For more than 20 years, Tracey Levy has carved out a very successful career as a celebrity makeup artist working in film, television and print. A Los Angeles native, Levy got her first taste of the behind-the-scenes lifestyle at an early age with her mother who worked for decades as a costume designer. We were fortunate to get a few minutes of her time to discuss what it takes to establish a career as a makeup artist in the entertainment business, as well as her work with Mila Kunis on the new Warner Bros. film, Jupiter Ascending.
How did you first get into the entertainment business?
TL: My mom was a wardrobe stylist for over 30 years, so at a very young age I would help her out on her jobs when I was in junior high and high school. I liked that work, but I always gravitated to the makeup and hair departments.
When I graduated from high school, I could have just fallen into helping my mom and making a decent living, but I really had a calling of my own, so I went to a small makeup school—I can’t even really call it a “school,” because it was only a couple of weeks long. I started out working on a couple of commercials and music videos and then I landed a job working back-to-back movies for Roger Corman [the iconic filmmaker/producer often referred to as "King of the B's" for his low-budget productions]. So I essentially got out of school and started working and I’ve never stopped.
Talk a little about those early days working on those Corman movies.
TL: With those first jobs, I felt like I was essentially thrown into the fire. At Corman, we’d shoot a different movie every three or four weeks. We were working around the clock, so you didn’t have time to spend any of the little money you were making. I had a strong work ethic, and I was okay with whatever was thrown at me.
That’s something that a lot of people who think it would be cool to work in a field like this may not understand. That it’s long hours paying your dues and you have to have the temperament for that.
TL: I think people have no idea what kind of business this is when they start. You’re working a 17-hour day with maybe a half-hour lunch, and you’re not making much money. It seems a little inhumane at first, but, for me, it was just what I had to do if I was going to have a career.
When I was starting out, I would see people who would think they could come in late or act like a diva or not hold their tongue around the actors and the producers, and those people just don’t last in this business. You have to learn to play the game of “I will do anything, just tell me when, where, what, and it’ll be done.” That’s how you get hired and get these jobs, because people will start saying, “She may be new, but she’s eager and she’s ready to work.”
Was there a turning point for you in your career or was it all just a natural evolution of meeting more and more people, getting more and more jobs?
TL: It was gradual. In the beginning I could have made a choice and said, “I’m only going to take commercial jobs, not film jobs, because they pay more and I’m going to try and only cultivate those relationships,” but I’d also have more time off where I wouldn’t be paid. So what I chose to do is make very little money, but work all the time on those low-budget movies, and I did that for a couple of years.
Because I did that, I was able to work a lot of days so I was able to get all my “union days” very, very quickly. By 1993, I was able to get into the union and that was really quick. I went to school in ’88, got out, floated around a little bit, then just started working in ’89 and by ’93 I was in the union and doing "Movies of the Week" and meeting new people and making those important connections. Before I got into the union, I would have to do hairstyling and I was not a hairstylist, so once I got into the union, it was like, “I only have to do makeup now, and I’m making a decent wage and I get insurance.” So that was a huge turning point for me; getting in the union.
What else was a big factor in moving your career forward?
TL: The relationships I formed at Roger Corman were very important to my career. I worked with two makeup artists there and still to this day I’ve worked for them or they’ve worked for me. It’s all about the relationships you build over the years that get you to where you are. One of those makeup artists I mentioned has a really good career in the television industry and the other has a very good film career, so I have been able to go back-and-forth working with them. And sometimes when I was able to be the department head on a project, I would be able to hire them to help me. It’s a very tight-knit group of people. It’s all about being able to count on someone and to trust someone. Lucky for me, I managed to make relationships 20 years ago that I still have to this day.
In terms of the jobs you get, do you get hired by the actors or by the directors, or how does that generally work?
TL: For the last ten years, most of my jobs come from actors, but I also get jobs from friends. I have a very close relationship with a costume designer, who I've worked with for many years, and she’s introduced me to several directors and producers who I’ve gone on to work with. I get hired by actors, producers, directors, or I get recommended because someone isn’t available. Bottomline: it’s all about personal relationships that are built over the years from project-to-project, and that really never ends.
A great example of this is how I got the makeup department head job on Forgetting Sarah Marshall. I was recommended by the costume designer, and then my past working relationship with Mila Kunis on That 70's Show secured the job for me. Thanks to that job I went on to have a great working relationship with [Forgetting Sarah Marshall stars] Jason Segel and Paul Rudd as well. It's all a bit of a domino effect.
Let’s say you’re hired by an actor. Do you have to get clearance from the director or the producer as well?
TL: It depends on who the actor is. Let’s say an actor isn’t a big enough name yet to have their own makeup person. Yet the actor may have the pull to say, “Well, then, I want this person to be head of the makeup department.” So then I’m brought there by the actor, and I’ll then meet the director and the producer, and if they feel confident, I'll get the job.
When an actor hires you, how does the dynamic work between you trying to please the actor and what the director wants for his or her movie?
TL: If the director has something specific they want, and the actor wants something slightly different, I have to find a solution that will satisfy both of their visions.
Being a wife and mother, and working a job with quite a bit of travel and long hours, is it difficult finding that balance at times?
TL: It can be difficult. Jupiter Ascending was a six-month shoot split between London and Chicago. Whenever I'm away for an extended period of time my husband and daughter make efforts to come and visit. On Jupiter, my daughter got to visit London twice and Chicago once, so we make it work. For them it's often a vacation, even if I have to go to work every day it's still great that they are with me when I get back. Remember, even when I'm on a movie at home in Los Angeles the hours prevent me from spending a lot of time with them. I often leave the house before they wake up and return home after they've gone to bed.
You mentioned Jupiter Ascending, and in that film, Mila Kunis’s character is probably one of the few characters who doesn’t have alien creature features. What was that project like to work on?
TL: Mila was the only main character in the movie who didn’t come from outer space; she came from Earth, so essentially a lot of her look needed to be based on her just being a real person. She gets to have these fantastic outfits with different hair and makeup once she gets in outer space, but, at the same time, we didn’t want to make it seem like she wasn’t the same girl.
For instance, with the wedding scene, I would have loved to have bleached her eyebrows and made her more extreme—like her bridesmaids that were standing by her—and really played up the science-fiction part of that, but we still wanted her to be anchored in who she was.
I have to say that doing the wedding scene in Jupiter Ascending is definitely one of the highlights of my career. I was inspired by the [directors Andy and Lana] Wachowskis’ vision for the wedding, and Kym Barrett's beautiful costume design, and was so happy to be able to add something to the character's look that was special. I really can’t wait to see it when I go to the movie tonight.
Tracey Levy is not affiliated with Warner Bros. and any opinions expressed are her own.