Since joining Saturday Night Live’s team in 1995, makeup designer Louie Zakarian has made a career out of transforming actors into iconic characters. Based on appearances alone, his work is remarkable. Add in the fact that these makeup looks normally take between 15 and 20 minutes to complete, and what he manages to do every week is downright astonishing.
For these reasons, Zakarian sat down with The Hollywood Reporter to discuss the “beautifully choreographed mayhem” that is working on SNL.
When asked about his initial interest in makeup, Zakarian had this to say: “I used to love to paint, sculpt, draw and watch movies as a kid, and I loved being able to transform somebody with makeup. As a kid, I had a hand puppet that you could put make up on, cuts, scars, mustaches, wigs, all that kind of stuff — it was one of my favorite toys and little did I know that later on I’d become a makeup artist.”
Later in his formative years, Zakarian noted how Hollywood movies influenced him as a budding artist. “The Wizard of Oz was a huge one,” he said. “I was big on prosthetics and special effects, so the TV series Lost in Space really got me going, was so much fun.”
Eventually, he made the leap from aspiring artist to full-blown professional. This led him to his job at SNL. Although he possesses immense talent, Zakarian insists that luck is to blame for his vocational success. “I started in 1995 and really got lucky; I had wanted to work on SNL for years and years and never thought I was ready for it,” he explained. “In 1993 I started submitting a resume to NBC and once a month I would call up like clockwork and speak to the people who hired there. Finally after about a year and a half of bugging them, they got me an interview with the studio manager at the time, George Mendez. He got me an interview with John Caglione who was the head of the makeup department at the time, and a few months later I was hired as a day player on the show. Soon after in ‘95/96, I became the key makeup artist and two years after that I became the department head. It’s been a fun 25 years ever since.”
Over the course of those 25 years, Zakarian has wowed audiences time and time again. But a few in particular moments stick out for him. “There have been so many,” he said before diving into specifics. “One of my favorite looks was turning Beck Bennett into Mitch McConnell, which was one of the most successful ones. We found out on Friday night at like 1 o’clock in the morning that Beck was going to be Mitch McConnell on Saturday night, so we had about 18 hours to go into the shop and make the prosthetics and figure out what would and wouldn’t work.”
Then the interview became more pointed. “How did you transform Robert De Niro into Robert Mueller?”
Zakarian launched into his process. “[When I heard] Robert De Niro was going to play Mueller, I went and sat in front of the computer and pulled up photos of De Niro and Mueller and kind of stared at the screen for a little while trying to figure out what I could do for the transformation. I did a Photoshop render with two or three different designs and sent them off to [writer] Steve Higgins and we discussed what the look should be and how far we could go. Luckily I had a very recent life cast of De Niro so I was able to start sculpting the prosthetics a day or two before he came in and then we actually got to do a makeup test on him. Once we put the makeup on and the highlighting shadow and the wig and the lace ventilated eyebrows, it all came together really nicely.”
The procedure of turning actors into politicians is further complicated when he is tasked with transforming a female actor into a male character, as Zakarian goes onto explain. “That’s another fun one, they came to me and said, ‘Kate’s going to be Rudy Giuliani’ and I thought, ‘How am I going to do that?’ The other thing I had to remember is that Kate is in so many different sketches that whatever I put her in, she’s got to be able to get out of it really quickly. And sometimes she’s got to be able to get into it in a few minutes, so her makeup took five-six minutes. To turn her into Giuliani, she first gets a bald cap, because Giuliani has a lot less hair than Kate does, then cheek appliances and a silicon nose with highlight and makeup on top of all that. And in the past we’ve had to do this quite often, she’ll be Giuliani in the cold open and then she’ll be another character in the first sketch, which is two minutes away, so I’m constantly apologizing to Kate because I’m always gluing something onto her or ripping something off. She’s such a trooper, she’s great, I torture her every week! Especially over the last couple of years, when I’ve also turned her into Robert Mueller and Jeff Sessions.”
Despite the difficulty of his work, Zakarian says that he has yet to face any major slip-up during his time in the studio. “I’m going to jinx myself by saying this, but there hasn’t been much. The biggest mishap that will happen is a mustache or a beard will come loose in the middle of a sketch. Most of the cast is pretty good about it, they’ll feel it come loose, but it’s still live TV. One time, I think it was when Jimmy Fallon hosted the show, he had a beard on his face and I’m watching it slowly peel away as the sketch is still going on and nobody’s noticing it and I’m just cringing. It’s live TV, sometimes you can’t get away from it. This season we had to turn Mikey Day into a character that needed to be bald and normally to make somebody bald takes 15-20 minutes, but in the sketch five minutes before that, Mikey had to have his own hair as part of a character he’d already established and if we put a wig on him it wouldn’t have looked right, so after that sketch we had four minutes to do a makeup that would usually take us 15-20 minutes, and it’s the live show so the countdown is going on — it was beautifully choreographed mayhem. That’s one of the most fun parts about doing SNL; that adrenaline rush of, ‘Oh my gosh, we’ve only got four minutes to do this whole change, can we do it?’ Then when you do it you’re like, ‘Damn, we just did that in four minutes.’”
Although things have been relatively smooth sailing, all things considered, Zakarian admits that the show has changed a lot over the years, and these changes have not made his job any easier. “There used to be a nine-10 cast members and now there’s 17-18. We also went from regular TV to HD TV and the whole color range of makeups that we would use changed. With regular TV, everything had to be warmer, redder, you had to really punch things up. Then we went to HD TV where we had to tone things back and go more toward a film look with natural and neutral tones. The biggest thing too with live TV is, before HD TV when you did a prosthetic, if there was a little bit of an edge, nobody ever saw it. As soon as we went to HD TV it had to look as good as it would in a movie — but you still only had like three minutes as opposed to the hours that you have in the makeup chair on a movie. It was challenging, but now I have about 17 makeup artists who work with me on the show and everyone works so well together. The only way SNL could ever happen is teamwork.”
Of the many looks he’s created on SNL, he was willing to name a few favorites. “One of them is Kate McKinnon as Shud, the blobfish,” he said, referencing a skit where McKinnon, part blob-fish, part human, tries to seduce a sailor like her other, more conventional mermaid compatriots. “Transforming her was a challenge! Also, turning Will Ferrell into the devil was a fun one. When he did the More Cowbell sketch, that was another classic.”
Even though this did not pop up amongst his favorite makeup looks, Zakarian did recall a particularly funny moment working behind the scenes at SNL. To no one’s surprise, the encounter involved Pete Davidson. “We had to turn Pete Davidson into the Night King from Game of Thrones, and just trying to glue all the stuff on him and then rip it off [quickly] because he had to be himself in the following sketch like five minutes after. He’s got Night Walker make up on him so he’s blue and dead looking — everybody was laughing and joking and having a good time in the makeup room.”
Ultimately, Zakarian’s passion for his job is made clear in the way he discusses the work that he puts in every single week. Week after week, year after year, his iconic make up looks make SNL possible. This brought the interview to Zakarian’s favorite part about his job: his ability to continue creating new characters with every broadcast. “That’s one of the best things about SNL is getting to create so many characters week after week and coming up with new ideas. The writers have gotten to the point where, nine times out of 10, they’re not asking ‘Can this be done?’ they’re saying, ‘How cool can we make this look?’” he said.
The tight timeline of SNL’s production also factors into his love of the work. “The other great thing,” he started, “is the immediate gratification of SNL — I do other projects, and with movies and TV shows you work on it and then you have to wait a couple of months or a year for it to come out. With SNL, we find out Wednesday night [what’s happening] and we do it live on Saturday night. There’s that gratification of, ‘Oh, we pulled it off! Now let’s see what next week’s challenge is going to be.’”
Season 44 of SNL concludes on May 18th on NBC. Season 45 will air this upcoming fall.