Mane Attraction: the insider’s guide to good, weird and perfect movie hair

Joy, Alice and Lizzy with the good hair.
Joy, Alice and Lizzy with the good hair.

Hair-and-makeup department head Tracey Henton is on a mission to demystify movie locks, with help from leading Hollywood hair designers, a star wigmaker and an Oscar-winning wig wearer.

Featuring hair designers Jaime Leigh McIntosh (‘Blonde’, ‘Don’t Worry Darling’), Brian Badie (‘I Wanna Dance with Somebody’, ‘Lovecraft Country’), wigmaker Rob Pickens and actress Allison Janney.

From Nicole Kidman’s wigs to Chris Pine’s majestic mane, stunning strands to floppy mops, film lovers are obsessed with movie hair. A perfunctory web search turns up an endless succession of lists judging the follicles of film: the best and worst movie bangs; the best hair in the Star Wars universe; every Tom Cruise movie ranked by the magnificence of his hair and, separately, in every Mission: Impossible movie; Brad Pitt’s twelve best movie haircuts; ten Sebastian Stan haircuts ranked; every Zeus in film and television, ranked by facial hair.

Letterboxd is unashamed, too. Members have ranked the under-cuts and comb-overs of Kurt Russell, Ryan Gosling, Oscar Isaac (quite specifically), Andrew Garfield, Jake Gyllenhaal, the Roberts Sheehan and Pattinson, Hugh Grant, Colin Farrell, Alex Lawther, Daniel Day-Lewis, Keanu, Timothée and many others. It seems there is a ranking of hair practically every other week on the web—on Vulture and The Cut most especially. The New York magazine off-shoots dubbed 2021 Hollywood’s Year of the Wig and they’re particularly obsessed with Nicole Kidman’s rugs. (Truly.) (Still don’t believe me?) (You’re on your own then.)

From doing taxes to doing revenge, hunting prey and hunting aliens, it’s been a well-composed year for hair. 
From doing taxes to doing revenge, hunting prey and hunting aliens, it’s been a well-composed year for hair. 

In fact, I’m squinting to find another actress whose hair-work gets as much attention as Kidman’s—ah, Julia Roberts, of course. The great Meryl Streep. And Cate Blanchett—who sometimes has folk crying in the corner when she is a redhead. One actress who seems to get really lucky with wigs, according to both the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and Letterboxd reviews, is Allison Janney.

From her bowl cut in I, Tonya to her storm-gray locks in the new Netflix action-thriller Lou, there’s a combination of hair craft and character work going on with Janney that wins her Oscars, Emmys and Golden Globes. “Wigs, for me, they’re so transformative and I love working with them as an actress,” Janney tells us. “They’re my favorite part of acting! The hair is important to me.”

And important to the audience, evidently. An out-of-period background detail might go ignored, a boom-in-shot forgotten seconds later, but bleach Ryan Gosling’s hair or put a wig on Chris Evans and it’s like that one time Uber dared to change its logo. Tresses and rugs get constantly called out, debated, rated and scorned by fans and reviewers alike.

Shades of 2022: Everything Everywhere All at Once, Kimi, Bones and All. 
Shades of 2022: Everything Everywhere All at OnceKimiBones and All

This fascination with movie hair is a curious one but, as an audience, it seems to be our thing. Hair is a deeply personal and very relatable visual cue and hair opinions are, in a word, strong. It feels important for us to have a take on actors’ hair, to rank Nicolas Cage’s performances by the quality of the wig. Most of all, we seem to take it really personally when we think it’s hair-gone-wrong.

The 24-hour online news cycle has given us all much more insight into the lives of stars; most of us can pull up a mental image of what an actor looks like in real life, making the ‘fourth wall’ quite see-through. Trickery is harder these days; the belief in “movie magic” a little jaded. It’s as if all of cinema is infused with a silent, persistent longing from viewers, striving to understand: ‘Why that hair?’

Pity the craftspeople behind the scenes, for hair decisions—especially wigs—are much more in focus in the 21st century. Literally. Film was kind to wigs, high definition and modern televisions not so much.

“I had managed to get my wig-change down to seven minutes.” Jaime Leigh McIntosh touches up Ana de Armas on the set of Blonde.
“I had managed to get my wig-change down to seven minutes.” Jaime Leigh McIntosh touches up Ana de Armas on the set of Blonde.

The subtle cues of wigs are harder to spot on film. I’ve scoured through many hours of pre-digital footage looking at hairlines and parts and they are just much softer in light captured on celluloid. In HD, everything is more noticeable. Extreme focus can make two of the telltale signs of wigs—a harsh hairline and an unnatural part—much more obvious, even though the audience might not realise what it is they are seeing. And while even natural light can distort hair color, the powerful and flexible LEDs of today also diminish tones and many just aren’t built for subtlety and beauty.

So the work of a hair stylist is more important than ever—but the conditions under which they work have long been less than ideal.

It starts with a character on a page and it ends in the hair-and-makeup trailer, often before 5:00am, with a strict time limit. In between this process a lot of people have a say in what happens. In an ideal world the actor, director and hair guru all have a similar goal for what the final look will be, what the character needs to convey and how that’s translated to the audience via a hairstyle. Collaboration is the name of the game. Over a long story arc this journey needs to be mapped out in pre-production and appropriate budget allocated.

Lotta hair, lotta hustle.
Lotta hair, lotta hustle.

This is all set against an industry background of sexism and many other inequalities in ‘the vanities’—a colloquial and controversial name given to hair, makeup and wardrobe technicians. These days, those departments are largely female-occupied, but for many decades makeup was the men’s domain, while women ran the hair trailers. That in part accounts for a long-delayed Oscar recognition (the first award for makeup was in 1968, but it didn’t become an annual category until 1981), and for the still-uneven contract rates in some regions for makeup versus hair, in spite of both crafts belonging to the same union.

And that’s avoiding the ongoing issue of lack of representation in hair, makeup, wardrobe and lighting, where a hundred years of bias towards white skin and caucasian hair is only slowly being corrected. “We spent decades running from these looks, especially in film,” lead hair designer Brian Benedict Badie told Marie Claire regarding his work creating the characters’ natural Black hair on Melina Matsoukas’ 2019 film Queen & Slim. That story is one of many over the past few years to highlight the important work Black artists are doing to correct decades of imbalance on and behind the screen.

Melina Matsoukas, Indya Moore and Shiona Turini on the set of Queen & Slim (2019).
Melina Matsoukas, Indya Moore and Shiona Turini on the set of Queen & Slim (2019).

Badie’s artistry on Sony’s forthcoming Whitney Houson biopic I Wanna Dance With Somebody has already been tipped for awards notice, alongside the work of Jaime Leigh McIntosh, the lead hair designer on Netflix’s Blonde (and whose uncanny talent I was lucky to work alongside in her early years in the industry). Badie and Jaime Leigh (who goes by her first names professionally), along with Janney and her wigmaker Rob Pickens, are just the experts I need to help me give you a closer look at the roots of movie hair.

There are many steps in the life cycle of hair on film:
how hair decisions get made, the process of wig-making and all the complex avenues that lead to how things end up on screen, where we then casually rank the work from our cozy armchairs. The most important of which is: movie stars are just like us.

It’s true, just like mortals, celebrities can have good and bad hair days. Some are blessed with a great head of hair—abundant, luscious and healthy. Some are not—thin, receding, damaged, limp. For better or worse, hair is related to health, vitality, masculinity (note the bias at the top of this article towards ranking male actors’ hair) and most importantly in Hollywood, youth.

Hair says a lot about you, and hair is very personal, even sacred. Actors often choose not to share their hair with us. They, very reasonably, want a costume for their head as well as their body.

We relate to hair on screen because we all have our own hair struggles. We have our own good and bad hair days. We have hair envy and hair goals. We marvel at hair perfection in the media, strive to achieve it for ourselves and call it out harshly when we see something we don’t like. Ask anyone what they check first in the mirror and it’s generally their hair. Most of our hair envy comes from Instagram, from the very same movie stars who get so heavily critiqued for their characters’ hair.

Yes, hair is a character. A very relatable one, as witnessed by nearly every movie review ever of American Hustle. (Naturally, there is a definitive ranking of that movie’s hair—by The Atlantic no less. Bradley Cooper’s tight curls come out on top.) With her tongue in her cheek, Vulture writer Roxana Hadadi eloquently storylines Robert Eggers’ The Northman via star Alexander Skarsgård’s various hairdos (under hair-and-makeup supervisor Stefania Pellegrini), articulating how character evolution often relies heavily on hairstyles.

Allison Janney (with wig) and Jurnee Smollet (with natural hair) in Lou.
Allison Janney (with wig) and Jurnee Smollet (with natural hair) in Lou.

“Every movie I do, I always wear wigs to save my own hair, but also to help me create the character.” That’s Janney, who reportedly surprised everyone on the Mom sitcom crew, from the producers on down, when she revealed in the final season that she’d been bewigged since the pilot episode. Janney describes how her latest character, the mysterious loner Lou, was created largely through her hair, a mane of gray designed by Janney’s long-time friend and hair stylist, Jill Crosby. “She created the look of Lou and when I put that wig on, I just was in heaven.”

Creating great movie hair seems like it should be effortless but it is not. The craftspeople behind the scenes are responsible for not only creating a subtle and believable character through hairstyling decisions, but also maintaining its viability and continuity over long periods and through numerous time periods and story markers. A large part of their skill lies in blending their wisdom with the wishes and whims of the actor, the director, numerous producers and often the network or studio as a whole.

Natalie Portman has a close shave in V for Vendetta (2005).
Natalie Portman has a close shave in V for Vendetta (2005).

Hair is not a fixed state on any given day, week or month. It’s a living costume, it grows. It reacts to health, sleep, the environment, the weather. Worst of all, for anyone who’s been on set all day with the sole task of looking after hair, it moves around.

Just ask Badie, whose credits include the HBO series Lovecraft Country. He came to the show after the pilot had been made, when the series had already committed to using the natural hair of its star, Jurnee Smollett, while filming in the wilting Atlanta summers. Though he has collaborated with Smollett often—going all the way back to Kasi Lemmons’ 1997 feature debut Eve’s Bayou—the filming environment presented challenges for her Lovecraft Country character, Letitia, as Badie told Filmmaker magazine:

“I really would have petitioned to get a wig, just so it could have made shooting easier for us. We got through it, but it was definitely minute to minute, not day by day, that her hair could change. We’re already running late, so if I want her to step over here for ten minutes so that I can re-curl the whole front of her hair in the middle of the woods in a tent that needs electricity… Everything that I can think of as a challenge, we went through.”

And this is where wigs come in. There are many reasons a hair designer might favor a wig over an actor’s own head of hair, says LA-based hair artist Jaime Leigh, who came up through the New Zealand screen industry and has had a busy few years on Blonde, Don’t Worry Darling, Babylon and Oppenheimer. “If the style requires the talent to change their own hair length, color or texture and they are not willing to,” she explains, “[or] if the character being portrayed has multiple style, length, color changes throughout the arc of their story; if the styling is so involved that it would make more sense for it to happen on the wig without the actor needing to be there.”

Nicole Kidman left fans of her wigs wanting this year; The Northman’s Queen Gudrún was her sole feature film outing for 2022. 
Nicole Kidman left fans of her wigs wanting this year; The Northman’s Queen Gudrún was her sole feature film outing for 2022. 

In some circumstances, actors are willing to make significant changes to their hair. If the role is big and likely to take up six months of their time, then they can make a choice to use their own hair for the majority of the shoot. However if a role is short in duration, or a guest part, it’s often not feasible to make the change. An actor who knows they have six months of wig applications ahead of them and is willing to shave their head is a dream come true. Occasionally it happens. Sometimes it’s all the character needs.

Wigs done well are a big-ticket item. A ticket that can make a producer faint. Wigs done badly? There is no end to an audience’s disdain. Bad wigs in films. Period pieces with bad wigs. Distractingly bad wigs. Shitty wigs. Wigs that are so bad they break your immersion in a movie. Tom Hardy in bad wigs. Harvey Keitel and Nicole Kidman have had it the worst. Julia Roberts speaking with a bad wig. Yes, it is that hard to make a decent wig.

Says Jaime Leigh: “It takes years to master wigs. They are very different to style than a natural head of hair, and not all wigs are created, or the styling executed, equally.”

Period pieces and biopics often require such a complete transformation that wigs make the most sense. Modern cutting techniques and the advanced hair-coloring systems of today have no place in the 1700s or even the 1940s. Then there are the many character transformations that are best served by Ctrl+Alt+Delete of the actor’s own hair. No, that is not Joaquin Phoenix’s real hair he’s dyeing broccoli-green in Joker.

Joaquin Phoenix dyed his own hair green? You’ve got to be joking.
Joaquin Phoenix dyed his own hair green? You’ve got to be joking.

“It’s really all pros when using wigs,” Badie tells me. “They allow you the utmost in creativity, flexibility and versatility. There aren’t many limits when using wigs.” A wig, he asserts, gives you total creative autonomy.

The fact that a wig application can be quicker and more manageable than extensive daily hairstyling is a big pointer to why someone like Academy Award-winning actress Kidman wears wigs most of the time, even when shooting contemporary roles. The sleek, full-volume looks that she has sported on the red carpet are too time-consuming for daily on-set prep, not to mention taxing on the hair.

If there was an award for most critiqued on-screen wigs across the internet, hers surely would win, year on year, and I don’t know that we’ll ever get to the bottom of why, but I have theories that involve her marital history, the abundant diversity of her roles and her commitment to her craft, all of which makes her off-screen personality somewhat of a mystery and therefore more of a magnet for attention in our information-obsessed, very online culture.

The strong and beautiful Allison Janney as Lou.
The strong and beautiful Allison Janney as Lou.

Occasionally the price of a big-ticket wig gets dropped into news headlines like a constitutional catastrophe. ‘How can this be?’ the audience gasps. ‘How can my monthly salary be the same as a wig?! Well, that money is the difference between Nancy in Stranger Things and you at Hallowe’en, or Streep in more movies than I care to mention. Wig-making is a highly specialized skill that I hope never dies, and the results speak for themselves. Janney’s Crosby-designed look on Lou, for example, was brought to life by one of the best. “Rob Pickens made that wig, and I love it,” she enthuses.

“Allison is one of my favorite collaborators,” Pickens notes. “She loves a wig!” An industry legend, his work has been seen on heads from Tom Hanks to Tom Hardy. Other credits from his company, Wigmaker Associates, include Will Ferrell’s comical yet marvelous transformation in Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, Melissa McCarthy as Lee Israel in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Michelle Pfeiffer as Betty Ford in The First Lady, J. Smith Cameron as Gerri Killman in Succession and many more notable television shows from True Detective to The Gilded Age. Even Billie Eilish has sported one of Pickens’ wigs.

As Erick Ericksson (Pierce Brosnan) taught his son Lars (Will Ferrell), every respectable volcano man takes care of his hair. 
As Erick Ericksson (Pierce Brosnan) taught his son Lars (Will Ferrell), every respectable volcano man takes care of his hair. 

For Lou, Pickens and Crosby decided that “texture and color placement [were] going to be key. We made two hero wigs for Allison, along with a few stunt wigs. We selected beautiful virgin-gray bundles from my stock, with natural curl, blending four different colors together with precise placement to create a dimensional gray. The texture was of the utmost importance to ensuring the wig would remain lifelike, even when subjected to the elements.”

It’s a head of hair that had to put up with a lot: rain, mud, fights, sand, seawater and more, but beyond that, it also did something else for the actress. “I think it’s sort of sexy—a woman who has just let her hair be what it is, naturally,” says Janney. “I really loved putting on that wig. I felt very strong and very, very beautiful in that wig.”

Precisely measured head blocks waiting for their next character in the London studio of Samuel James Wigs.
Precisely measured head blocks waiting for their next character in the London studio of Samuel James Wigs.

If Pickens is making the custom wig process for a lead actor sound like a simple matter of material selection, it is far more mysterious and detailed than that, so I ask him to elaborate. “The custom-wig process begins with taking measurements and a hairline tracing from the actor (using cellophane and tape),” he explains. “We then pad out a custom block to precisely match the actor’s measurements. After building the foundation by hand (using bobbinet lace), we begin to knot the entire wig one to two hairs at a time.”

Again, Pickens is making the process sound easy. Often the actor is not in the same city as the wigmaker, or does not have time in their schedule for the wigmaker to take their measurements, which means someone else does it, off-site. I’m longing for someone to invent a better process for this (VFX 3D scanners, I’m looking at you) but for the most part it’s still done with plastic wrap, extra-wide tape and a sharpie.

Surprising as it may seem, even Chris Pine has wig work done, including this toupée for The Contractor, knotted by Justin-Lee Jones.
Surprising as it may seem, even Chris Pine has wig work done, including this toupée for The Contractor, knotted by Justin-Lee Jones.

Once the actor’s head has been precisely recreated as a head block, the wigmaker can then custom-make a wig foundation. This is hand sewn with a fine tulle-like fabric—the aforementioned bobbinet, or wig lace—almost always from Europe. Stretch is needed in some areas and strength in others depending on the final hair style and head shape. Stronger and more robust wig lace can be used for the crown and back of the wig and very fine, extremely delicate lace is used for the front areas that are more likely to be seen on camera, especially the front hairline where it is glued to the head and needs to be close to invisible.

Then human hair must be sourced and prepped. The hair market is vast. Darker, coarser hair from Asia is abundant and can be colored to any shade. Finer textured, European, virgin hair—hair that hasn’t been chemically treated—is less abundant and therefore more expensive (“only comparable to gold” in Rob’s words) but provides more versatility for styling. The texture and shades of the natural hair are critical for the final look.

“At my studio,” says Rob, “we source directly from the country of origin. This allows us to control the quality of our hair from start to finish. All of the bundles arrive virgin undrawn, and are sorted to lengths in-shop. Any dipping or coloring that needs to happen is also done in-house to maintain the quality and luster.”

Jaime Leigh McIntosh and Ana de Armas share a moment of levity during Blonde touch-ups.
Jaime Leigh McIntosh and Ana de Armas share a moment of levity during Blonde touch-ups.

After this prep is done, the wigmaker can then go about attaching the hair to the wig foundation. These wigs are often referred to as hand tied (as opposed to machine made). Each hair—yes you read that correctly—each single strand of hair is individually looped through a hole in the lace and tied into a knot with a tiny needle, similar to a crochet needle. The direction of the knot determines the direction of how the hair will sit on the head and how naturally it will move. The directional growth pattern of hair is usually mapped out in advance and drawn onto the wig map.

This attention to detail is what makes the difference between an okay wig and an outstanding wig. A machine-made wig will never have the believable intricacies of a swirling crown or front cow-lick. To achieve the natural look of a front hairline, mohair is often used to soften the edge of the wig and mimic our baby hairs that are visible as they grow out. Pickens and Jaime Leigh employed exactly this technique to transform Ana de Armas into Marilyn Monroe for the Netflix feature film Blonde.

“We love to delve into every detail, especially when recreating historical figures,” says Rob. “Jaime and I discussed early on that the texture would be most important in creating the signature blonde; extra mohair in certain areas to emulate the fine baby and broken hair in the recede and sideburns. Jaime expertly razored a few extra bits to make the detail perfect. Her attention to detail, right down to every knot, is evident in each frame of the film.”

Glenn Close and her wig with Elle Fanning in Low Down (2014).
Glenn Close and her wig with Elle Fanning in Low Down (2014).

In these final stages, if the wig can be checked on the actor and tiny adjustments made, it comes close to a perfect union. “The entire process, start to finish, takes about 100 to 150 hours per wig,” Pickens reveals. Sounding a bit more like this could be worth a month’s wages?

Sometimes that check is picked up by a star herself. In 2013, I worked on Low Down, a low-budget film with an A-list cast directed by Jeff Preiss. Glenn Close plays a gritty matriarch, one of her many roles that required her to leave behind any essence of traditional beauty or obvious grooming. Because of her professionalism and understanding of how budgets work, Close arrived for her first day of fittings and tests with her own wig. She knew if the options were left up to anyone else on such a low budget there was a high chance of a bad wig and this was just not acceptable for someone of her professionalism and stature. The wig she brought in was custom-made for her (possibly from a previous project), fit like a glove and looked wonderful on screen.

Hair designer Brian Badie with actress Naomie Ackie, wigged-up for I Wanna Dance With Somebody.  — Credit… Photo Supplied
Hair designer Brian Badie with actress Naomie Ackie, wigged-up for I Wanna Dance With Somebody Credit… Photo Supplied

I ask Jaime Leigh and Badie what they wished producers knew about wigs. “The time needed in preparing and styling to get the wigs to look their best and to maintain them,” pleads Jaime Leigh. “They deserve respect. It is a difficult task trying to mimic nature and that’s what we as the hairstylist and wigmaker are attempting to do, mimic a natural head of hair.”

Badie is slightly more frank: “That you get what you pay for. The better the quality of the wigs, the better they will look—and the more expensive they may be.”

Movie wig-making is a process as intricate as tailoring and costume designing for the body, yet it still seems a mystery to most outside the hair and makeup trailers—which is where the wig travels next.

Once the wig has reached completion and been approved, it’s out of the wigmaker’s hands and onto the set, delivered to hairstylists for daily styling and application, and to maintain its integrity for the duration of the shoot. It must be hugely anxiety inducing to send your (very expensive) hair-baby out the door into the hands of someone else, knowing it has a complicated journey ahead. I have personally witnessed hand-made wigs being destroyed by less-than-capable technicians. As Pickens tells me, “I work with designers I trust to respect and handle the wig properly. When mutual trust and respect is at the forefront in the process, handing over our handmade art is easy.”

And that’s the next part of the art: application.

Jaime Leigh McIntosh applies one of Rob Pickens’ Marilyn Monroe wigs to Ana de Armas’s head. — Credit… Photo Supplied
Jaime Leigh McIntosh applies one of Rob Pickens’ Marilyn Monroe wigs to Ana de Armas’s head. Credit… Photo Supplied

Wig application can mean the difference between an okay screen appearance for the wig or an outstanding one. I consider it mastery when someone does it so flawlessly that the audience is unaware of its existence.

“The wig is only as good as the person who set, dressed and applied the wig,” says Pickens. “Although we construct our wigs to precisely emulate a true head of hair, it must be maintained properly in order to look [its] best. Each knot must be set after washing to capture all of the detail painstakingly tied in hair by hair.”

The art of preparing an actor’s head to make a wig look natural includes wrapping and securing the actor’s hair around their head so as to mimic a natural head shape and allowing the natural scalp to show through the wig parting, using prosthetics to create a skin-tone front hairline, or applying a complete bald head under a wig, and all manner of other sneaky tricks in between to make the actor’s own hair disappear so the wig can behave as naturally as possible.

On Blonde, de Armas’ naturally dark hair was a stark contrast to Marilyn’s platinum blonde and required a joint effort and multi-step process between hairstylist and makeup artist to ensure a flawless character transformation. Even so, says Jaime Leigh, “Working on Blonde, there were times I was not permitted to change wigs on my main character to match continuity for other scenes because of the incredibly tight shooting schedule we had to keep to, even though I had managed to get my wig-change down to seven minutes.”

It should be appalling, on a film that is literally named for an iconic head of hair, that the hair itself was not the on-set priority. For the passionate and dedicated technicians working behind the scenes this is anxiety inducing, but at the same time I didn’t really blink at the news. There are countless obstacles that—you guessed it—make you want to pull your hair out. At times it takes a lot of guts to stand up to the hierarchy on set and demand the time and respect that you need to give to the actors.

Badie works on Jurnee Smollet’s hair in the cool of the Lovecraft Country trailer.
Badie works on Jurnee Smollet’s hair in the cool of the Lovecraft Country trailer.

Indeed, what made the difference for Badie on the set of Lovecraft Country, when Smollet’s “hair personality” would change constantly, was the hair designer’s advocacy for his department. As he told Filmmaker magazine, “I’ll go to the [assistant director] and say ‘This is important for hair, I need my time.’ I don’t think it’s fair if someone stands over me saying, ‘We’re ready! We’re ready!’ Instead of there being a mystery about it, I find if you talk to people and tell them you’re going to need this time after every take or third take because it’s important for the whole look, then they’ll be very supportive.”

After our work is done in the hair-and-makeup trailer it can sometimes be hours before actors are on set and in front of the camera. During this time any number of things can happen: sleeping, rehearsing, costume fittings, lunch, exercise, chatting in the rain, close-hugging every person they see… the list goes on.

There is allocated time for us to make adjustments and fix issues between the last rehearsal, the final camera and lighting adjustments and when action is called. It’s brief—minutes in the single digits—and everyone is waiting for you to finish your work and step aside. This time is shared between hair, makeup, props and costume. If you can get your hair touch-ups done without spraying another crew member in the face with hairspray it’s a miracle. Some actors are patient and respectful of our work, some less so. Some don’t like to be fussed with, some require endless attention. It’s a dance.

I’d love to say it’s all 21st-century unicorns and rainbows behind the scenes and on set but a lot of pressure is put on ‘the vanities’ (that word again) to work invisibly and at the speed it takes to remove an apple box from shot. It’s frequently a delicate balance between getting what you want to get done while also allowing the actors the space to do their work.

More and more, I’m hearing stories of directors ‘saving space’ for cast once the camera turns over—often because they haven’t had time to run a scene—and completely locking out crew who would traditionally go in for last looks or on-set adjustments. Other times, your actors and their hair are flown (literally) to a mountain or out to sea and your work is in the hands of fate. Obviously, location elements can really work against hair. Badie tells me, “an on-set horror hair moment for me would be if the hair look is to be glamorous but it’s an exterior scene and it’s raining outside. These are never fun days.”

Just know that any time you see hair looking good outdoors—where it’s potentially been windy, damp, humid, sweaty—it’s taken a lot of work, constant attention and speaking up.

Often, you just pray that the edit is good.

Hair icons reimagined in 2022 films: Elvis, Blonde and Weird: The Al Yankovic Story.
Hair icons reimagined in 2022 films: ElvisBlonde and Weird: The Al Yankovic Story.

Just as budgets can work against your dreams, so can schedules. In particular, ‘pick-ups’. These broken, stop-start schedules became commonplace during the pandemic, but long before 2020 it wasn’t unusual for additional photography to be scheduled months, and in some cases, years after principal photography has wrapped. In this time actors have moved on and started other projects, changed hair color, removed or added hair. Recreating the same looks from principal photography can be especially challenging because time is of the essence.

Pre-production can be minimal on pick-ups and even if there was time to get the best wigs made there very rarely is the money available. It’s a scramble to make it work, and it’s potentially a whole different crew. I’ve seen countless scenes in movies where the actor’s hair literally changes length from one shot to the next. I suspect that the decision to let this ride was preferable to using a bad wig—especially obvious with short male hair, but also on women (here’s Vulture’s ode to Kate Mara’s Fantastic Fourreshoots wig”). I also suspect that these decisions are ultimately out of the hands of the hair team. Above-the-line crew (read: producers and directors) often win in the roulette of schedule-budget-deadline.

My hope is that this insider knowledge lends some robust insight to your next hair ranking. One thing it doesn’t answer, though, is why ranked lists and hair-thirst thinkpieces overwhelmingly favor men.

Fun fact: I would say, overall, that male actors fuss more with their hair than others do. Why? I’m still pondering this, and I’ve been a keen observer of (and participant in) what goes on behind the scenes for the last three decades. There’s a lot of psychology in hair, much more than in makeup in my opinion. It’s often a surprise that men succumb to a particular kind of hair obsession.

Moody male manes of 2022: The Gray Man, The Northman, The Batman, Men. 
Moody male manes of 2022: The Gray Man, The Northman, The Batman, Men

I was first exposed to this on the very first feature I worked on back in the late ’90s. I was looking after an unnamed actor and on my first day on set with him we did a take of an action piece in a dark alley. On cut, his first words were: “how was my hair in that shot?” This statement was directed at me, obviously, and it was one of my many early and memorable lessons—the vanity is real, and pay attention to the psyche.

I don’t know why I was surprised and amused by this vanity. Perhaps it’s understandable when your day job requires being photographed. And as with all things, gender-directed social pressure comes into the picture. From Samson and Delilah to the present day, our society still holds an unbalanced regard for the perceived virility of a man with a full head of hair. Just look at the number of hair serums and treatments, the number of Letterboxd lists and Twitter threads that focus on the ursine qualities of men on screen. The screams when it seemed that Jason Momoa was shaving his entire head; the sighs when it turned out to be a one-sided fade for a tattoo reveal. (The late Robert Forster famously had jibes about his thinning hair written into the script for Alligator.)

Keanu Reeves as The Dream in The Bad Batch (2016)—inexplicably, his first role featuring a moustache, no beard.
Keanu Reeves as The Dream in The Bad Batch (2016)—inexplicably, his first role featuring a moustache, no beard.

Also, in the privacy of the hair-and-makeup trailer, there’s an unspoken competition between actors as to who has the fullest facial hair; having to shave twice on a shoot day is some kind of badge of virulent honor. Which begs the question: just how has Keanu, a personal favorite of mine, risen so high in the ranks? Polite and grateful as ever, I like to imagine the famously patchy bearded one would be the first to praise his hair crew for filling in the gaps (his mother was a costume designer, after all). And he does indeed value a quality wig; The Bad Batch director Ana Lily Amirpour revealed to The Letterboxd Show that Reeves, like Glenn Close before him, paid out of his own pocket for his fulsome fleece as a cult leader in her 2016 film. Literally, The Dream.

In a separate interview, proud baldy Ed Harris recently told us: “If I had a full head of hair, and had a full head of hair my entire life, I’d probably be a completely different person, to tell you the truth. My career probably would have benefited.” Ed is innocent, but there is a breed of actor out there who just won’t settle when it comes to how their hair is styled. Persnickety is a word that comes to mind. I frequently hand over the grooming products to men and let them style their hair as they see fit because to do anything else is not worth the energy.

On a recent project with a young actor, the entire staff of the hair-and-makeup team had to reconsider their standards for hair continuity because he would not stop touching his hair, ever. Every reflective surface became an opportunity for hair re-assessment, like a young Narcissus in the making, none of us wishing to be his Nemesis. So please consider, if you see terrible or weird hair on an actor, this could be why. An actor’s concern with how their hair looks overtakes any trust in the professionals around them.

The bottom line is that whenever you watch an entire film or television series and don’t spot one wig or a hair out of place, know that magic has happened. Anyone putting creative work out into the world will have many masters. For the hair artisans in film it’s their own integrity, the actors they are working on, the director’s vision, the producer and their budgets and occasionally you, the audience.

Robert Redford (not a IATSE Local 798 member) washes Meryl Streep’s actual hair in Out of Africa (1985).
Robert Redford (not a IATSE Local 798 member) washes Meryl Streep’s actual hair in Out of Africa (1985).

If this story is only the beginning of your own growing obsession with the whys and how-tos of wig-work and Hollywood hair, your timing is perfect: awards season is upon us. It’s the one time of year when our industry’s media really pays attention to the artists behind the work, and you will notice an increase in “for your consideration” interviews and Instagram stories and Vulture deep-dives about process and vision. Jaime Leigh interviews many hair designers on her own show, The Last Looks Podcast, which goes deep into detail on the craft.

Oddly, for a creative craft that attracts such obsession, hair doesn’t have its own awards-season category. At the Oscars, for example, the trophy is given for Outstanding Hair and Makeup but it’s far more often been the makeup artists up on the stage. And that’s not even getting into whose names get to go on the Oscar-nomination ballot, which, like several other craft categories including visual effects, is a complex negotiation of unions, roles, relationships and other Hollyweird carry-on that rarely reflects reality.

Fortunately the union holds its own hair-and-makeup awards—but wigmakers are yet to have their day on the podium. What does a fine weave have to do to get a trophy around here? “I quite enjoy my place in the industry,” says Pickens, our humble wig-making legend. “That said, without the wigmaker, there is often not a head of hair to dress. Being recognized and credited as an integral part of the hair team would be appreciated by all wigmakers.”

My hope is that audiences take Pickens’ words to heart when making future hair rankings so that soon, when I search “best wig” on Letterboxd, I’ll get more than one result.

Blonde’ and ‘Lou’ are streaming now on Netflix. ‘Don’t Worry Darling’ is in US theaters. ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’ opens in US cinemas on December 21.

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