If you’ve ever marveled at a “Saturday Night Live” cast member’s transformation from parrot to politician in one commercial break, you should know the names Jodi Mancuso and Louie Zakarian, the sketch show’s longtime hair and makeup department heads. Just ahead of the television institution’s 43rd season finale, Mancuso and Zakarian—who have 12 Emmys between them—spoke with Backstage to break down what a show week typically looks like, how their work helps actors find and get into their many characters, and the one look creator Lorne Michaels deemed too shocking.
How do you typically prepare for a show week?
Louie Zakarian (makeup): It starts on Tuesdays, when the host comes in and we do promos. We do the table read on Wednesday; we go through something like 40 scripts starting at 4 p.m. At about 9 or 10 at night, we find out what 14 or 15 sketches we’re going to execute for the week…. We have to put together a full crew of hairstylists and makeup artists. Jodi has to pull all the wigs. If we need prosthetics, we have to build and put that together. We have rehearsals Thursday morning. [Actors] usually don’t put on the stuff until Friday afternoon. Then, once we have the pre-tapes done on Friday, we can concentrate on getting everything ready for Saturday night. We can come in on Friday at 9 in the morning and not leave until Saturday night after the show is over.
Jodi Mancuso (hair): Louie and I are there all week. We have a small team with us, but we also have people who come in just for Saturdays. The people there all week are the ones who style and design the wigs, and then you have people who come in who will help with makeup, hair, and wardrobe just for Saturday.
How different is it to create a character as opposed to making an actor look like a real person who exists?
JM: We have a design meeting where we sit down with wardrobe. When we’re designing [looks for] a character, like a girl at a wedding, we discuss if the wedding is in New Jersey or the middle of America, and we discuss everything down to what kind of nails the characters have. When you’re making them look like someone else, it’s definitely about turning that particular actor as close as we can into that person without losing who they are. We can’t make them look exact.
LZ: That’s one of Lorne’s biggest things. Years ago, we turned one of our cast members into Michael Jackson, and it was so much of a transition you couldn’t see the actor anymore—you just saw Michael Jackson—and Lorne said it was too much. It shocked people, and we had to tone it back.
Do you find, generally, that hair and makeup help the actors get into character?
LZ: I find that as we’re putting little things on, they start transforming into that character. I know for Alec [Baldwin], as soon as he starts getting into that orange makeup and once that wig is on his head, his Trump-isms just start budding.
JM: The whole body changes! I have found, over the years, what we do is so important to their character. And that’s across the board: costume, hair, makeup. The look of the character is so important. I also design “Portlandia,” and there are times when Fred [Armisen] will call me in and ask me to help him find this character. I’ll read it and I’ll give him a wig reference or a picture reference and he will completely change the minute he gets dressed.
Do the actors collaborate with you on their looks?
JM: We have to think about what they’re going to be comfortable with. If they’re not comfortable with the makeup or the hair, they’re not going to be comfortable doing the character. You have to also remember a lot of these cast members are also writers, which they don’t get credit for (which is a sin). But they have written a lot of the stuff they’re [acting in], and it’s their concept. We have to really listen to them and try to find this character for them. They’re trying to explain it, and it’s our job to listen and figure it out.
LZ: The other major thing we have to consider is how much time they have between sketches. Kate McKinnon, for example, she’ll go in and be a blobfish in one scene and then two minutes later she’s gotta be Hillary Clinton, and we have to clip all that off of her, and then we have to be able to apply our makeup and hair, and we have to make sure we can get it done in that commercial break, that three or four minutes.
It’s notoriously difficult to get hired at “SNL.” How’d the two of you do it?
LZ: I was doing makeup for about 10 years before I got up the nerve to send in a résumé to NBC, but I finally did, and then I would call every month. There was a woman there who booked all the makeup artists, and I would call her once a month religiously and just say, “Hi, it’s Louie here. Do you have any openings? Do you need anyone?” After about a year of calling her every month, she got me an interview with the studio manager at the time, and he gave me my shot. He got me the means to get into the union and I started doing disguises on “The Phil Donahue Show.” And then in 1995, I got my shot to work on “SNL,” and I’ve been there ever since.
JM: It was about 17 years ago. I had three young kids and I was taking a break, and I just wanted to get some swing work because at that time there was not as much work here in New York. If you weren’t working, you got nervous because you’d be obsolete quickly. I began to panic a little, so I called a friend and asked if he had any day work. He was at “SNL” and told me they sometimes needed Saturday people. I was just doing Saturdays, and then they started to need people during the week. It went on and on and on until here I am.