The makeup artist talks about hiding prosthetics and how practical makeup should always be considered before CGI.
Debbie Zoller needs an Emmy. With this year’s dual nominations, the makeup artist has now been nominated a staggering 11 times. If you look at Zoller’s resume, you will find an envious range of projects including Mad Men, Timeless, Kingdom, and Twin Peaks (for which she was nominated last season). Her film credits include A Star Is Born, The Hustle, and several films from The Hunger Games franchise. With Fosse/Verdon, however, Zoller’s designs span five decades, and she truly transforms two major film stars into theater royalty.
Sometimes when you hear about actors playing famous figures, the first thing we think of is how makeup will be aided in the illusion of their transformation. Zoller’s work on Fosse/Verdon is so subtle and well done that it’s hard to see it. It’s integrated so well into the performances that it’s virtually invisible. Michelle Williams has been praised endlessly for her physical transformation as Gwen Verdon, but we need to remember that the makeup aided in that.
Not only is Zoller nominated for makeup design, but the prosthetics are competing against heavy hitters like Game of Thrones, Chernobyl, and Star Trek. While creating monsters and villains for otherwordly realms is obviously a massive undertaking, there is something very impressive with how Zoller and her team quite literally recreated these two icons. It should not be ignored in either category.
Awards Daily: I’m a little obsessed with Fosse/Verdon, I have to admit.
Debbie Zoller: Aww. I’m so glad to hear that.
AD: Everyone I’ve talked to on the show has such a respect for the material and the people they are portraying.
DZ: Having the director and writer of Hamilton involved—and Lin-Manuel Miranda—you knew it was going to be done right. That’s what was so exciting for me when I heard that this was going to be my next project. I’m such a musical theater geek that I was pinching myself.
AD: Michelle Williams looks so much like Gwen Verdon. How the heck did you do that? There were many moments where the camera captured a look or glance from her, and I thought, ‘That’s actually Gwen Verdon!’
DZ: Michelle was very much in charge of her look and what she wanted to look like. She really embodied Gwen like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Sam was very similar in once they had all the scripts that they did a deep dive. There was no coming out of that once he was Fosse. With Michelle, she had some great ideas. She said, ‘Debbie, I was watching some old videos, and I saw she had an overbite. I want to talk about teeth.’ From the get-go, she was very much involved with her makeup. I think it was really important, for both of them, that they had that involvement when you become someone so iconic.
AD: And I feel like theater people are some of the most critical people?
DZ: Yes. We had some pretty high standards to live up to. Every department—between all the research that we did—would compare notes and say, ‘Did you find this?’ or ‘What did you find for that look for that era?’ There was one situation with Michelle in Gwen’s apartment, and there was a very specific wallpaper that was like a felt. It was rust tone, and it was an exact duplicate of what their apartment looked like in the ’60s. We had to make sure with the colors we used in the makeup and the hair that we didn’t lose her. Christopher [Fulton], the hair designer, had to get the hair color right and I had to get the makeup right, just so she stood out in that environment.
AD: The show spans five decades.
AD: Is this the longest span of time you had to work through? And is this the first time you had to recreate real people?
DZ: Yes and no. I do a lot of period pieces. I did Mad Men for a few seasons and Timeless. This was actually second nature, but then you’re adding in the whole other element of duplicating real people. Not only putting everyone into specific period looks. We couldn’t use a reference picture from 1963 when we were doing looks from, say, 1968 when sideburns were longer and makeup was different. We all had to be really careful when you make people look like other people. You have to capture the essence of other people. It’s something that Michelle and Sam did so well.
AD: I could tell who a lot of people were just from the look of their makeup design. I knew who Neil Simon was, I knew who Ann Reinking was.
DZ: And just so you know, because I was so busy designing every person, I had Jackie Risotto doing Michelle and taking care of her. I was so involved with Sam, because he had two or three more looks than she did, and I didn’t want Michelle to feel that I was leaving her all the time! Jackie executed the designs really well.
AD: How many people are on your team?
DZ: I had a permanent staff in the trailer of four of us. Since I am from LA, I had to hire a co-department head because it’s a New York rule. They gave me makeup designer credit and I still ran it along with the help of Blair [Aycock] and she was amazing. Dave [Presto] was my key [makeup artist] and he and I would double team Sam to get him out of the chair fast enough. He wanted to have time with Tommy [Kail] and get into his own head. It was important to get him out of the chair quickly—and when I say quickly, I mean an hour. It saved us from him being in the chair for two hours.
AD: You’re nominated twice this season for both makeup design and prosthetics. Can you tell us what specifically you used and how you strike the balance for the pieces to be noticeable but not distracting?
DZ: There is a definite balance between. We were shooting this all out sequence, so we had to make them younger. There were lifts under a lot of the wigs and pulling them tight so they appeared younger. As we were aging them, Michelle had 3 different sized neck waddles, so those changed over time. At one point, Gwen had a face lift, so we had to go back to the smaller waddle.
AD: I had no idea that Gwen Verdon had a face lift.
DZ: Yes. At the end, she had a fuller, silicone encapsulated neckpiece on. There were eye bags and a forehead piece to create subtle changes with fine lines. We used a stretch and stipple technique that also ages. It’s like a glue almost where you stretch the skin and when you release it, you put the product on, it gives the illusion of those fine lines. It’s a brilliant product. Sam had more facial pieces. He had a nasal labial, upper and lower eye bags, a forehead piece, dental plumpers which filled his face out. I aged his beard. At age 60, he had more white and grey. To be included in a category where you have Game of Thrones and Star Trek with all these aliens and The White Walkers and The Night King was really fulfilling. To have an old age makeup not be over the top is really hard, and I think we achieved what we meant to achieve.
AD: To be honest, I think I knew there had to be prosthetics involved, but I couldn’t clock the specifics. I feel like we are watching Michelle Williams and Sam Rockwell age 40 years in front of our eyes.
DZ: That means a lot—thank you.
AD: You mentioned someone making someone older, but you don’t hear a lot of people talk about makeup artists making someone younger. Is there an underappreciated art of de-aging someone?
DZ: It’s hard to make someone younger. Most of the time actors feel, especially now that digital comes into play, that they can fix it in post. They’ve done it quite well, but the blessing is to do something like this practically. Doing it in post is all great and good, but we want the challenge to do it practically, and I was so glad that Tommy and everyone was so on board with that.
AD: How do you feel about the digital de-aging? Most of the time we see it in big movies like Captain Marvel, but it feels like it’s getting more attention with every go at it.
DZ: It’s definitely a challenge, and I think there’s a middle ground where CGI and makeup can come together. I’m really grateful for it in certain aspects. There are certain times and situations like in the heat or the extreme cold or the lighting isn’t quite right—something that is inhibiting how it’s shot like on the top of a mountain—where they can come in and assist and help us out is always welcome. At the same time, you have to be careful, because when you vote for these awards you can’t be voting for something that hasn’t been digitally enhanced. You have to vote for a makeup that’s actually a makeup. If it’s not, it shouldn’t be included. There are times when, God bless it, we really need the help and other times where we say, ‘We got this, let us plan it first.’ With directors like Guillermo Del Toro, he’s really into doing the practical effects. Quentin Tarantino, too. They always appreciate trying to do it practically first, and if it can’t be done, they will go in.
AD: Doing makeup is an art form itself, and I always feel like doing it practically would only enhance the emotional tone and arcs of the story.
DZ: Absolutely. It doesn’t take you out. I remember when people would look at trailers for things, and the first thing they say is, ‘What happened with the makeup?’ Even if they aren’t involved with the industry at all. It changes the whole dreamlike quality of what we are trying to create and achieve. Television is almost like film at this point, because of the cameras have changed. Panavision has these digital cameras but they use film lenses, so it’s really quite nice to achieve that quality that we want to have you involved with. That’s why I think Fosse/Verdon is representative of that.
AD: When you get to recreate the looks of Cabaret or the dance hall girls in Sweet Charity, do you view that as a challenge because you have to copy those? What was it like recreating those?
DZ: I think that was one of the biggest challenges of the whole show. It was a multi-layer of research doing both what Bob and Gwen looked like but also what his iconic dance numbers looked like and making them look like the dancers they were portraying. Luckily we had access to the Verdon Fosse Legacy through the daughter [Nicole Fosse] of Bob and Gwen, and I had the ability to go in and look at the dancers really up close. I specifically picked out eyelashes and I had bags prepped and I had a fitting to make sure each lash, to the best of my ability, to what they had originally. With “Mein Herr” in Cabaret, they shot that in Berlin, and knowing that Kryolan—a German based makeup company—was around at the time they were filming that movie, I used mostly Kryolan products. I think it worked beautifully. I think that was my favorite part of the show to work on, to be quite honest, because I’m such a musical theater geek. Just being able to recreate those iconic dance number. When I saw the girls all lined up for Sweet Charity and Kelli Barrett who played Liza, my heart exploded.
AD: These are your tenth and eleventh nominations?
AD: You need to win.
DZ: Bless your heart. I really hope this one has my name on it. All of them have been really amazing nominations for all different things. I don’t want to be the Susan Lucci. I hope this one is the one!