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‘Masters of Disguise’ real stars of the show

Meet the real stars of The Americans: The disguises.

The wigs of The Americans have developed a following unto themselves, in part because they are so integral to the plot, in part because they are ridiculous and hilarious and amazing-looking, and in part because it’s fun to try and figure out how likely it is that no one can recognise Philip and Elizabeth underneath those get-ups. So many honey traps, so few hair-pullers.

Peg Schierholz and Lori Hicks, the department heads of hair and makeup respectively, are the ‘Masters of Disguise’. Their trailer is packed with wigs, boxes of fake facial hair, coloured contact lenses and false teeth. (Leads Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys had molds made early on so character chompers could be fitted to their mouths.) Schierholz and Hicks keep stacks of ’80s magazines — Time, Playboy, Life, Elle, Vogue and even Soviet Life Today — and yearbooks from Virginia for reference, and they consulted with a real spy to learn specifics.

“In the CIA, they’re all pretty dull,” says Hicks.

Schierholz agreed. “Guys love baseball caps, apparently,” she says.

“They did get elaborate sometimes,” Hicks says, by wearing fat suits or fake pregnancy bellies. But a good disguise “has to be fast” to put on and remove.

Costume designer Jenny Gering faces the same limitations: When the Jenningses are undercover, “we’re trying to really craft the character without any characteristics.”

“We were very, very interested in disguises and knew that they would be a central and important part of the show,” says creator Joseph Weisberg. “I don’t think that we knew, going into the first season, that they’d be such a humorous element… [because] we were finding our way with how to do the wigs and the disguises in general. If we’d had more control in the beginning, we might have done it straight. Which would have been too bad.”

Schierholz, Hicks and their team “are really masters of disguise now,” says Weisberg. “And I mean that quite literally.” Sometimes, he says, “we’ll be working and we’ll see someone that we don’t recognise and think: Who the heck is that? And you realise it’s Keri or Matthew in disguise.”

In the hair and makeup trailer, one wall is lined with mirrors and dressing-room tables; the opposite wall has photos of the cast members in all their disguises. The effect is disorienting but fantastic: Stand in the middle of the narrow space, and multiple versions of multiple people are all around you. You never really know exactly whom you’re looking at or whether they’re in front of you or behind you. It’s a very on-theme setup.

Sometimes a script will provide scant guidance — it might just say ‘bureaucrat’ — and often it will dictate whether the disguise is ‘light’, meaning only a hat or glasses are needed, or ‘heavy’, as most beloved Americans disguises are. Fernando, the in-house favourite disguise, has greasy dirtbag hair, a thick moustache, and a tendency toward brutally murdering people. I’m told that Fernando is summoned “every time there’s a vicious-type killing”.

Clark is Philip’s disguise when he seduces and marries Martha, an FBI secretary. (“I just love Clark,” says Gering. “I had a Ken doll that looked just like that in the ’70s.”) Schierholz and Hicks both say they didn’t know, when Clark first appeared, that he’d be appearing so often. Many a fan has wondered: If Clark and Martha are ‘getting romantic’ all the time, how has she not pulled the wig off by now? Laws of physics, the strength of glue, the power of self-delusion — what is the force keeping Clark’s wig in place?

“We had this question about Clark’s wig,” he says. “It came off so easily in one episode, how did Martha not knock it off his head? Which is a very valid question! We sort of joked that this wig has an arc of its own.”

In season two, “there’s a little more reveal of how it’s done,” says Schierholz.

“And women who are in love are blind a little,” says Hicks. “Or they don’t want to say anything.”

Then there’s Jennifer (who is really Elizabeth), the sister of Clark (who is really Philip; it’s kind of a Russian-nesting-dolls-of-deception situation), who holds the honour of being what Russell deems “the height of my unattractiveness.” Americans guest star/FX MVP Margo Martindale had an on-set nickname for Jennifer, but Russell says it isn’t appropriate for a family publication.

“Mine tend to just be, like, ugly,” says Russell. “Every time Matthew gets one, somehow it’s strangely sort of attractive. And the girls are like, ‘We like Fernando! We like Mountain Man!’ And I come out, and everyone’s like: ‘Ooooh, that’s bad. You look like a small boy. You look like a bad dog breeder. A scary girl in sensible shoes.’”

She grins. “Which is fun, in its own way.”