Mike Potter & Arianne Phillips Get Hedwig Ready for Her Closeup

by John Calhoun

In trying to define the classic Hedwig look—the arched, pencil-thin eyebrows, the red glittered lips, the blond wig with extravagant front flips—Mike Potter fishes around in his memory and plucks out remnant concepts. "John definitely wanted a tragic element to her, and so her eyebrows are painted tragically," says the wig and makeup designer, referring to Hedwig creator John Cameron Mitchell. "I was inspired a little by Marlene Dietrich in the way her face was painted. With the glitter, we definitely wanted her to be rock and roll, and with the red glitter lips, my take on it was that she wanted people to watch her mouth, and to see what was coming out of it. That was a way to gather attention."

As for the wig, Potter says, "People always say it’s Farrah Fawcett, but to me it looks more like a George Washington powdered wig. John says that the wings on her wig are her lungs. I look at it as her defense mechanism—like the horns on a battering ram. When she’s onstage, she’s wearing her big wig and her face is like a mask to protect her. But everyone has their own take on it."

Indeed they do: enough to make the drag punk musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch,/ which was born in 1995 at a Soho rock club in New York, into a long-running Off Broadway smash when it transferred to the Jane Street Theatre in the West Village. Now Hedwig and her band have made the transition to the silver screen, in a film that won top awards at the Sundance Film Festival in January, and will be released by Fine Line Features in July. Three people have been with Hedwig since her modest origins—Mitchell, who wrote the stage show and film, made his directorial debut on the film, and of course, embodies Hedwig; Stephen Trask, who composed the music and lyrics, and plays Angry Inch band leader Skszp; and Potter, who worked with Mitchell from the very beginning on the character’s look.

The movie, shot on a tight budget and short schedule last year in Toronto, is no strict transcription of the play, which took the form of a Hedwig and the Angry Inch concert. In between numbers, the transgendered Hedwig talked about her life—her youth as a boy named Hansel in Communist East Berlin; her affair with an American GI, whom she married after undergoing a botched sex-change operation; her abandonment in a trailer in Junction City, Kansas; her discovery of and love for young aspiring musician Tommy Gnosis, who broke her heart and stole her material. In the film, these incidents are enacted, and the performance scenes cover a range of settings—although many unfold at the Bilgewater’s chain of family-style restaurants, where Hedwig’s manager (Andrea Martin) has booked the band.

In addition to Mitchell and Trask, Miriam Shor, cast as Yitzhak, Hedwig’s backup singer and husband, transfers her stage role to film. Additions to the cast include Michael Pitt as Tommy Gnosis, Maurice Dean Wint as Luther, the GI, and Alberta Watson as Hansel’s mother. And major additions to the creative team include director of photography Frank G. DeMarco, production designer Thérèse DePrez, and costume designer Arianne Phillips, who created more than 40 ensembles for Hedwig alone.

"Arianne came in, and she just got it instantly," says Potter. "The looks for hair and makeup and costume were really dependent on each other—for us to step back and let each other do our jobs wouldn’t have worked. Some drawings were done of core looks—the classic Hedwig, her tranny hooking moment, and the end, where she’s wearing a Tina Turner look." Phillips, whose credits include the films The Crow, The People vs. Larry Flynt, and Girl, Interrupted, many music videos, and a sideline as personal stylist for Madonna and Courtney Love, says, "Mike and I really clicked. He lives in New York and I live in LA, and at one point I decided that we needed to spend some time together. So I flew to New York, and we spent a week going thrift-store shopping and wig shopping and hanging out. I think because we had that, we really created our own language. I’ve never had a hair and makeup person on a film that I could collaborate with—usually, they get hired at the last minute."

Instead, Potter had six years to perfect Hedwig’s look. A Delaware native with a college degree in agricultural economics and a minor in art, Potter’s experience ranges from hair and/or makeup for photo shoots, magazine and book covers, concerts and music videos, to live shows with titles like Prom Queens and The Girl With Polka-Dot Eyes, and the movies Kiss Me Guido and Flawless. But he explains, "I’m not a licensed hairdresser or anything. I’ve done hair since I was a kid; I used to do my grandmother’s wigs"—"destroy" is the word used in his bio—"but I don’t have any formal training. John will tell you that in the beginning, I would make the wigs out of hair and toilet paper rolls, and they would fall apart onstage. But it’s innate in me—I’m an artist, and that’s important to what I do."

In the play, Mitchell only left the stage at intermission, which limited her to more or less two looks. "Hedwig had three wigs onstage," says Potter. "A small wig underneath; what we call the hero wig, which is the main Hedwig wig, on top of that; and then an extension hairpiece that she plopped on. At some point, the big wig was taken off and the little one was revealed." In the film, there are more than 20 wigs and makeup looks. For that reason, "on set, I did Hedwig exclusively. There were four other people doing hair and makeup for the rest of the cast. And 90% of the time, I did all of Hedwig’s hair and makeup myself without an assistant."

Adapting the Hedwig looks to film, starting with screen tests, was one of the first orders of business. For the performance scenes, "I had to pull things back a lot," says Potter. "I wanted it to look beautiful and not garish. So I tried my hardest to make everything a little thinner, because if John had his way, his lips would come from the bottom of his chin to underneath his nose. We’d have to grab the pencil out of his hand. Frank DeMarco, the cinematographer, often let me look through the camera, to see if it looked good. He also did an amazing job of capturing the glitter on film."

The glitter itself moved intact from stage to screen—it’s made by a one–woman operation in Georgia called Cookie Puss. "I have tried every single glitter, and nothing works like her product," the makeup artist says. "It doesn’t fall off the lips; it stays on for an entire performance or an entire day. I don’t know what she puts in it. It comes in a bottle and looks like nail polish: you apply it with a brush and it dries. People are always horrified because they think I’m putting nail polish on John’s lips."

Other makeup products for Hedwig ran the gamut, but two companies stand out: M*A*C Cosmetics and Murad Skin Care Laboratories, both of which donated thousand of dollars’ worth of products to the low-budget film. (M*A*C is also introducing a lipstick called Angry Inch to promote the movie.) Potter says, "If you went through my makeup kit on set, you would find M*A*C foundations and powders, Ben Nye undereye concealer, Chanel Poppy Pink lipstick, Christian Dior….there’s no way you can create so many looks with one company. Some of it is also dime-store makeup. If I walked into Duane Reade and saw an awesome pink that I hadn’t seen anywhere else, I would buy it." Just as Hedwig would do.

As for Hedwig’s hair, the classic hero wigs were fitted to Mitchell’s head and expensively constructed with human hair, and in triplicate. Other wigs were cheap synthetics bought at wig stores—again, a fair approximation of the title character’s MO. But "most everything was altered," says Potter. "Hair was added or color was added, or it was cut and styled. The long straight wig in [the musical number] ‘Wig in a Box’ is a synthetic wig that Chris Vaughn, a Toronto wigmaker, sewed human hair into." Vaughn worked on some of the more complicated wigs, but Potter created the bulk of the hairdos. "The spiky Tina wig with the roots, I made myself from a cheap blond wig—I drew all the roots in with a Sharpie®. We didn’t have a lot of money," he reiterates. "I didn’t have a different wig for every single look, so I had to restyle and reuse wigs."

Though Potter says most of the looks were nailed before shooting, "When we were on set doing the fitting, things constantly changed. For instance, the blond wig that’s black underneath she wears during ‘Wicked Little Town’ was originally going to be used for a montage and be onscreen for five seconds. But John liked it, so that ended up being the featured hairdo. Also, the day of the Menses Fair scene, I said to Arianne, ‘Bring in her shoes, because I’m going to match her lips to them.’ So a lot of thought went into it initially, but also a lot of on-the-spot thought."

Unlike the stage production, the movie presents the other side of Hedwig: the "day," or offstage side. "I wanted her to be a real person on film," says Potter. "People would come on the set and Hedwig would be in bed, and they’d be like, ‘Where’s the glitter and the blond wig?’ I’d say, ‘I don’t think she sleeps in that.’ " Nor does she wear rabbit fur and rhinestones while lounging around her trailer or budget hotel rooms—though acid-washed jeans are a particular Hedwig favorite for both on- and offstage looks. Says Phillips, "We knew all along we weren’t doing Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. There’s a lot of poignant reality in there."

"My whole goal was for Hedwig to not really look like a tranny or drag queen in a lot of the movie, but to look like a woman," says Potter. "I didn’t want her to be this off-putting garish thing. I also think her looks develop through time. At the beginning, when she’s in Berlin, she looks horrid—she’s got a hideous shag, Mom does her makeup, and she’s wearing Mom’s dress. She’s behind the Wall, where no information is fed to her; there’s nothing but gray." Phillips adds, "Hedwig talks about being influenced by everyone from Debby Boone to Lou Reed, listening to American Forces Radio. I mean, I certainly know what it was like to not have access, even living in this country [the designer grew up in northern California], being a 14-year-old kid obsessed with pop music and not being able to get it or having the Internet to read about it."

Phillips says another thing people in Eastern Bloc countries wouldn’t have had access to were quality fabrics. "You would want a little that’s going to go a long way. Something that stretches and sparkles is going to be very attractive."

Finding herself a military wife in the Midwest, Hedwig is "shopping at the base PX," says the costume designer. "Though they probably don’t have any money, from the looks of that trailer. So you can imagine going to a Goodwill or a Salvation Army was like going to Bergdorf Goodman; all of the sudden she can get those Levis and those hideous things we’d rather give away. Those were exotic to her." Halter tops, tie-dyed T-shirts, and Spandex skirts are among the hodgepodge of items in her repertoire. Says Potter, "Suddenly, she’s in America and is inundated with this imagery. She grabs from that how she’s supposed to look, to represent being a woman. Our goal was to make her look not like something somebody else had done, but something she had done herself. She has hits and misses. As time goes on, she becomes more confident. I personally think that in the trailer scenes with Tommy, she’s so beautiful."

For the performance scenes, Phillips says, "I hope the clothes feel homemade and pulled together, because that was the idea. I wasn’t unlike Hedwig—I had no money. I begged, borrowed, and stole clothes. Most of the movies I’ve done have been fairly substantial Hollywood studio movies. Here, I kind of had to make a rabbit come out of a hat. Luckily, I have an archive of stuff, plus I had known for nine months I was going to be doing the movie, so I started collecting from thrift stores. There were also some things I really wanted to make, like the opening costume for ‘Tear Me Down,’ which was my version of the one that was in the play."

From a wardrobe that includes every kind of sequin, tassel, tiger pattern, and zebra print known to man, woman, or polyester, a standout is a hair costume worn by Hedwig during one of the movie’s fantasy sequences. "It was a pain in the ass, but it was really fun," laughs Phillips. "We bought lots of real hair, and sewed it onto pieces of clothing that we made. When I was in high school, I went to beauty school, so I know how to cut hair from way back. Mike and I put that costume on John, and we just started cutting it. I think we tortured John, though. I mean, how would you like to direct a movie in full makeup and hair?"

"We tried to make it as easy as possible for John," says Potter. "A lot of times, unless he was really going to thrash around, I wouldn’t pin the wigs on his head. That way, I could just walk up behind him and pull the wig off when he was done with a scene, so he didn’t have to direct in a wig.

"John Mitchell is, in my mind, a genius," Potter continues. "He got the best people in the industry to work on this movie. Unlike everyone else, I have no experience, but he demanded I be there with him." Phillips echoes Potter’s admiration: "John and Stephen Trask and I are the same age, and I think we have a shared aesthetic knowledge and cultural experience that was unspoken. One of the reasons that the movie was such a positive experience and so fulfilling was that I really identify with the material on a deep level. I think a lot of people do. Hedwig is this alien we identify with, because we all feel alienated." As Potter says, the character’s look is built up as a defense mechanism, and at the end "it’s all torn down—she’s back to where she started." The wholeness she sings about in "The Origin of Love" is achieved, and Hedwig can be herself/himself—no wig or costume, and minimal makeup..