Creating broken noses and deformed circus performers, Penny Lee is the “MacGyver of make-up,” transforming actors into characters for TV and film. She travels the world, learns about different cultures, meets movie stars and gets paid to boot.
The Gemini-winning make-up artist got into the business at 16 with a job at a department store’s make-up counter. She loved it and moved to make-up for models. Lee relocated to the bright lights of L.A., but it didn’t suit her.
“It got to be a little strenuous, because cocaine was very big, and (there were lots of) crazy people, so I decided to come back to Montréal,” she explains. After a stint doing TV commercials, she landed a gig with the National Film Board of Canada for a movie on war veterans. That entailed creating broken noses.
“I took baby-bottle nipples, cut off the tops and stuffed them in,” she says of her solution. One of the actors was fellow Canadian Matt Craven, who currently has a role in the Johnny Depp movie Public Enemies. “He has a honking big nose,” she observes. “You just put that up the nostrils and it distorts the nose.”
She’s “birthed a few babies” on TV, with a realism that wows the doctors brought in to check that they do in fact look like newborns.
In action movies, Lee has to make realistic wounds that match the script. “It’s a lot of breaking down the scripts,” she says. “You have to go to the stunt coordinator so we know whether the guy’s going to get shot in the left leg or the right leg.”
Lee, who worked on P.T. Barnum with Beau Bridges, was Christopher Lambert’s personal make-up artist for Highlander 3 and travelled to Russia to do two films with Michael Caine.
Everything she learned, she learned on the job. “I had no training or anything, but I just have a very good sense of what things should look like,” she says.
The tough part of being a freelance make-up artist becomes apparent when she describes her nine-hour days on This Hour Has 22 Minutes as a “walk in the park.”
Gruelling 18-hour days are the norm on movies, but offset by the fact that with clever planning, you can take a few months off each year.
“The downside to it is that you don’t have a full-time job and you don’t have one employer,” she says.
“So unless you’re good, you’re always searching for work.”