‘Reservation Dogs’ Shows How Great Makeup Can Look Like No Makeup at All

Makeup design doesn’t always mean prosthetics or extremes — that’s why the Emmy Awards smartly single out contemporary makeup design as its own category. But too often, those more immediately arresting designs are the ones that get all the attention. Not anymore. Join IndieWire in celebrating the makeup artists creating subtle, character-specific work for contemporary shows.

Reservation Dogs” showrunner Sterlin Harjo couldn’t understand why the characters looked so different all of a sudden. After FX picked up the series based on the strength of the pilot, the creative team returned to Oklahoma to film the rest of Season 1. And suddenly, Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Elora (Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs), Cheese (Lane Factor), and Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis) all looked like they had makeup on. What was going on?

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The answer is the sun.

Harjo and the creative team wanted the main cast to look a little scrappy and a little edgy and even a little sweaty, exactly like the kids running around the reservation that they are. A no-makeup look doesn’t mean no makeup on the actors, of course, but makeup designed to be invisible and accentuate all the ways the cast can appear to be baby teens making dumb kid choices — whether that means robbing a Flamin’ Flamers truck, running away to California, or just fooling around with the elders.

Accordingly, makeup department head Sharon Tabb had perfected an approach for the pilot that worked in the sweltering Oklahoma summer. Going back to shoot the rest of the season in cooler weather, though, meant the actors weren’t looking greasy enough.

Temperature was just one of the things that Tabb and the makeup team needed to contend with throughout all three seasons of “Reservation Dogs.” Another big one was adapting to the ways the actors’ skin changed over time. Tabb had to run a bit of an age gamut. Factor started the show before he needed to start shaving (and was thrilled when it became necessary for the makeup team to get rid of any whiskers). Jacobs was in, as Tabb put it, a bit of a “90210” position, needing to stay as young-looking as possible.

A teen boy and girl in Hawaiian shirts sit next to each other on a green indoor bench; still from "Reservation Dogs"
‘Reservation Dogs’Shane Brown/FX

But Tabb and her team also needed to keep an eye on consistency over the course of shooting each season. “Most of the cast was coming from Canada, so they’d have been indoors a lot. So, to them, they looked really pale. And because they’re Native American, they can go outside for five minutes and they get a suntan, and that’s going to be an issue with continuity,” Tabb said.

Tabb recalled a memorable day when Factor developed a mask tan after wearing a facemask for not very long at all. Having sunscreen and liquid bronzer on hand at all times and working with the costume team to make sure nothing got onto the actors’ clothes was an art that the “Reservation Dogs” makeup team perfected over its three seasons.

However, the makeup on the show isn’t just a great example of how to craft completely natural-looking teens (and their hormones). Tabb also had to design looks for several considerably more stylish characters.

A woman with long, wavy brown hair wearing a denim zip-up top and sitting in a red diner booth in front of a whole pie; still from "Reservation Dogs"
‘Reservation Dogs’Shane Brown/Fx

Chief among these is Deer Lady (Kaniehtiio Horn), whose backstory we finally learn in Episode 3 of Season 3. “We tried to give her a power look,” Tabb said. “She’s still supposed to look like she’s from another decade, so we tried to take that into account, but she’s trying to pull it together. She looks with the times but she’s still got that old vibe. And since she was a glamorous vixen character, she obviously was gonna have eyelashes.”

Sometimes, something as small as adding lashes can make a difference in how a character feels in relation to another. When the audience sees Bear sitting across the table from Deer Lady, neither of them even needs to acknowledge how much more powerful the latter is. It’s all there on her face.

One of the most special moments Tabb had on “Reservation Dogs,” though, was all about what wasn’t on someone’s face. For a flashback episode where we see some of the show’s elders in their own Rez Dogs era, appropriately titled “House Made of Bongs,” Quannah Chasinghorse plays a younger version of Grandma Irene (Casey Camp-Horinek). Chasinghorse is Hän and has facial tattoos that the character wouldn’t have had. The makeup cover-up was the first time the model and actor had seen herself without her Yidįįłtoo since she was 13.

RESERVATION DOGS -- “House Made of Bongs” -- Season 3, Episode 5 (Airs Wednesday, August 23rd) — Pictured: (l-r) Quannah Chasinghorse as Teenage Irene. CR: Shane Brown/FX.
‘Reservation Dogs’

“She absolutely had no issue with it because, you know, she’s portraying a character and not herself, but definitely, there was some emotional stuff that went along with that,” Tabb said. “But it was amazing and it was beautiful and she couldn’t have been more gracious about it. It was really cool — it felt really special to see her in her element, and I felt like it helped her become that character.”

There’s a lot that’s special that went into the makeup on “Reservation Dogs” in ways that are completely invisible to the audience but helped the cast feel the great coming together of Native American talent that’s always been here but finally had a TV show to play with.

“We reached out and we actually got a lot of indigenous brands that sent us things, which was special. Especially for the cast because they’d see stuff at our station and we tell them it was indigenous, whether it was Cheekbone or Prados or a few other skincare lines as well,” Tabb said. “What’s so nice about what we do is it’s collaborative. Everybody’s able to speak up about what they want, and it’s very fluid and it’s very natural.”

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