For three years, makeup artist Fran Levin has put an
(often monstrous) face on the hit TV series, The X-Files

Tuesday 10 June 1997

by ALEX STRACHAN, Sun Television Writer
Vancouver Sun

FACELIFT: Makeup artist Fran Levin works her magic on an actor for The X-Files.

PAIN OF PSORIASIS: Actress Deborah Strang sports a makeup job by artist Fran Levin in the X-Files episode Aubrey shown during its first season.

JUST A TOUCH: Fran Levin applies makeup to X-Files star Gillian Anderson;

Actor Timothy Carhart after a Levin treatment.
Burns caused by alien spaceship exhaust. Knife slashes and psoriasis afflicting a ghostly serial killer. A human sewer rat dipped in yellow goo. A vampire burned by sunlight through the barred window of his jail cell, and enough decomposing corpses to fill a New Jersey landfill.

It's all in a day's work for Fern Levin, key makeup artist for The X-Files during its first three years, and one of a growing number of Vancouver's sought-after film technicians.

"I guess people think I'm kind of wacky," Levin says, with a bright laugh that dispels any such thinking.

"I can't imagine why."

Makeup artists can often be heard describing their craft as telling a story on the canvas of a human face.

For Levin, that canvas can just as easily be the face of a malignant space alien, or an unlucky individual recently exposed to some otherworldly extreme.

The X-Files, for those who may have missed the blizzard of publicity, is a popular dramatic series based on investigations of paranormal events by FBI agents, Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) and Fox Mulder (David Duchovny). It is the most-watched TV show in Vancouver and the Lower Mainland, according to the most recent Bureau of Broadcast Measurement ratings.

A makeup artist's job can involve everything from applying highlight and shadow to laying on facial hair and simulating bald caps, bruises, sunburns and burns from toxic alien fumes.

For The X-Files, Levin learned to visualize and then realize the impossible -- and do it fast, in just five days, from first glance at a script to the day a scene was shot.

Levin says that during her years on The X-Files, she cultivated a long list of contacts and consultants, from forensic pathologists and coroners to health-care workers in hospital burn units.

Not all of them took her queries seriously -- not at first.

The first time Levin called a friend who works in Vancouver Hospital's burn ward, she recalls, "She just couldn't stop laughing."

That was while Levin was preparing makeup tests for the first-season episodes Duane Barry and Ascension, where a luckless alien abductee (Steve Railsback) is burned from the exhaust of an alien spaceship.

"Realistically," Levin says, "if you're burned by the exhaust from a spaceship, it's the same as being burned by a really harsh chemical."

While growing up in Toronto, Levin, then 15, sold Yardley and Max Factor in a department store. Her mother would have a makeup artist do her face and hair for her before she went out to parties.

Levin watched him work, and soon began doing her mother's makeup for her.

Later, she studied painting and illustration at the Ontario College of Art with her childhood friend, Toronto photographer Karen Perlmutter.

Her shared interest in makeup and photography eventually led to makeup assignments on the Toronto-made science-fiction films, The Gate II and Resurrected.

The sci-fi film work laid the foundation for the more challenging tasks she would be asked to perform for The X-Files, she says now.

To simulate burns, Levin uses gelatin, painted over with black cream shadow. For rashes, a combination of latex and gelatin applied with a sea sponge will do.

In fact, there's hardly an effect where gelatin is not used.

"I use gelatin a lot to get that 3-D effect on skin," Levin says. "It's funny, because how much I use gelatin is the one thing that would surprise most people about my job."

Levin is characteristically reluctant to reveal other, more secret tricks of her trade. Bruises, for example, she says are easy to do badly, not so easy to do well. And while she has earned a reputation for her accurate bruises, she's not about to reveal why.

"I have a special way of doing them," she says with a wry smile.

There's another, more glamorous, though no less demanding, side to the work: making stars look as they want to be, not necessarily as they are, and helping actors climb inside their characters.

"An actor asked me the other day if I was bored with my job and I said, 'No, because I'm painting.' I love to paint. I love to draw. And I've found a job that allows me to do that and work with people at the same time.

"I love meeting people, and I love working with actors. If I had become an illustrator, I would have been alone in a room all day, working."

Most actors prefer not to spend a lot of time in the makeup trailer, but on a show such as The X-Files, they don't have much choice, Levin says.

"On The X-Files it's tough for them to get away with not doing makeup because something has to happen to them. It's the nature of the show."

The relationship between actor and makeup artist has to be a collaboration between equals, Levin says.

"The wonderful thing about working on a show like The X-Files is that they allow you to be creative, to always be looking for new ways of doing things. They're very open. I've often felt that is one of the main reasons the show has become what it is today."

Star David Duchovny requires little makeup, Levin reveals.

"His style of acting is such that he doesn't need help."

If, for example, Duchovny's character hadn't slept for a few days, he would act the part rather than rely on the makeup artist to make it appear as though he were tired.

"Some actors like to use makeup to make them look a certain way. Others can do it just by acting. I admire that about David, that he chooses to do it the way he does," Levin says.

Co-star Gillian Anderson comes from a similar school of thought.

"When we did makeup tests for the pilot, (executive producer) Chris Carter said he wanted a very, very natural look, with a lot of earth tones on her eyes and lips.

"I actually made her a little bit darker than she actually is. She has beautiful skin, porcelain-white skin, and I warmed it up a little bit for the camera. On balance, though, she needs very, very little makeup."

Levin says she is not surprised Anderson has evolved into a modern-day pop-culture diva.

"I think it's a reflection of her great talent. The show gave her an opportunity to show off her skill, and she seized the moment. My own feeling is that she's a very talented actress."

After three years of 16-hour days, wrestling with hideous rashes, toxic alien fumes and charred kidnap victims, Levin was ready to call it quits.

Levin's assistant, Laverne Basham, took over her job as key makeup artist while Levin took time off. Basham has become The X-Files main makeup artist, along with her own assistant, Pearl Louie.

"I wanted to do things I enjoy for a while and get healthy again," Levin says, underlining her need to take a break from the long hours.

Today she is alternating between TV movies -- she recently completed a film with Brian Dennehy and Lynn Redgrave, and is working on a project with NYPD Blue's Sharon Lawrence -- and the occasional feature film.

"I knew it was time to leave, because I was very, very tired," Levin says. "I thought it was time to move on, to meet new people, to make a change in my life.

"The show was very good to me. It was -- it is still is -- a very good show, very intuitive. It came along at the right time, when people were beginning to question the unknown.

Courtesy of The Vancouver Sun