Makeup artist Zoe Hay creates seamless looks that span decades on NBC’s This is Us.
With four seasons and two Emmy nominations under her belt as the head makeup designer on NBC's hit series This is Us, it would be easy to assume that Zoe Hay has achieved a certain rhythm – a comfortable familiarity - when it comes to creating the looks of the same major characters year after year.
That assumption makes Hay chuckle as she explains her role in transforming actors that age through multiple decades.
While it's true there is a definite comfort and familiarity with the cast and crew members that both sit in and help around her makeup chair, "getting into a rhythm is tough on this show," she explains, "because just when we feel like we have all the basic looks, the different decades, mapped out – the writers come up with something new that we were not expecting at all."
When Hay was first hired for the pilot episode, she remembers being told it was a family period drama that would take place from the 1970s to the present day.
"The biggest question I had to face was how to make Mandy (Moore, who plays the character Rebecca) go from a young woman to looking realistically in her 60s in a way that's not distracting to the audience and that looks believable both when she's with her adult children and with actors who are actually in their 60s," she explains.
"Going into the first season, we didn't know we were going to see all of these characters in every decade. And this season we've had some interesting challenges seeing Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) in different time periods after the fire … I'm not sure I would've envisioned that we would get to go to Vietnam, either," she laughs.
"It's been really interesting because in television you have a different pace versus a movie where you would design everything from start to finish. Given the way that our show is shot, we jump around so much and then we find a storyline that fits in between.
"All of a sudden, we're designing an interim look that we have to make sure works with all of the other looks that we've done. So there's a lot of tape to pull things up and a lot of fake facial hair to help out. That's nothing we envisioned when we started the show."
While it's a challenge for Hay to take the "Big Three" (siblings Kevin, Kate, and Randall Pearson, played by Justin Hartley, Chrissy Metz, and Sterling K. Brown, respectively) both backwards and forwards in time, the bulk of many of Hay's days on set are spent transforming Moore into aging Rebecca.
The "Big Three" are played by different actors when they're young, so "we do a lot of small things like switching eye color on younger Kevin and Kate," Hay explains, "and matching prominent moles on people, and matching skin tones … things like that.
"When we're aging them forward, we look at photos of their family members in their 50s and 60s to gauge how they might age and work from that."
With Rebecca, however, "we've taken Mandy Moore from 16 into her 80s at this point," Hay muses. "For her 16-year-old look, we had a small dental appliance made that just filled her cheeks very slightly. We actually managed to achieve that look with just lighting and makeup alone.
"For the 70s look, I decided she was a young, beautiful woman. She's creative, she's a singer, she's an artist – and I really wanted to reflect that in her look, so my focus was just to have her, pre-children, just glowing, and to make her skin beautiful and luminous.
"And then as we start to get into her having children, we simplify her look, because I know as a mother myself how hard it is to make that time for yourself every day.
"So as we get into the 80s, there's more subtle color happening and we start to shape her face a little bit. Poor Mandy knows she only gets concealer in the 70s and 80s," Hay laughs.
"When we move into the 90s, fortunately things become very matte with makeup and so we're able to use that to our advantage because it helps change her skin texture and the brown colors are not as flattering.
"I try to line her eyes differently, and we have an ager that we put over her eyeshadow and underneath her eyes to create a little bit of wrinkling. When we get into the 2000s she starts to wear prosthetics to accentuate those smile lines and to give her fullness under her chin."
For her 60-year-old look, Moore wears 10 prosthetics to help add years to her face, neck, chest, and hands. "We have it down to about a three-and-a-half-hour process for makeup and hair for that look. When we get into her 80s it's a 27-piece makeup – a full prosthetic makeup. It takes about five and a half hours for those scenes."
Hay credits the success of many of the show's looks to unique peel-and-stick prosthetics designed by Stevie Bettles. "They allow us to have a lot more movement in the pieces, and we're also able to shoot very, very tightly on the faces even when they're wearing appliances, which is great in the HD world," Hay notes.
The extreme close-up shots utilized frequently on the show add another dimension of pressure for Hay and her team. "I think that is one of the heart-attack inducing things as a makeup artist in this day and age," she says.
"These are real people and it needs to be believable and it needs to look natural and move naturally and consistently. We do extreme closeups, eyebrow to chin, and we need the makeup to hold up to that.
"And sometimes, for example, when there are babies in the scene, it might mean Mandy is in that makeup for 12 hours and it needs to hold up for those closeups at the end of the day."
When asked about particular challenges she's faced, other than aging and what the crew affectionately calls "youthanizing" characters in her four seasons on the set of This is Us, Hay mentions the most recent season's scenes in which Ventimiglia's character Jack travels to Vietnam.
"I've done a lot of war movies and so it was very important to me that it look accurate. I spent a lot of time watching documentaries and researching to make sure it really looked authentic," she says.
"It was also a challenge because it was really hot when we were shooting, and when we went to Vietnam it was very humid and we had a limited crew there."
Another challenge that Hay took particularly to heart also involved Ventimiglia – and his facial hair. "Milo had his own beautiful beard in the pilot episode," she explains, "but we knew that we weren't going to be able to keep that and jump around in time. So we knew everything had to be fake.
"We had a plan to give him a moustache, and a goatee, and there was a lot of discussion about how people would react to that, but I always had faith that it would look good and be believable. I've been making facial hair for a little over 30 years now.
"It's just something I've always done as a side business, as well as being a makeup artist. I make all of the facial hair for the show and it's so nice because we can figure out exactly how we want it to work.
"But one day, we had him in the chair and we had started shaving off his beard. We had shaved off half of his beard and a PA came running in yelling, 'Stop! Stop! They're not sure about doing a mustache!' And I was like, 'Well, it's a little late now!'"
"There are always lots of surprises," Hay admits, "but that's one thing for me, as an artist, that I really love about this show. I'm constantly challenged to find new ways of doing things that fit with the show and with the timeframe that we have.
"It can be really challenging, but fun, too, because it makes you think outside the box a little bit. My hope is that the makeup looks so simple that you don't notice it, but we all know as artists that's not the easiest thing to create. So a lot of work has to go into it. I always just sort of pull on my pants and go in full charge."
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