Jennifer Aspinall on makeup illusions, toxic transformations and gothic nymph fashion tips

Jennifer Aspinall is one of the most prolific and respected artists in the world of makeup. Her creations have been seen by millions, including her work on Saturday Night Live and her Emmy award winning work on MAD TV. To horror film fans, she’s best recognized for her inventively gruesome special makeup effects in the 1980s cult classics “The Toxic Avenger” and “Street Trash.”

Ms. Aspinall was kind enough to take time out for a chat about her life and career.

How did you become interested in makeup?

I was really really shy as a kid, and I liked to disguise myself. I found a book at the library called “Stage Makeup” by Richard Corson, this book is a makeup artist’s bible. It gives you pretty much all the basic information you’d ever need to know. So for me that book was amazingly inspiring. I got really into illusion. I would make myself up, and disguise myself, and be different people. This is about when I was nine years old. When I was ten my next door neighbor, who produced dinner theater and summer stock, took me to a professional makeup supplier in Philadelphia. By the time I was eleven, going into twelve, I started working for her doing theater productions. I celebrated my twelfth birthday onstage, doing a dinner theater production. And from that point on I just continued working.

I would go to school every day, come home, I had a paper route about five miles long. I’d do my paper route, go to the theater, do a show, come back at eleven o’ clock at night, do my homework, and go back to school the next day. And I did that from the time I was eleven until the time I graduated. So I spent all of my childhood doing makeup, hair, sets and sometimes performing for theater. I was very lucky I had creative, understanding parents!

Was it your intention to eventually be doing makeup for film and television?

There was actually no intention, I’m not one of these people that said “I’m going to go to Hollywood and become a makeup artist.” My passion was and is illusion. I really liked creating illusion backstage, but I also liked being onstage. My father died when I was relatively young, I was nineteen. I didn’t like the concept of dealing with all the rejection that actors have to deal with, so I ended up staying behind the scenes.

At seventeen I produced and starred in a theatrical production of Rocky Horror, and had gotten onto a movie with Vanessa Redgrave called Playing For Time. These two events lead to me doing makeup for television and film. While playing the part of Frank-N-Furter in Rocky Horror I acquired a fan club, and the woman who was president introduced me to a friend of her mother’s who was a very successful hairdresser in New York City. After meeting the makeup people on Playing For Time, I decided to move to New York. So when I was 18, I moved and then through Peggy, the hairdresser friend, I started doing television commercials.

The Toxic Avenger was really my first time being in charge of a movie, my first big job with prosthetics and special effect gags. I was learning on the job, I had never really sculpted prosthetics or masks, and it’s sort of ironic that the film has gone on to become a cult classic when for me it was my jumping off point. Because it took on a little life of its own, I was very fortunate to be interviewed by Fangoria. I was one of the only women doing it at that point, so I imagine that was also an interesting angle for them. That kind of started me into the horror film thing, but it wasn’t my intention to go into horror films, quite frankly they weren’t really a thing when I was little, it wasn’t a career choice. For me, it’s all about illusion. Special makeup effects are another way to create believable illusion. I’ve just been very blessed that I get to do something I like to do and make money at it, and here I am forty years down the road, still doing it.

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early poster concealing the titular monster hero’s face

Did you have a big learning curve going from makeup to makeup special effects?

“Makeup special effects” didn’t really exist, at least not for me, when I first started doing makeup as a kid. There had been horror films from Universal and the B movies from the 1950s and 60s with monsters, but there wasn’t yet the whole generation of slasher films or low budget effects-driven films, that didn’t happen until the early 80s. The groundbreaking technology that pushed it into another realm really happened after Rob Bottin and Rick Baker with The Thing and An American Werewolf in London, with all the puppetry and animatronics being incorporated into makeup. That’s when special effects makeup became “a thing” and the makeup world kind of separated. Before that, people were hired on staff positions in studios and they’d do everything that was required whether it was a monster or beauty makeup.

For me personally, my whole trip was all about illusion, whatever was going to make the illusion more interesting and better. My interests kind of morphed into what showed up in my life. I liked creating illusion, and makeup gave me that option, and then makeup effects showed up. As an artist I was working from my private art background – my parents were both artists – and once I understood the technical background it was just another way for me to create art. It came from that place as opposed to seeing it in a magazine and wanting to grow up to become a makeup effects artist.

“The Toxic Avenger” had its premiere in May 1984, was that the year you worked on it?

It definitely wasn’t ’84, I was living in London doing another movie then so I’m pretty sure it was ’83. I actually think we made it even earlier; I think we shot it in ’82. I just recently had coffee with Lloyd Kaufman, who I hadn’t seen since we wrapped the film, and we were trying to figure it out. My father had just died, and he died in ’81. A friend of mine died during the movie, and I know he died in ’82. So I feel like we shot it in ’82, and then were wrapping it up in ’83. I remember I helped on special effects for The First Turn-On which is how I actually met the Troma folks.

What were the effects you did on “The First Turn-On”?

There was a lobotomy scar on Vincent D’Onofrio, and I made this creepy skull-mummy thing in a cave. Mark Torgl, who would be in Toxic Avenger, played this kind of nerdy guy who needed all these pimples. That’s probably why I was considered for The Toxic Avenger.

Being relatively inexperienced, was it difficult to get the job on an effects-heavy film like Toxic Avenger?

You’d have to ask Lloyd why he hired me, but I think it was because I was pretty enthusiastic and really up for the challenge, and they really challenged me. I’m sure you know their reputation, they weren’t exactly the nicest guys on the block at that point, but…(Laughs) Their whole thing was they made cheap movies. They hadn’t really made horror films at that point so they probably didn’t know one thing from another, either. I think the fact I was an honest person and willing to do the best job I could ever do – I would have to assume that willingness was what attracted them. And the fact that they barely paid me. (Laughs)

Again, all this stuff was fairly new so there wasn’t a whole lot of people out there with a whole lot of experience doing it anyway. We weren’t in Hollywood. I’m sure some of the guys in Rick Baker’s shop had more experience than I did, but at the same time there weren’t a whole lot of people into it at that point. And if they were, Troma wouldn’t have been able to afford them.

I showed them some sketches of what I thought the creature should look like, and once I got the job I really started to get into how each effect would be done. It all starts with the script, then the makeup artist figures out how to make it happen. I remember talking them into doing the transformation scene, because American Werewolf had made such a big impact on people. I thought, there’s no way that you can do a movie like this without having a transformation scene. They didn’t want to do it, but eventually they gave me all the equipment, all the people, and said “Okay, if you can shoot it in a day, go for it.” So I did! I storyboarded and directed that scene. That was an amazing day!

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publicity still of Mark Torgl’s transformation scene in The Toxic Avenger

What was the turn around time between when you got the script and when the effects had to be ready? Was it tight, being a low budget film?

Honestly, I didn’t have a point of reference because this wasn’t something I had done a lot before – I’m sure it was a very short prep. I feel like I remember having two months to build it all. I don’t think it was much more than that. I remember thinking it was a lot of stuff, but I’m the type of person that I can just dig in, keep moving, and work around the clock until it’s done.

I do remember having a little bit of time where I set up a little shop in my mother’s basement outside Philadelphia. Tom Lauten and I worked down there because there was no space at Troma’s building in New York. I didn’t have a studio at that point. Eventually we got a room in their building to work out of. But we did most of the work at my mom’s house in Pennsylvania.

The film has a cartoonish tone but violence looks very realistic, was that a deliberate choice?

I’m more of a “realistic” person, I’m not really into big cartoony things. So for me I was going to try to make it as realistic as we had time and money for. We practiced the running-over-the-kid scene several times to get the right amount of blood and brains. Funny story actually – we had my grandfather as the stunt driver, running over these small dummies in his ’66 Mustang. Then at one point the cops showed up. We had these dead bodies with their heads smashed up, blood everywhere and there’s my grandfather – they thought he had just murdered some small children. It was pretty funny and terrifying at the same time. (Laughs)

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actor & stunt performer Michael Russo’s deep-fried hands are prepped for The Toxic Avenger

How do you feel about your work on the character, the Toxic Avenger himself?

I think it came out okay considering it was pretty much my first sculpture. It was a really low budget film so I only made three or four masks. We would re-use them as much as we could. The design was based on a picture I’d found of a soldier from the Falklands War, whose face had gotten blown apart from a bomb. That was the whole inspiration. I personally like mine better than the ones that followed; I thought it got more and more cartoony in the sequels. (Laughs) Personally I try to be as realistic and anatomically correct as possible.

Lloyd Kaufman credited you in his first book with designing the character’s makeup so he could smile, is that correct?

I think maybe what he was commenting on was that I wanted the character to be sympathetic, and believable, and have some sort of soul behind him. I think they originally saw him as a bigger more cartoony character, but my artistic aesthetic wasn’t letting me do that. I wanted it to look organic and real. At the end of the day, they let me do it. My philosophy was, and is, you need to love the character even though he might be horrific looking. It took them a minute, but they were willing to go with it.

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Mark Torgl (left) and Mitch Cohen as Toxie (hero of the Falklands)

How soon after completing “Toxic Avenger” did you begin on “Twisted Souls”, later to become “Spookies”?

Tom Lauten, who had helped me on Toxic Avenger, we had gone to England to do a movie right after Toxic Avenger called The Anger. We were there for many many months. I don’t even know if that movie ever got released. Then I got the job on Twisted Souls. I was originally hired to do the straight makeup. There were many people doing effects on that project, I ended up helping with the special effects because I knew how to, and there was so much to be done. Jimmy Muro was the camera operator on that, and that’s how I ended up over on Street Trash.

A photo surfaced online of you helping create the Spider Woman’s victim, what other effects did you have a hand in?

I helped out on the blonde woman with white eyes when she got possessed, I remember putting that appliance on. I remember doing the Grim Reaper at some point. I also sculpted and built one of the Muck Men. That was a lot of fun. I was also responsible for various cuts and slashes on a lot of the characters. You know it’s funny, I’ve never even seen the movie. Up until recently, I didn’t even know it ever got released…or that it even got done. (Laughs) Someday, somewhere hopefully I’ll find a copy of it.

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Aspinall with Gabe Bartolos behind the scenes of Spookies. Photo from TheDissolve.com

Were you brought back for the additional scenes that were filmed by Eugenie Joseph, when the film was changed from “Twisted Souls” to “Spookies”?

No, I was just there for the original shoot. We all, cast and crew, lived in the house we were shooting in, it would’ve made a great reality show. The house was amazing and completely haunted (Laughs) It made me very sad that the people who owned it didn’t really care about what happened to it. It got quite trashed by the filming. The ghost that haunted the place was an old woman. She made her presence known several times…slamming doors and such. She was probably angry at what was happening to her beautiful house.

How soon after that were you working on “Street Trash”?

Pretty immediately. I had just started a makeup school in New York City, with Dean Kartalas. I used the school as a studio and brought Dean and some students onto the film.

Had James Muro or Roy Frumkes seen your work on “Toxic Avenger” when they hired you?

I don’t know – I don’t remember even talking about it with them. I think Jimmy and I just hit it off on Twisted Souls. He was kind enough to think of me when Street Trash was ready to go. Jimmy was an amazing camera operator and he’d just gotten a new steadicam, I think his amazing talents were why that film looks so good.

Did you have a fair amount of time to design the meltdown scenes before shooting started?

I believe we had a fair amount of time. I don’t remember exactly but I feel like we had a few months to design and build the effects. The meltdown scenes were another great opportunity for me to design and direct. Because we were building things to work from certain camera angles, and many things had to be puppeteered, Jimmy let me direct a lot of the effects. I think the things we were doing were unique because of the colors – I wanted to incorporate the environment into the makeups, so that it felt like people were melting into their environments, or their clothing. We chose the color palettes to accommodate the environment. That was my vision for the film. Artistically Street Trash was a really cool project.

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Japanese poster featuring colorful effects from Street Trash

Was there a conscious contrast from the realistic gore in “Toxic Avenger”, to make the “Street Trash” meltdowns more surreal?

I was still trying to make it look real – but abstract. The colors were abstract, but the physicality of it was real. As real as things can look when you’re melting people. (Laughs)

When the character Bronson gets decapitated by the air tank, did you create and operate his severed head?

I did, and I was very proud of that head! (Laughs) I’d seen The Terminator, and I wanted to make one of those heads. I felt it turned out really well, and I still feel that it was a really good mechanical head. It was one of the more fun challenges on that film for me, because I hadn’t really done servo motors at that point. I sculpted it, built it and operated it. It worked very well the first time we shot it, but unfortunately there was a hair in the film gate and we had to come back and reshoot it. I was very disappointed on the reshoot – I didn’t realize that the blood had seeped into the motors, hardened and inhibited the movement of the muscles. So what you see in the film, unfortunately, isn’t the way it worked when it really worked. I was really bummed. Because it really did work – I had all the muscles in the face working and it was anatomically correct.

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the ill-fated Bronson’s ill-fated mechanical head (likeness of actor Vic Noto)

Did you create the severed penis prosthetics for the castration keep-away scene?

Yes and no. We did an oversized one, and we did a regular sized one. The oversized one was the one being thrown around, and the other was made from a cast of a crew member’s, who shall remain nameless. (Laughs) I helped with that one, but the big one I did not. I remember sort of drawing the line and saying “You know what? I’m not doing that one.” I did not make the gigantic one. It might have been Mike Lackey.

Was it around this time that you attended the first Fangoria’s Weekend of Horrors event, in 1985?

Yes, I went to a few of them. They were great opportunities to say hi to fans and see people you’ve worked with, meet new people that you want to work with. Those conventions are always a lot of fun. Fangoria was very kind and had written two or three articles about me at that point. That was a big deal, so I wanted to be supportive.

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Aspinall in the official Fangoria’s Weekend of Horrors video (1985)

The video of that convention was included in the book “Destroy All Movies!!! The Complete Guide to Punks On Film” and mentions you as a “New Waver.”

Get out, really? That’s awesome. (Laughs)

Did you consider yourself a part of the New Wave or Punk subcultures?

I was always on the fringe – not really part of the hardcore punk thing, but I was really attracted to the aesthetic of it…the clothing, and the hair and the makeup, I definitely gravitated towards the look. I was never really into drugs or alcohol, I was probably the straightest punk rocker you’d ever meet. That part of it wasn’t my thing, but I was very attracted to the visuals. Looking back it was fantasy makeup to me. You could create a mask, be whoever you wanted to be. There was so much paint and costuming going on. Unconsciously, people would respond to it. I spent a lot of time in London at that point in my life. The punk scene in England was filled with rebellious energy, it was exciting to watch as an American in England.

I still get referred to in the press as “the gothic nymph.” (Laughs) The Hollywood Reporter called me “the gothic nymph” which I thought was hysterical. I guess I still am attracted to that visual imagery. I still have blonde and pink hair, and I still wear black.

“Street Trash” was your last explicitly horror-genre work, did you not want to have your career defined exclusively as a “Horror Makeup Effects” artist?

I never really had a plan for my career. My life is about creating, as long as I’m creating I’m happy! After Street Trash I went to California for a month, for a change of scene and to see if I would like it there. Many people doing FX at the time were moving to California to work in the shops. LA didn’t really speak to me at the time, so I returned home. Soon after I started working for New York City opera. It was great being back in the theatre – opera is big, over-the-top theatre. The people are big energy and what you’re creating are big illusions. So it was an interesting place to be.

While working at New York City Opera I was offered the department head position for the makeup department at Saturday Night Live. That job took my career in a whole other direction which had nothing to do with low budget horror films.

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Aspinall with Kevin Nealon (left) and Dana Carvey (right) as Hanz & Franz on SNL

How many years did you work at Saturday Night Live?

I was head of the makeup department from ’89 to ’93. Prior to that I had worked on several filmed commercial parodies for the show, which I think is how they knew about me. So technically, I worked for them from ’87 to ’93.

Had SNL become a more makeup-heavy show, in the wake of the 80s makeup effects boom?

When I got the job, they told me “No big makeup.” In years prior, when Peter Montagna was the makeup department head, it was a really big makeup effects show – Joe Piscopo and Eddie Murphy were always in makeup. And then when I took over, they wanted to pull back. It was still a big makeup show, we did a lot of makeup, but it was mostly paint jobs, blad caps and small prosthetics. There was still more makeup than most shows, it’s still Saturday Night Live, a character driven sketch show!

You still got to do a few heavy makeup creations such as Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer though, right?

Yeah, and that character was a 24 hour turn around. That was one of those things they added on a Friday night, to be shot Saturday. We did a lot of stuff with bald caps…Dana Carvey as Bush, Jan Hooks as Sinead O’Conner, Phil Hartman as Frank Sinatra. When we did the McLaughlin Report sketches, there was always a lot of character work in those. Dana wore cheeks and a bald cap as McLaughlin. We did some fun stuff. I remember doing a big makeup on John Goodman as Babe Ruth, when he did that movie The Babe. I made a nose for Mike Myers when he played Barbra Streisand.

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Phil Hartman as Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer

Was the Dana Carvey character “Massive Headwound Harry” one of yours?

Yes! (Laughs) I still have the wig. They threw it out, but I cleaned it up and saved it! We used dog food on that.

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Dana Carvey (left) with Chris Farley in one of SNL’s goriest moments

How did you go from heading the makeup on SNL to MAD TV?

When I left SNL, I went to do a show with John Leguizamo, called House of Buggin’. One of its producers brought out to do MAD TV in LA. We were only supposed to be there for three months, as a Summer replacement show for Roseanne. Roseanne’s show never got off the ground, and MAD TV ended up being on the air for fourteen years. So that started the whole LA chapter of my life.

Was MAD TV more makeup-heavy than SNL?

Yeah, a lot more. It went into heavy, heavy prosthetics. We did most of it in front of a live audience, but when we were on location it was like doing full-blown movies. The art direction, makeup and costumes were all very elaborate. The vignettes we did in the beginning of the series were really movie-quality stuff. MAD TV was an awesome job because there was a lot of elaborate character work.

Was it challenging to create parodies of big budgeted films like Lord of the Rings and Avatar, on a TV budget?

I was asked to duplicate a lot of iconic makeups. I had to build things in a week that would take studios months and months…The Grinch, The Nutty Professor. MAD TV was a lot of reproducing big movie stuff on a small budget, but that’s something I found incredibly fun and challenging. I don’t mind the lower budgets or quick turn arounds because for me that makes me work harder and more efficiently. Not to say that I wouldn’t like to get paid more money, but with restrictions I like to have to rise to the challenge of it. Most of the time nowadays, everything on television is done with such quick turn around. I’m more prepared for it than some people are, because I’ve been doing it all my life.

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MAD TV’s parody of The Grinch

Was it on SNL or MAD TV that you won your Emmy for makeup?

I got my first nomination with SNL and then my other fifteen nominations with MAD TV. I finally won with MAD TV. I believe I was the first makeup person to be nominated on Saturday Night Live ever. And I also received five Guild awards for MAD TV, so that was cool.

What work on MAD TV were you most proud of?

I’m very blessed to have done a lot of groovy things on that show. One of my favorites was The Lost Footage from The Wizard of Oz.” In the sketch Dorothy is traveling the yellow brick road and runs into a runaway slave. It was one of those magical times where everything – the set, the costuming, the hair, the makeup – all came together so beautifully you would believe it was really the lost footage from the original film. I was very proud of that particular sketch.

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MAD TV’s parody of The Wizard of Oz

We also did a sketch which was a takeoff of The Terminator, where the Terminator goes back to try to save Jesus Christ, and of course Jesus doesn’t want to be saved. I turned Bryan Callen into Arnold Schwarzenegger, which I thought really worked well. I also had to turn Pat Kilbane who’s a tall, blonde guy, into a Tibetan monk. That illusion worked really well. There was a lot of great character makeup on that show. I also thought our versions of The Klumps and The Grinch turned out really well.

What are you working on these days?

At the moment I’m working on another show for the creator of MAD TV, Adam Small. It’s called Walk the Prank and it airs on Disney. It’s a very unique format, a hybrid scripted and hidden camera show. The setup is these kids have their own YouTube channel and they go out and pull these incredibly elaborate pranks on grown-ups. These pranks are very sophisticated setups and as a consequence, by department has a lot of really cool stuff to do. I’ve created creatures, zombies, aliens, ghosts, and they have to look real. It’s challenging because the person they’re pulling the prank on has to believe that they’re real. I’ve been doing a lot of really fun things on this particular job, we get to do everything from beauty makeup to these complicated makeup effects. Last year I was blessed to work on HBO’s Westworld and the recently released Kong: Skull Island. I also worked on an indie film coming out this year called Wheeler. I go in a month here, a month there on projects. I go when they need extra people, or someone to take care of a particular character.

When I’m not on set, I have two other companies that take up my time – I created a skin barrier lotion to protect my actors, it’s called Skin Saver Barrier Lotion. It’s been selling for the last couple years online and in the professional makeup stores in LA and NY. I’m happy to say it’s been well received by the professional makeup community and is used in a lot of the makeup schools. It’s actually not just for makeup artists, I also sell it to doctors and gardeners…anyone who needs to protect their skin.

I have another company with a friend who is a floral designer, called Human Vases. We take models and cover them with elaborate body paint, prosthetics, stones, costume bits, headpieces and incorporate flowers and other organic materials to create what we call “Human Vases”…living art. We create Vases for events in Los Angeles. Like I said before, as long as I’m creating I’m happy, so I create as much as possible.

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And just to put this out there – there’s an upcoming book I’m included in called “Leading Ladies of Makeup Effects,” all about female makeup artists, that’ll be available next year.

I’m always busy. I’ve been very blessed.

Many thanks to Ms. Aspinall for this interview – visit her online at www.jenniferaspinall.com

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with original Toxie mask, photo by Tim Neff, 2017

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