With recent credits including Kong: Skull Island, Inherent Vice and Guardians of the Galaxy, Hairspray Live! hair designer Miia Kovero might seem like an unexpected choice for this live televised stage production.
In point of fact, with all of her blockbuster credits and auteur collaborations, Kovero started out in theater, and it was the exhilaration of returning to the medium that drew her to the project. Of course, Hairspray Live! isn’t straight theater—the production was shot live, for one night only, with more complicated logistics, involving breakneck hair and makeup transitions.
Below, Kovero explains the process of designing hair for the latest Hairspray adaptation and the joys of working on a project where hair is a character in itself.
What was it that attracted you to Hairspray Live?
I think because I started in theater, because it was theater-based, and all those quick changes and everything. That was kind of challenging, and so complex, I think, being able to do a theatrical hair, but doing it kind of neater, and more TV-specific.
Theater is a little more rough, usually, but you have to be much more fine-tuned for TV, so we had the combination of those two. I just loved the fact that we had to shoot everything in order, live—like in theater—so you can’t screw up.
It must be quite exciting to work on a production where hair is such a predominant element.
Are you kidding me? It was so great. It was a big challenge, but obviously there had been some theater productions. Harvey [Fierstein] had done that a million times on Broadway, and it’s been done in films before, so we had some reference of what needed to be seen, but was a great challenge.
I think we had like 64 wigs, all together, that we had to dress, and everything worked all the time—all the chorus wigs, and the principals had several wigs each. It was such a fun challenge.
You’ve also worked with costume designer Mary E. Vogt on Kong: Skull Island—which came first, and is there a shorthand in that relationship now?
We finished Skull Island maybe six months before. I think we finished it in March, and then we started prepping this maybe in June, July, so that was great. I love working with Mary. She’s amazing to collaborate with. We can balance ideas from each other, going to the fittings and seeing what everyone is wearing to design the hair from that, or vice versa. It was just amazing.
With copies of so many previous Hairspray productions readily available, did you find yourself looking to period photographic reference for additional inspiration?
Harvey had four wigs, if I remember correctly. He wanted to have his own say about his style, and designing all those styles with Mary’s outfits. Also, the producers had their preferences of what they’d want to see. They wanted to see something not as outrageous as the theatrical versions, but not as tame as what you would generally have for period, for TV. We kind of did something in between.
How did you secure your actors’ wigs and hairpieces for such an intensely physical song-and-dance production?
I had an amazing key hair stylist—he’s a wig wizard, and I was really grateful to have him come and work with me on this. We both come from theater backgrounds, so we know how to build bigger wigs and have them stay throughout the quick changes. I think that background for both of us helped us a lot. We knew how to construct the wigs so they would stay.
What was the process of transitioning hairpieces on the night of the live show?
It was rather nerve-wracking—we had three full dress rehearsals before the live show so we were able to run through the whole show, minute by minute, three days before. We had dry runs, making sure that every person was in their right quick-change place, and who’s going to be taking care of who.
I think we had about 16 people in our background tent who would take care of all the chorus girls and boys, and all the various minor characters, and then we had, five people in a trailer who would get the 13 principal characters done in the beginning of the show.
Then, we would divvy up all our hair people to take care of certain characters, or certain group of characters, and they would have to be in certain spots where they have quick changes. All those places were designed before the first dress rehearsal, and all the wigs would go into those quick-change places, and those would be done before we’d run there with two minutes to spare.
Can you further explain the layout of the backstage area?
In pre-production, we walked through the whole set and what the timing would be with the directors, and the camera and everybody. In the beginning, when Tracy wakes up and they do that little dance on the street, she has about 90 seconds in that first commercial break to run into the set.
We were outside on the Universal backlot, and she had 90 seconds—she had to take the [golf] cart into the studio, we had to change her, so then she would be at home, doing the first scene inside her house, with the Mom and Dad and Penny.
That was another challenge, in addition to all the hairstyles, and making sure that everything stayed.
What was it like working with Harvey Fierstein, who originated the role of Edna Turnblad on Broadway?
He had some much information to give us, and guided us if we had any questions. Even if I had questions about other characters, I was able to ask him, “What do you think?” He was very open to our vision for Edna, so he was great to work with, as well.
Were there actors beside Fierstein who participated as actively in creating their characters’ looks?
I went to all the costume fittings with Mary, and I wanted to get to know the person who’s playing the character, and what their view of the character that they’re playing is, so we can collaborate with the actor. Obviously, Penny would have pigtails, as she’s had pigtails in everything, from the beginning, and we wanted to do something a little bit different for the end.
I really enjoyed the process of learning what they envisioned for the characters, and giving them a little twist so it wasn’t quite theater, but it wasn’t quite TV.
Looking back at the final product, is there a particular moment or hairpiece you’re most proud of?
One of the fastest changes we had was a 45- or 50-second quick-change with Harvey, which was quite challenging. There were two costumers, and hair and makeup at the same time on him, when he goes to Mr. Pinky’s.
That was pretty brutal and nerve-wracking, and probably the most fun challenge in doing the show—but also just keeping up with the whole thing, because it was non-stop for the three and a half hours that we were shooting it.
Nobody made any mistakes that I know of in the hair department. Everything ran really smooth—we were able to be on our spots, every person from the hair department, and do exactly what we planned on doing.
Is this niche situation of the live, televised theater production something you’d like to pursue further in the future?
I would absolutely love to do it again. It was such a rush, going back to my roots in the theater and being able to collaborate with some many different people, because it was such a big production.
It’s nice to kind of mix and match. I like to do different mediums, doing film every once in a while, doing theater and TV. It just adds a little spice to the work that I do.