FX’s Reagan-era spy drama “The Americans” featured one of the most disturbing stories of this television season — and no, it wasn’t the one where a man was doused in gasoline and burned alive.
Nor was it when Matthew Rhys’ Russian superspy Philip took his wife, Keri Russell’s Elizabeth, by the hand, poured her a stiff drink and then yanked out a couple of her teeth with pliers.
Instead, this season’s squirmiest moments involved Philip creating a phony persona to seduce his newest asset, a rebellious 16-year-old girl (“Martha Marcy May Marlene’s” Julia Garner), because her father is the head of the CIA’s Afghan group.
And what helped send these scenes from merely unsettling head-on into the “Lolita” zone? Rhys’ pervy shag contrasted with Garner’s Shirley Temple ringlets.
Audiences weren’t the only ones who felt dirty about these scenes.
“We were all kind of uncomfortable with that storyline and it could have crept into the disguise,” says Peg Schierholz, head of the show’s hair department.
Rhys looked like a rejected John Lennon impersonator with shoulder-length brown hair and sideburns, aviator glasses and a bomber jacket for just the right amount of “this guy will totally anger Daddy” when he went undercover to woo his latest conquest.
Schierholz says she feels the persona comes across as “sleazy,” which is fitting because that’s how the character felt about the assignment.
“It does build on this thing of Philip and Elizabeth becoming more and more uncomfortable in these roles that they have to play as spies,” she says. “Philip clearly isn’t comfortable with this 16-year-old — a year older than his daughter (Paige, played by Holly Taylor). He’s revolted by it, and obviously trying to put off what the Centre wants.”
The storyline also came at a time when Schierholz was given a directive to make Paige’s look more sophisticated in light of more intense, mature developments for the character. “She’s not really a little girl anymore and the issues she’s had to deal with in season three are very much those of a young woman growing up,” says Schierholz.
The “how would the character style him or herself to play this persona?” conundrum is one that Schierholz often finds herself in.
Overseeing the hair department on “The Americans” doesn’t just mean designing the hairstyles for the characters — it also means creating those for their aliases. This means wigs — lots and lots of wigs.
“There was one disguise this season where Keri very specifically asked for a chin-length bob because she said (her) neck and shoulders and clavicles are nice features,” says Schierholz.
Margo Martindale, who recurs as Philip and Elizabeth’s handler Claudia, wanted that big hair to look more like a Southern girl and yet in her eye makeup, she wanted a little bit of eyeshadow that looked Russian. “You get this contradiction in the look.”
Still, the 1980s is not a decade remembered fondly for hairstyles. This can prove challenging when trying to avoid making characters look too comic while blending them in a sea of AquaNet.
“We were told to look for the more classic, universal look” for their day-to-day hair, says Schierholz, who names Cindy Crawford as a prime influence.
She also combs through old magazines from the era, including Playboy, to help with the looks. “With the disguises, we get to play a little more to the period.”