Intersections: Ve Neill, Hollywood Makeup Magician

Early Love of Monster Flicks, Face Painting Sparked Brilliant Career

Ve Neill applies makeup to actor Geoffrey Rush

hide captionVe Neill applies makeup to actor Geoffrey Rush on the set of Pirates of the Caribbean.

Ve Neill
Rush, transformed into the pirate Barbossa.

hide captionRush, transformed into the pirate Barbossa.

From 'Pirates of the Caribbean'/Courtesy Buena Vista Home Entertainment
Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock

hide captionFred Phillips, who made the Vulcan ears worn by the character Mr. Spock on TV's original Star Trek series, gave Neill her first big break.

© Bettmann/Corbis

For more than 20 years, makeup artist Ve Neill has been transforming Hollywood actors. She turned Robin Williams into an elderly woman in Mrs. Doubtfire, Martin Landau into classic horror-film star Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood, and Michael Keaton into a devilish ghoul in Beetlejuice. She won Academy Awards for each of those films.

Neill is currently nominated for her fourth Oscar, for her work on Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. For Intersections, a Morning Edition series on artists and their inspirations, NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.

Neill says that, as a little girl, she loved scaring herself "silly" watching monster movies on TV. She finally stopped after watching The Beast with Five Fingers — a 1946 film about a murderous severed hand — one time too many. "Mother tired of me being scared, waiting to see if this hand was going to jump out at me," Neill says.

Neill had another childhood hobby: painting her cousins' faces — with lipstick, shoe polish, whatever was available. Her interest was further piqued by Leo Lotito, a neighbor who worked as a makeup artist on several TV shows, and often helped out with Neill's Halloween costumes. "I remember saying, 'Oh, Mr. Lotito, I want to do what you do when I grow up,'" she says.

At 18, Neill began working as a costume designer for a rock band that wanted funky, space-age outfits. A trip to a science-fiction convention for inspiration turned into a career-making run-in with Fred Phillips, the man behind the look of the original Star Trek TV series. Phillips took Neill under his wing, and gave her a big break — a job on 1979's Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Since then, the jobs have poured in.

Neill considers herself blessed to have made a career out of a strong childhood urge: "I think it's just one of those… rudimentary desires to see if you can look weird, or different, or be scary, or be a fantasy creature or — I don't know. It's a sickness, that's what it is."

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