Emmys: Character Looks Aid Lead Performances

Actors and actresses may get most of the glory, but it truly does take a village to make a character come alive on screen. Departments including hair, makeup and costumes are crucial to building a backstory or offer Easter eggs to details that may not be deliberately stated in dialogue or viewed in facial expressions, as well as to provide performers crucial assistance in fleshing out a role.

For Keri Russell, nominated for her uptight, country-loyal heroine in FX’s spy drama “The Americans,” finding Elizabeth Jennings was easy because she was “always very finished,” and that said a lot about who she was. Russell credits makeup designer Lori Hicks with helping creating Elizabeth’s “exactness,” especially in such areas as dark, cat-like eyeliner, which acted as her “armor.”

However, in the show’s sixth and final season, the stress of running missions without the aid of her partner Philip (lead drama actor nominee Matthew Rhys) began to take its toll on the Russian-born ice princess.

“The first scene we shot of the sixth season was a confrontation between Philip and Elizabeth and with all of the armor gone,” Russell says. “We actually changed my clothes to some random slacks instead of jeans … and I realized how much the hair, makeup and slick clothes really informed my character.“

These departments are also the ones that have the closest connections to the talent, spending hours getting up close and personal in fittings or late nights and early mornings dabbing on foundation or tousling their hair. Michelle Dockery, who is nominated in the lead limited
series/movie actress race for her work as the gun-slinging kill-or-be-killed Alice Fletcher in the Netflix western “Godless,” actually called her show’s makeup department head Tarra D. Day “family” — not a word one would normally use to describe someone who asks you to smile and then flings dust and grime into the crevices of your skin.

She says it was moments such as these, or talking to “Godless” department head hairstylist Geordie Sheffer about the meaning behind Alice’s long and tangled braid that helped her understand her character’s singular focus on survival. Out in the Old West, Dockery laughs, Alice “isn’t so much troubled about hair and looking fashionable.”

But what happens when an actor or actress is playing more than one part? Tatiana Maslany portrayed over a dozen clones on “Orphan Black” by the time the BBC America sci-fi thriller finished its run last year.

The differences between each one’s specific ticks and eccentricities was enough to make audiences dizzy, never mind the actress doing the job. Luckily, the lead drama actress nominee — and category winner in 2016 — says, “The aesthetic team really helped me get inside the characters as much as the writers and the directors did.”

Maslany says some characters’ wardrobes and styles, such as those of suburban soccer mom Alison Hendrix, wrote themselves. She also understands how appropriate it is that others, including the guarded and authoritative Rachel Duncan, needed as much precision behind-the-scenes as the character would have expected in her own life.

“So often it was a gut reaction and whether that was from following the makeup designer Stephen Lynch or [people like the final season’s key hair stylist] Patricia Cuthbert. … If we didn’t feel it in our gut, we didn’t do it,” Maslany says. “We always tried to challenge it, too.”

Maslany says she still has some costumes from “Orphan Black.” It’d be hard not to; the show offered her the rare psychological experience to see herself as so many different kinds of personalities. As an actress, she says, she benefited from learning that “the way we choose to present ourselves says a lot about who we are in the world or how we want somebody to perceive us.”

“The Americans’” Russell understands this as well, especially since her character’s career choice necessitated an ample amount of wigs and covert costume choices.

“This show has changed the way I feel about characters and the way they look enormously,” she reflects. “Such simple little changes to your face or hair can drastically change your appearance or how you feel. And I had the luxury of experimenting with so many different versions. … I would definitely consider more of this in future characters.”

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