As KGB agents on the FX network television show “The Americans,” characters Philip and Elizabeth Jennings hide in plain sight as a married couple with children in suburban Washington, D.C., during the Reagan administration.
But when they have to carry out a covert operation – a dead drop, an asset meeting, an assassination – the spies wear disguises to look plain and hide from sight.
The variety of wigs, contact lenses, faux beards, fake glasses, false teeth, clothing and makeup the spies use to transform themselves into janitor and vixen, Vietnam vet and child protection worker, government bureaucrat and former alcoholic, among dozens of others, is breathtaking.
Indeed, watching actors Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell playing fictional characters Philip and Elizabeth donning disguises to play other fictional characters ranging from sexy to seedy, from nebbish to extrovert, from frumpy to flamboyant is one of the many delights of the show, which concludes its strong third season Wednesday night at 10.
Although lagging in ratings – it averages just over 1 million viewers per episode – the show was renewed for a fourth season largely because it is the darling of critics who heap praise for the drama’s acting, writing, directing and, yes, disguises.
All about those wigs
Positive reactions to the show’s disguises – numbering about 60 and counting – has been both gratifying and surprising, said Peg Schierholz, head of the show’s hair department.
“It started in the first season, and by the end of it we said, ‘Wow. People are really noticing these things,’” Schierholz said. “It was strange when certain newspapers and outlets on the Internet would review the show and also have the ‘disguise wig count’ and the ‘disguise review.’
“It’s kind of wild, I’ve never seen anything like that. It’s fun and it’s interesting to see their viewpoint,” said Schierholz, who has worked on HBO’s “Sex and the City” and other TV shows and movies. “It’s definitely challenging coming up with fresh ideas.”
Schierholz uses as research 1980s-era Time, Vogue and other magazines, movies, and TV and YouTube clips.
In some cases, the disguises create recurring characters who are part of the show’s plot, such as Clark, who seduces and marries – yes, marries – lonely FBI secretary Martha. In other cases, the disguises create anonymous characters that have pet names on the set. A punk rocker wig is affectionately called “Ramone,” as in Joey Ramone, and a mustachioed, greasy long-haired dirtball look has come to be known as “Fernando” because Rhys did a flamenco dance when he first put on the disguise.
Creating the looks
Schierholz collaborates closely with makeup department head Lori Hicks to come up with disguises that are suggested in the scripts, usually with generic terms such as “CIA operative” or “mid-level bureaucrat.” She said she places a number of wigs and prop glasses on the stars, and Hicks may add makeup, a beauty mark or a goatee, among other touches “until something fits or clicks, a look of recognition in their eyes.”
The wardrobe department then contributes its ideas. But the disguises Philip and Elizabeth wear don’t really come to life until Rhys and Russell add their artistic flourishes, she said.
“The way they walk, the accents they use make a huge difference in how the disguises work. That’s a credit to Matthew and Keri. They go in different acting directions to make them live. The acting makes them come alive.”
Real spies in disguise
That’s true in real-life tradecraft as well, said former CIA chief of disguise Tony Mendez, a spy whose secret rescue of six U.S. diplomats during the Iran hostage crisis in 1980 was documented in the Oscar-winning 2012 movie “Argo.” In a 2006 “Spycast” available on the website of the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., Mendez, who is a founding board member of the museum, said role playing is key to an effective disguise.
“Most people think of a disguise as a pair of phony glasses, a mustache and a floppy hat. A disguise is much more than that. It’s really about the whole person, the lifestyle, mannerisms, pattern of activity.”
Hair, makeup and wardrobe department employees can take between 30 and 90 minutes or more to get the TV spies into their disguises, Schierholz said. In the real world, spies must be able to put on a disguise in 5 to 10 seconds without assistance, Mendez said in the taped interview.
An effective disguise conceals the true identity of the person wearing it, said Vince Houghton, historian and curator at the International Spy Museum. And in that regard, he said, “The Americans” gets it right.
“They never try to overdisguise Philip and Elizabeth,” said Houghton. “My wife watches the show and says, ‘That wig looks ridiculous,’ and I say, ‘That’s not the point. You can’t tell it’s Philip.’
“Your goal is to disappear into the crowd, to not be memorable, to be like everyone else.”
And that happens in “The Americans” – the FBI has sketches of Philip and Elizabeth in disguises but even their neighbor, Stan Beeman, an FBI counterintelligence agent, hasn’t been able to identify them.
Always a need for spies
So fascinating is the show and its depiction of so-called “illegals,” or KGB spies the Soviet Union placed in the United States during the Cold War, that the spy museum presented a mini-exhibit about the show that included wigs and glasses worn as disguises by Rhys and Russell, including the “Clark” hairpiece.
“I think the show has a lot going for it,” said Houghton, who holds a doctorate in diplomatic and military history. “You look at Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War,’ Shakespeare, the Bible and you see instances of disguises used for espionage since the beginning of time.”
And the need for spies to cloak their true identities shows no signs of waning three decades after the period portrayed in “The Americans,” he noted.
“There’s no end in sight, Houghton said. “There’s always going to be a need for concealing your real identity from an asset you don’t trust or from surveillance teams. This is not going anywhere soon.”
Watch ‘The Americans’
▪ Full episodes of “The Americans” are available to stream on Amazon (first two seasons stream free with Amazon Prime).
▪ Seasons 1 and 2 are available on DVD, and Seasons 1-3 are available to download for a fee from iTunes.
▪ Season 3 episodes of “The Americans” are available for free on fxnetworks.com/shows/the-americans for a limited time after they air.