Doniella Davy (‘The Underground Railroad’ makeup department head) on depicting the ’emotional realism’ of the characters [EXCLUSIVE VIDEO INTERVIEW]

Emmy Award winner Doniella Davy served as the makeup department head on Barry Jenkins‘ 10-episode limited series “The Underground Railroad,” which is based on Colson Whitehead‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name. The series marks the third collaboration between Jenkins and Davy, who previously worked on the former’s past two feature films, “Moonlight” (2016) and “If Beale Street Could Talk” (2018). In our exclusive video interview (watch the chat above), Davy talks me through the importance of depicting the “emotional realism” of the characters, the reflection of Cora’s (Thuso Mbedu) harrowing journey in the makeup, and the reason behind her Emmy episode submission.

The story is centered on Cora, an enslaved girl who makes a bid for freedom from slave-holding Georgia in 19th-century southeastern United States and, in turn, takes possession of her personhood. Even though the story is set in the 1850s, it isn’t specific to this period in American history in the exploration of its themes, which implicitly highlight the horrific and unfortunate timelessness of racism in the US. “I want to choose a look that is right for the actor’s face,” explains Davy, who reveals that she and Jenkins put the emphasis more so on depicting the “emotional realism” of the characters rather than being undeviatingly historically accurate. “Ballpark accuracy” is what was ultimately asked of Davy, whose preparation process consisted of working her way through books provided by costume designer Caroline Eselin, conducting internet research, and finally coming up with her own mood boards.

Despite the fact that the show explores a number of different locations and thereby various groups of people, it is rooted in Cora’s journey, much of which Davy and her team tried to reflect in “the glow of her skin.” They made her look “a little hallowed out, a little more ashy, a little more unwell” when she was in certain perilous situations, the makeup department head elucidates. In the Indiana-centric installments, however, when Cora finds herself among the Valentine community, which is emblematic of hope and freedom, she is “glowing more.” Expanding on this, Davy expounds that Jenkins wanted the entirety of said community to look “beautiful, healthy and glowing,” revealing that she and her team used moisturizers and oils in order to create this appearance.

Speaking of Indiana, Davy elucidates why she chose to submit the ninth episode, titled “Indiana Winter,” as her Emmy episode submission in the Best Period And/Or Character Makeup (Non-Prosthetic) category. While the first half of the installment focuses on the tender moments between Cora and Royal (William Jackson Harper) and the Cora-related tensions amongst the Valentine community, the second features the horrific massacre of the community and Cora’s climatic showdown with Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton). “A lot of the skills that were used across the board of all the episodes were employed in this episode,” says Davy about her submission, whose “large” scope was also taken into consideration. This scope is established by not only the aforementioned events but also the “wide, diverse range of characters,” which include background actors and stunt performers, all of whom had to go through hair and makeup, Davy explains. She concludes that she selected this episode also in order to recognize her “hard-working team” and to showcase a whole community that’s been “transformed completely.”

After winning her first Emmy last year for her work as the makeup department head on the debut season of “Euphoria,” Davy is back in the running for the gritty HBO teen drama, for the special episode “F*** Anyone Who’s Not a Sea Blob.” She describes working on this standalone installment as an “exercise in self-restraint,” as the Jules (Hunter Schafer)-centric hour required her to present a “very subtle, stripped-down version” of what we know as “Euphoria’s” makeup, which is its own character on the show. In regard to the second season, which is currently in production, Davy highlights the importance of changing things up from season 1 and divulges that she’s excited about her work “coming out really different” compared to what she’d anticipated.

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