Eryn Krueger Mekash‘s nearly 20 year-working relationship with Ryan Murphy has spanned the prolific mega-producer’s entire career, earning Krueger Mekash eight Emmys along the way. Whether it’s the patients of Nip/Tuck, the singing teens of Glee, or the monsters of American Horror Story, Krueger Mekash’s makeup prowess is responsible for turning some of Hollywood’s best-known faces into Murphy’s now-iconic characters.
Between her most recent Murphy projects, Krueger Mekash helped morph Glenn Close into an Appalacian grandmother for Ron Howard’s Hillbilly Elegy—earning her first Academy Award nomination. Now she’s back in the Murphy-verse for Ratched, an origin story about the One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest antagonist immortalized by Louise Fletcher’s Oscar-winning performance. The Netflix series imagines Sarah Paulson as nurse Mildred Ratched and chronicles her work in a posh but sinister asylum.
Through her designs as Ratched’s head of makeup, Krueger Mekash helped flesh out the characters, giving each one their own unique look—adding depth and dimension to the story and performances. Krueger Mekash’s mastery of character makeup elevates each and every project she’s a part of. And Ratched is no exception.
Awards Daily: You’ve worked with Ryan Murphy many, many times now. Take me into those initial conversations between the two of you and the look you wanted for Ratched.
Eryn Krueger Mekash: The initial discussion was that he wanted it to be a very optimistic look because, of course, it’s about 18 months post-World War II, so the country is coming back from this incredible trauma. We wanted [the show] to look very precise with a color-tone palette, which we always do. But Ryan and I decided that anything outside of the hospital should be warm tones, and anything inside the hospital should be cooler tones, which is why you have that incredible mint color for the nurses’ uniforms. I went with cooler reds inside as opposed to the more orange-red, which we did outside. You can see this a lot in Cynthia Nixon’s palette when she comes into the hospital; she has a completely different look to her than anyone else. We wanted to separate the differences. Of course, we went over a lot of Charlie Carver’s look with his burn and how we wanted to portray all the nurses. They needed to be very precise, especially Sarah Paulson’s character.
AD: Let’s go to Sarah Paulson’s Nurse Ratched next. You have this iconic character that it’s being based on. How did One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest inspire her look for the show?
EKM: I think a lot of it had to do with the hairstyle that Michelle Ceglia created for Sarah Paulson with Sarah’s input. They really wanted it to be an incredibly controlled look. She had some other beautiful clothing that she wore outside the hospital, so we made her look a little more put together for that, and a little bit softer inside the hospital. I didn’t want her to be overly done. A lot of it had to do with the hair shape. They tried to touch on a little bit of Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest look. But not to be right on the money with that.
AD: You mentioned Cynthia Nixon. How did you take that initial palette and then create variations in the looks for the different nurses? There’s a great quote from a recent interview of yours where you said, ‘The only reds in the show are the blood and the lipstick.’
EKM: A lot of it has to do with skin tone. You are doing something that is obviously realistic and works well for the actor. We did want to stay within just having the red for the lipstick and the red for the blood because a lot of times Ryan likes to use blood as a character for most of his shows. Each show is different. He wanted [Ratched] to be so vibrant against the cool tones and have the blood stand out. We used blood pretty sparingly for the most part. There would be times we wanted it to be very shocking, so the red does play a role in that.
Each character had their own red tone that looked good with their skin tone. Sharon Stone wore this very vibrant red because she is a very vibrant and intense character, so we wanted her character to have that very precise look. She was very glamorous. I wanted it to be exact for the time period. Some of the other characters didn’t wear as much makeup because they were inside the hospital, but we did want to have everybody look like they were done a little bit. Initially, the asylum is supposed to seem like it is not an asylum; it’s actually like a day spa that you have to stay in [laughs]. Back in that time period, like with Ryan’s second season of American Horror Story, Asylum, many people got taken there against their will. They were signed in, and people kind of left them there. Initially, it was supposed to feel like, ‘Oh, we will take you to this place where you can rest, recuperate, and relax.’ That is why their rooms are really beautiful. Everything is really elegant, but underneath that layer is something else going on. That is why we have everybody looking like they are still doing their makeup a little bit.
AD: I came across an interview with Finn Wittrock where he was discussing the prosthetic that he had to use for his nude scene. He mentioned that you were instrumental in finding the right prosthetic.
EKM: It’s a whole thing. I mean, it’s crazy. It’s always an interesting conversation when you call the people making these beautiful prosthetics for you. I say, ‘Do you have a penis that we can use for the masturbation scene and the sex scene?’ We had to do that for Hollywood as well. It is always an interesting conversation, but everyone is super professional about it. I had this prosthetic made for Finn, and I showed it to him beforehand, and he was like, ‘That’s fine, that’s fine, whatever.’ We all kind of laughed about it.
We did use it, and it actually showed up on camera. I was surprised, I thought it would be backlit or something [laughs]. They ended up having it in the show. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, there it is.’ [Laughs]. On Ryan Murphy’s show, you never know what you are going to be doing. Something can come up and he’ll say, “I really want this to be a real thing.’ And we just kind of go with it. But, is kind of a funny thing to have made.
AD: And as far as the men of Ratched, what was your approach to the makeup?
EKM: The men inside the asylum were less shaved. They were a little bit scruffier looking. The people who worked there or came in from the outside looked a little more put together—very clean-shaven. I did a really nice lightweight makeup that gives a matte appearance. We did very precise grooming on people who were working there or came into the asylum. [Dr. Hanover] Jon Jon Briones was always very tight looking, with a very controlled mustache. I think a lot of it has to do with control. That is what we were portraying. You can see the people who aren’t in control and the people who are in control.
AD: What are some other signature looks from Ratched that you want to highlight or discuss further?
EKM: There are so many characters. I was really happy with the way that a lot of our effects turned out. I was happy with Charlie Carver’s look. That is a beautiful makeup that David LeRoy Anderson and Mike Mekash did on a daily basis. Beautiful contact lens by Christina Patterson. I loved the way that turned out. I just liked that everyone had their own character, and that is kind of how it is with most shows. I loved Judy Davis’ look. Each person had a different reason why I loved them. I love working with Judy Davis. My husband, Mike Mekash, did Amanda [Plummer]’s makeup; it had a whole 30’s vibes to it, like a jazz baby vibe. He did a beautiful job on her. She had a really deep lip and very thin eyebrows—the whole bit. She was so much fun to work with. Everybody had a different look that was based on their character and what their background was.
AD: How does Ratched compare to the other various looks you’ve created for Ryan Murphy projects? How would you characterize it in the larger context of all the projects you’ve done together?
EKM: I don’t know how many projects I’ve done with Ryan! [Laughs]. This is going back like 18 years. Each one of them has a completely different color palette, a completely different tone, a completely different vibe. Some of the American Horror Story seasons have been, ‘Let’s not do that much blood.’ Or, ‘Let’s make sure the blood is dark on this season.’ Or, ‘Let’s make sure the blood is bright on this season.’ Every year there is something else. With Ratched, it had such an intense color palette with all the green. Like I said before, it is a very controlled show. There were very few instances where you see it being looser; it’s at the end of the season where you see Cynthia and Sarah’s characters having a little vacation together. That is when you start to see them be a little more themselves and relaxing a little bit. You can see the arc of the whole season within the color, costumes, hair and makeup. That is the way it always is with Ryan. He is very particular about those three things. He loves to art direct. That is his realm. We go off what our team can create.
AD: One thing I am curious about is, and this also happened with Hillbilly Elegy, where the set pictures come out and people are completely freaked out by the transformations. How fun is it for you to see people react to your work in that way? Is that when you know you’ve pulled it off?
EKM: It is exactly that. From beginning to end, the whole process of creating something that the director wants for his film or her film really is rewarding in that moment. Then you put it on camera, and everyone says, ‘This is working, this looks beautiful, we love it.’ The actors love it, and you’re like, ‘This is the most amazing reward’ It’s fantastic that everyone is happy with it after all the planning, prepping, and creating. Then months go by, and pictures come out, and then the film comes out, and you get this great feedback. It is kind of a mind-blowing experience.
Working with Ron Howard was an amazing highlight of my career. Of course, Glenn Close and Amy Adams, to have them be happy and have the boss be happy, is an incredibly rewarding experience. Then we ended up getting nominated for an Oscar for it. That was crazy. I’m still in shock that we made the shortlist, let alone got nominated. We were just so, so happy. Here it is months later, I am still pretty in shock with all of it.
AD: Before I let you go, is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you wanted to mention? Any final thoughts?
EKM: I am really just always so grateful for my team, the way we all work together. Chris Clark was the department head of hair, Michelle Ceglia and Natalie Driscoll did Sarah Paulson. I had a big team of people come in to do my background artists, which always gives the big sweeping look to everything. It makes everything so complete. When you see it all together, you realize how much work goes into it. In the moment you are kind of just doing it, creating it, and getting it on camera. Everyone did such a beautiful job.
Season one of Ratched is streaming now on Netflix.