While the cast and crew of American Horror Story could never be accused of playing it safe, Season Six broke the show’s format wide open. The first half followed a couple who purchase a home in North Carolina, only to find themselves bedeviled by a group of bloodthirsty 16th-century settlers led by the merciless Butcher. In the season’s second half, those earlier episodes are confirmed as a re-creation of actual events, but a follow-up reality show taking place in the same house (featuring both the actors and their real-life counterparts) leads to even more carnage.
For Eryn Krueger Mekash, the show’s four-time Emmy-winning make-up department head, Season Six presented a fresh new set of challenges to deal with. “The initial thing [producer] Ryan Murphy told me,” she explains, “was that the first five episodes were going to be structured almost like a Ghost Hunters reality show, where people were playing each other, which was kind of complicated at first. Once we started shooting, we had to develop a look for the characters in the first five episodes but in mid-series, we had to switch over and do a completely different look for the ‘real’ ghosts, so there was a lot of trial and error.
“In the second part … everything was shot on cameras placed inside the house as well as handheld cameras, so much of the make-up and hair is very dark because there isn’t a lot of close-up coverage. That being said, it also gave us some totally different, Blair Witch type of scares, because there was a lot of creepy stuff.
“There’s one shot in the ‘real part’ where Lee’s burned husband walks past into the lens. That was a huge make-up done by Chris Nelson and Bart Mixon that took something like four hours to do. It was just from the waist up, because we knew he would just be crossing camera, but it was a really good scary moment, because you didn’t expect it. I think we had a lot of that stuff this season, and it’s really cool to be part of a show that reinvents itself.”
Not surprisingly, it could be confusing at times, deciding just how much one set of characters would look like the other. “Sarah Paulson initially wore blue contacts to look like Lily Rabe, as well as a beautiful blonde wig. There were a lot of tongue-in-cheek elements that played on the reality series, as far as how these people portrayed somebody else, so that was a lot of fun. We had some fantastic actors; Kathy Bates alone as the Butcher was just stunning. And the fact that everybody had all won awards and were slumming it with these parts was a really fun take.”
Kathy Bates as the Butcher
Other members of the American Horror Story repertory company were virtually unrecognizable as their characters. “Wes Bentley played the Butcher’s son, so he was hidden under a wig, while the settlers all had dirty teeth and injuries and things like that. Finn Wittrock played one of the Polk brothers, and you can barely tell it was him. He was in a lot of make-up, with a misshapen head, big ears, teeth and all kinds of stuff, so you can barely tell it was him.
“With Lady Gaga, who played Scáthach, she likes to be involved in all her characters, so it’s fun to see what she brings to it. Her make-up artist, Sarah Tanno, and hairdresser, Freddie Aspiras, are incredibly clever, so as soon as Ryan started talking about what he wanted the character to look like, I started pulling inspirational pictures and reference for him to look at.”
For the Roanoke settlers, Krueger Mekash knew they had to be dirty. “They were going to have dirty teeth and dirty nails and dirty hands, and [key hairstylist] Michelle Ceglia did some really cool hairdos with deconstructed braids, so everybody looked amazing.
“And when we went real for the reality show, I wanted to do something different from the colors we had used before. I’m a big fan of using black tones and splotches in make-up, because it’s a very cool, underused color, so I wanted to add this weird, drippy look to their faces.
“I had Luis García and Allan Apone come in and do some tests, and after we fine-tuned that look, Chris Nelson and Richard Redlefsen came in for a day and did some more tests, as did Mike Mekash, who started getting into the tones I wanted. I ended up using a color called Rancid, which is a weird yellow tone; and a very opaque black, with a bit of red around the eyes.”
Roanoke may well be American Horror Story’s most audacious season to date, and for Krueger Mekash, it may also be the most rewarding. “You’re always trying to do something different while staying true to Ryan’s vision and doing something really scary,” she reflects, “so all of us—me, Mike, Kim Ayers, Dave Anderson at AFX; we all put our hearts into it to make sure everything is shot correctly and our creatures look as scary as possible. I think that helps a lot.”