An eleven-time Emmy nominee—each, for his work on Saturday Night Live—makeup artist Louie Zakarian is one of many outstanding SNL craftsmen laboring at 30 Rock for decades who remain unknown to many, despite contributions that make the singular series possible.
Or at least that was the case, before short-form series Creating SNL pulled the curtain back, exposing the sheer miracle of a production requiring lighting-fast behind-the scenes challenges—a miracle that has occurred weekly in New York City since 1975.
Below, Zakarian gives added insights into the skills essential to the Saturday Night Live department head and the unique looks he’s crafted for several Hillary Clintons over the years.
You’ve been with Saturday Night Live for many years. What kind of evolution have you seen in the show over the years?
I became the department head 20 years ago, and I’ve been pretty much designing the look of the show for about 20 years. There’s a couple of different aspects of this show that have changed—we do a lot more pre-tapes now, where in the past, when we first started, almost all of the show was live. It’s still 80, 85 percent live; we do two or three sketches each week that are pre-taped, which we didn’t do in the past.
We used to have one pre-tape that we would do on a Tuesday back in the day, or a Thursday morning, because back then, everything was on film and had to be processed. Now, it’s all digital, so we could shoot up until the night before and still get it edited in time. That’s a big change—it makes a world of difference.
For me, the show has changed a lot—they gave us a little more time [in the past]. Now, we’ll find out on Wednesday night at the table read that Thursday or Friday, they need a full dragon head, or a dinosaur mask, or three Dave Chappelle heads to kick around, so that gives us a heck of a lot less time to try and put it all together.
The show’s ratings this year are the highest in your entire time at SNL. What has it been like to witness the impact the show has made, week by week?
It’s pretty cool. The show has had its ups and downs in the 22 years that I’ve been here. I think when I first started 22 years ago, the major review was, “Oh, this show is done”—that we had the worst cast. Will Ferrell was considered to be the worst cast member in the entire show—”He’s not going to go anywhere.”
Election years are particularly great for us because we get to make up all these characters to make them look like the people that are up for election. We’ve had some pretty interesting election years, but this one has to take the cake because it really wrote itself for us, and gave us all the characters.
Hillary Clinton has recurred on the show throughout the years, portrayed by different cast members in different eras. How have you adapted your approach to makeup with each actress?
Hillary has been with us for quite a while. Basically, what I’ll do is I’ll look at the cast member, look at the photo of who they’re going to be, and try to figure out what we could do to get them to look as much like that person as possible.
I would go to the cast room and say, “This is what I’m thinking. What would you like to do?” We work with on it together, just because I don’t want to start gluing stuff on them that they don’t want to have done. We’ll try to figure out the process to get it done quickly.
When we first started doing Amy Poehler as Hillary, we gave her a little bulbous nose tip, because Hilary’s nose was a little bulbous. We thought it was funny, and it helped her look a little more like Hillary.
When Vanessa [Bayer] played Hillary, we didn’t really do anything prosthetically. We just contoured her eyebrows and matched Hillary’s lipstick and makeup as much as we could each week, and then when she gets the wig on, that really sells it.
Then, when Kate [McKinnon] became Hillary, I played around with the idea of a nose tip. We did a couple of tests here and there, and we decided to just go with Kate as herself. She transforms into these characters so well by just contorting her face a little bit, and her facial expression; with a little highlight and shadow here and there, she just becomes Hillary. She’s become the go-to for our political cast members.
What did you do with Alec Baldwin and Melissa McCarthy to transform them into Donald Trump and Sean Spicer?
I made a little bit of a game plan of what I wanted to do, and then the first week of SNL when Alec was going to come in to do Trump, I met with him, [writer] Steve Higgins, Jodi Mancuso, the hair designer, and Tom Broker, the wardrobes designer. We all went to Steve’s office and brainstormed as to what each one of our departments could do to try and make him look like Trump.
I decided on a pair of eyebrows, we were going to play with the nose maybe, some ears, a lot of highlight and shadow, and then Jodi made this beautiful wig. The first time we sat down with him for the early afternoon blocking, we did a quick test to see what was going to look right, and we liked everything.
Alec wanted to go really over the top—he’s like, “I want big, crazy eyebrows and big ears.” I wanted to make him look as good as we can, but on that first episode, I went over the top because we wanted really, really crazy eyebrows. Since then, we’ve toned it back a little bit—[the eyebrows] are not as crazy and long. Also, the white around his eyes—Trump has this whiteness that goes around his eyes for some reason. We don’t put any around his eyes; sometimes, I’ll go a little heavier, depending on what Trump looks like in the news that week.
For Melissa’s Spicer, we did the same thing—me, Jodi and Melissa. We sat in the makeup room and we’re like, “Well, what can we do to make you look like Spicer?” She was game for anything. She’s like, “Whatever you want. I want big ears, a bald cap, eye bags, nose. Whatever you got to do, I’m in.”
Jodi went back to her room, I went back to my room, we started sculpting and making all these pieces. We made her a set of eye bags, a silicone baldpate. We had a pair of eyebrows ventilated for it to look like Sean Spicer’s. I made these little ear clips that push her ears out to make her look like she’s got those big ears that Sean Spicer has.
The first time we actually did it, I pulled out the eye bags and she was like, “Oh my God, you made eye bags!” She was so excited about it. That makeup took us about 25 minutes to get done, the first time.
Over the years, how did you adapt to the time crunch that is specific to a show like SNL, with its weekly live broadcast?
We have basically two days to build everything, to put them on in minutes during the show sometimes. I keep saying it’s going to be on my gravestone: “I wish I had another 30 seconds.”
Being here for so long, I’ve been able to figure out a couple of shortcuts and plan ahead of time. If I build a nose or a cheek or whatever prosthetic, I have the live show in the back of my head. What’s the fastest that I’m going to be able to put this on? How can I make it so I can get it on faster, and get it off faster?
Especially with Kate McKinnon. There’s a video that we put up of getting her into that Shud makeup. It was basically four minutes, which is crazy. But I try and plan out my attack plan in the makeup lab when I’m sculpting and making the pieces, trying not to make something that’s too elaborate that I can’t get it on in a quick change.
One time that almost bit me in the ass was with Melissa’s Spicer makeup. I designed it thinking I will always have 20 minutes to put this makeup on her—15 to 20 minutes—not thinking in my head that she’s going to be hosting towards the end of the season. When she hosted the show and played Spicer, the sketch before, she was getting pelted in the face with shaving cream pie. Then she comes offstage, and there’s a matter of five minutes as she gets dressed. She takes two minutes to get all that shaving cream off of her face and get dressed. She sat in my chair and we timed it—there were two and a half minutes before she had to walk out the door and be Sean Spicer on camera.
We ended up having to do that 20-minute makeup in two and a half minutes. We just jammed. I was getting her makeup done, getting her hair done, putting on eyebrows, putting on prosthetic eye bags, putting on a bald cap, pushing out her ears, painting her up and getting her out there in two and half minutes flat without being able to say, “Oh, could we hold for 10 seconds because we’re not ready yet?” She had to go out there and be 100 percent ready. Sometimes, as much as I plan out a makeup, I can screw myself up.
How do you strike a balance on the show in handling both prosthetic and non-prosthetic makeup?
As the department head, I’m usually running around like a chicken without a head. I run around from one person to the next and try and keep everything running as smoothly as I can. I have one of the most talented teams of makeup artists, 17 to 18 makeup artists that work on the show.
It’s just a huge army that gets this done. Without them, it wouldn’t run as smoothly and as cleanly as it has. Most of the people that work for me have been here with me for years at a time. I have very few people leave, year after year, which is amazing.
It’s a delicate juggling act of keeping the straight makeup and the corrective beauty stuff going, and then keeping the prosthetics and all of that running.
What are the most significant lessons you’ve taken away from your time at SNL, as applied to your craft?
One of the biggest things is not to stress about time. I do movies, as well, on the summer breaks, and do other things, and having the time constraints that I’m so used to, when I do a movie or do something outside of here, I find myself going, “I’ve got to slow myself down.” I’ve got to learn just pace myself a little better when I’m outside of SNL, because usually when I’m here, I don’t stop, and everything’s got to be done as fast as I can possibly do it. When I’m out outside of here, you’ve got to learn to pace yourself a little more.