Black makeup artist Denise Tunnell has over 84 credits to her name. Her films include, “Mean Girls 2,” “Stomp the Yard,” “The Notebook,” “Furious 7” and most recently, Netflix’s “Sweet Magnolias.” Despite that body of work, Tunnell is still asked on job interviews, “What White actors have you done?” She would rather be asked, “Can you do a White actress?”
Conversations about diversity and representation haven’t stopped for Tunnell. They’re continuing, only getting louder. She’s asked on Zoom calls to discuss such topics. And she says yes because she is aware of younger makeup artists coming up behind her. She wants to make things better for the next generation of artists.
Tunnell talks to Variety about her experiences and challenges as a Black makeup artist, and how a show like “Sweet Magnolias” is reflective of society through its representation of Blacks and People of color.
When you go on a set like “Sweet Magnolias,” and you have a wealth of diversity both in front of and behind the camera, what does that mean to you?
To have a show where I’m not working with all Black actors is great. I love makeup so I’ll work with anybody. It feels good to work on something like “Sweet Magnolias” where I see people that look representative of my neighborhood. I live in a very diverse neighborhood. I have Black people, White people and Asian people. It feels good to be on a show where you can touch a bit of everybody.
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As a Black makeup artist, a lot of the times, we are pigeon-holed because people think you can only work on Black people. So, when you meet someone like creator Sheryl J. Anderson, she doesn’t see my color. They’re seeing me as a makeup artist. They look at my resume and they know I can do my job.
I’ve been having a lot of conversations with different people all over the beauty industry about diversity – about being a Black makeup artist, working with white actors and some of the prejudices that I’ve faced early in my career.
That leads us to blindspots, what are some of Hollywood’s blindspots when it comes to hair and makeup?
A lot of the time, people look at you and think you can’t do that type of hair when in fact you can. People like to think maybe this White actress doesn’t want a Black makeup artist touching her. Maybe that’s the case for some situations and don’t know.
I feel sometimes it’s more the producers who think that you can’t do the job. I think it’s a lack of knowing what you can and can’t do.
Sometimes it bothers me when I’ve sent in my resume and I’ve been called in for an interview and I’m asked, ‘What White actresses have you done?’ I think to myself number one, I’m a makeup artist. You’ve had my resume for two days so you could have looked at the body of work to see who I’ve worked on. It blows my mind. Sometimes, it comes from producers who assume you can’t do it. I’d rather have someone ask me, ‘Can you do a White actress?’ and I can just answer the question.
There’s always a camera test and I can prove it on the camera test, and if at that point it doesn’t work out for you, then replace me. But don’t insult me by asking me, ‘What White actresses have I done?’
In some sectors of this industry, a producer can hire a friend over you and that person might not have as much experience. Have you lost jobs because of that, where you’ve lost a job to a White person who might not be as qualified?
Yes, that happens all the time. You’ll have big shows with big Black actors and you think, ‘I want to work on a show like that.’ So, you submit your resume and you don’t even get a callback, but you know you’re qualified.
When the show starts shooting and there’s a White makeup artist who’s doing the job, you know it’s because that person is getting called by a producer that she knows and that producer is a friend. You know that because she’s called by the same producers all the time for whatever the show is and you never get that opportunity.
You have a great resume under your belt, are you able to use your voice and confidently say to producers, ‘I can do this job.’ When did you find your voice?
These issues have always been there and I’ve rolled with it. I think whatever opportunity is for me, it’ll come to me.
I think I’ve just recently found my voice with Black Lives Matter you know, and I just kind of like, just put some of the nonsense out of the way not focused on that. But I think I found my voice just recently with all the Black Lives Matter and people have been reaching out to me to join Zoom calls.
I fell I have to find my voice because people are coming up behind me that don’t need to go through what I went through early on in my career.
We have to make it better for those coming behind us and being able to use what I know and learned to help somebody else.
What next, do you feel there’s going to be a change?
Hollywood has to change. I feel more people are going to demand change. We have actors now that that will be willing to speak up and fight a little bit for us.
Denzel Washington requires on every show that there is one Black person in every department. We need more people like that. I don’t want someone to put me on a show because I’m Black. Consider my skills and if I’m qualified to do it, great. I want there to be more opportunities for Black artists if they’re qualified.