Sharon Tabb Reflects on Crafting the Visual Magic of FX’s Reservation Dogs

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

Sharon Tabb, the makeup department head behind FX's critically-acclaimed and Peabody Award-winning series "Reservation Dogs," opens up about her transformative experience working on the show. Created by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi, "Reservation Dogs" follows the lives of four Native American teenagers on a reservation in eastern Oklahoma. The series, praised for its blend of realism and occasional touches of magic, concluded after three impactful seasons. Tabb describes her time on the project as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, highlighting the privilege of collaborating with talented Native American actors to bring their stories to life. As she transitions to her next venture, Tabb looks forward to the release of "Fancy Dance," directed by Erica Tremblay and starring Lily Gladstone, which premieres in select theaters on June 21, 2024, before its global debut on Apple TV+ on June 28, 2024.

PH: Reservation Dogs has been praised for its authenticity and magic. How did you approach the makeup design to reflect the unique cultural and personal stories of the characters?  

Sharon Tabb: The approach to makeup design starts with a collaboration. Making assumptions is not an option. There are diverse stories, cultures, and history to explore. I make it a priority to thoroughly understand the stories and characters. Over the years, I have built strong relationships through my work with various cultures, and this has greatly contributed to my understanding and expertise.

PH: Can you share specific examples of how you used makeup to enhance the storytelling, particularly in scenes that involve cultural or ceremonial elements? 

Sharon Tabb: In episode 2 of season 3, I was able to do some warrior makeup on Spirit while he was fighting the conquistador. Due to us shooting outdoors and Dallas Goldtooth was on a horse, we needed something that would stay put and not have a lot of maintenance. I used a waterproof face paint makeup to keep it on all day.

PH: How did you collaborate with the directors and actors to ensure that the makeup accurately represented the Native American culture depicted in the series? 

Sharon Tabb: Collaborating with the directors and actors was the key element to ensure that the look was accurately represented. I would speak to the director first to understand their vision and then speak to the actor face to face to see what they envisioned for their character and how that plays in each unique episode. It’s a very important process to ensure that we represent the look correctly. 

PH: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in your role, and how did you overcome them? 

Sharon Tabb: At the start of each season, it was a major challenge when some cast members showed up with fair skin (from winter months) that would naturally get darker over time due to outdoor exposure. To ensure continuity and desired coloring, we would start them off with makeup to make their skin appear tan, gradually reducing it as they tanned naturally.

PH: Are there any particular scenes or episodes that stand out to you where the makeup played a crucial role in the narrative?  Can you describe the process behind creating the look for those moments?  

Sharon Tabb: In the episode 2 of season 3, titled "Maximus", Bear finds himself stranded and walking in the scorching desert. With no access to food and water, we meticulously portrayed his appearance, adding subtle effects to simulate sunburn on his skin, a weathered and worn-out look, and noticeable signs of chapped lips.

PH: Reservation Dogs concluded after three seasons. Looking back, what were some of your favorite makeup designs or character transformations throughout the series? 

Sharon Tabb: One of the most captivating character designs I worked on was for ANSEL, portrayed by Matty Cararuple. ANSEL served as Kenny Boy's unique sidekick. He had a fascinatingly quirky personality, worked at the junkyard, and embodied a meth head-like character. Given Matty's naturally pale complexion, I artfully weathered his skin with various colors and grime for each episode he appeared in to maintain his character's appearance. It was important to ensure he was always sunblocked to protect his super fair skin. Despite the challenges, Matty thoroughly enjoyed embodying the role, and we had a blast.

PH: After working on Reservation Dogs, how did you prepare for your role in Fancy Dance? Were there any similarities or differences in your approach to makeup design for this project?  

Sharon Tabb: The approach for both projects was very similar. They both had a bittersweet tone and focused on storytelling. I did my homework and collaborated with the director and the actors. It honestly felt like an extension of Reservation Dogs, especially since I had already worked with Erica Tremblay and Lily Gladstone on that project. Having a prior relationship was helpful, especially when working with delicate subject matter and embracing a beautiful culture.

PH: Can you give us a glimpse into the makeup design for Fancy Dance and how it complements the story and characters? 

Sharon Tabb: I was involved in the design of both the makeup and hair for the film. Given the storyline and the socioeconomic status of the main characters, we opted for understated and functional looks. The two lead characters were styled with a "no makeup" makeup look. Jax's appearance was intentionally rugged and slightly disheveled, portraying a tomboyish vibe, while Roki was given a youthful and vibrant appearance.

PH: Fancy Dance features a talented cast including Lily Gladstone, Isabel DeRoy-Olson, and Shea Whigham. How did you work with each actor to develop their unique looks for the film? 

Sharon Tabb: The process kicks off with a detailed script breakdown, meticulously analyzing every aspect. Next, I delve into a thorough examination of the characters, drawing out their nuances and motivations. This is followed by a crucial meeting with the director to align our creative visions. Finally, I engage in a deep conversation with the actor, exploring their emotional connection to the character. This collaborative process is not only enjoyable but is critical in ensuring that everyone involved feels fulfilled and satisfied.

PH: Were there any particular makeup techniques or styles you used in Fancy Dance that you hadn't explored before?   

Sharon Tabb: Yes, I had an interesting experience with Lily Gladstone. Before starting the film, Lily had injured her index finger nail, causing a purple bruise on part of her nail bed. We decided to incorporate it into her character's look. As her finger healed, we decided to keep the bruise for the character.

PH: Reflecting on your career, what have been some of the most rewarding projects you’ve worked on, and where does Reservation Dogs rank among them?  

Sharon Tabb: I've been fortunate to work on numerous projects, each holding a special place in my heart. I've gained a wealth of experience and knowledge through this journey. Among the most fulfilling projects were the documentary-style productions I worked on earlier in my TV career.  One significant production was "Whatever Happened To," a Canadian show where I had the honor to work with renowned actors from the 1950s to the 1980s. I got to hear their incredible stories of how they rose to fame, and it was an amazing experience. Additionally, I ventured into the reality TV world and worked with "The Two Coreys," Corey Haim and Corey Feldman, and “Breaking Bonaduce,” with Danny and Gretchen Bonaduce.  For the past 13 years, I've closely collaborated with various tribes in Oklahoma, contributing to telling their stories, which has been both educational and eye-opening. This has effectively prepared me for the exceptional opportunity of working on "Reservation Dogs." Working with such talented Native American directors, producers, actors, and crew has been a privilege. Every day on set has exuded excitement and creativity. Overall, the experience has been absolutely phenomenal, and I am truly grateful for the chance to contribute to "Reservation Dogs." My heartfelt thanks go out to Sterlin Harjo for his invaluable contributions!

PH: What advice would you give to aspiring makeup artists who wish to work on culturally significant and critically acclaimed projects like Reservation Dogs?

Sharon Tabb: You have the power to achieve anything you set your mind to. Keep pushing forward, get the proper training, find a good mentor, and remember that great things take time. Always be ready to learn; it's a journey, not a sprint!

PH: Looking ahead, are there any specific genres or types of projects you’re particularly excited to explore in the future?  

Sharon Tabb: I enjoy being involved in projects that explore different ethnic and historic cultures. I would like to continue working on these types of projects and also explore opportunities in a fun sci-fi or a time travel project where I can still incorporate my love for historical work.

PH: How do you see the role of makeup evolving in the film and television industry, especially in projects that aim to represent diverse cultures and stories? 

Sharon Tabb: I believe that the doors are opening for a wide range of cultures to share their stories, creating more opportunities for makeup artists. There are so many diverse stories to be told, and the makeup artistry can range from simple to intricate.

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