One of the biggest surprises of this TV season has been American Horror Story, a chilling weekly series on the FX network, about a New England family that relocates to a restored Los Angeles-area mansion, unaware that it’s haunted by the ghosts of everybody who died in the house over the past several decades. Created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, the series recently earned a Golden Globe Award for actress Jessica Lange, and a second season is already in the works.
Make-up responsibilities on American Horror Story are handled by department head Eryn Krueger Mekash, who previously worked with Murphy on Nip/Tuck and Glee (earning Emmy nominations on both), with Tinsley Studio tackling the show’s elaborate make-up/physical effects.
“When this show came up,” Krueger Mekash said, “Ryan wanted me to do this new pilot called American Horror Story and said, ‘It’s got everything you love!’ As a child of the ’70s and ’80s and loving monsters the way most of us do, it was really exciting to develop the looks for this show. I love the fact that 25 years into my career I’m getting to do a horror-genre thing.”
Because the series regularly uses flashbacks to introduce residents of the house over the past several decades, Krueger Mekash has had to recreate looks from several different periods.
“Like a lot of make-up people do, I look up a lot of things online and cross-reference with our art department, just in case they have something I haven’t seen before, so you really try to create that look as best you can,” she said. “Some of it you take creative license with, because the producers might want something to look different, or they want to be a bit ambiguous about what time period it is, but they still want it to look unusual, so sometimes you have to come up with stuff like that too.
“With the [husband-and-wife characters] Nora and Charles, for example, when Nora first comes to the house, our creators didn’t want [the house owner] Vivien to realize she was from the 1920s, so we did a softer version of a ’20s look for her, where the clothing and hair were a little more contemporary and so was the make-up.
“The same with Moira, the maid. They wanted a 1930s influence, even though she died in the mid-’80s, so the young Moira has garters and stockings on … they wanted her to have this vintage look, but a bit contemporary as well. I think it works, because vintage looks like Bettie Page are in style now, so it doesn’t tip you off right away that something could be wrong.”
Despite American Horror Story‘s hugely ambitious palette, the show’s main make-up and hair team is actually quite small.
“I have an incredible key make-up artist, Kim Ayers,” Krueger Mekash said, “and we work great as a team. My husband, Mike Mekash, keys the prosthetic part of the show, so he’s my main application guy and Monte Haught is our hair department head. We work really well together and have such a similar vision on how things should be, so we all try to push it to make things really special.”
According to Mike Mekash, who acts as Tinsley Studio’s main on-set make-up artist, that means trying to get away with as much as possible.
“We’re always trying to add a little blood,” he said, “but Eryn knows exactly how much blood Ryan likes to use. When we did the dead teenagers from the high school shooting, we said, ‘We’ll do some prosthetics but let’s add a little green paint to [a character’s] jaw so that can be deepened digitally.’ But Ryan is such a fan of practical make-up effects, he said, ‘I don’t think we should do that; let’s just do it practically.’ He’s always pushing us to reach deeper into the bag and pull something out.”
The perfect example of that dedication is Denis O’Hare’s Larry Harvey, a character who’s been badly burned over most of his face and body.
“A lot of people wouldn’t be very excited about sitting in a chair for three and a half hours,” Mekash said, “getting their hair glued down and not being able to hear out of one ear or have tape pulling down on their lip. But Denis loves it. When I’m taping his lip down, he’s always saying, ‘Pull farther; I like it extreme!’
“There’s one piece that covers the side of his head up to his hairline and a second piece that goes from the nose over to the ear. We have a piece that goes on his lower lip to separate those two silicone appliances because of ripping and the mouth stretching. And then there’s the hand piece; we basically glue his pinky and tape his wrist down in the most uncomfortable position possible. And then we wrap the silicone appliance around his hand, put a couple of transfers on his knuckles. From there, it’s just a paint job and Monte Haught puts the hairpiece on. So there’s no movement in Denis’ left hand, he can’t hear out of his left ear and he’s got a scleral lens in his left eye. It’s amazing that he doesn’t run into stuff on set!” (continued below)
BELOW (right): Burn-victim make-up
With their work on American Horror Story‘s debut season now complete, the show’s make-up team can finally look back at what they were able to accomplish.
“The thing I’m most proud of is that we were continually able to bring things to set that our crew was impressed with,” Krueger Mekash said. “We’re always coming up with something crazy, but the stuff we bring in always looks amazing. Tinsley Studio is tops as far as design work, and I’m always so pleased with everything we get from them.
“Right around the time the show airs, people are constantly texting me or Facebooking me saying, ‘It’s so amazing, but I can’t stand watching it!’ or, ‘I have to watch Animal Planet after your show just so I can re-boot my head!’ It’s really rewarding to be on a show that makes such an impact on people.”
“I think I’m happiest about the sheer number of make-ups we’ve been able to do in just a four-month span,” added Mekash. “There are so many ghosts in this show, and so many scenes of how they were killed. It’s a make-up artist’s dream. You get to do a full burn, a creepy little infant monster, you’re doing period make-ups that are ghosts; it’s got everything in it!”
At press time, the second season of American Horror Story was projected to begin this October on FX. Check local listings for show times.