In an interview with Awards Daily, Eryn Krueger Mekash details how she executed her vision for Hillbilly Elegy’s epic transformations. She also reflects on her career as one of television and film’s most sought-after makeup artists.
Serving as head of the makeup department for Hillbilly Elegy, Eryn Krueger Mekash took two of Hollywood’s most recognizable faces, Amy Adams and Glenn Close, and morphed them into a Bev and Mamaw, the maternal figures of J.D. Vance’s best-selling memoir. Krueger Mekash has achieved a remarkable feat of makeup artistry, the scope of which is only realized when the end credits roll and real-life photos of Vance’s family are introduced.
Hillbilly Elegy is one in a long of projects where Krueger Mekash has used her makeup mastery to trick the eye and create some of television’s most iconic roles of the last two decades. Working alongside Ryan Murphy, Krueger Mekash is the woman responsible for helping to turn Jessica Lange into Joan Crawford, Sarah Paulson into Marsha Clarke, and fill the American Horror Story universe with unique and visually-arresting creatures—those projects are just a tiny snippet of an extensive and impressive resume.
To learn more about Eryn Krueger Mekash and her work on Hillbilly Elegy, read our complete interview below.
Awards Daily: I wanted to start with your work on Glenn Close. The work you did with her skin texture is fascinating. I got to speak to Matthew Mungle, who did the prosthetics. How did the prosthetics and the makeup work together to create Glenn’s transformation into Mamaw?
Eryn Krueger Mekash: When I was initially hired, I knew Amy Adams had been cast in the movie, but I didn’t know Glenn would be in it. I was told that Matthew Mungle made the prosthetics for her and that I would be applying them. So I had at least two big character makeups that I was responsible for, each of them with different time constraints and challenges.
Glenn has beautiful skin and very, very fine pores. Amy does as well. So, it was up to me to do something that looked natural, believable, and not distracting. The prosthetics were very subtle, and I’ve always liked subtle makeup. It lends itself a lot of credibility for the actors. So, as you know from what Matthew told you, he made a beautiful nose and ears that looked just like Mamaw’s.
I just started taking different looks from Mamaw’s pictures and incorporating it into Glenn’s makeup. A lot of that was painting the textured skin and ruddiness on her face. I didn’t want to do any age stipple on her because I thought that it would get a little too caricature-y.
I decided on hand-painting— all of the ruddiness, all the age spots, all of the wrinkles—instead of airbrushing. I knew the camera that we were using was going to be fairly true to life, and anything that I would be applying on would show up on camera and I was happy with the result. We did a couple of tests with Patricia Dehaney, the hair department head, Martial Corneville, who made Glenn’s wig, and with Glenn’s input as well. We came together as a group.
It’s challenging to do something like that on someone who has such beautiful skin. I’ve done beauty makeup on Glenn as well. There’s hardly any kind of aging at all to her skin. So it was challenging to make her look like Mamaw.
AD: You mentioned hand-painting makeup directly on to Glenn’s skin. What exactly does that entail?
EKM: I used different sized brushes and two different kinds of makeup — Skin Illustrator, an industry-standard, alcohol-based paint. I did little washes of color — highlights and shadows —small spots here and there. I pulled a lot of pinks into her skin with touches of brown and green. I did probably about five or six different colors to create her look. I then used a cream-based makeup from Greg Cannom Creations in different tones for age spots. All of the prosthetics and Glenn’s skin were hand-painted with those colors.
AD: Tell me about working with Amy. Her character work was really interesting because you have three of four different looks for her. There are moments when she’s younger and more youthful, and then you have these scenes in the film when she’s really struggling, and you can see that all in her skin. We also see her when she’s much older. How did you use makeup to transition her through these various phases?
EKM: Yes. We started with her youthful look where she was tan, and I added a little sun damage to the sides of Amy’s neck and chest.I also wanted her to be a little bit harder-looking, so I did extra mascara to look a bit chunky. I did an eyeliner that was a little bit heavier and more smudged. I wanted her to still be attractive, but Bev was already starting to have some issues with drugs. I wanted Amy to look different than we’ve seen her before.
Amy also wore prosthetics to widen her nose because she has such a petite nose, and the character she was playing has a wide nose. Still, I just wanted it to be a little bit of a change. I didn’t want it to be sitting out in the middle of her face and being distracting. David Anderson made the prosthetics for me. And they were just small, dime-sized prosthetics that widened the end. Amy gained weight for the film as well, so her body looks slightly more shapely, a little bit bigger all through her neck and her chest. But obviously, we don’t gain weight in our noses, so I wanted to add a little bit there to change her look.
I used the Tarte BB cream in a little bit of a deeper tone to make her a little bit more tan for her younger look. And then, when she got a little bit older, I started incorporating more redness around her eyes. I did a stretch and stipple makeup on her with a lot of hand aging and painting on her neck. I painted most of her face with a lot of ruddiness and stippled Skin Illustrator gels.
She also had some injuries throughout the film. I added dark circles on her to show her continued drug usage. I aged her hands for the older scenes. Patty did this amazing wig on her that had some gray in it made by Stacy Butterworth.
So, yes, she had several different looks in the film. It was just enough subtle makeup for Amy to step into the character, which she was all for. She hadn’t anticipated wearing any prosthetics, but she trusted me to do them.
AD: I also wanted to ask you about the makeup work on Haley Bennett. I liked how she transitions from a teenager to a busy mother in a very natural way. It’s subtle, you might not even pick up on it, but it’s so well done.
EKM: Yes! The time period is about 15 years. So I wanted to show Haley as an older teen, then she’s a reluctant soccer mom. [Costume Designer] Virginia [Johnson] made her clothing more youthful for the time period. My makeup artist Devin Morales did her makeup for me. I created a look for her that was very fresh and very young—very youthful and a little bit more optimistic looking. When she is a little bit older and she’s married with kids, Devin did a little bit less makeup, less blush, less of a lip— a more unkempt look because she didn’t have a lot of time to do things at that point. We dialed it back.
AD: I’ve heard you mention that these characters are very much real people who don’t have time to do a lot of pampering. You know, taking care of their skin isn’t necessarily top of mind. How did that factor into how you designed the makeup looks for these characters?
EKM: I wanted it to be relatable. I didn’t want anything to stand out. When you get to work with actors of this caliber, their acting will tell the story. You’re helping create the look, but it’s their acting that brings it to life. I don’t want anything that’s going to be distracting. And it’s also good to take into account the time period, too. We went off tons of pictures of the actual people. Amy’s character, Bev, liked to go to the tanning salon, so I wanted to incorporate some of the sun damage from that. It’s about researching who the characters are. Bev was a nurse, she might’ve been doing a lot of extraneous drug use, but she was still working. So these characters don’t have time to fuss around with a lot of makeup at that point. Jamie Hess, my assistant department head did Gabriel Basso (JD) for me and he has full sleeve tattoos in real life. She covered them everyday. The real JD doesn’t have tattoos; covering them on Gabe was necessity for the film.
AD: You’ve done a lot of incredible character work in your career. I mean, you have eight Emmys to your name. First of all, what is it that draws you to these character-driven projects? And how do you pull off these transformative looks?
AD: I was looking through your filmography as I was preparing for this interview, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, I loved that show!’ But for all these different projects.
EKM: Oh, that’s so cool! Well, number one, I don’t ever take a job because there might be an award attached to it. That just seems bananas to me. But, there have been some projects that I’ve been part of that got recognition. I did Nip/Tuck for Ryan Murphy, and I was nominated for that show and it just kind of started on this path. I was really surprised by it! I was working for FX Network which was a young channel at that time. They were having us put up everything, and I was getting nominated; it was really exciting! It took a long time for me to win an Emmy — I was nominated 28 times before I won for The Normal Heart [In 2014].
I still have a huge passion for makeup. I’ve been doing this for so long now, and I still love it. I think that character work is probably one of my stronger points.The Emmy recognition just kind of happened; I’m still super honored that I’ve received awards for doing something I love.
I also do American Horror Story. I love horror and monsters— I’m a big fan. So, I get a lot of satisfaction from that show as well.
I have to say that Hillbilly Elegy was a huge, exciting, wonderful opportunity. I’ve always wanted to work for Ron Howard. It just came up out of the blue that I was offered that job, and I was so excited to do it and be part of it.
AD: Tell me more about working with Ron. And having done both film and TV work, how are they different?
EKM: Nowadays, I get to do a little bit of both. Most of the television work that I’m doing is a four to five-month job, so it doesn’t take up the entire year. I just started on American Horror Story right before Christmas. Before that, I hadn’t worked since March because of COVID and work safety being put into place. I love television. It’s just a totally different schedule. I mean, episodic work can be very grueling. All jobs are really difficult, but that’s where your passion for your job comes in and helps to sustain you. Working for Ron was an amazing experience. I’ve been a fan of his since the Andy Griffith show—I watched Happy Days all the time! (Laughs]. I was a huge fan of his acting and all of his work. He doesn’t even have one specific genre that he does; he’s so diverse. I think I was 18, and I knew, “I want to work for him someday.” It took me a really long time to do it [laughs]! Timing is everything— it’s a cliche, but sometimes things just work out so great.
AD: You’ve done a lot of projects like Feud and Hillbilly Elegy where you have to recreate real people. And projects like American Horror Story, where you can build a character’s look from scratch. Do you have a preference?
EKM: There’s a lot to be said about each of those processes. When building a character from scratch, I get background information about a character. I start pulling ideas and incorporating that into the character. When one is re-creating a real person, we have this incredible responsibility to uphold what the person looks like and what the audience remembers from that person. With Joan Crawford, played by Jessica Lange, the public had a grand idea of what she looked like; mostly because of Mommy Dearest. We also have remember that they’re real people that are portraying other real people, and they’re not going to look exactly the same. For her eyebrows, we went off Joan’s home movies as opposed to any of her pictures or films so that we had a much more lived-in and subtle look. I was happy with the result and I think Jessica was as well.
I work together with an actor to find the character. Sometimes, it can be a matter of adding a couple of brush strokes to an eyebrow, or it can be changing the eye shape a little bit. When I did The People vs. O.J. Simpson with Sarah Paulson, I redid her eyebrow shape, reshaped her face with contouring and highlighting. It’s all subtle work.
It can be repositioning the placement of blush. Or, like with Sarah, I reshaped her eyes to make her look more like Marsha Clark. Same thing with Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford. I’m looking at photographs of the real person and the actor that I’m working with, and thinking, ‘Can I shadow this to make it look a little bit more like Joan’s jawline?’ I go back and forth between each picture and picking out areas that I can change subtly— that’s what I’ve done over the years with actors when I’m re-creating a real person. That how I dealt with Hillbilly Elegy as well. But I also had Matthew’s and Dave’s prosthetics, so that was awesome.
Hillbilly Elegy is streaming now on Netflix.