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Exclusive Interview with Fosse/Verdon Makeup Artist Debbie Zoller

Tai Freligh chats with Fosse/Verdon makeup artist Debbie Zoller…


Debbie Zoller is an Award Winning Makeup Designer for Film & TV, including Fosse/VerdonThe HustlePitch PerfectTwin PeaksMad Men. Key on A Star is Born.  Flickering Myth’s Tai Freligh caught up with Debbie to talk about the makeup and prosthetics involved in transforming Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams into Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon for the television show, Fosse/Verdon, airing on FX.


Just how much prosthetics and makeup were involved in transforming Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams into Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon in Fosse/Verdon?

Because Fosse/Verdon is a period piece spanning over five decades, this show was all about makeup, hair, and prosthetics, especially because we had to make our actors look like people who actually existed. Every actor, dancer, and background artist went through fittings. I would pull specific lashes, lip colors or facial hair based on what each person needed to pull them into
the period. We had to make Sam and Michelle younger and older. For their younger looks, we used cosmetic lifts under their wigs. For their older looks, prosthetics were used around the eyes, cheeks, forehead and neck. We also had prosthetic brow covers for Kelli Barrett who played Liza Minelli.


What would you say the percentage breakdown is between using makeup and prosthetics to achieve a certain look?

That’s hard to say. For someone like Lin Manuel Miranda, making him look like Roy Scheider in “All That Jazz”, I would say was 90% makeup and hair to make him believable as Roy Scheider.  I even went as far as to make a lace-backed hair piece to glue on his chest because Roy had a lot more hair there than Lin did. For someone like the beautiful Margaret Qualley, she
resembled Ann Reinking so much and her vibe was so amazing that her makeup was more simple; glowy and natural. I couldn’t have achieved the success I did without the help of the Hair Department, led by Christopher Fulton.


What kind of research did you do for the show?

The only way to get a handle on a show like this is to do as much research as possible. I never stopped throughout the entire series, and we had photos of Bob and Gwen all over the makeup trailer. I had lots of books, vintage Life magazines and research photos and notes from when I designed Mad Men; so I had a good start. I was also allowed to access the Verdon Fosse
Legacy through Nicole Fosse, Bob and Gwen’s daughter, which gave us a glimpse into Bob and Gwen’s personal photos.

Talk about the specific techniques you used to age both characters over five decades.

As I touched on before, to make them younger, we used cosmetic lifts under their wigs. For the older looks, we used a combination of Pros-Aide transfers in the mold, silicone encapsulated pieces, and Blubird Stretch and Stipple that helps tie aging all together. We additionally used a spatter paint technique using alcohol-based paints, airbrushes and chip brushes to give the skin tonal variations.


Music and dance are obviously a big part of the show. Tell us how you used makeup during dance numbers to stay historically accurate with their looks.

We had to get the each dancer’s makeup as close to the original dancers they were portraying as possible, so the audience watching the show believed it was actually the real thing. I could not be happier with how all the dance numbers turned out. Honestly, the biggest challenge with the dancers was covering all of their tattoos.

How much time did Sam and Michelle spend in the chair getting prosthetics and makeup on and how much did that change the older their characters got?

Both Sam and Michelle had quality time in the chair. Michelle had her makeup and hair team, Jackie and Nicole, while Dave Presto and I double teamed Sam’s makeup. It’s like a dance. We would get Sam to a certain point in makeup and then Christopher would put his wig on and then we would complete his makeup. These makeups took anywhere from an hour fifteen to two and a half hours.


Describe what your 10th and 11th Emmy nominations mean to you?

It’s still crazy to me that I’m now at my 10th and 11th nominations. Every nomination has been very special to me and I’m so grateful to my peers for recognizing my work. I hope this year will be the year I actually win one. Everyone calls me the “Susan Lucci” of nominations. Susan is an actress who had like 20 Emmy nominations before she won. I hope this year will break my losing streak, but you never know. So I try not to get my hopes up.

How is makeup different for television and movies?

Makeup used to be really different from television to film. Film had that big 70 mm dream-like quality and television was sharper and on a smaller screen. Now, with movies and television being shot digitally and shown on all different size screens, the makeup used is very similar; it’s mostly the lighting that differentiates them. As makeup artists, we must know lighting so we can adjust what we do under certain conditions. I had the BEST cinematographer on Fosse/Verdon, Tim Ives. He and I spoke daily about all my different makeup looks over the five decades and how his lighting would change to show we were in different eras. We constantly compared notes. He explained to me his lighting approach to a certain scene, which helped me tremendously when planning out specific makeups.

Tell us about your upcoming projects.

I’m currently helping out on Space Jam 2, which ends production mid-September. I’m considering a couple different projects that start in the Fall. I haven’t decided yet which one I will take. I’ll have to let you know.


Speed Round:

How do you survive the zombie apocalypse?

One of my favorite actors, Nathan Fillion, schooled me on surviving a zombie apocalypse. My California earthquake kit doubles as my zombie survival kit. And always aim for the head!

If not doing makeup for a career, what would you be doing right now?

I ask myself this question every day! But it’s hard to come up with an accurate answer because when I decided to become a makeup artist, there was no plan B. I had to pursue this passion and make it a reality. But a girl can dream… I would probably live in Maui and open a coffee/wine/art gallery/crystal shop. I love coffee, wine, painting and minerals/crystals.

Best advice for aspiring makeup artists?

I always tell new aspiring artists to not give up. Every day you have to do something to practice and perfect your craft and promote yourself and your career. It never ends! You have to be fully committed to yourself and your art. It helps to find a community of other makeup artists that can lift you up when you’re feeling frustrated and can celebrate your successes. Find a mentor. Someone who believes in you. A mentor does wonders for your self-esteem as an artist and you will pick up information and techniques that will come in handy for the rest of your career. It’s what you bring to the table that will get you hired time and time again.

Who are some of your makeup icons?

My icons are my two mentors: Michael Westmore and Ve Neill. They have both shaped me as an artist and schooled me over the years on maintaining a successful career. I’m also a huge fan of Lon Chaney, Rick Baker and Rob Bottin.


We thank Debbie for taking the time to chat with us here at Flickering Myth and look forward to watching Fosse/Verdon on FX.  She can be found on her websiteTwitter and Instagram.

Tai Freligh is a Los Angeles based writer and can be followed on TwitterFacebook and Instagram and can be found on his website too.

Fosse/Verdon stills courtesy of FX.

(article originally appeared on Flickering Myth)

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