ELLIOT RENTZ (ALEXIS STONE)
ELLIOT RENTZ (ALEXIS STONE)
The chameleon-like performance artist on the meaning of transformation and the magic of movies.
Congrats on the Gaultier campaign! It was incredible. What else have you been up to lately?
Thank you! It’s weird – these works take so many weeks to complete. Normally, I'd be traveling and recharging, but I’ve just been situated at home for the last couple of months. I’m heading to Miami next week just to chill and have a little holiday.
Were you as obsessed with the Gwyneth trial as most of the gays on my Instagram feed?
It’s the best thing she’s done in years.
How major would it be for you to transform yourself into her?
I've already asked. I’m like, "Give me [Ozempic], ‘cause I will do the role as convincingly as possible." No, I’m obsessed, obsessed. She handled it pretty well, I think.
Speaking of the whole Gwyneth trial, what does “camp” mean to you, and what purpose does it serve? In your own work and in the culture at large?
This question came to the forefront a couple of years ago with the Met Gala. While it’s still this slapstick, unapologetically fabulous and sparkly execution, it differs with humor depending on where you are in the world.
Camp for me, while I was growing up, was very much within the drag world and pantomime, where we had these very tongue-in-cheek, sort of Julian Cleary-esque performers or a type of rotten 70-year-old man doing dick jokes dressed as Liza Minnelli. That was my first interaction with the world of being “camp.”
People describe me as camp, and when I strip that back, I think it's doing anything that society would deem inappropriate in how you look, act or express yourself. Whether it be more feminine or just more over-the-top, there are elements that resonate with me. Camp, for me, embodies this inner Liza Minnelli and integrates it into a day-to-day lifestyle: Those who wear their evening jewelry during the day.
Aging seems to be a recurring theme in your work. Can you talk about that?
It’s easier to approach it from a makeup transformation perspective. I’m a six-foot man, and whenever I’m asked if I can transform into Kylie Jenner, I have to state the obvious: trying to fit a giant man into a petite woman comes with obstacles. The prosthetic transformation process, in general, is pretty gruesome. When we’re in the sculpting and referencing phases, and we’re working with old-age transformations, the older they get, depending on the celebrity, they gain a little weight, so it makes the transformation a lot easier. We’re dissecting key characteristics of the face, such as eye bags, wrinkles, and nasal folds. We can emulate those things better.
How do you feel about aging yourself?
I’m trying to slow the aging process down. I’m fully aware that when they dig my bones up in 100 years, they’re going to say, “That was a man.” But I would rather thrive now. Everyone I talk to says your 30s to 40s are the best years of your life.
The 20s are pretty brutal on the body and the face, especially when you’re scrubbing your face with acetones and alcohol and tearing your face off every other week. I definitely believe in having a nice, structured anti-aging routine.
What are your thoughts about vanity? Is it good? Bad? Neither? Both?
I think it’s good. I think everyone is vain to a degree. If you’re brushing your hair in the morning, wearing high heels, or wearing a belt in the tightest setting, it’s all editing and surgery to a degree. Some people are just more willing, and it’s more within people’s means to go above and beyond. I’m yet to meet someone who is all-natural. I think it’s good to care about your image. The world is very visually oriented.
I’ve been thinking about how much you and your work play with notions of vanity, superficiality and identity. It feels like you walk the line between being obsessed with appearances and playing with the idea of being obsessed with appearances – or poking fun at it. What do you think?
As a species, we’re so visually driven and opinionated. The combination of both evokes many conversations, whether it be celebrity gossip, plastic surgery or fashion. As a kid from the 1990s watching these crazy films, even the femme fatale villains were all so powerful in their image. And in the modern day, I find so much inspiration in the idea of changing your appearance, whether it be with fashion, makeup or surgery. I think it all comes hand in hand. Aging is brutal. I do so much research on the women I transform into, and they all say that they hate it – that they feel youthful and young at heart, but their body is telling them otherwise.
And I feel, specifically for the women I pay homage to, that it must be difficult because most of them have been celebrated their entire life as sex symbols. So, it’s no shock that surgery comes hand in hand with their image. I’ve just always been inspired by it, honestly. I'm all for a little nip and tuck. [laughs] I also have a huge appreciation for the science and artistry that goes into cosmetic work.
Speaking of the women you’ve paid homage to, what is it about a diva? I’ve similarly always loved a diva. I remember before I came out of the closet, my older cousin basically asked me, “Are you gay?” And I was like, “No!” And she was like, “Ok, well, you’re super nice and obsessed with divas, so I was just wondering.” [laughs]
I don’t know what it is! I think women, in general, are fighting for their own voice. And as gay men, we sometimes feel we are also the unsung heroes. When we see a powerful woman, we just kind of root for them. And they do it dripping in jewelry and feathers and fur. I think it’s a production we can really appreciate and get behind. The divas give us everything we need and more. They give us shade. They give us the acknowledgment that they know their worth. Most divas are incredibly talented, and they create such inspiring visuals that we can in some way relate to or feel moved by. I mean, there isn’t a single gay who hasn’t felt moved by a Shirley Bassey ballad at some point. They kind of write the anthems for our own Netflix original movies.
That’s a great answer. The notion of finding your voice resonates with me. I think of what you do as performance art. Do you think of it that way?
I think so. I always stumble when people ask me what I do because, regardless of how I word it, it sounds a little wanker-y. When I approach anything, I work backward from the visuals and how I imagine it playing out with the soundtrack and the outfit and the hair. Then all of the other moving parts just come hand-in-hand. But I won’t take a project on if I cannot control the end result, which is why I see it as visual performance artistry, or whatever you want to call it, as opposed to just a makeup artist or an actor or a stuntman. For me, it has to be a 360-degree approach.
How did you get started?
I lived with trans women for about ten years and was always around the magic and trauma of that. And there was something magical about sleeping during the day and coming to life at night that naturally progressed into drag. And with movies and makeup being at the forefront of my personal interests, I thought, "Well, it’s within my power to make myself look like other people, even for a split second." So, I think merging all of those different moving parts is why there’s this fascinatingly warped execution because there are so many different references going into it now.
But prosthetic-wise, I never studied. I left school when I was 16 and moved to London. I just taught myself everything. And I’m still learning every day. I think next year will be the year that I really just focus on my art. I’m not trying to be the next Kim Kardashian; I just want to be the master of my craft.
I can’t believe you just taught yourself. Is there anyone you’re inspired by in your craft?
For sure. I think any industry comes with obstacles. The drag world is complex, as is the movie makeup industry. A lot of people in this industry are 50+ guys who made monsters in their parent's basements and have this rockstar attitude that comes from making these badass, iconic characters. It has been interesting dipping my toe in both worlds.
But there are some good people within these industries, whether it be fashion or movie makeup, who once upon a time were so mesmerized by visuals that they decided it was going be their life to pursue and inspire other people with the craft. One is David Martí, a good friend of mine and a special effects artist. He did Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy and Crimson Peak. He won an Oscar for Pan’s Labyrinth. And anytime I talk to him, he reminds me why I do what I do. At the core, it's about wanting to have fun and spend weeks working on these projects just for that tiny little bit of magic. Doing it in a live setting is inspiring for most people in the industry because we’re used to seeing it in TV and film.
I think anyone with a whimsical, childish approach to wanting to create cool art is someone I really resonate with. The business side and all of that has to happen, of course, but if you’re not just making cool art for the sake of it, then it loses its magic, and I think that translates into the result.
In another interview of yours, you described the extreme reactions you get to some of your transformations as “people doing what they do best: projecting their insecurities.” I thought that was brilliant and so true for so much of human behavior. Why do you think physical transformations — yours but also a celebrity's and anyone else’s — prompt such fear and animosity?
I’m a man dressing up as a woman, so there will already be an army of people against me. What Robin Williams playing Mrs. Doubtfire did for me did something different for someone else. Regardless of how I approach anything, whether it's with the original team or their personal hairstylist, someone will always be offended that their favorite identity has been stolen, regardless of the results.
We kind of have this idea of identity being individual, yet most of us live our lives basing our entire appearance on trying to look like someone else. When someone sees that done successfully, or maybe better than they could have, their first instinct is to project.
I kind of keep myself to myself. I approach things as a makeup transformation or special effects project. I’m not trying to steal somebody’s identity and create bank fraud. I think sometimes people completely miss the artistic approach to these transformations, and they just see it as, I don’t know... you’ll have to ask them.
Changing gears a little, do you collect anything?
Yeah, my house is filled with movie props. I think it's because I know how much work goes into them. Sadly, a lot of these props go uncelebrated because you see them for just a split second in films. I always like to make sure they’re given the care they deserve.
I remember when I was young, one of the first times I thought, “Oh my god, I think I’m gay,” was when I watched Cruella de Vil. It was the shot when she looks over her shoulder for the first time. The sketch came up for auction, and I bought it instantly because I thought, "There’s no way anyone else is gonna have something as delicate and important as that in their home." I also bought this big, 30-foot albino alligator from the film Annihilation with Natalie Portman. I have no idea where it’s going to go.
What were your favorite movies growing up?
Growing up, it was Basic Instinct, Single White Female, and The Hand that Rocks the Cradle – those movies with powerful, femme fatale, crazy-psycho women. Movies, in general, are very different from what they were in the 90s. We’ve verged away from good, hard-hitting storylines. Now it’s such a production, which I can, of course, appreciate.
For me, a film has to make me forget about the real world for an hour and a half and beyond. If I’m talking about a film a few days after I’ve seen it, that is what a good film should do: evoke emotion and leave more questions than answers. It’s the same as artwork.
I’ve not seen any life-changing movies recently, but I’m a horror kid at heart, and I must see the new Evil Dead film. Everyone’s ranting and raving about it.
What kind of art are you drawn to usually?
For me, it has to be pretty pretentious in size because I like impactful work that makes me feel uncomfortable. It has to be more on the contemporary side. I appreciate many different forms, whether they be sculptures, oil paintings or installations, but I think being able to walk into a space and feel uncomfortable is so inspiring and fascinating.
If you could collect any one artist, who would it be?
That’s a good question. Everyone rolls their eyes when I say this, but I'd love to have one of the sharks by Damien Hirst. I know it’s so obvious; I just think it’s a good example of something pretty pretentious I would fill a space with. I like ambitious, big pieces of work. I like big, fuck-off installations that are mind-blowing. I like inconvenient pieces of art, which is why I buy things like 30-foot albino alligators that don’t even fit in my house.
Are there any dream projects you’ve not worked on yet that you're willing to share?
Where I’m at now and where I’m at in five years . . . there will be a natural transition into film, which has always been the end goal for me. I always wanted to make monsters. Even when I did Alexis, it was to create this ultimate villainess femme fatale, which depending on who you ask, would probably say I did a pretty good job.
And I think doing these transformations with no formal training has allowed me to enter an industry that usually takes people 20 years to do so. I want to come in on a film and work directly on its character concepts and designs. As an artist, that would be me in my element. Because while I love doing these celebrity transformations, they’re limited – I have to look like them to some degree. There’s very little leeway to really let my imagination go.
And I always joke about it, but [I want] to win an Oscar one day. Doing what I love seems so far-fetched, but thus far, I’ve been able to make everything happen I’ve focused my attention on. So, that’s the dream.
I think you can make that happen. Have you played around with any of the AI tools like Dall-e or ChatGPT or anything?
Mmhmm. It’s funny because we use a lot of AI in creature concepts. Most people hate it that is in the art/creative world because it’s kind of taking over, but I find it fascinating. I think it’s ignorant to ignore that times are changing. And while we might not like to admit that AI is maybe the future, if anything, it’s just cool for referencing. Throw in a bunch of images, generate something, and see what the end result is. Nine times out of ten, something bonkers and warped comes out of it that I think would make really good referencing when making something physical.
I’ve been so uncomfortable with the idea it, but I was thinking recently, I need to just get on board.
Have you done the 100 portraits of yourself yet?
I haven’t used any of them because I’ve been kinda against the whole thing, but I’ve increasingly heard friends say they use the chatbot just for work assistance. I thought, “Well, we’re so used to how much easier Google makes our lives. It’s really just the next step in that." I feel like staying on top of technology is a really important thing to not age out of the world. It’s an important part of staying young and connected. But it is pretty freaky. I think the voice replication thing is the one that freaks me out the most.
I heard about this. I know they had recorded David Attenborough’s voice saying every word in the English dictionary so that when he dies, they’ll be able to carry his voice on forever. And I just found that fascinating, that we’re digitally finding a way to be immortal.
Yeah, and making fake audio clips. I just know it’ll be part of our political elections going forward. Like is it real or is it fake? You can just play a couple of minutes of someone on a podcast and then type in what you want that person to say and it replicates their voice pretty accurately.
That’s bonkers. I saw my first AI warning on Instagram the other day, and I was really taken aback by it. It was the viral photos of Trump being arrested with a little notification telling you it’s AI. I just thought, “Wow, times are changing.”
What are you looking forward to?
Miami. Being a tourist in America and all of the complicated facets of America. I can still find novelty in that place. I could base a whole project around a Waffle House. I'm looking forward to getting back on the road and recharging.
Are you a homebody?
Yeah, the outside world scares me. Being autistic and going from extreme highs to lows, I do sometimes find it complicated navigating my way through a normal day. Being at home with all of the things that inspire me is such a safety blanket for me.
Well, those are all of the questions I have for you. You’ve been so lovely, and we’re really excited about doing this with you.
Thank you! Who do you think I should transform into next?
I think Gwyneth at her trial would break the internet.