Jazzed About the Make-up

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Debbie Zoller and team take on the dream project Fosse/Verdon.

Fosse/Verdon Michelle Williams as Gwen Verdon and Sam Rockwell as Bob Fosse
Michelle Williams as Gwen Verdon and Sam Rockwell as Bob Fosse

It was a make-up Debbie Zoller seemed destined to do. Though at first, she didn’t even know what it was. One of the award-winning artist’s most challenging assignments began last August with a cryptic phone call.

“‘Hey, Zoller, it’s Bill Corso and Dennis Liddiard, and we want to know what you are doing for the rest of the year,’” Zoller remembers Corso saying. “I was available and asked what the project was. He said, ‘I can’t tell you.’ I then asked where it was, and he said, ‘I can’t tell you that either.’ So, after we had a good laugh, he said, ‘I know you are perfect for this job and I’m calling the producer now. You should hear back from them within the hour.’ And I did.”

When Zoller learned the assignment was to department head Fosse/Verdon, the eight-part FX limited series that unwraps the decades-long relationship between director/choreographer Bob Fosse and Broadway star Gwen Verdon, she didn’t hesitate to say, Yes. “I thought, ‘Oh My God, this is what I’ve been waiting for,’” says the artist, who has won Make-up Artists & Hair Stylists Guild Awards for A Star is Born and Gilmore Girls, and has received nine Emmy nominations for work that includes Mad Men, Castle and Twin Peaks.

The first step was figuring out how to transform Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams into the title characters.

Fosse/Verdon Evan Handler as Hal Prince (on left) with the real Hal Prince
Evan Handler as Hal Prince (on left) with the real Hal Princec

“I was familiar with Bob Fosse, of course, but not with Gwen Verdon,” says Zoller. “To do a period piece justice, you have to do extensive research. First, designing multiple decades of aging for Sam and Michelle. Then to research all of the real people portrayed in the show, like Paddy Chayefsky, Neil Simon, Hal Prince, Liza Minnelli and Chita Rivera, to name a few.”

Nicole Fosse, the couple’s daughter, was a co-executive producer on the series. This gave Zoller access to a wealth of personal photos through the Verdon Fosse Legacy archives.

Fosse/Verdon Nick Sullivan transformation into Alan Heim
Nick Sullivan transformation into Alan Heim (real Alan Heim bottom left)

“We covered the trailer with photos of Bob and Gwen,” remembers Zoller. “We had reference photos everywhere. When we were putting Sam and Michelle into their make-ups and hair, we could get a particular curl just right, or the eye liner or the lipstick … his beard, because Fosse’s beard changed colors as he aged. We were constantly looking at these photos. We never left that world.”

Zoller says Rockwell went full Fosse, never breaking character. Anytime she entered his trailer, a tape of Fosse would be playing. The actor spent hours listening to interviews to pick up Fosse’s tone and cadence. Because he was so focused on becoming Fosse from within, Rockwell trusted Zoller and hair designer and department head Christopher Fulton to deliver the look.

On set of Fosse/Verdon
On-set touch up

An essential part of the transformation was Fosse’s thinning hair. Fulton brought in wigmaker Stacey Butterworth to create the wispy pieces that covered Rockwell’s head. Initially, Zoller had planned to fit the actor with a bald pate so the various pieces could be applied over his hair. But when Rockwell saw how much time that added to the process, he chose to shave his head instead.

Butterworth also fashioned Verdon’s familiar close-cropped red curls for Williams’ wig and the pieces for Hal Prince, Ben Vereen and Roy Scheider. In total, Williams wore four wigs and a ponytail attachment. Each wig was shaded a little to show the age differences.

Sam Rockwell gets transformed by Debbie Zoller and David Presto
Rockwell gets transformed by Debbie Zoller and David Presto
Michelle Williams and Sam Rockwell as Bob Fosse
Williams as Verdon and Rockwell as Fosse

Unlike Rockwell, the actress was much more interested in finding Verdon through the look. It was Williams’ idea to wear a dental piece to give her mouth a shape similar to Verdon’s. Zoller tapped Vincent Van Dyke to create it.

“I get that and understood her needs,” continues Zoller. “So, I assigned Jackie Risotto as Michelle’s personal make-up artist. We worked out a way that gave Michelle control, yet I still had the ability to keep Sam’s and Michelle’s looks cohesive.”

Sam Rockwell with director Thomas Kail
Rockwell with director Thomas Kail
Debbi Zoller touches up Sam Rockwell on set
Zoller touches up Rockwell on set

Key David Presto assisted Zoller with Rockwell’s application. “We double-teamed Sam’s make-up to get him out of the chair as quickly as possible,” she adds.

Fosse/Verdon spanned four decades over the course of its eight episodes. Scenes from the 1950s showed Verdon’s rise to stardom on the Broadway stage with Can-Can and Damn Yankees, where she and Fosse first collaborated. The filming of Sweet Charity and Cabaret in the 1960s proved to be pivotal in their relationship. The 1970s spotlighted Pippin and Chicago. The story culminated with All That Jazz and Fosse’s death in 1987.

Crisscrossed lifts used to achieve younger look on Sam Rockwell
Crisscrossed lifts used to achieve younger look on Rockwell

“There was one picture we have of them from 1968, but it could have easily been the late ’70s,” says Zoller of Verdon and Fosse. “They were kind of ageless in a weird way. I think being performers, they were constantly evolving their looks for whatever project they were working on. They were very ahead of their time.”

Keeping the make-up age appropriate was priority one. Not only did it have to look right for each specific era, the couple had to be in sync. To up the degree of difficulty, each episode jumped around the various times in their careers. “There were days we were shooting multiple decades in different locations and everyone had to be changed over quickly,” adds Zoller.

Debbi Zoller and team selfie
Zoller and team selfie

For the ’50s and ’60s, Zoller used lifts to make the actors look younger. Williams had used Secret Lift Pro during the filming of Venom and wanted to stick with that brand. She wore four, crisscrossing her skull under her wig. Zoller opted for the Mark Traynor Temporary Face Lift for Rockwell. He wore two. But because of Rockwell’s decision to shave his head, Zoller hit a bump—both literally and figuratively—during the application.

“They caused an indentation in his head,” says Zoller. “I did it in a crisscross pattern and it left an indentation because I really had to pull it to get the effect. We ended up putting on a moleskin first, then putting the lifts on top of that.” 

Dancers on set of Fosse and Verdon
Strike a pose - ready for Cabaret

Zoller also dabbed a little Plexaderm under each eyelid to give the characters a fresher, younger look.

For the older Verdon, Zoller began with Bluebird FX Old Age. Texture was added through splatter tones to Williams’ face, hands and neck. Age lines were painted on to complete the transformation. Williams wore prosthetic nasal labials, eye bags and chin waddles, also created by Van Dyke. Art Sakamoto made her a second dental piece to make her teeth look older.

Rockwell’s Fosse was given a prosthetic heart surgery scar, (which also had to age) and nicotine fingers to highlight his constant smoking. Zoller airbrushed six different colors of splattering for tonal variation. “Once we hit the ’80s, we used stretch-and-stipple around the eyes, neck and hands to match Bob’s character lines,” she adds. “Along with this, we did prosthetic upper-eye bags, under-eye bags, nasal labials to fill out his cheeks and dental plumpers.”

Kelli Barrett as Liza Minelli
Kelli Barrett as Liza Minelli

Re-creating Fosse’s beard turned out to be tricky. The plan was to have Rockwell grow out his own beard and augment it to give it that Fosse feeling.

“I got the shape down to match Bob’s, but when Bob is younger, he doesn’t have a beard,” explains Zoller. “So, we scheduled the shoot in such a way to have the scenes with the beard shot together, then shave him and do the younger scenes. Well, that only worked for the first two episodes. After that, we had to lay a fake beard on top of his own beard as he was growing it back.”

For Rockwell, Zoller created two sets of facial hair—beards and mustaches. The first was for the 1970s Fosse and the other for the circa 1987 scenes. She also made two sets of sideburns. Rockwell wore one set in the 1950s scenes when Fosse had more hair. The second set fit better with the late ’60s, early ’70s, when Fosse’s hair was much thinner.

Michelle Williams and Sam Rockwell as Bob Fosse
Williams as Verdon and Rockwell as Fosse
Rockwell as Fosse
Rockwell as Fosse
Michelle Williams and Sam Rockwell as Bob Fosse with dancers
Williams and Rockwell with dancers on set

Zoller had Butterworth make the facial hair for all the other characters who also wore hairpieces she had made. “I wanted that cohesiveness,” Zoller says. “It all had to have the same texture.”

But with so many of male characters needing facial hair, Zoller also bought and altered beards, mustaches and sideburns from Nigel Beauty Emporium, Frends Beauty and Manhattan Wardrobe Supply.    

“We would have fittings with each actor, dancer and background artist to determine the specific look and length based on the scene and the year,” says Zoller. “It was a tremendous undertaking, especially when we would do a fitting and then, at the last minute, the actor had to shave for another part, or even worse … got a role that he’s not allowed to shave for. So, we would hand-lay a lot.”

Cabaret
Cabaret

But re-creating the many famous faces of the era was only half the challenge. Zoller also needed to design make-ups for six dance numbers from some of the most iconic musicals from the 20th century.

“That took weeks of research,” says Zoller. “The art department had downloaded all the musicals onto what we call the Fossebox—it was like Dropbox but specifically made for Fosse. We would all watch and then take screenshots of the original dancers and the original looks.”

Zoller went the extra mile to make each number as authentic as possible. Learning that Cabaret was shot in Germany and Kryolan make-up was used, she made sure to use the same brand when it came time to shoot the “Mein Herr” and “Two Ladies” musical numbers for Fosse/Verdon.   

Sam Rockwell as Bob Fosse
Rockwell as Fosse

“In order to make this show easier on my crew and day-player make-up artists, I provided them with a welcome letter, along with specific notes and research photos based on what year and scenes we were shooting that day,” remembers Zoller. “It helped take a lot of the guesswork out of very busy mornings.”

Zoller also went to a trick she had devised while working on Mad Men. “I made lip wheels that contained specific lipstick colors for that decade,” she says. “I wanted to make sure that the colors would be properly represented, so that you could see that we changed decades. Each lip wheel had four colors from which to choose. You could mix them. You could do anything that you wanted as long as you stuck to those four colors.”

Zoller has high praise for Fulton and the hair crew. This was the first time she had worked with Fulton, whose résumé includes Blindspot, Orange is the New Black and Nurse Jackie. She credits their rapport with making things run so smoothly. “He was such a team player,” she says.

Make-up for All That Jazz musical number
Make-up for All That Jazz musical number

Zoller adds the designs got into such a rhythm that running the looks before each episodic director became somewhat of a formality. “They allowed us to take control of the characters, knowing that the research that we were doing was spot-on,” she says. “We would do a lineup to make sure everyone looked the part before they walked on set. It was a really great collaboration among everybody—the costume designers (Joseph La Corte, Melissa Toth), the hair department and the make-up department.”

This article orignally ran in Issue 138 of Make-Up Artist magazine.

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