Art DepartmentInterviews with Industry

Kirsten Sylvester, make up artist for The Big Sick and More

With twenty years of experience under her belt, Kirsten Sylvester has worked on a wide range of work from feature films to runways as a successful makeup artist. Recently her talent has started to land her on massively successful projects, such as being the key makeup artist for Micheal Showalter’s academy award-nominated  ‘The Big Sick’ and Baz Lurhmann’s ‘ The Get Down’.

How did you get involved in becoming a professional make up artist ?

As a Makeup Artist, I am a self taught artist and have never assisted another artist. I believe my education in Fine Arts has been what fuels my creativity, painting and art have been my passion for my entire life. I began my over 20 year career doing editorials for local photographers in the early 90s. I segued into independent film in the NY/Philadelphia area. I now live and work in NYC doing film, tv, editorial and commercials.

What was the biggest hurdle you faced?

Working as a freelancer can raise various hurdles. The biggest one I faced was when my personal life changed, and I became a single Mom. Juggling my long work day and odd work hours was very difficult. But it can be done. I tell people all the time, DO NOT GIVE UP, you will get through this. My daughter, now an adult, says that she feels she can do anything she puts her mind to. And its all because she watched me work so hard to achieve my dreams.

What does your day-to-day consist of?

My day-to-day will vary depending on the type of job I am working on. In film or tv I may have to be on set as early as 4:45am and working a 14+ hour day, so being prepared for anything is key. So I always prepare my makeup kit in advance. Editorials and commercials can call for a completely different type of kit and workday. All of this can also vary on whether I am on a job full time or day playing, which allows me to jump from job to job. When I day play I can also chose what days I work, and what days I don’t.

What have been the most challenging and most enjoyable jobs you have worked on?

Challenges come in all shapes and sizes in this industry. Some of my greatest challenges came with the projects where I learned the most. For me the key is taking good something away from a situation you feel is testing you. Everything is a learning process. And when you move on to a less challenging production, it allows you to enjoy that experience even more. I have been blessed to work with many wonderful artists, actors and crews in my career.

What would you say is your biggest accomplishment and biggest regret ?

My biggest accomplishment to me, is having the nerve to not give up. To stick with this career when times were hard. And then when I was finally be able to make a great living doing something I love, made the all the hard work and sacrifices worth it. My biggest regret would be not starting my career sooner, allowing life to get in the way, even though this was something I truly wanted. Putting someone else’s needs before my own. Be true to who you are. Someone who is holding you back now, may not be around later.

What is your favorite thing about your job?

There are so many things to love about my job that its difficult to pick a favorite. But I would have to say its the freedom that comes with working in a creative field. That freedom allows for unfettered creative flow, to be able push yourself as an artist. Being exposed to other amazing artists on a daily basis and learning about new techniques, ideas and products. There is always something new to my day.

What is your favorite film and why?

While I do have many films I love, the one that stands out for me as my favorite is “The Green Mile”. It has love, heartbreak, injustice and revenge. It brings me to tears every time I watch it. The other types films I love are action films and children’s animated films, both features and shorts. What makes them unique to me is that they allow me to completely lose myself.

What makes a film stand out to you?

A film stands out to me when I don’t notice things, like makeup. Having worked in the industry for so long, when I notice the makeup in a film it takes me out of the moment. It no longer allows me to live in the fantasy of what the film is trying to portrait. When I can get completely lost in a film, that’s what makes it stand out for me.

If someone wants to pursue a career as a make up artist, how would you recommend they go about it?

For someone without an arts background I would recommend taking classes or assisting someone. YouTube can be very helpful in learning some techniques, but its best to learn how to apply makeup to every type of face. Not just your own. Be prepared to do some projects for free, it will gain you experience as well as photos or a reel. You can gain future clients this way. I still do passion projects, especially when it’s with the right people. Always stay hungry.

What are the biggest mistakes you notice beginners make?

I have noticed with some up-and-comers is they want to skip over “paying their dues”. They want people to “give” them jobs, whether its warranted or not. Many of these beginners take jobs they aren’t prepared for or don’t have the experience and qualifications needed. In the end everyone suffers, the artist, the production and the project. This can cost you work later. Remember: YOUR REPUTATION IN THIS INDUSTRY IS EVERYTHING. Earn your way up, and earn the respect of your peers.

Any other advice you would like to voice to help the next generation of make up artists?

In general my advice to any makeup artists is when you are working on a set of any kind, do your job, and do it well. Always, always be on time, and by on time I mean at least 15 minutes early. Be nice, to everyone. Today’s production assistant is tomorrow’s director, and you would be surprised who will recommend you for a job. Keep your mouth closed, don’t talk about people. This includes your boss, the actors, the crew, the production, anything. You don’t know who knows who, and it will get back to them. DO NOT POST PICTURES, unless you are allowed to. And in EVERY case, ASK first. In some cases this can get you fired. And lastly, in an era where getting what you want is expected and instantaneous, be loyal. You may not always receive loyalty, but being loyal will pay off in the long run. This career is not a short game, its about the long haul. Don’t simply look at today, look far ahead.

To see more of Kirsten’s work please visit her website

(Feature image: ‘The Big Sick’ film poster courtesy of Lionsgate and Amazon Studios )