Tarra Day grew up in Albuquerque and like many people had big dreams of moving to Hollywood and becoming a star. Her parents were divorced when she was young and her mother encouraged her to get into theater. In her early 20s she did sketch comedy with a group in Albuquerque and stand-up comedy. She wanted to pursue acting so she and her mom packed everything in two little cars and went to California. She had been admitted to the Academy of Dramatic Arts but had to forgo that when her mom took ill. She stayed with her in Calabasas, CA and drove back and forth to LA with a friend for auditions and doing small acting jobs.
I chatted with her this weekend on where she got her start, breaking big with Breaking Bad, her Netflix western Godless and one very curious credit on her resume.
AW: How did you get into makeup as a career in Hollywood?
TD: I came to California to be an actress and at some point realized I was one in a million blond-haired, blue-eyed women that want to act. I had a recollection of a friend who had told me that I’d be good at makeup and should try it as a career. Ironically at that moment, and this is why I feel it’s all been serendipitous, my friend Odi introduced me to Harry Blake who was a retired makeup artist. He had been Johnny Carson’s makeup artist for years and years. I told him I was interested in makeup and going to school for it. He told me to Maurice Stein, who owned Cinema Secrets in Toluca Lake. He set up a meeting for me with Stein who offered me a job at his store just before Halloween in 1991. I was living in Carlsbad at the time so I packed up my bags and drove my little VW bug up to Los Angeles and found an apartment in Studio City for $650 a month and started working at Cinema Secrets. I wasn’t making much money and I didn’t have too many friends in LA but I look back on it and, even though I was surviving on Trader Joe’s spaghetti and ramen, going to Ralph’s and getting a case of ramen, but it was a really incredible time. Maurice Stein really took me under his wing, so did Brad Look, who also worked at the store. I got to work with the products and applications. My first show [Eva’s Magical Adventure] came from working at Cinema Secrets. I was making $100 a day on six-day weeks and I was so excited. It was the most money I had made in doing what I was doing because I had been bartending as well to make ends meet. After that I just kept plugging away and the doors opened. I feel like the universe pushed me through the doors and I’m glad I took that leap.
AW: You have a varied filmography between film and television. Do you have a preference between the two?
TD: I don’t have a preference but in the past I took the opportunities that were given to me because in the beginning you’re just trying to get your resume up. I’ve been fortunate – I think back to Chicago Hope, there was a lot of television there and in 2001 I got Blue Crush (the surfer movie with Kate Bosworth) and that started me more in the feature avenue. That was a great experience, shooting in Hawaii and everything. As I’ve gotten older the choices I’m trying to make are geared towards being a storyteller. You don’t always have the luxury of choosing but there’s been a few times where I’ve been able to go ‘I’m not going to take this one because this one is more of a story for me’ I was talking to a makeup artist friend of mine the other day and we said we don’t want to be viewed as just makeup artists we want to be viewed as filmmakers. What we do is collaboration with the director, costumes, hair stylists. It’s all filmmaking. I want to be proud of what I do and storytelling is one of my preferences. It’s not about whether is a feature or streaming, it’s about the project and what it’s going to bring to people.
AW: There’s something on your IMDb page that I’m dying to ask you about and that’s your stunt credit on 1997’s Speed 2: Cruise Control. Tell me all about that.
TD: I was hoping you wouldn’t see that! So, I was visiting a friend in St. Martin (where Speed 2 was filmed) and the casting director, I was there visiting them too, and she was like, ‘Hey Tarra, what are you doing today? We need someone to be in bed with a stuntman when the ship cruises through.’ I was like ‘really, how could a girl turn that down!’ But [director] Jan de Bont wanted me to be partially nude and I was like ‘no way dude, I’m not doing that.’ But I ended up in a bra and a pair of panties I was in the bed with David Barrett, who’s a great stunt guy, and it was really fun. My brother has this ginormous television at his house and I just got a text from him a few days ago. He had screen-shotted a picture on pause of me and was like, sticking his finger up my nose and I was like ‘oh thanks dude, I really appreciate that.’ But it was really fun and I had a good time. It’s my one stunt and credit and I never looked back!
AW: Tell me about finding yourself in Albuquerque working on Breaking Bad. Was there a going back home sensibility there?
TD: I was living in LA and had no desire to come back to New Mexico. But, in 2005 my dad was not doing so good. At the same time I was given an offer to come out here. Coming to Santa Fe I was like ‘ugh, I’m going to come out here for a little while and that’ll be it.’ And then I was like ‘wait, it’s so beautiful here and there’s no traffic. I can see landscape.’ It was a thing where I decided it was timely for me. I ended up buying a house and commuting between LA and Santa Fe. I didn’t know what Breaking Bad was. They had been shooting four seasons and they wanted to make a change in the makeup and hair department. When I got the call [from line producer Stu Hall] my boyfriend was sitting across from me in the living room. I got off the phone and said ‘So, a show called Breaking Bad called and I don’t know..’ “WHAT?!,” he said. “You have to do that show. If you don’t do that show you’re crazy.”’ I started watching it and it was really good so I took it. Working with Vince [Gilligan] and Bryan Cranston and reconnecting with Anna Gunn, who I had actually worked with in ’97 was awesome. Aaron Paul, the whole cast was incredible. When you’re working with people whose standards are so high you either go up to their level or it doesn’t work. It was great for me because I learned a lot. It was odd to be back in Albuquerque and go through my old neighborhoods but it was so cool. And with the Emmys, I guess they were right in making the change. My team was awesome and it showed with the Emmy noms (Day was nominated for two Primetime Emmy Awards that season) and the Makeup and Hairstyling Guild award. It was a highlight, I was really proud of it.
Here’s such an awesome thing, my boyfriend, he’s in camera. He worked on the show, he day-played a little bit. When we would get the scripts some of the stuff would be redacted because it was so secret., how Breaking Bad was going to end. When they issued the final script [my boyfriend] Dan filmed Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul reading that final script together. For him that was amazing, so we both got the benefits of it.
AW: In Godless, your most recent television show and the uniqueness of it. It’s a western with a largely female-fronted cast – in fact, on the show women run the town after a mine accident kills the majority of the men in it. What was it like working with a mostly female cast who were integral parts of the narrative and not simply shopgirls, prostitutes or background?
TD: Michelle Dockery really set the tone of the set, which was very inclusive. Everyone was wonderful, Merritt Wever – love her. To this day most of the women are still in the same text chain during shooting and talk to each other all the time.
AW: There’s a scene in the first episode involving Jeff Daniels getting shot in the arm so badly it needs to be removed.
TD: There were a lot of preliminary talks about the arm and how we were going to do it. I have to give Justin [Raleigh of Fractured Effects] a lot of credit and his team as well as Jeff Daniels. Jeff had to maneuver his arm around that whole thing so that we could facilitate the look of that. Scott was very specific on the design and what he wanted to see and how he wanted to shoot it. Even though we cross-boarded it (shooting sections of multiple episodes in a single day), Scott [Frank, the show’s creator] made sure that makeup and hair had enough time – we had six weeks of prep. I can’t really take much credit for that, Fractured just did an amazing job.
AW: Well, you’re still the department head so it still has to pass your muster there.
TD: You’re right, I just had such an amazing team. I was lucky to have so many talented people in my team. Scott wanted the actors to have a good prep schedule too. They went to cowboy camp where they learned to ride horses, shoot guns. What was awesome for us [the hair and makeup teams] is that we had access to them. In our first meeting with Scott in his office, the entire cast had their headshots on his wall and we’re going through them saying ‘this is what I want, this is what I want’ and we took really detailed notes on what he wanted for each character. The funny thing was, some of these headshots were 5-6-7 years old. Some were thinner than their photos, some were heavier, some were older, so when we got them we thought ‘well, this might not work.’ That six weeks of prep gave us the opportunity to really work closely with everyone. For the Griffin Gang we had a trailer set up for effects and we did hand painted vacuum form dental for them. Back in the day we’d have to paint their teeth every day and you weren’t sure if it was going to match. Things like that you didn’t really see but it’s imperative to make sure you have that in the characters. Also, [costume designer] Betsy Heimann gave us a palette to work with. It wasn’t a verbal direction but we could see through costuming what we had to work with for every actor. She gave them their individuality, which really helped us incorporate our work to them.
We created dirt for each of the town; we matched the earth that was there for each ranch so that if the riders were riding through two different towns they’d have the layer and texture of each town applied to their clothing, applied to their skin. There’s a lot of facial hair application. There’s a scene at the end of the where Jack is riding through showing a passage of time. I hand laid facial hair on him and had a hand tied custom-made beard for him. Sometimes the cross-boarding was tough for the passage of time. For Jeff Daniels he has a grey beard and grey hair through most of the shoot but then we have to make him look younger. So we would go in and color his beard and his hair and smooth him out so that he didn’t have as much texture as in his ‘older’ scenes. Then in the same day we’d have to make him look older. It was a lot of scrambling to make sure we didn’t take the audience out of the show by making sure they believed all of that passage of time was happening.
AW: The devil is in the details, as they say.
TD: Exactly. We had to make this believable.
AW: What was one of the most challenging or memorable aspects of the Godless shoot?
TD: Sam Waterston’s character was originally going to be played by a different actor. We had a mustache and make-up applications set but we didn’t get Sam until about three days before we were going to shoot. I was like, ‘Omg, what are we going to do?’ Luckily, we had some hand-tied mustaches and we had something for him. He decided to name his mustache Fred. He would come in and say ‘How is Fred today?’ ‘Is he up for a long day?’ ‘Did he go out drinking last night?’ Sam and I had a great time with Fred.
You spend six months of your life on something and the experiences you take away from that. I could work with Scott Frank for the rest of my career. He’s so talented., so incredible and such a professional. His standard is so high. Look at his casting; look at who he brought to the table.
For me the greatest thing about Godless was…when you look back your career and ask what do you have to look back at I feel like I’m very fortunate and have so many great things to look back at but Godless is definitely something that I’m very proud of and grateful to have been a part of. Sometimes I look back and think ‘how did I get to do all of these things?’ I just feel so lucky.
AW: I think anyone in this industry has to have a balance of luck and talent because just one isn’t going to get you all the way.
TD: True, true. I guess I’m doing something right.
Tarra Day is a 6-time Primetime Emmy Award nominee and a Makeup and Hairstyling Guild winner. You’ll be able to see her next project, the feature film adaptation of Green Book starring Oscar nominee Viggo Mortensen and Oscar winner Mahershala Ali later this year.
Godless is streaming on Netflix now.
Tarra is eligible in the Outstanding Makeup For A Limited Series Or Movie (Non-Prosthetic) and Outstanding Prosthetic Makeup For A Series, Limited Series, Movie Or Special categories. You can visit her Instagram for some incredible photography while on the set of Godless (and some great cat pics, too).