Filed in Articles & Interviews The Americans

Underneath the Wigs: Uncovering The Americans’ Hair-Raising Disguises

On the back of The Americans’ hair and makeup trailer door is a photo collage of the cast and crew each in the same wig. It’s not Clark or John Denver or any other of Philip’s (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth’s (Keri Russell) follicular get-ups on the FX series — but Felicity’s famous curls.

“Isn’t it hilarious? I love it,” Russell, the erstwhile Felicity, tells with a laugh. “It’s so great. I’m all about the hair!”

So is The Americans. The spy drama has never met a wig it didn’t like, outfitting Russell and Rhys in such ridiculous and fantastic espionage ‘dos, ranging from dowdy to sexy, that the wigs have become the true stars of the show.

“It’s really been a wild experience,” Peg Schierholz, the show’s hair department head, says. “Lori [Hicks, the makeup head] and I had never intended for the wigs to blow up this way. It’s really amazing how much people love them. We kept getting these interesting scripts from the writers, then we’d start playing around with ideas and it just kind of evolved.”

While Philip’s and Elizabeth’s disguises were always meant to be an integral part of the show, not even executive producers Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields foresaw the wig-asm phenomenon to come. “We had no idea going into it what it would be like,” Weisberg says. “We trusted [Schierholz and Hicks] and what they’ve come up with is genius. The other day, despite the fact that I knew Elizabeth is coming in [to a scene], for a second, I was like, ‘Who’s that?’ That’s how great the disguises are. They called that particular one the Margaret Thatcher.”

The key, Schierholz says, is to do it all with a nudge-nudge-wink-wink while respecting the actual spycraft disguises of the ’80s. The scripts usually dictate a “light” disguise — hat and glasses — or a “heavy” one — wigs and the whole shebang — or it might simply list the new identity, like “CIA bureaucrat” or a “Department of Defense officer.” Schierholz, who has worked on The Talented Mr. Ripley, Enchanted, Julie & Julia and Blue Jasmine, and Hicks consult period magazines they’ve ordered online, including Time and Playboy, and even a book of real disguises the East German police used.

“We start with the wigs and work from there. Should we do it completely real? No. It would be too much of a joke for today’s eyes. We try to find the line in between where it’s humorous but not too serious,” Schierholz says. “The thing with the ’80s is everyone looked like they were in disguise anyway. There’s not as much of a homogenous look as there is now.”

Although the number of personas keeps growing on the show — they’re all named — Schierholz has a finite number of wigs to work with. Wigs are constantly reused and tweaked, and the stars often share them. Elizabeth’s disguise as Jennifer, the sister of Philip’s Clark, was born by adding tresses to the back of Clark’s stunt double wig. “I’ve done wigs in movies in the past, but in TV, you don’t get a lot of opportunities like this where you can be creative,” Schierholz says. “In a movie, you have a beginning, middle and end. Here, you don’t know what’s happening next.”

Take Clark. Arguably the show’s most famous wig, Philip’s crusty grey-blonde ‘do that he dons in his other fake marriage to poor, unassuming Martha (Alison Wright) was never meant to appear this frequently. “We understood that Clark was going to be seen in the pilot and we thought we’d never see him again. [When we were shooting] the pilot, it was so hectic … we just kept pulling things out of boxes, like, ‘We can make this work.’ All of the sudden, everybody liked him and he became an established character,” Schierholz says. “I think as the season goes on, you’ll see the Clark wig evolve in a more believable way.”

Believable as in Martha will finally pull it off during the throes of passion? It’ll slide off during a long, steamy shower? The tenacity with which Clark remains stuck on Philip’s head has the cast and crew fielding questions about Soviet wig technology. “There’s a really odd twist with it, and I can’t spoil it,” Schierholz teases. “That’s finally answered in the last episode with a loving, wifely gesture by Martha.”

Whenever Russell and Rhys have downtime on set, Schierholz tests new looks on them to keep in her back pocket — or more accurately, on a wall collage in the trailer opposite the racks of wigs in repose. “We photograph them, so when something comes up, we can go, ‘Oh, that might be good,'” she says. Some backlogged disguises are Bubblegum Girl (“She looks like a waitress who chews a lot of gum”) and the Tom Snyder, the former NBC News anchor and late-night host.

New ones fans will definitely see this season include Record Girl (a punk alter ego for Russell that Schierholz had to fight for) on Wednesday’s episode, Vietnam Vet (restyled from Rhys’ notorious greasy and goateed Fernando wig) and a Boys Don’t Cry look for Russell, who is openly envious of the breadth of Rhys’ disguises. “Mine are fun, but he gets facial hair and mustaches,” she says. “You can drastically change a person with a beard or a mustache. A girl — oh, the eyeliner’s different. Facial hair changes your look dramatically. You can really hide something. The shape of a mouth is so specific and to be able to hide that is so incredible, so yeah, I’m jealous!”

Schierholz has started experimenting with moles and skin tones as facial hair alternatives for Russell. Though she admits that she feels pressure to come up with new styles, Schierholz says it’s most satisfying to put twists on existing ones. “We keep trying to surprise people, but not be too outlandish about it,” she says. “The producers love it when we come up with things that are subtle enough to make a difference in the characters.”

And will we ever see the Felicity wig on the show?

“I mentioned it to Joel and Joe, but it seems to me that Felicity can’t be a killer,” Schierholz says. “That wouldn’t work. I’m trying to find one of those benign scenes to stick her in there, maybe for a second or something.”

The Americans airs Wednesdays at 10/9c on FX.