Actors and Extreme Special Effects Make-Up

As actors, we rarely say to ourselves, Oh boy! I want to be an actor so I can sit in a make-up chair for endless hours and be turned into a monster!

We instead think about getting proper representation, taking classes and learning lines. We dream about our big break and what it’s like to be on set.

Yet make-up is part of the job. Whether we play a burn victim, someone with lots of scars and tattoos or a creature from another planet, we must keep in mind that there’s a good chance we’re going to be asked to have extreme special effects (SPFX) make-up applied to our body.

Below, actress NAOMI GROSSMAN (Pepper on American Horror Story: Asylum) and Special Effects Make-up Artist RACHEL GRIFFIN (Fringe, Once Upon a Time) give us insight to the pleasures and pains of being turned into unrecognizable characters.


NAOMI GROSSMAN agreed to shave her head for her role in American Horror Story: Asylum

NAOMI GROSSMAN’s character, Pepper, is a light-hearted murderous who has quickly become a fan-favorite.

1. Did you know in advance there was going to be extensive make-up for your character of “Pepper” when you accepted the role?

Yes, my callback was essentially a meeting with the make-up department. They took a bunch of photos of me, which they then manipulated to see what I’d look like with the prosthetics. I guess I must have looked the freakiest! After I was cast, they showed me the photos, and boy, was that a surprise.

2. Is there extra pay involved?

Yes and no. Not specifically for wearing prosthetics, but I’m in the makeup chair hours and hours, and they of course pay for that. I obviously was compensated for the head-shave. You can watch here.

3. In the beginning, you were in the make-up chair for about five hours. Now it’s perfected down to approximately two hours. Do you get to SLEEP while your make-up is being applied?

Oh, and how! I’ve even been accused of snoring! I can sleep through anything — root canal, ‘Django Unchained.’ It’s often 5:00 AM, they lay my head back, tell me to close my eyes… What else is there to do?

Exclusive pic to @NYCastings – Naomi pulls the prosthetic off her face.

4. Do you have help taking your make-up off after work or is it something you can do on your own?

They take it off for me. It only takes about 20 minutes. Sometimes their edges are so seamless, even they who put the prosthetics on, have to poke around my face to find where to lift off! Requires lots of pulling and scrubbing, but in the end, I get nice, hot, jasmine towels! Where else do you get a facial after work?

5. When is the the make-up applied — before or after wardrobe?

Before. It can be a little messy. Though I usually need help getting my sweater over my man-hands!

6. Anything else you want to add.

Mike Mekash, Eryn Krueger Mekash, Christopher Nelson, Jason Hamer and everyone at Tinsley Studio (who does the SPFX makeup) are AMAZING. Big shout-out to them!

Naomi Grossman is a theatre graduate of Northwestern University. She’s an artist/sketch comedian who loves improvisation and is a former member of the esteemed Groundlings Sunday Company. She’s currently working on several projects that will keep you coming back for more. You can follow Naomi on Twitter: @naomiwgrossman

RACHEL GRIFFIN just finished an overnight shoot of Supernatural. You can see more of her current work on Fringe and Once Upon a Time. For a retro rewind, check out Rachel’s SPFX on The X-Files, V 2009 and the Stargate series.

1. What’s the most difficult part of being a special make-up effects artist?

When I first read the question, I thought about all those 1:00 or 2:00 AM call times to do three or four hours of make-up before most of the crew has even shown up. Or the long, sometimes 20 or more hours a day of work, only to go home. Then I’d be lucky to get a few hours sleep only to come back to work and do it all over again and again. But I think one of the hardest things is when I’m not working. It’s like going through withdrawal. I really get such a huge kick out of doing it; I miss it when not.


2. Please share any challenges you’ve had when applying special effects make-up to actors.

Well, with Lou Gosset Jr. on a ‘Stargate’ episode, it was a very hot day in the studio working with gelatin prosthetics. I tried ice packs, fans…everything–but there was nothing I could do but watch the make-up melt in front of the camera until we had to stop shooting.





Just a few months ago on ‘Fringe,’ we had make-up that covered the actors’ eyes and mouths. We had to guide them around all day as they were totally blind and couldn’t speak or eat for hours.

A few times on ‘The X-Files’ we would have actors with big alien heads that we glued all together. We had to feed the actors lunch through the tiny little mouths. I feel totally responsible when I glue an actor into any kind of make-up. I am the ‘skitter chic’ on ‘Falling Skies’ – I help put the actor into the suit and while he’s in it, I take care of cosmetic touches to the body and head.

I also have an actor care kit. I have lots of items needed such as tools, make-up, a fan to blow cool air into the servo-head, lots of liquid refreshments and anything else he might need throughout the day. I even made up ‘skitter tongs’ for use with three fingers for snacking in-between shots.

3. For overnight shoots, do you get paid extra?

A long long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, yes OUR union did give us what were called ‘night premiums,’ but I have been in the business over 25 years and have never received any.

4. Have you ever travelled (outside your homebase) on location with a production? If yes, describe the experience vs. being local and in your comfort zone.

Yes, I got to go to Lisbon, Portugal, to do a zombie movie called ‘I’ll see you in my Dreams.’ We were hired by a young, upcoming film director that had come across our work on the Internet. He had people from all over Europe and the world came to work on his film. It was so much fun to be somewhere that I knew nothing about, nor the languages spoken all around me AND to be in a place from the 1700s to film this movie. The little town was about three hours outside Lisbon and the people there probably had never seen a movie let alone a zombie flick. The first night we showed up with 40 zombie actors made up from crew, friends and townspeople that had no idea what they were in for and could not speak a word of English. It was one of my best memories in film.

[Alien sitting at Mulder’s desk in The X-Files]

5. Who gives you direction on how the actor is to be portrayed? i.e. Is there a drawing? Do you get a copy of the script? Does someone just describe what they’re looking for and you come up with the concept yourself?

Yes, all of the above; the director has a lot to say in the final look. I’ve been asked to design things from scripts, other people’s designs or just sometimes from a vague director’s vision that he/she tries to convey to you. If you’re lucky, there are definite designs so you can get to work right away. With some projects, you can have six weeks to build something and waste four or more of them trying to get a design approved. Most times there are a number of people that all need to agree on the design and each person may have their own changes that need to be done. It can be the hardest part in the whole process.

6. How did you become so successful in the entertainment business?

I get asked this a lot and have to say I have just been very lucky. I started here in Vancouver at the right time as the film industry was just breaking out. We were fast becoming Hollywood North and Vancouver became a sort of ‘Mecca’ for make-up F/X. ‘The X-Files’ was being filmed here and we got to do all kinds of crazy stuff. Looking back, it was a lot of different kinds of work and my ability to adapt to whatever was needed from prosthetics, suits, props and puppets. I also do straight make-up and spent a lot of years just powdering noses to keep busy. It all helped. The business has changed a lot over the years going from film to mostly HD video nowadays. You need to keep up on the newest stuff.

7. Why / how / when did you become interested in doing special effects makeup? Tell us about your very first job in the field.

I have to blame it on my dad. I grew up on a steady diet of any cheesy SCI-FI movie or TV shows he could find to watch. I, like many other kids, saw ‘Star Wars’ and knew I wanted to do film SPFX. I started in film school and when making my final project, I needed an alien. I had some books on make-up F/X and made my first mask. I ended up out of film school and into make-up school. The very first make-up I did for film was a fish face on an actor for a student film. My first paying job was not make-up but a prop that was never even used for an old cable show called the ‘Hitch Hiker.’ One of my first make-up jobs was on a toy commercial. I made three different length noses for three actors. It was long before the days of ‘Bondo’ which is something made from glue that can be used to hide edges to blend make-up flawlessly. It was one of my hardest jobs to do because of the close-ups the director wanted. In the end, it all worked out and I learned that valuable lesson to never let them see you sweat.

Exclusive pic to @NYCastings – Rachel tells us I did this Bark Boy make-up with two other artists for ‘Fringe’ but they didn’t like it so they didn’t use the stuff we shot. Here it for the first time – the unseen Bark Boy that was replaced by a more human actor.

8. What’s it like working with prosthetics?

Well, I love working with prosthetics; being able to transform someone into any kind of character/creature you can imagine is a truly awesome thing for me. I have to say I’m so jealous of the actors that get to have all the fun becoming people’s worst nightmares. I come to set and people ask me what new creation I might have to horrify or amaze them. Some days I spend my day in a space ship surrounded by aliens or in a creepy old house full of zombies. I think I have the best job in the world doing prosthetics for film. :)

9. Now that you’re a seasoned makeup artist, is there anything you recall in your earlier career that you would have done differently?

I might have gotten more into digital F/X. I work in Photoshop on the computer to create lots of my make-ups. If I could have done something differently, maybe more schooling in computer graphics. And I would have tried to get more into making CG monsters and doing digital make-up F/Xs.

[Reptile under the skin in ‘V’ 2009]

10. Did you ever make up an actor only to have someone tell you they want to completely change the look of the character and to start over again? If yes, can you give an example of a character in a show?

Yes, that’s happened many times. If you’re lucky, it happens on a test make-up day and not when the crew has to sit and wait until the powers that be are happy and ready to shoot. I once sweated my way through four extra hours of make-up changes on top of the two-hour make-up. The latest one was (luckily it was not my character) the beast from the newly canceled ‘Beauty and the Beast’ show. The director spent almost all of the daylight they had to shoot the first day in the trailer doing the make-up over and over to please the producers. The crew lost almost the whole first day waiting. I was glad to not be doing the main actor on that show.

Those days are not fun and happen for various reasons. It can be any number of people involved: the director, producer — and sometimes the Director of Photograph (DP) will say he can’t shoot it because it looks like rubber. I have to use every trick in my bag to pull off all the make-ups I have done over the years.

[A dead Observer from Fringe.]

11. Do you work in front of a mirror so the actors can see what’s happening or is it a big surprise for them?

Yes, you mostly work in front of a mirror but not always. Some actors like to watch the process and some don’t. I do get those early morning ones that almost fall or do fall sleep only to be woken up looking very different. It’s my job to help them transform into whatever character is scripted and if they can feel like the character because of my make-up, then I did my job well.

12. Have any of the actors ever had an allergic reaction to the makeup or prosthetics? If yes, how is that handled on set?

Once, one of the actors that played a demon from a ‘Millennium’ episode had a bit of a problem. Due to technical difficulties, one of the foam neck pieces was delivered right to set still warm from the oven and in the mold. The actor had an allergic reaction to the sulfur in the foam and broke out in a rash with hives and pustules. It was kind of gross. I felt horrible that the actor had an allergy and we still had four more days to shoot. After the doctor fixed him up with some cream, I had to carefully glue kitchen wrap to his neck before putting the prosthetic on to seal off his skin from the latex. It was better in a few days. Actors can even get a rash or other skin problems from just wearing the make-up multiple days in a row. I’m also an aesthetician, so I try to be has gentle to the skin as possible and recommend good after make-up care.

13. Please share any fun and/or scary stories that come to mind regarding your job.

Working on the 200th episode of ‘Stargate SG-1′ after making up about 20 zombies. I snuck into the trailer during lunch and started gluing some zombie prosthetics on my face. I got caught by a colleague who ended up helping paint me up. I just wandered on set with the rest of the background [actors] and hoped no one would notice. Well, as it turns out, I was noticed by Martin Wood, the director, and thought I was fired when he asked me to come see him. He asked if he could use me as the hero zombie in three scenes. I was grinning from ear to ear. It was a crazy day and we didn’t get to shoot the last two scenes that were to star me. It was all only budgeted for one day but Martin wanted those scenes. So myself and another crew member were paid to go home in our make-up and come back the next day to film the two scenes. I would have done it for free. I was so excited I couldn’t even sleep when I got home. I drove in the next day like normal except I didn’t stop at the make-up trailer; I went straight to set. The rest is TV history. I’m the zombie that eats Walter in the Stargate control room and if you look closely, I get killed two more times coming in two different doors.

14. Anything else you want to add.

I feel I’ve been very lucky to have been able to work on as many shows as I have and meet so many great people. One of the neatest things is there is almost nowhere I can go here at home and sometimes other places in the world where someone doesn’t come over and say, ‘Hey, Rachel, remember me?’ And it’s a crew member or an actor that I made up for a show during my career.

If you want to find out more about or connect with Naomi Grossman, you can do so using the following links:

Also, here are some more cool videos about Naomi Grossman’s makeup:

Rachel Griffin teaches make-up class at a local Vancouver school. To see more of Rachel’s work, please visit her website at





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