbados, Marietta Carter-Narcisse is a celebrity make-up artist and educator, with over 20 years experience. Her career in the entertainment industry began as an assistant wardrobe stylist to her younger brother during the Commodores’ 1983 European Tour. Through her brother, she met and toured with Natalie Cole as her image consultant. This led to a string of hit music videos, commercials, television shows and a successful career as one of the most sought-after makeup artists in motion pictures. Her film credits include: Baby Boy, The Negotiator, The Red Violin, Sphere, Eve’s Bayou, The Long Kiss Goodnight, A Time to Kill, Strange Days, Tina: What’s Love Got to Do With It?, Malcolm X, Boyz ‘N The Hood, Ghost, and numerous others. Carter-Narcisse was also the Makeup Department Head on Whitney Houston’s last movie, “Sparkle,” about a 1960s up and coming singer staring American Idol winner Jordin Sparks and the late multi-Grammy winning Whitney Houston. We had a chance to catch up with Marietta to find out how she has been able to stay at the top of her game for so long.
You had the opportunity to work on the film Sparkle. The film was set in in the 1960s and was about three sisters who formed a girl group and how things began to fall apart. Tell us about your experience working with Whitney Houston.
Years ago, when I first started in the industry, while working backstage at The Soul Train Awards, I handed a sweaty Whitney Houston a tissue. It was one of those moments in my career where I dreamt of meeting someone but never knew if it would really happen. Cut to, being called at the last minute to replace the department head on Sparkle, which was already two weeks into production, I would again encounter Houston, who was also executive producer of the project. This time was different; we were formally introduced before I started doing her makeup. We had so many mutual friends in common; it was as though we had known each other for years. We shared some similar inside stories that immediately established a mutual respect for longevity within the industry, giving us both a feeling of being “old-timers.” Unlike Jordin Spark’s role, where she worked every day, Houston only worked a few days. Our mornings started off like a private Whitney Houston concert, anywhere from her singing to her blasting one of her favorite gospel singers. We exchanged dialog about being working mothers and rearing children within the stress and strain of the industry. I walked away from that experience feeling a connection, not as a makeup artist to a larger than life icon, but as a working mother with similar struggles, on a perpetual journey to create balance in one’s life.
Not too many people know, but you’ve been friends with Angela Bassett for quite some time. And, as fans of her work, we were so happy to hear of her directorial debut on the new Lifetime movie based on Whitney Houston’s life. How was it working with your friend Angela, who also happened to be your boss on the film? Were there any difficulties to executing her vision?
I met Angela on the set of Boyz ‘N The Hood, where I was the department head and I also did her makeup. This was some 20 plus years ago and we clicked and have been friends ever since. When I received the phone call from Lina Wong at Silver Screen Alta, the production company, stating that Angela requested me and she was checking my availability to come out to LA and department head the movie, I was ecstatic. Angela wanted me around because she felt that I could execute her vision effortlessly, leaving her to focus on other crucial details of the project. The pace was so fast that there was no time to second-guess decisions. We were following actual photos of Whitney and Bobby, so I tried to stay as true to the period as I could, while making YaYa DaCosta look as close to Whitney as I could. The biggest challenge was multiple wardrobe and makeup changes in one day. We had a few of them and those were really tough. Overall, we were able to read each other without much difficulty. There is something to be said for having a personal working relationship. We understand and respect each other. So without much unnecessary discussion, I felt that I was able to deliver and convey the essence of Whitney without too much difficulty. Together we brought her vision to life.
Quote from Angela Bassett: “Having worked with Marietta Carter-Narcisse on Tina: What’s Love Got to Do With It, I had the utmost confidence that she could capture the period and give me the beauty as well as real life Whitney. That’s one department that was covered and allowed me to concentrate on the million other decisions. Whitney was highly polished when she needed to be and that comfortable girl when off stage. And, the fact that Marietta had a working history with Whitney Houston was an added blessing in capturing those things that are not in the page.”
Of course, make-up is essential to any film, as it directs the audience into the frame of mind of the time period. How did you storyboard the various looks for Whitney and how much was required on your part to execute the vision?
Film is a collaborative effort. I had a wonderful team working with me, you cannot do this stuff alone. My Key Noreen Wilke, is just a methodical as I am. With little or no prep time, we relied on photos from the art department and our wonderful costume designer Mona May and her team. Since we were working with actual events we wanted to recreate the essence of them as closely as possible, so we needed to match whatever the art department chose. Having the Internet at our disposal in the makeup trailer was like heaven. If we had questions about a particular look or event we just pulled it up and compared. I wish the Internet were invented when I was on Malcolm X or Tina Turner, research would have been much easier. We tried to work in as many looks as we could to establish the periods. I loved it when was time to really showcase a couple of intense period looks. Yaya was just as excited as I was. There is one particular club scene where wardrobe puts Whitney in this beautiful color block dress with greens and purple and blues and Yaya and I looked at each other like, lets go all the way. So I did, the heavy blue, pink and purple shadows, heavy liners, lots of mascara, lashes, heavy pink blush and of course pink lipstick with lots of gloss, it was awesome. Creating that look was exhilarating and a trip down memory lane for me.
Show business can be fun, but needless to say, it’s a lot of hard work and determination. There’s something to be said about a person’s career when it comes to longevity. Through all the ups and downs, how have you been able to maintain a high level of excellence as a professional make-up artist?
When I first started in this industry, one day the light bulb went off and I realized that I was working in corporate American disguised in cowboy boots and blue jeans so I started to treat my makeup life as a serious career. I realized that if I didn’t take me seriously, who would. I immediately went about establishing myself as a business woman who does makeup and not as a makeup artist who has to learn about business. I learned when it is time to move on. I learned that you must constantly reinvent yourself so that you wouldn’t become stale and boring, especially to yourself. People treat you how you treat yourself, so I set standards for myself and mediocrity is not one of them.
Every film comes with its own set of challenges, from shooting on location, to working with various crews and directors. In regards to the actual design element, what has been your most challenging film to do and what were some things you learned from it as you overcame the obstacles?
Malcolm X was probably the most challenging project of my career because of the scope and magnitude of the project. Firstly, I had to move to New York for six months. The concept of taking the train to work at the wee hours of the morning was not exciting to me. Then, the project was a period piece so there was quite a bit of research that needed to be done. As a matter of fact we had several decades to research. The project was representing a historical likeness so there was very little room for error. Then there was the development of the evolution of Malcolm X from Malcolm Little.
I met with Denzel Washington several times prior to principle photography to narrow down the nuances about Malcolm’s physiognomy. We had to figure out facial hair, various lengths and textures of the hair on his head, complexion, whether or not to use contacts to replicate Malcolm’s hazel green eyes, plus the facial character nuances with glasses. Denzel’s complexion is so much darker than Malcolm’s, so making him lighter was not an option. Malcolm had hazel green eyes and Denzel has brown eyes, so we explored green contacts. But then the reality of wearing contacts, glasses, a full beard and a mustache became too much. There were so many little nuances that went into creating this character that without them there would have been a definite difference in the end result.
My other big challenge was taking over the movie Sparkle after it was already in production for two and a half weeks. It is always difficult to have to recreate someone else’s work. It took a minute to get up to speed because I received the phone call late in the afternoon and the next day I was on a plane to Detroit. I never really had the opportunity to properly break the script down and prep before shooting, so the first couple of days I had quite a bit of work to do to reorganize the department. When you run a show, you need to have a strong key. I was blessed to have Lauri Cuppetilli, a Michigan native and industry veteran, be right there for me. She made a world of difference. She knew all the local makeup artists to hire, she was organized and just overall prepared and ready to make it all right. It’s a team effort working on film, we just had a very short time to get it together, to make it all happen, plus the speed at which we were shooting was unreal.
My latest project Whitney, was 21 days of intense shooting and recreating looks. Once again, another iconic figure. The speed and the number of changes were unreal, so it was quite challenging.
For both Sparkle and Whitney, it was really tough because everyone had tattoos, which makes it very difficult when exposed. Since these were period pieces, we had to cover all visible tattoos, so we had to hire makeup artists to focus on just covering just tattoos and watch them on set all day. It’s all about the detail.
Thank you so much for taking the time to educate us on your profession. We look forward to seeing Whitney. What other projects can we look forward to from your end?
I was in France in December as a master instructor for the newly opened Make Up For Ever Film and Television Academy at Cité du Cinéma in Saint Denis, just outside of Paris. It was a amazing experience and I will be back there again this year.
In March (22-24) I will be doing a three-day workshop in Atlanta “Beauty & The Business – Behind The Scenes”
I also teach the beginning makeup classes at Cosmix School of Makeup Artistry in Fort Lauderdale. I love it! It is a great opportunity to pass on my skills to a whole new generation of younger artists who are eager to learn the skills and business knowledge needed to create success in such a competitive field.
I started the MUA Planner, LLC in 2013 because there was no central industry calendar where you could find the dates of all the major industry events such as trade shows, award shows, hair shows, etc. So this is the third year our 2015 edition.
I also just released Roll Sound…Rolling…Speed…Marker…ACTION, an eBook on industry terminology with the major job descriptions and industry lingo. I plan to release the hard copy shortly. You can download the eBook
I continue my Lipstick Lectures, which are free. These one-hour lectures cater to artists who are interested in pursuing a career in film and television and are offered on the second Saturday of every month.
Then there is Workshops by Marietta, these are 12-hour live online workshops that focus on the business aspects of the industry.