How Ryan Murphy’s Go-to Prosthetics Artist Brings His Surreal Worlds to Life

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Photo Source: Courtesy FX on Hulu

As head of the prosthetics makeup department on the spinoff anthology series “American Horror Stories” (which premiered July 15 on FX on Hulu), Cale Thomas knows a thing or two about monsters—and ghosts and the undead and just blood in general. Here, Thomas discusses how he, along with makeup department head Tyson Fountaine and prosthetics designer Jason Hamer, bring Ryan Murphy’s wildly imaginative worlds to life time and again.

What does the role of the prosthetics department entail? 
As any department head is, I am in charge of the overall continuity of the department itself, hiring the crew—nowadays we are also in charge of scheduling the health and safety measures. We also do a considerable amount of application [of prosthetics to the actors]. 

When you’ve signed onto a project and received the scripts, where does your process actually begin? 
We do a breakdown of the script where we go line by line, reading the stage direction and figuring out what exactly the characters are. Because there are descriptions in the stage description: “This character is bone white, like a ghost,” so I’ll make a notation of that. Then, “this person gets decapitated,” “this person has an arm that gets cut,” I’ll make a notation and go to the director and ask them specifically what they meant by that, or what they imagine that would look like. So if it’s a ghost, would it be like rain or would it be like Japanese? What era are we doing? We go from there and start to collaborate. Once we do the collaboration, we sort out what exactly they want. “This person has horns, this person has pointy ears, this person has red eyes.” Then we start doing the breakdown process, where I go individually to each department to figure out what they need and what I would be responsible for. Then Jason Hamer, who is our prosthetics designer [on “American Horror Stories”], has a build list, and he is in charge of developing and creating and processing all the stuff. He then hands it off to me as department head, and I do the majority of the application on set with my team. 

“That’s what Ryan Murphy does: [his stories] are always rooted in some type of reality, and that’s what I’m drawn to.”

 I imagine there’s a lot of crossover among the departments. 
There is. Tyson Fountaine is our makeup department head, so I work closely with him and his team and decide what we allocate to whom and when. He is very versed in special makeup effects, as well, he has an expansive career and is one of the biggest department heads in all of Hollywood. We get together and we talk about, “If this character works Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday but you also have these other three other characters working Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, would you like me to hop in and help out?” I say I need some help with this blood gag, and boom, he helps me do that, as well. He also facilitates the overwhelming majority of tools and supplies for our department. He makes sure we have everything we need to do our jobs. So, if we need to hire an outside vendor like a lens tech, the lens tech would be something that he would facilitate for our department.

What was unique about working on “American Horror Stories”? 
I’ve worked for Ryan Murphy before, in many capacities: “AHS” and “9-1-1.” If you are familiar with the formula [of “Horror Stories”], it’s an anthology. Every episode is its own standalone, like the “Twilight Zone,” so they’re bringing back characters from previous seasons and doing their own little version of their story in every episode. In all Ryan Murphy shows there’s an emphasis on special effects makeup, because he is such a champion of our department. There are a lot of kills, and you’ll see some familiar faces throughout. Every episode would usually have a character reprising a role. It’s kind of how they do it in this multiverse. 

How different is the experience working on something unreal, like the “AHS” franchise, compared to something grounded in reality? 
Things that have always resonated with me aren’t necessarily Freddy [Krueger], though I love those characters. For me, what really resonated was something based in fact. “Rosemary’s Baby” really stuck with me: Upper West Side New Yorkers in the ’60s screaming “hail Satan” scared the shit out of me, because that is believable. That is something I can see actually happening. Seeing a guy in “Saving Private Ryan” being rushed ashore while German cannons brought them to pieces, that resonates with me. Just the stories of “Friday the 13th” and “Nightmare on Elm Street” always fueled my desire to help the storytelling along. That’s what Ryan Murphy does: [his stories] are always rooted in some type of reality, and that’s what I’m drawn to. Trying to help each director tell their own story in their own way through the eyes of Ryan Murphy—I couldn’t have asked for anything better. I’m super grateful I got the opportunity to do so. 

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Can you tell me about the ways you work directly with actors? 
We’re the only department on an entire set whose sole purpose is to touch an actor. I touch people on their faces, which is very intimate. So, my relationship and my trust-building is indispensable. When an actor comes to me and they come with ideas of how they want to approach this and the choices they’re going to make, it’s very important. I’ve worked with a lot of actors, and most of them who have gone through extensive prosthetics work in the past know what I’m doing to them, they know their adhesives, the removers, they know their skincare. If they're newer, it’s my job to guide them through the process. I let the actor know right when they sit in the chair: “If you’re hot, I’m hot; if you’re cold, I’m cold; if you’re uncomfortable, I’m probably uncomfortable, too. You’re not alone out there,” and they know that. There are a lot of times when actors have to go through different states physically, spiritually, professionally, and it’s important to have that relationship with them so they know there are people out there who are rooting for them. 

What are some of the ways you make the makeup trailer as comfortable as possible, especially when they have a long prosthetics application? 
Usually, what ends up happening is we have something called a “pre-call,” which is actually the makeup and hair department’s call. Because we have to get all the actors ready before a camera shows up, before the departments start lighting, before the food shows up. For “AHS,” it’s more extensive than other shows. Primarily, what I’ve found in my experience is that time in the trailer is the actor’s time to prepare. Some actors want it very [energetic] and some want it very quiet so they can go through their scenes. Actors getting ready at the same time, they often run the scene together in the trailer. I’ve also had actors who want it to be very light because they have a very heavy day. We’ve got music, we always have a coffee maker going, we’ve got cappuccinos, we can do it all. We are ourselves and I always have a heads up of what’s happening the day before so I kind of know how to position myself to be of service to them, because, ultimately, my job is to help the director facilitate the story and that’s it. 

What advice would you tell someone who wants to get into makeup and prosthetics? 
Learn how to do effects and beauty. There are people who are specialized in each field, and I learned this from an old department head on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” He said, “Your beauty makeups will make your effects makeup better, and your effects makeup will make your beauty makeups better.” It’s all connected. Plus, a lot of what we do isn’t special effects makeup: it’s covering tattoos, it’s putting prosthetics on a double, it’s corrective beauty, it’s sweat and dirt. It’s not giant aliens and big monsters, that’s not what it is if you want to be a working artist. This is a trade, so you have to be able to be comfortable in any position you put yourself in. You could be doing a Western one day and “Star Trek” the next day. You can be doing “West World” one day and “13 Reasons Why” the next day. You can be doing a romcom one day and a kids’ show the next day and then “AHS” the next day, where there’s gallons of blood being squirted between the camera and yourself. Being able to be comfortable in any situation has been so helpful in my career.

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Casey Mink
Casey Mink is the senior staff writer at Backstage. When she's not writing about television, film, or theater, she is definitely somewhere watching it.
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