Long before commanding a 34-strong crew, sprucing up the makeup on dozens of road warriors in the African desert, Lesley Vanderwalt worked as an apprentice hairdresser, preparing customers for the challenges of Wellington's wind.
Vanderwalt was born in Capetown, South Africa. Her family moved to Tawa on the edge of Wellington when she was four. By the mid 70s she was winning awards as an apprentice hairdresser in the capital. In 1975 she unexpectedly found herself working in television, after a woman from the BBC arrived at the salon, scouting for staff to work at TV One’s new studios at Avalon. "In those days, I don't think many people had heard of the film industry," Vanderwalt told Stuff writer James Croot. “She thought I'd be really good at makeup and offered to train me and organise it so I could complete my apprenticeship with them.”
Vanderwalt gained early experience as one of the makeup team dealing with dozens of extras on historical epic The Governor. Over three years in television she worked on everything from news bulletins to music show Ready to Roll and soap Close to Home. She took time off to work on 1978 movie Skin Deep, handling costumes as well as makeup and hair. Soon after that Vanderwalt left state television and plunged into film: she created the makeup for villianess Evil Eva on Nutcase and worked on Beyond Reasonable Doubt, the challenging location shoot for period drama Pictures, and Race for the Yankee Zephyr.
After working with her on mass murderer dramatisation Bad Blood, Australian-based makeup artist Bob McCarron recommended Vanderwalt to director George Miller, and she was invited to head the makeup team on Mad Max 2, one of the most expensive films then made in Australia. Shooting in the outback during winter, the promised good weather turned out to involve a lot of rain and wind.
Through the 80s Vanderwalt sporadically returned to NZ, “probably about once a year” (including for 1986 teen movie Queen City Rocker). But, as she told Croot, after a while the invites just "petered out". "People forget who, or where, you are.”
Meanwhile in Australia she was assuredly not forgotten, forging relationships with directors like Baz Luhrmann and George Miller. Vanderwalt lead the makeup on Luhrmann's first film, breakout hit Strictly Ballroom, was coordinator of the hair and makeup team on his epic Moulin Rouge! shoot — for which she won her first award from Hollywood's Makeup Artist and Hair Stylist Guild — and was nominated again for her makeup on The Great Gatsby.
Vanderwalt's lengthy credit list spans Scooby-Doo to the Oscar-winning Shine; from the soldiers of war-torn Vietnam to the gothic villains of Alex Proyas’ Dark City. Along the way she has handled make for everyone from Bruno Lawrence to Angelina Jolie. She has contributed to a number of films where make-up has been a key element in the plot, wielding her brush on character transformations from Strictly Ballroom’s ugly duckling-turned-swan Fran (Tara Morice); through to Sleeping Beauty’s Lucy (Emily Browning), a university student moonlighting as a sex worker. On Star Wars film Attack of the Clones, filters were sometimes needed, because the new high definition cameras captured so much detail they showed up smudges in the actor's makeup. Vanderwalt was also in charge of the makeup and hair team at the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games.
In 2002 she joined a number of Kiwi crew (including director Martin Campbell) on the globetrotting shoot for Angelina Jolie drama Beyond Borders. She would revisit Border's Namibian locations for the fourth Mad Max film, Fury Road: “Our first set up was in exactly the same place that we shot Beyond Borders, probably because it's about the only hill in the desert.”
After first being approached about the project back in 2003, Vanderwalt was finally employed in 2012 to oversee hair, makeup and prosthetics on Fury Road. Over a seven month shoot in Namibia, South Africa and Australia, she led the film's 34-strong hair and make-up team. Vanderwalt drafted Australian Damian Martin from company Odd Studio to serve as the film's prosthetics supervisor; the film's epic scale and extended overseas shoot meant that for a rare time she also needed to employ a coordinator. "Usually I do it all myself, but it was difficult enough just keeping our supplies up, especially when we had to get them through customs and out to the desert without them going missing somewhere in Africa."
Vanderwalt described the project as "one hell of a ride". Among her biggest challenges was keeping the makeup intact during a day's shoot that might involve cold, heat, storms of orange sand, and dozens of moving vehicles. The makeup included scars, tattoos and brands for the movie's pale and hairless 'War Boys' — Vanderwalt says the scars were inspired by tribal and religious imagery — plus a silicon pregnancy belly for one of the escaped wives.
Alongside solid international grosses, Mad Max: Fury Road won widespread critical praise for its action, storytelling and the breadth of Miller's vision — The Hollywood Reporter namechecked the "tribal-style makeup", while Kenneth Turan praised the "sizzling, unsettling images". In 2016 Fury Road brought Vanderwalt a BAFTA, and her first Academy Award, which she shared with Damian Martin and Australian prosthetics artist Elka Wardega.
Vanderwalt went on to join the team on Ridley Scott film Alien: Covenant.
John Baxter, 'Mad Max 2' - Starburst no 45, 1981, page 32 (Volume 4, Number 9)
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Chelsea Grubbs, 'Exclusive Interview with Lesley Vanderwalt and Artist-Narrated Video for 'Mad Max: Fury Road' Make-Up Artist Magazine website. Loaded 19 January 2016. Accessed 29 February 2016
Ron Magid, 'Exploring a New Universe' (Interview with George Lucas) - American Cinematographer, September 2002
Todd McCarthy, ''Mad Max: Fury Road': Film Review' - The Hollywood Reporter, 11 May 2015
Kenneth Turan, 'Review 'Mad Max' kicks a post-apocalyptic extravaganza into overdrive' - The Los Angeles Times, 14 May 2015
Unknown Writer, ’Mad Max: Fury Road series: In conversation with Lesley Vanderwalt, makeup & hair designer’, Creative Media Skills website. Accessed 29 February 2016
'Lesley Vanderwalt', Internet Movie Database website. Accessed 29 February 2016