Matthew Mungle is spending less time on location these days, dividing his time between film sets and the Texas Hill Country. But despite his status as a semi-retiree, Mungle remains one of the most respected and prolific prosthetic makeup artists in the business. So much so, that when Glenn Close was tasked with playing J.D. Vance’s Mamaw for Ron Howard’s Hillbilly Elegy adaptation, Mungle’s work was top of mind as she prepared for her role as the Appalachian grandmother.
Mungle developed a close and trusting bond with the actress during their previous collaboration, the 2011 drama Albert Nobbs. Mungle’s prosthetics for Nobbs turned Close into a 19th century Irish butler who, despite being born biologically female, had spent thirty years living as a man. Their work on Albert Nobbs earned both Mungle and Close a trip to the Academy Awards.
Now, nearly a decade later, the two have delivered another chameleonic transformation. A tall order considering Mungle is known for helping Hollywood’s best-known actors disappear. Still, Close’s resemblance to Mamaw is so striking that Hillbilly Elegy will likely go down as another one Mungle’s career-defining projects.
Check out our complete interview with Matthew Mungle— a true master of disguise.
Awards Daily: You previously worked with Glenn Close on Albert Nobbs, another of her iconic, transformative performances. I’ve read that she pulled you into Hillbilly Elegy and that your prosthetic work on Albert Nobbs served as your starting point for the project. Tell me about collaborating with Glenn and how your previous work aided you in Hillbilly Elegy.
Matthew Mungle: Oh, sure. Well, I was so lucky to meet Glenn on Albert Nobbs. She’s just a wonderful actress and does not mind wearing prosthetics to become a character. So, that alone made it a worthwhile experience for me on Albert Nobbs. I worked with her on Sea Oak, an Amazon pilot, in 2017. I’ve also done some other work with her over the years. She called me in March 2019 and said, ‘I’ve got this character I need to do for Hillbilly Elegy. I’m depicting this woman; they just call her Mamaw. Let me send you a picture, let’s talk about it. I think what I need is just a nose tip.’
I looked over the picture, and I go, ‘We can go a little bit further.’ Now, a little bit further means very subtly for me. And she knows that; she knows I’m a subtle prosthetic makeup artist. I love to do things so subtly that people don’t realize what’s done. But, it still changes the shape of the face.
I said, ‘Let’s try a fuller nose, adding to the bridge of the nose and the tip. And let’s try fuller ears.’ Because Mamaw had much fuller ears. I pulled a face cast I had done from Albert Nobbs; it was a much older face cast. I sculpted it and sculpted two variations of noses so that we would have choices, as well as larger ears for her.
I went to her house in New York in April and did a makeup test on her—we decided which nose to use—Glenn chose the smaller one. I put the ears on, and Glenn had a wig that was very close to Mamaw’s hair. We had some glasses. And so we did the whole character there at her house.
Luckily, Ron Howard lived down the street from her. And he was in town at that point. So he came over, and the three of us were able to get together and work on her look. And as soon as he walked in the door, he said, ‘You’re Mamaw.
Once Glenn gets into character, she becomes that character. I love that about her. You can put as many prosthetics on or as little prosthetics as you can on to an actress. Without them becoming that character and acting like that character, those prosthetics will be lost. But with Glenn, she becomes the character.
Because the face cast was so old, I took another nose cast and an ear cast. I went back to Austin, where I live now, and we sculpted the nose and ears, and I sent them to her. I found out that Eryn Krueger Mekash was the makeup department head— I’ve known Eryn for a long time. I know she’s an excellent makeup artist. And I knew she’d do a great job handling the prosthetics. And, of course, she did.
AD: Other than her nose and ears, were there any other areas of Glenn’s face that you altered?
MM: No. We talked about teeth at one point, but I didn’t think she needed them. It was just the nose and the ears Eryn did a little bit more aging on her face. Of course, the way Glenn handled herself with her neck and her posture made her look much older. And with the wig that Patricia Dehaney made for her, the glasses, and the bodysuit that the costume designer Virginia Johnson gave her, I think the character came through pretty well.
AD: Absolutely! Did you spend any time with J.D. Vance? How did you research and prepare for the project?
MM: No. I was just working with photos. I love getting as much information as I can. But I also use my first instinct—seeing a picture of the actor and picture of the character they want to portray. You know, I’ve been doing this for so long. I go with my first instinct—‘Okay, what we need is this, and this, and this.’ I may add to it later, but I always listen to my instinct and go with characters. I talked with Glenn, and we went back and forth, working with her. She’s just wonderful to work with.
AD: When the first photos of Glenn on the set of Hillbilly Elegy came out, people were just so excited and so shocked to see the transformation. How fun is it for you to see people react in that way? It feels like you pulled off a magic trick.
MM: Oh, absolutely! It fulfills my yearning as a makeup artist and creator. And it’s just wonderful to hear people’s comments about how much she looks like Mamaw. With the prosthetics and the work that everyone did. It all came together.
AD: You’ve had so many iconic projects. I wish that I had the time to ask you about all of them. We have to discuss Bram Stoker’s Dracula —your Oscar win. What do you remember about that experience?
MM: I remember everything! I grew up loving Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, all that stuff as a kid. So, to work on Bram Stoker’s Dracula and especially working with the wonderful Gary Oldman, was just a dream come true.
You know, I was intent on what I was doing at the time. But, you can’t help notice the sets, the actors, the directors, and how it all comes together. I will never forget that movie. And of course, winning an Oscar for it, on top of everything, it was just amazing.
I never got into this business saying, ‘I’m going to win an award.’ I got in it for the love of doing it. And I think that’s what has served me so well in my 40 years of being a makeup artist.
AD: I’m curious, being in this industry for over 40 years, has your process changed in any way? Obviously, the technology has improved, but what else has changed for you?
MM: Sure. The materials have changed drastically. The technology of film too. When I got into it, it was actual film in a movie camera, the kind you’d have to change out. I don’t think younger people know that these days because everything’s digital, everything’s very precise now. We started with foam latex, which is very opaque, and you’d have to paint it to look realistic on film. You really can’t get away with that today. Because of the digital technology and how crystal clear everything is, you have to stick with translucent materials that look like skin. The changes have been tremendous through the years. I love it. I’m like a mad scientist when it comes to trying new developments and new techniques. I just love the process. It’s so creative.
AD: I’m scrolling through your credits; there are 250 of them, which is just incredible. Other than Dracula and of course, Hillbilly Elegy and Albert Nobbs, which we’ve discussed. What are some other projects that stand out as something that you’re particularly proud of? Or, as cliche as it sounds, something that you hope you’re remembered for?
MM: Oh, one that pops up immediately was [1996’s] Ghosts of Mississippi, where I had to age James Woods. I got another Academy Award nomination for that one. I didn’t win, but I got a nomination, which is great because the nomination is from your peers, rather than from the whole Academy.
A few years before that, I started working with gelatin, trying to perfect gelatin as an appliance material. Gelatin is more translucent. It’s like what we have with silicone now, but it’s very unstable when you put it on a sweaty face. I used gelatin throughout the aging of James Woods.
I want to be remembered for that, bringing gelatin back and bringing translucent materials back into the industry. Because as I said, I’m kind of like a mad scientist all the time— trying things, trying to make things better.
So, Ghosts of Mississippi is a big one for me. Of course, Schindler’s List  is another. I didn’t really comprehend the gravity of working on Schindler’s List; it didn’t hit me until I saw the finished film. I’m always about doing a great job. Sometimes I don’t look around to see what’s going on. I’m just in the moment making sure that the makeup looks beautiful.
AD: I was doing some research on your work before our conversation. Someone referred to you as ‘The Master of Scaring.’ Do you agree with that? And how did that come about? How do you perfect something like that?
MM: The master of scaring? [Laughs].
AD: Yeah, like adding horror elements to the face.
MM: Oh, yes! You know, at the beginning of my career, I loved blood and gore. I was only doing that, but there’s only so much you can do with blood and gore.
It’s not as fulfilling as doing character makeup. I just found a niche early on in my career doing character and old-age makeup. I think what has served me well for my 40 years in the business is that I was known as somebody who would tackle something difficult. It’s good to be known for something as creative as makeup and prosthetics.
Hillbilly Elegy is streaming now on Netflix.