Zoe Hay is the Emmy-nominated Makeup Department Head for the NBC’s megahit This is Us. In an interview with Awards Daily‘s Shadan Larki, Hay details the work that goes into aging and de-aging the cast for the multi-generational family drama.
The great fun and drama of watching This is Us is seeing the interconnected lives of the Pearson family. Following the decades-long saga means watching the actors move through various ages as they navigate life. Piecing together This is Us’ nonlinear timeline is what has made the show a sensation, but it means all the more work for Zoe Hay, the Head of Makeup. Hay and her team are responsible for aging and de-aging Mandy Moore and Jon Huertas on a regular basis. Season four brought us deeper into the ‘flash-forwards’ and the future of the Pearson family, which also means more actors for Hay to transform into older versions of themselves.
Hay’s work on This is Us has earned her two richly-deserved Emmy nominations. I’d argue she deserves more recognition, she is, after all, performing some of TV’s best makeup transformations. Weekly.
Hay details those transformations in our interview below:
Awards Daily: I’m just so curious about your approach to This Is Us. Let’s start with how you decide what you want the older version of your actors to look like? I mean, do you talk to Mandy Moore and say, ‘Show me a picture of your mom or your grandma?’ Tell me about that process.
Zoe Hay: Yeah! My approach with the makeup on this show, initially, was that we’re dealing with a world of total realism— of that family, their emotions, and their story. My goal was to create something that wouldn’t distract from that. I didn’t want to make something that was perceived as, ‘Oh, that’s makeup.’ I realize that our audience is obviously very well-educated these days in special effects makeup. But I wanted to do something that they forgot about, that they didn’t dwell on. That was really, really important to me.
And to that approach, I decided that we would choose to make lots of small, small changes as we go along—not just with our characters’ makeup, but lots of small things that can add up to a really fantastic transformation without any one of them pulling your eye and that was really important given the fact that we shoot so much of our show in very tight close-ups. So, I knew that our makeup had to hold up for that as well.
And then for the approach of aging Mandy and the other cast too —First of all, I always ask them, ‘Do you have a photo of a family member, a father, mother, somebody that you resembled at the age that we’re looking at? We use that as the jumping-off point. And from there, I’d pull a lot of other research, pictures for reference, things that I like— whether it’s in texture, color, or wrinkles. Then all of that material is passed off to Stephen Bettles who runs the special effects shop that does all of the special effects for us on the show. Then he works with his sculptor, and they come up with a sculpture on a life path that we have done with the actor. From there, they send that for approval to me, I make some changes and take photos of it. We start showing it to the producers and to Dan Fogelman, our showrunner, and get their feedback—whether they feel it’s too much or too little—If they want us to push a little bit more, or pull back. We get a test run with the prosthetics made and do pretty intensive testing for the makeup and hair on our show. It’s a very collaborative process. I really feel like it’s not just up to me to do the heavy-lifting for these looks. There’s a combination of working with the actor, the hair, the wardrobe, and the lighting. Together, all of us can make the most of this thing. So, that’s been our approach from the beginning.
AD: Can you tell me more about the role visual effects play in the actors’ aging process?
ZH: I use Photoshop sketches and rendering to give everybody an idea of where we’re going. We don’t really rely on post effects to help us with any of the actual sculptings. Sometimes we’ll have something corrected, like a lighting situation that we can’t control or something like that. They’ll step in. They do help us with some of the de-aging that we do because obviously we can’t make somebody look younger. I can soften a little bit with pampering and skincare products, but I can’t do anything about the expression lines. So, if we’re in a harsh lighting situation and we have a very expressive actor, then we’ll need some help from post to help soften some of those expression lines. We work together with the post department on that, but as far as computer generation, really, it’s just to get sketches to give us an idea of where we are going.
AD: I was reading some other interviews that you’ve done about your work on This is Us, and you mentioned that one of the little details that you do for Mandy, in particular, is you use her eyelashes to tweak the shape of her eyes.
AD: It’s so fascinating to learn about the level of detail that goes into your work —little things the audience doesn’t even consider.
ZH: Yeah! You know, that comes with wanting to make these small changes. I was looking at Mandy and I was thinking: How can we age her character, keep her makeup period-correct and character-correct —because she’s a mom with three small children. I think a young mother wants to look good. I’m a mom myself. I know how good it feels to put on some lipstick for the day. And, I decided that one small thing I could do to help with that character makeup would be to change the shape of her eyes a little bit as we went through the periods. So, when she’s younger in the ‘70s, with that ‘70s beautiful wide-eyed colorful eye makeup. I work with adding small eyelashes in the center of her eyes to make the eyes look rounder and more open. And then as we go into the ‘80s, I emphasize the corners of her eyes making her eyes appear more almond-shaped. And then as we go on, we change where the eyeliner sits. It’s a very small thing, and ultimately, nobody really notices it. But you can see the illusion of her face changing as she ages.
AD: That’s just so fascinating! When you decide, ‘Okay, these are the little details that I’m going to incorporate.’ Is that just years of your experience? Research? A combination of both?
ZH: Definitely. It is a combination of experience and research and trying to fold all of those things in together to make a look feel real and feel appropriate. I would say that I’m a very detailed person. I’ve been making facial hair for over 30 years — working with a piece of lace tying one hair at a time. It’s very meticulous work. It’s very detail-oriented. I keep a magnifying glass in the trailer! You know, given that we’re working in an HD world, as far as on our cameras and television sets that we watch everything on, everything is very detailed. But I do enjoy those details, whether it’s dirt underneath the fingernails or a dry lip versus a little shine on the lip.
Another thing I do with Mandy is I make her skin look very glowing, young, and supple when she’s been in the ‘70s, and then as move forward into the ‘90s, I try to keep everything more matte with less color. And those are small things that add to the texture of her entire look and make it feel very real.
AD: And in season 4, your work has gotten much harder because now we’ve gotten to see more of the aged-up version of Sterling K. Brown and we were introduced to the aged-up version of Justin Hartley towards the end of the season. Can you talk to me about having to decide what these other cast members are going to look like and how you’ve incorporated that into your process this season?
ZH: You know, we often laugh that we actually have a show with special effects that nobody actually does any effects on, which I guess is a compliment. But yeah, we’ve been aging our cast forward. We did see Sterling last year and that was really an incredible combination of hair and makeup working together to really create that look.
And then this year, we added Justin to that time period in the future. We went through a couple of tests for him, some with facial hair, some without. We really wanted him to still look very, very sexy. He’s an actor— you see older actors who look amazing and still have ‘that thing,’ you know? And so that was really important to portray in that makeup.
My main crew, Heather Plott and Luis Garcia, who work with me full time, they are both incredibly talented because they have to be doing beauty makeup one day, prosthetics the next, and character makeup. —it’s a lot to be switching between all of those things. And there’s not a lot of makeup artists who can do that. So, I really, really respect my crew because they do such an amazing job with whatever’s thrown at them. It’s not easy. And we have several other makeup artists who are award-winning makeup artists in their own right. We have James MacKinnon who comes in and helps us—he is the department head on Star Trek: Discovery, Erik Porn who worked on Vice. So, there are people who are top of their game who come into to help us because we really need good artists to step in there. And I really value the fact that they make themselves available to us in between their own shows.
AD: I follow Mandy on Instagram and she’ll post her makeup process on set and take us through it from start to finish. She’s very good at showing the audience what the process actually looks like. I’ve read it takes three, three-and-a-half hours to age the actors. And one thing that I just don’t think that people appreciate enough is how physically demanding that is. Can you talk about that? Do you come home with aches and pains? I’d love to know about the physicality of makeup work.
ZH: Yeah, it is physically demanding to do makeup that’s three-and-a-half-hours long. And that’s on top of whatever else we have to do that day as far as other actors coming in. It is physically demanding. But, I actually find it’s more mentally exhausting because it’s such an intensely-focused time— production is relying on us to be as close to our time estimates as we possibly can. So, if you have a prosthetic or something that doesn’t quite work that day, or just didn’t go down properly — you have to take some time to fix that, and you’ve got to do that within that estimated time as close as we possibly can.
We also want to keep that makeup time down as much as possible for Mandy as well. It’s demanding for her. I mean, it’s a lot to sit there and let that be done to you. We do it like we’re having fun. We do try to have a laugh, but it is an intense focus.
One thing that’s really helped me in the last year was that we had a little bit of a change in my union rules. Instead of having only a nine-hour turnaround from workday to workday, we now have 10. I decided that I would, as much as possible, use that extra hour to get some exercise. And I found that it just helped with my mental game so much at work. So, two or three times a week I put on my running shoes. And I found that really, really helps me because it is a grueling shoot schedule and I need that meditated time away. And I have found that it helped me unwind before I came home.
AD: When you are told, ‘Okay, we are going to age Justin Hartley,’ how much time do you have to plan and execute his look? What do your time frames look like?
ZH: As far as our prep time goes, for the bigger makeup, it varies quite a bit. Mandy’s actual 60-year-old look was probably our shortest. I believe Sterling’s ended up being very quick too, just a matter of maybe two weeks.
AD: Wow. I thought you were going to say two months. That’s crazy!
ZH: Yeah, it was pretty crazy. I think we had two weeks from the time we did Sterling’s. With Justin’s, we knew at the beginning of the season that it was going to happen. We weren’t entirely sure which episode. And we actually put it on hold — then we ended up testing it and had maybe three weeks of prep time right before Christmas. We came back and did another test right after the holiday because we needed to have a beard made and the pieces needed to be reworked. So, it was pretty tight— from the time we did the final test on him to the time we shot was only about a week. I think we had about three months for Mandy’s 80-year-old look
AD: We are four years into This Is Us and there are two more seasons planned. ‘The Big Three’ [Hartley, Brown, and Chrissy Metz] were 36 at the beginning of the show, they’re 40 now. Do you make subtle changes to show the progression of time in the present as well?
ZH: Yeah, we have made some changes to them. We’ve changed Chrissy’s makeup after she had the baby, which seems like a very natural progression to her look. And we’ve made some choices — subtle things that we’re going to do going forward. I think the hardest part for us has been that initially, we didn’t know we were going to be taking back the actors into their twenties as well. So, now we’re going back 10 years and trying to come up with a look that feels appropriate in the middle —which is something actually we had to do for Milo [Ventimiglia]’s look in the fantasy sequence at Kate’s wedding. But then we had to find a look that fits in the middle of that — somewhere between when he died and the present day. It’s quite challenging to divide a look that way.
If you were working in a feature film environment, all of those steps along the way would have been designed. I feel like, not only is our show’s story told in a nonlinear way, our makeup designs are made in a nonlinear way as well — which is quite challenging. But, it forces you to be really creative. And that’s something I love about this job.
AD: You’ve done makeup work on a myriad of incredible projects. I have to ask you about them! I mean, The Hunger Games [Catching Fire]?
ZH: When I went on The Hunger Games (2013), it was to go out there and work on that big party scene, which was very creative. There were lots and lots of research that was given to us, but that was really fun. And I think one of the most fun things about that was working with so many amazing makeup artists— alongside people that I’ve respected for so long. That was a very creative and free environment to work in. That was really fun.
AD: What other projects stand out in your mind?
ZH: I often joke that I’ve worked in silent film, too. Because I did The Artist [2012’s Academy Award winner for Best Picture], that was really a very, very special project —very collaborative, very close to my heart because it was just so different, and required us to really be on our toes and know our stuff. We didn’t shoot in black and white, we actually shot in color and transferred. So, there was some testing that went along with that to figure out how to use modern cameras, old lenses, and old lights to create a look.
I’ve really enjoyed working with Clint Eastwood on a few of his movies. And that was incredible because how could you not be a fan all your life? You know? And, that was really special. And the Coen Brothers too, to work with them, just watch their process, and see how they direct. I enjoy watching these filmmakers.
AD: You mentioned the switch to HD. I would love to know about any other trends that you’ve seen come and go.
ZH: Things have definitely changed over the years. I worked non-union when I first started, which was obviously very hard and long hours. But, I feel like I have been very spoiled because I have worked with such amazing filmmakers and producers along the way that really value the makeup department. So that’s been really special. And it also can be really challenging when you don’t have that in production.
You know, moving away from film is so sad for me because I just love the way it looks. The move to a digital format is really challenging. You have to really be on your toes and you have to really be looking for small things that can be very distracting if they’re not right.
I make facial hair too. That’s totally changed. It’s much finer work, much finer detail is required. I think it’s just interesting to see how trends change with makeup with the advent of Instagram and social media being such a big part of the fashion consciousness.
All of a sudden, you’ve got tattooed eyebrows and eyelash extensions when they’re not appropriate or extra-long nails on our extras! Those trends can be challenging to deal with when you’re doing a period show.
I feel very blessed that I’ve worked with many amazing mentors over the years, amazing makeup artists. And I still love watching and learning from people that I work alongside. I love that sort of creative dialogue with people. I find it really interesting.
This Is Us can be streamed on Hulu and NBC.com.