Bree Babineaux


INTERVIEW WITH SFX ARTIST CHRIS NELSON

AMERICAN HORROR STORY, KILL BILL, SIN CITY, and MORE.


images provided by Chris Nelson, Evan Peters, and Mike Mekash


Christopher Nelson, an extremely talented artist in the world of  Special Effects Makeup, has worked on productions like KILL BILL,  AUSTIN POWERS and SIN CITY, and holds numerous Emmy  wins, as well as an Oscar win, for his work in Film and Television. Chris is also one of the artists who contributes to making AMERICAN HORROR STORY so thrilling and unique every season, as well as the creator  and host of the YouTube series “Character Make Up” that features a  laid-back, round table discussion with top names in the makeup  effects industry. I traveled to New Orleans – where Chris was currently filming – for a behind the scenes interview with Chris about American Horror Story, and his beginnings in the world of makeup effects.  


Originally from Pennsylvania, Chris knew early on that he wanted to  pursue makeup effects and acting: “I was fifteen, saved up a bunch of  money, moved out to LA, and started just practicing, practicing,  doing makeup. Went to acting school. Worked day jobs, night jobs… I finally got a job after bugging so many people and networking… I  started working in a shop while still going to acting school. I kept  continuing working in makeup. I got job after job. It was great. I was  very lucky. This was before there were a lot of schools for makeup.  My makeup career kind of took off, and I put the acting kind of to  the side—because I was working, making money, traveling, working  with great people. Then at a certain point—shortly before Kill Bill, I  thought, “Well if I’m going to act, I better do it now… I went back  to acting school, and started turning down makeup jobs to  concentrate on acting.” 


Chris was working as a makeup artist on Quentin Tarantino’s KILL  BILL when he landed his first big role as Tommy Plimpton in the  very same film—an opportunity that Chris hadn’t expected: “Then  Kill Bill came along. I was working for KNB EFX Group at the time  and went with Howard Berger to China to start shooting that movie.  On the way to China I was reading the script on the plane, and I  came across the part of the groom. I went, ‘I could do that role. I  wish I could do that role.’ So then we got to China and we shot the first part, which was the House Of Blue Leaves, and some other  stuff. Came back to the States after four months, and we had a hiatus  before we started shooting the LA portion of it. I had a meeting with  Quentin about some of the effects coming up—and that scene [with  the groom] was one of them. I’m sitting in the meeting with Quentin  and I said, “Well, who is this guy going to be? Cause you know we  need a head cast and stuff, because his head gets blown away.” And  Quentin said, “Well, I don’t know who it’s going to be yet, we have a  casting session on Friday.” Something inside of me just went, ‘I’ll do  it.’” Tarantino hadn’t realized that Chris was an actor as well. Makeup  Artist Greg Nicotero (Kill Bill, The Walking Dead), who was also at  the meeting, said, “Yeah, he’s a really good actor. You should  audition him.” 



Chris recalled: “Quentin looked at me and said, “… you look like you  could be the guy. But you got to audition, cause the part’s too big, I  can’t just fucking give it to you, so you gotta audition.’ And I said  ‘okay.’ I auditioned… against some big names. Knew that I was  never going to get it… then I was on set—we were shooting the  scene where Daryl Hannah dresses up like the nurse and is going to  go kill Uma. I’m in the makeup trailer and I hear, “Chris, Quentin  needs you on set with a gallon of blood right away.” So I grab my  blood and I go to set and I say, ‘What do you need?’ And Quentin  goes, “Oh I don’t need any blood actually, I just want to let you  know that I watched your audition—and you were really fucking  good man. I want you to know that it’s down to four people and  you’re one of the guys…” I was like oh my god. I went back to the  trailer. Next day came— “Chris, Quentin needs you on set with this.” I run up there. “Just want you to know it’s down to two people and  you’re one of the guys.” I thought, ‘Fuck Quentin, you’re killing  me!’” 


KILL BILL movie poster.

“The next day came and I was standing outside of the trailer talking  to Howard Berger, and Quentin came walking up and he went, “You  know, you did a really good job and… you’re my guy. You’re  Tommy. You’re in the movie.” So literally about a week later I’m standing on set with Uma, Quentin, David Carradine, Sam Jackson  and all these people and I’m like, ‘how did I get here?’ I was nervous  as hell. That’s how the two kind of went together.” 



I asked Chris whether he enjoyed having double duty on a film— being behind and in front of the camera on the same production.  “That was a unique experience. It worked on that movie and in that  moment, because we were all close like a family. I’ve been on other  sets doing makeup where they’ve asked me to do something, but it  was uncomfortable—people look at it like, ‘Oh, they gave the  makeup guy a gig’, and so after Kill Bill and a couple other movies, I  quit makeup for a few years. I just pursued acting. I wanted to earn  some respect for myself and other people in acting… I did pretty  good. I did all the shows like CSI, Criminal Minds, did some movies.  And then the business kind of changed a little bit. I was too blonde,  or too tall—I realized I didn’t like the game of it. I missed makeup. I  missed the camaraderie of fellow artists. Going away from makeup, I  mean I respected it before, but going away from it and coming back,  it gave me a new respect for FX makeup. Really energized me. Eryn  Krueger, the department head on American Horror Story gave me  the chance… She was one of the people who said, “Well, if you have  stuff to do (acting), you can do it, but you’re talented and we want  you here”—and I’ve been on every season since.” 




American Horror Story is one of the most creative shows to date.  Fans, as well as fellow industry professionals, have taken notice of  the show’s innovative ways. Now in it’s fourth season, “Freak Show,” American Horror Story has earned over fifty awards and more than  one hundred nominations. Every year, the show’s groundbreaking  writing challenges the artists who work behind the scenes to rise to  the occasion with a new level of awesomeness.  



I asked Chris how the makeup team goes about transforming the  actors each season, and he shared a bit of the process: “There are a  lot of steps and a lot of people that go into getting characters like  Pepper to the screen. It’s not just us. There are the effects shops that build all the prosthetics and design a lot of the stuff—they’re the  ones that get it first. Like for Pepper on Asylum, that was Tinsley  Studio. This year it’s David Anderson and Fractured FX. So what happens is the script will come out, and they’ll have meetings about  it. The effects shops in Los Angeles will talk to the show’s producer,  Ryan Murphy, and get an idea of what they’re looking at. Ryan  Murphy is very specific, there’s really not a lot of guessing—he’s very  focused about what he wants everything to look like down to detail.  So he has his notes, and there’s a design phase. Multiple designs  come out, he approves one… sculptures are done… they’re sent to  us wherever we’re at—whether it’s LA or New Orleans. Then it’s up  to us to execute that—to get it on the actor, to make it look real—to  help them find those characters and what the limitations are with the  makeup. It’s a big process with a lot of people.” 


Chris added: “It’s a hard show. But it’s really rewarding. The fans  love it. The success of the show has been great. The Emmy  nominations—it’s all really good. It’s hard, because it’s a lot of hours.  It’s a grueling schedule and an ambitious show. Each episode is like  shooting a feature film. It’s all shot on film still. It’s time consuming,  and really, REALLY ambitious. It’s probably one of the most  ambitious shows on television. It works the crew. But we’re all very  dedicated and proud of what we do. We’re a family. Each department  helps each other out.” 


Chris was a big KISS fan growing up, and that prompted his first  attempt at makeup back in Pennsylvania. “My first makeup was KISS  makeup. I was a little kid and I was so into KISS. It was the first  record I ever bought. I did Paul Stanley makeup on my brother. I was  so proud of it. Then I had to do all the KISS makeup of course. On  myself, my brothers, my friends. I started to make werewolves and  stuff with cotton balls, gauze, and spray paint—household things.  Then I started learning about materials like wax, foam latex—how to  make fake blood. It just progressed and progressed. But yeah, KISS  makeup was my first makeup, which was awesome—because you know, I didn’t know, I was just playing. It was simple, but  effective.” 



Chris also has a horror/action script in the development phase,  entitled SUPERMAX: “SuperMax is a great idea and a great concept  that has got lost in development. I sold it to SONY—it was  Columbia Pictures. Went into development. It’s a rated R movie, an  action movie, set inside a prison with monsters. They wanted to turn  it into a PG movie—to broaden the net and make it a PG summer  family action movie—which, you can’t do with that concept. So we  tried, we did our best, but at the end of two years of development  they realized it wasn’t possible to go PG with it. And so I got it back  and have the original version of SuperMax… It’s hard because you  want to hold on to the integrity of the movie, but still try to give the studio what they want as well. It just didn’t work. I believe that movie  will still get made, and somebody will see it for what it is… It was  ahead of its time to be honest with you.” 



Wrapping our interview, Chris told me what he considered to be the  best part about being an artist on the show: “It’s different every day.  It’s different every year. I work with great artists. Eryn Krueger Mekash and Mike Mekash are both great artists and people. We have  a lot of fun. The work is hard, but it’s rewarding. The best part is  once the shows start airing—because we work for a few months  before we ever see anything—and then finally when you see it and  you’re at your most tired and your most frustrated—you finally see  the show and you’re so proud. There are times when I get choked  up—literally choked up watching the show—because it’s so good.  That’s the best part. That’s the payoff. And to see people on the Internet or hear people [say they] really love it, that’s amazing.” 


Chris has no plans of slowing down, and continues to enjoy every  aspect of his field: “Still act, still write, still do makeup. I love the  show … Trying to stay stimulated, artistic, creative. And sometimes, get some sleep.”