About four months ago, a clip of Michelle Williams went viral on Twitter: a 1o-second scene of her as dancer-actress Gwen Verdon, dramatically wiping away seemingly invisible tears from her face. Even if you hadn't ever seen a full episode of Fosse/Verdon, the FX mini-series in which the scene was set, you knew that Williams just secured her first Emmy nomination.
Of course, that tiny clip was a microcosm of the talent that exploded on the show. Transforming Williams into Verdon to retell the story of the unsung actress' long partnership with director-choreographer Bob Fosse (Sam Rockwell) took a lot more than hand gestures and jazz hands. In fact, it took a team of at least seven hairstylists and 11 makeup and prosthetic artists, including makeup designer Debbie Zoller, to bring Verdon's world to life on the small screen.
Period pieces — in TV or film — are inherently tricky because of the historical context. Zoller tells Refinery29 that Fosse/Verdon was a horse of an entirely different colour. "It was completely different period work because it was a layer of [several] decades," she explains, referencing the fact that the story spans from the 1950s to the late '80s. "I was hoping to capture the essence of these two people, but the ageing was very difficult. We had to be very delicate."
Ahead, Zoller, who is a 2019 Emmy nominee for Outstanding Makeup For A Limited Series Or Movie, tells us exactly how she and her team transformed Williams into Gwen.
Gwen's Daughter Provided Never-Before-Seen Inspiration
"There was no modernising. This was the world I wanted you to believe you were back in, so in the beginning, I used Photoshop to alter photos of Michelle to see exactly how young or old I could take her Gwen. Then, I made a mood board of different photos of Gwen. We had pictures all over the trailer. Plus, Nicole Fosse [Gwen and Bob's daughter] gave us access to archives of personal family photos. [Makeup artist] Jackie Risotto ended up executing a lot of my designs on Michelle while filming, and it worked out really nicely. It all came together by just diving into those photos of Gwen."
Special Prosthetics Revealed Gwen's Story — & Her Cosmetic Procedures
"We had to make both Sam and Michelle look younger, so we'd use these cosmetic lifts under their wigs to help. By the time we got to filming the '70s, they were basically themselves onscreen, no ageing. In the early '80s, we began the stretch-and-stipple process [to create aged features]. The one thing Michelle really noticed was Gwen's neck wattles. We made three different sizes of prosthetic wattles that would change as Michelle aged. At one point, we found out that Gwen had gotten a facelift, so we went back to a smaller wattle piece after that would've happened. It helped tell the story along the way."
"It required more research to fit Michelle into the ageing process properly. She was very specific about what she wanted, too. Michelle noticed an overbite while watching old videos of Gwen speaking. So, I brought in Vincent Van Dyke and Yoichi Art Sakamoto to create dental veneers for her. She wore them for the entire filming process for continuity sake. We painted some to look brighter and younger, and had another set of veneers look slightly aged."