‘American Horror Story’ makeup effects crew have unique freedom in industry

TORONTO – There is perhaps no one more thrilled with the ever-changing face of “American Horror Story” than its special makeup effects designer and creator, Christien Tinsley.

With each season of the macabre anthology show serving as self-contained miniseries – featuring new characters, settings and storylines – Tinsley and his team have a freedom many of their peers don’t have.

“The great thing is, we’re able to give it everything we have, explore as much as we want, and not feel like we have to relive it year after year after year, season after season,” he said in a recent phone interview.

“(The team) who does ‘The Walking Dead,’ they’re my friends. I love them. They’re doing an amazing job over there. I could not imagine doing zombies for three years. That would bore me out of this business.”

Indeed, the amount of spine-chilling physical ailments and creatures Tinsley gets to create on “American Horror Story” – which was recently picked up for a third season and airs Wednesdays on FX Canada – is varied, vast and continuously shocking.

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The first season, which Tinsley also worked on, featured a frightening blend of supernatural species as it followed a family in a haunted house.

Season 2 is set in an asylum, where paranormal and alien forces affect the motley crew, who include: a possessed nun, an evil doctor, a serial killer named Bloody Face, medical experiment mutants known as Raspers, and a patient with microcephaly (a condition in which the head is significantly smaller than average).

Tinsley said he thinks the show has “matured” and found its audience in season 2.

They’ve also kicked up the makeup a few notches.

“We’re trying to build characters that are memorable and that’s always difficult to do, especially in the saturated market of ‘Walking Deads’ and … those movies coming out every other month of people with possessions and things,” said Tinsley, whose other credits include the films “The Grinch,” “Pearl Harbor” and “Ocean’s 11.”

Fortunately, they have a cast of actors who are game to sit in the makeup chair for hours and work with the artists outside of contractual obligations.

“It’s not always the case,” said the Seattle native, who lives in Burbank, Calif.

“I’ve been on projects where actors are reluctant to go into makeup, (they’re averse) to it because maybe they’re claustrophobic or maybe they just don’t like sitting still for two hours at a time or whatever it might be.”

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The actors who spend the most amount of time in the makeup chair this season are those who play the Raspers creatures, which take an average of 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 hours to create, said Tinsley.

And the actor who’s had to endure the most repetitive times in the chair is Naomi Grossman, who plays Pepper (a.k.a. Pinhead, the patient with microcephaly), the most difficult character for the makeup artists to create.

“She’s been in that makeup chair many, many, many times, and every single time it’s 2 1/2 hours,” said Tinsley.

“I think she’s had the most sacrifice, too.”

Such sacrifices include having to shave her head for the role, which was mandatory so the makeup artists wouldn’t have to spend an hour applying a full-head prosthetic.

“She actually said, ‘I’d love to,’ and she shaved her head for us and in return we built her a wig to live her normal life,” said Tinsley.

“When she’s not working on the show, she’s out there in public with the wig on. So in some ways, every single day is a makeup day for her.”

Grossman also has to wear a fake forehead, fake nose, fake ears, fake hands, a hump on the back of her neck, and dentures that change the shape of her cheeks and her lips.

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“Everything goofy and unattractive about (the character) is makeup,” said Tinsley.

“She’s a very attractive, funny, funny, funny young actress and she took this role because in the casting process she fit a certain anatomical disposition that we wanted to build this makeup on. So, imagine that conversation: ‘Hey, we’re trying to do a pinhead; you’re going to give us the best foundation for that.'”

For all the atrocious creatures Tinsley and his team have been able to create on the show, they do have limitations, he said.

“Ryan (Murphy, the co-creator) really lets us push the envelope, but there are certain things we’ve had to not pursue that might be a little too much for TV or a little too overboard.”

Tinsley said he couldn’t elaborate on which creatures didn’t make the cut because they “might be tabling them for another season.”

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