August 5th, 2016
“Abbie? As in Abbie Normal?” is how our interview kicks off with the brilliant Kenny Myers and his equally talented wife Karen Asano-Myers at this year’s UMA Expo. After introducing our latest contributor, Kenny immediately cracked a joke to get us all relaxed (even if the Young Frankenstein reference did go over our Generation Y heads somewhat). Looking at them, with Kenny gently resting a hand on Karen’s shoulder as she leans in to discuss working on The Last Samurai along with a whole host of other iconic projects, you see the calm and experience imbued from knowing that they are artists at the top of their games. With a lifetime of experience in the hair and make-up trailers of huge films, we were thrilled to have the chance to hear their stories.
WP: We were wondering if you ever had a revelation moment, where you realised that this was it, this was what you wanted to do for the rest of your life?
Kenny Myers [KM]: I still haven’t had it.
WP: You still haven’t had it?
WP: …So what are you doing with your life then?
KM: I just come to these places and hang out!
WP: There must have been something, some moment where you thought ‘this is cool, I like playing with this.’
KM: I have a masters degree in theatrical design, that’s how I got into this mayhem. When I got that, which was in late ’76, theatre – which is what I got it for – was taking a dive on the East Coast and in New York. So I hung around and did the odd stuff, some television shows, went into business with one of my professors for a while. I loved the make-up because we had friends who would all dress up for Halloween and stuff, we’d make stuff in our basements. And one of those friends had left college early, citing that he wanted to go to Hollywood and do make-up. I remember waving him off, waving goodbye to him as he left the college – just walked out the college carpark with his backpack and hitch-hiked across the United States to Hollywood.
Two years later he came back and he was already a working MUA thanks to –, which had ignited Hollywood and opened up new doors – as I’m sure it did here. He came back to get married, so we went to his wedding, and he said ‘oh I have this job I might do in a couple of months,’ and I said ‘Well I want to take a vacation, so why don’t I come out and work for you for free?’ And a month later he called and said ‘I got it, come on out here.’ So I hopped on a plane and never went back. I would say it was right after that where I realised this was something I really liked – because it was the same work I’d done before but a little more… focused. It was the same techniques, same tools, just used differently and taken to an absolutely new level. And I liked it! So I never went home – my vacation turned into a lifetime.
WP: What about you Karen?
Karen Asano-Myers [KA]: I went to beauty school – I figured I had better learn something that I can fall back on – and worked in a salon for a very short amount of time because I realised I hated it. It’s 9-5, very monotonous, my boss was an absolute… and the clientele was not really my type. So at the time I was quite interested in SFX make-up, I watched stuff on TV and in films, and just thought it was the most fascinating thing ever. I had a friend who knew Kenny, and she hooked us up. We played phone tag for a while – he was busy, then I was busy – then finally we met up and he told me to bring my portfolio with me. I brought out what I had, which was very little, but the stuff he had in his shop was enough for me to go ‘this, I love this, this is what I want to be doing.’
WP: There’s nothing like going into a workshop and being blown away and so excited.
KA: Yeah, it was just jaw-dropping. Even though the make-up part is fascinating and I love it, I do love it, there’s just something about hair that… just drew me back to that end of things. But knowing, and having a background of what the guys do with make-up, is so important to be able to work together.
WP: It’s an important relationship, you can’t really have one without the other – it’s like two hands of the same body.
KA: Exactly. It’s a team effort and they work hand in hand. So those who have no clue as to what the make-up people are doing invariably in the way and end up doing their own thing which has nothing to do with what you’re trying to create.
WP: Are there any of your creations which you don’t like, or realise you needed to change once they’d arrived on set?
KM: Too many! Way too many.
WP: Any which stick out in particular?
KM: Yes – Tarman from Return of the Dead II. I hated it with a passion.
WP: How do you – when you realise there is a problem – snap into action and think ‘Okay, how are we going to do this?’
KM: There was no chance, not with Tarman. But at the time I realised that with this director it didn’t matter. But with other projects it’s easy. If it’s a case of lighting then I go to the DP and the director, and the producer. If it’s a case of colour being a bit off I just say ‘I’ll be back in a second, just hold there.’
WP: So it’s to have the confidence to step in and say ‘something’s not right’ rather than to sit back and sit on it?
KM: I have found myself doing that time and time again and eventually you have to wake yourself up and go ‘Stop it, go.’ And I’ve done it.
WP: Does it happen often?
KM: No, because the older you get the more you will look in advance and make sure you get there before. Occasionally you’ll get there and find there’s a strange lighting situation and you just need to say ‘excuse me’ and get someone to fix it. In The Spy Who Shagged Me, Michèle Burke was the department head and we’d done up Dr Evil and took them onto a new set – and when we got out there everyone’s teeth were fluorescent. Why? The DP had lit everywhere under the stairs with UV lights because it looked neat – but not realising that anything dental or white was glowing! So he took off to go fix that. Late in the day, on that same set, there were some issues with the make-up – so he pulled out a ladder and fixed up the light until we were happy. That’s someone who knows what they’re doing, rather than leaving it because it’s your problem.
KA: I can’t really think of anything though. Usually for a set look or something, things have been worked out or there might have been a test, but not always. So you can kind of see whether it’ll work, and the things you don’t like tend to be fairly small and you can fix them. I can’t think of a time where I’ve literally been like ‘Oh God, that’s crap and there’s not enough time to fix it!’ with a character.
KM: You’ve had them, I know that you have! That’s when you hope you have someone with you who will go ‘get that.’ Another set of eyes who you trust.
WP: With current technology anyone can go online and look at how to do SFX, hair and the make-up side of it, which means a lot more artists are coming through as self-taught. Do you think that’s a good thing or do you prefer working with people who are professionally trained?
KM: Anybody my age is self-taught – period. We wrote the books, so self-taught means nothing to me. If you went to school I’d be more wary, because you may have already picked up some bad habits or old technology. Schools, god bless ‘em, can sometimes lie through their teeth to keep students in their chairs. I’m not particularly easy on them; if I see someone good who’s just come out of a school do something wrong, I’ll tell them the truth. Go apprentice with someone good before you get screwed. Self-taught means they’re driven to learn the right way, or even their own way. I don’t care how you do it, just make sure you do it well. Schools can’t teach what the self-taught already know.
WP: Do you find that self-taught artists who use themselves as models then can’t work on other people?
KE: Not necessarily.
WP: We’ve heard that can be quite an issue within the beauty side of the industry, where people have booked artists or assistants who can do their own face and have advertised themselves as a great MUA, but who show up on set and can’t do another person’s face.
KA: That’s crazy, I hadn’t thought of that.
KM: That’s true in every industry. Modern technology and social media has empowered people to say ‘I went to such-and-such a school’, where they might only have done a six week course, and who are now claiming to be a qualified make-up artist when they aren’t even qualified to bring you coffee. You can have a brush behind your ear, but the real problem is being one of those people and unable to look yourself in the mirror, look yourself in the eye and say ‘I am full of sh*t’, and repeat it until you learn the right way. It takes 20, 30 years to learn how to be a functional anything in the film industry.
KA: Just because a little slip of paper says that I have worked at something, wherever – it means nothing.
KM: I don’t have a slip of paper! But I work for the top of the industry.
WP: What makes the perfect partner or team on set? What brings everything together?
KM: The best partner is one who is your opposite, in many ways, so that their strengths are your weaknesses and vice versa, or that you’re so equally matched. Either way is good but that way you’ll both catch each other. When I met Lois Burwell we became instant friends and still business partners to this day. We work extremely well together, I fill in her weakness and she mine. Together we’re a formidable team, but whenever we split up she can get very uncomfortable, and so am I.
WP: It must be like missing a hand? When you’re so used to being able to rely on each other.
KM: Very much so. So that’s what it is to me – and I couldn’t have answered that 10 years ago, but now that I’ve hooked up with Lois it’s easy.
KA: I don’t have someone specific like he and Lois, but I definitely have people with which I have a great rapport and like to work with. I would even go a step further and say that it should be someone who should fill in the areas which may not be your strengths, but someone that also doesn’t have the ego to say ‘see, I can do that, I’m better than that.’
KM: If you have that in a partner it can be dangerous. The best partners don’t even think like that at all. The ones who do are the ones you can tell aren’t really worth it. Because then it’s ego first, and not the show, and no show hires you because you think a lot of yourself.
KA: You put the film first, or the project first, and what you can do to help the director’s needs.
KM: Something else they don’t always teach you in school: you are there to fill a need. That need is to serve the narrative, and that means that the director, the producer, the actor’s vision – not yours, theirs. Hell, you’re rarely happy but that’s not why you’re there. It’s not your vote. You are part of the film-making team, and don’t get me wrong, a make-up artist is a valuable member of that team. We bring all that expertise to our jobs. I can’t count how many times I’ve had to say to one director or another who have said ‘I want to do this’, and I have to say ‘Okay but be careful of that’ and they say ‘oh, yeah, I hadn’t thought about that.’ And that’s what I’m there for, to remind you to shoot it in this direction not that direction in order to get what you want.
WP: Do you have any favourite projects that you’ve worked on?
KM: Over the years there have been so many that I’ve worked on, but no particular one. I enjoyed Lincoln, but Lincoln kicked the sh*t out of me and Lois for almost a year. It was a long film and an intense film.
WP: There must have been added pressure to get these characters – these real people – right, in a way which somewhat washed over us here in Europe. But these are historical figures which all Americans know, it must have been intense.
KM: Those are tough. Everyone sees Lincoln every day on their money, how do you bring that to life? And yet many of the truths about Lincoln people didn’t know. He had a high-pitched voice but everyone assumes it was [deepens voice] way down here, in a baritone. But there’s been a number of those kind of films.
KA: I would say that, while it was very tough, definitely in the top echelon would be The Last Samurai. That was such a great experience. And not only was it a great experience, but for the hair and make-up department it was a very visual film, and to be able to do it realistically rather than theatrically, it was incredible. That, again thank to Lois and to Jan Alexander who was my department head with hair, they made it such a joy to go to work even if sometimes it was really difficult conditions. But it was an amazing experience. We had actors who were actually willing to shave their heads like back in the old days, they were willing to do that for the project. You can’t ask for any more.
KM: We spent a month in Japan prepping for that – and you so rarely get that kind of prep time. It was especially useful because we were actually out there, where it was set, we took a dozen people from the States to live out there for four weeks ready to shoot for one week. But it was extraordinary. The director knew what he wanted, and everybody on the film became steeped in the culture.
KA: I think that would definitely be in the upper group of films and projects, the cream of the crop.
WP: You’ve both worked with long-time collaborators, whether they be other artists such as Lois or actors such as Harrison Ford. How do you go about building stable, reliable working relationships, to build that trust and collaborate over such a long time?
KM: Honesty. Always.
KA: First and foremost, always be honest.
KM: It’s best not to even try to mess around or not tell the truth, because if you get labelled with that you’re done. So you keep it honest.
KA: And always remember that – especially in an actor/artist relationship – you’re there to serve what they need to do. You can put your two cents in and say ‘Hey, what about this?’ and give them ideas, and they learn to trust you with that but it’s their choice. Sometimes it goes against what you think, but you’re not there for you and they have to be comfortable. Sometimes they go ‘actually I like what you said’ and it might take a few days for them to mull it over, so it’s definitely a collaborative effort.
WP: If you were to start again, today – to wake up and decide you want to be a SFX artist or a hair artist – how would you go about doing that?
KM: It’s real simple: you go find the people you admire in the industry and you ask if you can sweep their floors. You have to be there, and you have to be able to afford to do it; that’s the tough part. Living with mom and dad? Perfect time – you go and work for nothing, for experience and for what will be laid out before you. Because that is where the work is.
KA: Keep your eyes and ears open, your mouth shut, and just be a sponge.
KM: Always carry a notebook. I insist on it when people come to my shop. If I see you without a pencil and paper, you’re leaving tomorrow because you’re not taking it seriously. You’re not going to remember everything otherwise – write it down.
KA: That’s how we all learn. Even with our peers here, you look around to see ‘oh, that’s what they’re doing with that? That’s amazing!’ If you ever get to the point where you think you know it all, stop.
KM: You’re done. Time to retire!