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A Conversation With the Emmy-Nominated Makeup Artist Behind Fosse/Verdon

Debbie Zoller tells us about making the magic.

sam rockwell and michelle williams in fosse/verdon

Debbie Zoller has been in the movies for over thirty years. Her work has been part of franchises that have made millions and her most recent project, Fosse/Verdon, has garnered her two Emmy nominations. But when Zoller does her job well (and she does do it amazingly well) audience barely even notice—and that’s a compliment. Zoller is a renown make-up artist and make-up designer, and she took time to talk with us about her career, her work and of course, the products we all should keep in our own make-up bags.

Jessica Mason (TMS): Before we start specifically on your work on Fosse/Verdon, I wanted to find out how you got your start in this industry and career?

Debbie Zoller: You know what’s funny is that most people that you talk to will say “oh yeah I knew since I was a young age.” And that’s not what happened with me. I truly fell into this by accident. When I was in college at UCLA all of my classes were in north campus and I hung out with all the film students, and would help them on their projects…Once I graduated, one of my friends said that he’d gotten this movie, it was a low budget film, and would I be interested in working on it? And I was like “absolutely.”

The door opened and I walked through is really how it all happened. And at that point it was like I got bit by that bug and said this is what I want to do as a career…I decided to go to make up school and become a special effects make-up artist.

TMS: You have an amazing filmography that includes series like Mad Men as well as huge hits like Thor: The Dark World and Kong: Skull Island. So, can you tell us…is Tom Hiddleston as lovely and nice as we all dream?

Zoller: Tom Hidldeston is lovely. I did not personally do his make up, [but] when we were in the trailer getting everyone made up he was incredibly genuine and nice and respectful to everyone and all the actors and artists. And the same with Chris Hemsworth, all of them were just amazing.

TMS: On to Fosse/Verdon. This series seems like an epic task for a make up designer in terms of how many era you had to cover and real people you had to copy, and the Emmy nomination you have for it is so well-earned.

Zoller: Thank you. It was pretty big, I gotta say. I didn’t realize the scope of it I think when I took the job, it’s didn’t start unfolding like an onion until I got there and realized “oh boy.”

Fosse/Verdon Explores the Gritty Nature of Bob Fosse in a #Metoo Era

TMS: First off, you had to design make-up based on well-known, real people. What were the challenges making these actors look like these iconic people audiences know so well.

Zoller: That’s exactly it. Luckily we had a wonderful casting team [who] trusted us with completing the rest of the picture between make-up hair and costumes. Because it was period, depending on the period they were working on I had to make sure they had the appropriate length facial hair [and sideburns].  I had to make fake eyebrows for one characters…so it’s like all these little idiosyncrasies. I would have pictures of the real people and then have to compare them to the actor…and then at the same time I would have to age them, along with Sam and Michelle as Bob and Gwen.

TMS: Fosse/Verdon covers over forty years of these characters’ lives, how was the age make-up achieved?

Zoller: We did a lot of prosthetics, which is one of the reasons I’m so grateful we were nominated and people saw the work that we did…Now I’m up against Game of Thrones and Star Trek: Discovery and all of these shows that are alien-based and huge make-ups. To be picked out for an aging make up is quite special to me…Sam wore seven [prosthetics] and Michelle wore five, and I think they just looked so natural that a lot of people didn’t see.

TMS: I certainly didn’t realize how much prosthetic work there was, and it really allowed them to still move and act so naturally.

Zoller: Well thank you!

Kelli Barrett as liza Minelli

TMS: You also had to recreate some iconic make-ups that we all know, like the make-up in Cabaret, how did you go about that?

Zoller: I did a tremendous amount of research and watched all the films probably five, six, seven times. Because we were under the challenge of making sure that they matched exactly…We wanted you to believe that these were actually…the real shows…We all were constantly comparing notes and trying to make sure that we were all on the same page and that this dancer was representing the original dancer in the show…Nothing went unnoticed.

With Kelli Barrett who played Liza Minnelli, her eyebrows are really thick because that’s the style now. And in the movie all of the girls including Liza tweeze their eyebrows really thin or they shaved them off completely, and of course Kelli’s like “I’m not doing that.” So, I had to, you know, think on my feet and I’m like “okay, we’re gonna make prosthetic eyebrow covers for you”…All those little details you have to be very specific on. There was not a day that we were not researching and digging deeper.

TMS: Each episode of Fosse/Verdon skips around a lot in time—was it filmed that way or was it filmed chronologically?

Zoller: Oh I wish it was filmed chronologically. That was probably the biggest challenge because the fact that we were jumping around. And sometimes in one day we would jump around to two different eras, possible three eras.

The biggest issue was Sam [Rockwell, who plays Bob Fosse] because in the beginning when we made him younger…he had no beard. And so Sam wanted to keep his beard for as long as he could…I had to glue down his beard and put a fake beard on top [as his real beard grew back in after a hiatus].

Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams play Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon in FX's Fosse/Verdon.

TMS: Make-up and make-up artistry is such a huge industry right now, do you have any advice for a young person watching tutorials on YouTube about how to break into work as a professional make-up artist?

Zoller: The only concern that I have is that when you want to take that from YouTube or an Instagram to a big screen and become a make-up artists, then you have to start learning on a different level. It really is important that you do go to school because you’ll be competing for jobs with people that did go to a professional make up school. And doing make up on yourself is not necessarily being a make-up artist…once you have somebody else’s face in your chair, that’s when you become a make up artist, because every face is different…so it’s really important that you try and practice on as many faces as possible.

TMS: This might be getting very nerdy, but how has doing make-up changed in the transition from film to digital? My impression is that it’s a completely different style.

Zoller: You’re absolutely correct. It was almost like relearning your craft in a way…Film has that lovely, dreamlike quality and when you’re dealing with digital, it’s the opposite. You know, It’s very sharp; it’s very precise with those pixels and it’s getting even sharper. And, you know, the whole point of doing make-up is to try and kind of blur and fool the eye to make things looks smooth and in film it was very easy to do that. So, now with digital you have to be careful…You really have to be on top of your game, more now than ever.

TMS: And finally, I have to ask: do you have any secrets of trade or favorite products you can share with us?

Zoller: I use things from every company. First, always you want to have good skin care…And then primer is really important. Make-Up Forever has a great primer…And then going into foundations I love the channel and the Make-up Forever and Dior has beautiful foudations. And the mascara of course I love is the L’Oreal Lash Out because everybody uses that, it makes your lashes really long and natural, and L’Oreal also makes this white mascara that’s a primer. And so when you want an actress’s eyes to look really big and beautiful and you don’t want it to look over the top…you use that white primer first and use that lash out on top.

TMS: And what do you use to clean brushes, which is essential?

Zoller: I used the MAC brush cleaner, I’ve used in for 25 years.

Fosse/Verdon is still available to stream on Hulu. The Creative Arts Emmys are scheduled for September 14.

(images: FX)

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Jessica Mason (she/her) is a writer based in Portland, Oregon with a focus on fandom, queer representation, and amazing women in film and television. She's a trained lawyer and opera singer as well as a mom and author.