Danielle Hanson

Danielle Hanson

Makeup artist helps bring TV and film characters to life

Growing up in Red Deer, Danielle Hanson had a habit, from the age of two, of applying makeup to everyone on her street who would let her — neighbours, family members, siblings, parents. It didn’t matter.

In high school, her drama teacher’s wife, Joanne Jacobson, who has since worked as a makeup artist in Calgary on shows like Ghostbusters and Wynona Earp, offered to teach the students a makeup class. “My (drama) teacher was encouraging and expressed that he felt like I would really excel at this, so I took it,” Hanson says.

She couldn’t believe there was actually a way to do what she was so passionate about and get paid for it. “What?” she says. “I could have a career doing this?!”

After graduating from high school, Hanson studied makeup at the Blanche Macdonald Centre in Vancouver, then returned to Calgary around 2005. She decided to give the city two years to see if she could make a go of it as a makeup artist. Her first stop, after signing a lease on a new apartment, was at IATSE 212 (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees), where she took the makeup permit exam. Then it was home to her parents’ house in Red Deer, to continue packing her stuff for her move to Calgary.

Only something unexpected came up to change her plan.

“By the time I got back to Red Deer, there was a voicemail on my home phone saying, ‘Can you be on set at 4am in Morley?’” It turned out that there was a new HBO show called Into the West shooting in town, and crews were in hot demand, so Hanson went to Calgary, slept on the bare floor of her Calgary apartment, and woke up at 2:30am. 

It was raining, really hard, but that didn’t stop her from making the 3am drive to Morley in a downpour. “I got to set with my little makeup kit — and off I went,” she says.

In the ensuing decade and a half, Hanson has rarely stopped working, on series such as Heartland, FargoJann, Hell on Wheels and HBO’s The Last of Us. Along the way she’s earned two Emmy nominations — she was invited to attend the awards show in L.A. with several nominated Alberta artists  — and is well on the way to living as creative a life as a person could ever imagine.

Bringing Characters to Life

But what, exactly, does a makeup artist do? “It’s my job to interpret the script, and work together with the cast, producers, writers, hair, wardrobe, director. We bring this character that is just written on paper to life,” she says. “It basically takes a village to shoot a production. 

“We design the looks, we research the time period, we perfect specific makeup mediums to match certain lighting and camera filters.”

Some characters are a little more than just written on paper — before production ever launched, there existed a whole alternative Last of Us universe, namely a globally popular videogame that featured the same characters Hanson and her colleagues were hired to bring to life for HBO’s Emmy-nominated TV series.

What Hanson discovered when she started work on the show was a whole other level of creativity, from the design team, to the cast, to the directors and producers, all of whom were determined to give the gamers a television series that was the equal of the video game.

“The production value was beyond,” she says. “In prep we would watch the video game. They would do a play-through for us so we could see it and then we would start creating and asking ourselves, ‘How can we bring this to life?’

“So then when you had that [videogame imagery] in the back of your head — because I never played the video game — I would walk out onto set and the hair on my arms would stand up.”

What’s the secret to being a professional makeup artist? “My biggest thing is attention to detail,” she says. “When you’re creating a character, I read the script over and over and over again. Put yourself in the head of that character. What’s their lifestyle? Who are the people around them? What characteristics are we gonna bring out to make this character look different from the actor?

“Listening is huge,” she adds. “We have production meetings so we hear what the producers want, we hear what the actors want, what the director wants. 

The Rollercoaster

No one goes to work in the film and television industry without understanding that it’s a bit of a rollercoaster ride when it comes to your work schedule, but in addition to the usual industry volatility, the last four years have been marked by a global pandemic that shut down production periodically, and now, in the summer of 2023, an actor and writer strike has effectively shut down most film and television production (Canadian shows such as Heartland are still able to shoot).

All of which leads to a twist on a question we ask all the time: Is it possible to live a creative life while you’re on strike? (Even when it’s someone else’s strike?) “If you’re a creative person it’s impossible to push that down,” Hanson says. “You have to keep your brain going. I find validation through my creativity.

“I think creativity matters, because it keeps your brain going. If you’re not using your brain, it feels like — you’re in the Last of Us,” she adds. “Someone else is in control.”

Hanson’s fiance, Forrester MacPherson, lives a creative life of his own: he works as a camera assistant on shows such as The Last of Us and Joe Pickett, as well as writing and directing. During the pandemic, while he, Hanson and their border collie pup Rain were sequestered alone in a Calgary condo, MacPherson wrote a script and directed a short film that Hanson and the pooch both had parts in.

The finished short ended up being selected for a screening in an isolation film festival in Toronto. “The pup and I became the actors, which was definitely outside my comfort zone because I’m happy to remain behind the camera,” Hanson says.

The challenge for the summer of 2023 is how to keep the creative juices flowing — not to mention the financial juices, given that her entire household has been shut down by the strike. But she doesn’t really dwell on the money problems, because money problems are a familiar set of woes for people who live creative lives. It’s also a requirement to manage your finances to the unique cycles of the industry for those who want to sustain a career in the field, which Hanson and her fiance have happily adapted to.

What a strike deprives her of is that feeling of being part of a team that works together to bring a story to life on a screen. “It’s tough,” she says. “I completely believe in what the actors and writers are fighting so hard for, the industry is at a pivotal moment, so much is changing. I am 100 per cent in solidarity with them, but it is just hard to watch the entire industry shut down again. I battle with how I’m going to keep myself being creative this time.”

Hanson had her next job lined up before the strike hit. It was in pre-production, getting ready to go — and she hopes it will as soon as the strike ends and production resumes.

After working with the huge production team on The Last of Us that included crew members from England, Vancouver — “you’d be surprised how many of them bought houses here!” she says — and Los Angeles, Hanson says she hopes to one day be able to combine working on production shoots with travel, her other passion.

And what advice would she offer to people interested in doing what she does? “Start practising and learning,” she says. “Absorb as much information as you can. I can’t stop absorbing information, there are so many talented people to learn from,” Hanson says. “Every time I travel, I take a class. You can’t stop learning….

“I was a kid from Red Deer and we didn’t even have the Internet. I went to the library and researched photos!” she adds. “Sit down and look at your goals and make them happen. It’s possible.”