The wigs on The Americans, FX's brilliant show about Russian spies living among us in the early 1980s, have become a defining facet of the show. But if creator Joe Weisberg and executive producer Joel Fields could have a do-over they would get rid of one disguise in particular: the one agent Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) wears as Clark, who marries FBI secretary Martha.
"I think if we could do it over, maybe Clark wouldn’t have a wig," Weisberg told The Wire. "Let’s put it this way, the Clark part of the story as we discuss all the time is based on real intelligence operations where real KGB illegals married secretaries and I’m sure they did not wear wigs."
The durability of Philip's Clark wig—he wears it during nights spent at Martha's, nights that often include rather exuberant sex—is one of the sillier questions hanging over the otherwise serious show. But echoing what actress Alison Wright, who plays Martha, said in an interview with Vulture, Weisberg teased that some of the mysteries surrounding the Clark wig will be addressed this season. While the show's team wouldn't reveal any wig spoilers, Weisberg, Fields and hair department head Peg Schierholz did give us some background on the show's wigged-out ways.
Starting out, Weisberg, who knew something about disguise from his days as a CIA officer, asked the show's technical adviser about what a Hollywood hair and makeup team could do compared to people who work in intelligence. Weisberg was told the result would be the same. "I wasn’t that surprised by that," Weisberg said. "I’d only worked with one or two people in the disguise department of the CIA, but they had actually worked previously in Hollywood. It’s the same skill set." Call it the Argo factor.
One of the tools Schierholz used for research—in addition to a conversation with a woman who had been at the CIA in the 90s—was a book about the East German secret police in the '80s. The book had had pictures of their disguise classes, and the likes of which Elizabeth and Philip would have likely had in Moscow. Even so, Schierholz said that she always considers whether or not the characters could apply the wigs themselves. "They would have applied the wigs basically they same way I do, and frankly some of the materials that I use are things that have been around forever," she said. "There are these comb clips and toupee clips that I use on Clark that have been around since the 50s, I think. Those, at this point, I have to order from Germany, but those were all over Europe at the time. Hair pins, bobby pins, the glue—spirit gum—that’s been around for decades. The actual materials and the way the wigs are made is the same basically. So all of that is totally plausible."
So how does Clark's wig stay on so well? Schierholz puts it on the same way she applied a wig for a movie wherein an actor had to be riding a horse for hours and get doused with water. "Clark could take a shower in this wig, he could go swimming in this wig, he could hop on a motorcycle and go," she said. "I think given the situation Clark knows he’s going into this house with Martha, and it’s going to be intimate, so he’s going to put it on carefully." To get the Clark wig on, she makes "tiny little pony tails" out of Matthew Rhys' hair using dog grooming elastics. "That just gives me something that’s stuck to his hair that I can pin the wig into and it really holds it very very well," she said. Without giving too much away, in tonight's episode viewers get a hint of just how tightly the wig is secured on Rhys's head.
The audience doesn't often see Elizabeth and Philip getting in and out of their wigs, which leads to some of the questions about the hair pieces' practicality. "We laughed about how many clothes, wigs and props could they jam in that little box in the basement," Schierholz said, referring to Philip and Elizabeth's secret spy stash in their seemingly normal suburban home. "But, no, obviously they’d have a changing place at a safe house." The tradecraft of applying disguise is something that Weisberg said the show doesn't explore this season, but might later on in its run. "There are times when you very comfortably have time to put your disguise on before you leave to go do something," Weisberg said. "More often you leave somewhere not in disguise and you have to stop in a bathroom and put it on relatively quickly and carry on, and there is an art to it. The fact that you have to do it yourself is limiting. Picking the location is a huge part of the tradecraft. There are other times where a technical specialist comes and puts it on for you."
It's fun to obsess over the wigs, but disguise is also a serious theme of the show. Spies Philip and Elizabeth are spending a lot of their time posing as a normal American couple. They often put other disguises on top of that, and it's only then that they are able to become less guarded about their own emotions. In one season two instance, Elizabeth is able to talk about a rape in her past to a young man she's trying to use to get information. "These characters, who are so uninvolved personally and so inarticulate about their own inner lives, are able in disguise to start to talk about themselves in ways that they never would without those disguises that they are able to express to strangers in disguise some of the inner landscape that they aren’t even aware of," Fields said. "That has been a very interesting to explore this season."
Tonight's episode explores Philip's true nature in relation to his disguise as Clark, and it's devastating, even with that wig.