How the ‘Nightmare Alley’ Hair Team Fitted Rooney Mara With ‘A Wig On Top of a Wig’

The hair and makeup designers talk about the epic production values of Guillermo del Toro’s film, which used more than 100 wigs

Searchlight Pictures

During a later scene in Guillermo del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley,” Rooney Mara’s character Molly jumps in a car with Stan (Bradley Cooper) and takes off a wig that she had been wearing to disguise herself. The filming of that scene was trickier than anyone in the audience could have guessed, since there was a whole lot happening on the Oscar-nominated actress’s head.

“Rooney’s normal 1940s shoulder length-hair was a wig,” Cliona Furey, the film’s hair designer, explained to TheWrap. “So when Rooney removes the wig in the car, that was a wig on top of a wig.”

Pulling that off, so to speak, is considered one of the biggest challenges for any tresses team. “It’s every hairstylist’s nightmare,” said Furey. “But we carefully designed the wigs and somehow it worked.”

In fact, those two pieces of hair handiwork were among more than 100 that were used in the film, which certainly played a part in landing the film among the 10 titles shortlisted in the Oscar category of Best Makeup and Hairstyling. Wigs of various lengths and colors were worn by main cast members Bradley Cooper (in selected scenes), Richard Jenkins, Mary Steenburgen and Toni Collette, in addition to dozens of background actors.

Cate Blanchett, who nabbed a Screen Actors Guild nomination for her supporting performance, brought in her personal hair stylist. “Guillermo referenced Lauren Bacall for Cate’s hair and her stylist did a fantastic job,” said Furey. “The character’s femme fatale classic film star look worked perfectly opposite Molly, played by Rooney, who I kept more pure, vulnerable and real looking.”

Cate Blanchett in “Nightmare Alley” (Searchlight Pictures)

Furey mentioned that her collaboration with del Toro (this is her fifth project with the director/producer) is grounded in respect and an openness to new ideas. “I love that Guillermo isn’t rigid,” she said. “He always gives me specific concepts but then lets me take it from there. There’s an artistic flow, so as we evolve creatively, so do the characters. I’m lucky to work with a director who lets me play with that and believes in the magic behind hair, wigs and makeup.”

Makeup, for sure, is a crucial ingredient in all del Toro’s films. And on “Nightmare Alley,” the department was focused on both eccentric carnival characters, seen in the first half of the film, and then hyper-specific period details in the second half.

“The time periods are key to the story,” makeup designer Jo-Ann MacNeil said. “The carnival took place at the end of the Great Depression, which was important in determining the downtrodden looks of the people that existed in this world. The city scenes take place when America was on the brink of war and again, it affected their appearances.”

Specifically, she described how Stan’s progression from 1930s drifter to 1940s nouveau riche was suggested through his grooming, such as his sleek mustache and new hair.

“Bradley had a personal makeup artist, Jordan Samuel,” she said. “We collaborated to make sure we had a cohesive character that not only fit into this world, but made sense with Stan’s whole arc.” MacNeil was involved in the design on “the Geek” character (see below), which she said, “also had to make sense in Stan’s arc.”

In the film’s background, a more complex makeup job was required for the hairy-faced character Dogboy Jojo, a man whose name implies his role in the carnival. He was played by Mike Hill in his first acting role. Hill is a long-time makeup and creature design artist, who was instrumental in sculpting the Amphibian Man in del Toro’s Best Picture winner, “The Shape of Water.”

Mike Hill as Dogboy Jojo in “Nightmare Alley” (Searchlight Pictures)

And in one of the movie’s most makeup-centric and pivotal roles, British actor Paul Anderson (“Peaky Blinders”), leaves a lasting impression with practically no dialogue as “the Geek.” Teetering on the edge of sanity, he is an alcoholic prisoner of the carnival, where he eats live chickens at the bottom of a pit. Patrons pay a nickel to watch him in horror.

“We needed to show real desperation and despair,” MacNeil said. “So we broke Paul down with soot powders, grime sprays, dirt poofs and skin illustrator palettes. We made small prosthetic transfers for him (to show open wounds and scars) and had custom broken teeth molded. He also wore lenses to make him appear wall-eyed.”

The Geek appears in a few scenes during the first third of “Nightmare Alley” and then disappears. But those who have seen the film though until the end will understand why an emphasis was placed on the humanity of the character.

His scars, teeth, hair and eyes were also designed, according to MacNeil, to “create a character who at first you are frightened of — but also someone who you feel some sympathy for through the makeup.”

“Nightmare Alley” is now streaming on Hulu and HBO Max.