When I first joined the CIA, I was hired to be a Theatrical Effects Specialist, which I assumed meant that I would be teaching acting classes to spies. Why else would they hire a drama major? Armed with a theater degree a few years out of college, I was prepared to show hardened covert operatives how to get in touch with their “inner children” with mirror exercises and trust falls. With a naïve “can-do” attitude, I was confident that I could train clandestine officers the Meisner technique and the Stanislavsky method. But when I walked through the doors of my CIA office for the first time, I was shocked to see industrial hair dryers, boxes of plastic glasses, and wigs strewn about the office — lots and lots of wigs. Acting definitely wasn’t on the agenda; instead, I was going to be creating disguises.
Housed in the basement of CIA headquarters, the Disguise Department is often considered the redheaded stepchild of the Agency. Few people understand or appreciate how important disguise is to espionage. Many of my former CIA colleagues viewed it as a frivolous extension of Halloween costumes, when in reality it’s a vital tool protecting spies and their assets’ identities overseas. Wearing wigs or fake mustaches is unnatural (unless you’re an actor), so it’s easier (and more comfortable) for covert officers to dismiss disguise rather than embrace it.
Disguise not only conceals identities; it also supports a spy’s alias, which is why I appreciate its pivotal role in The Americans. Given Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell’s (Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings) wide assortment of hairpieces, I assume that show creator Joe Weisberg had some disguise experience when he served at the CIA. (Coincidentally, Elizabeth’s short, frizzy wig from the fake wedding scene is surprisingly similar to how I looked in eighth grade.)
In the most recent episode, “The Oath,” Phillip and Elizabeth display their ease with disguise and their aliases. The disguises inform the characters’ faux personae, which provides them with a legitimate escape from their difficult emotional reality.
Phillip (as Clarke), guised in a nerdy wig and dorky glasses, marries desperate FBI employee Martha to gain access to high-level intelligence. His alias is an effective tool to further his operational agenda, even though it means the assured emotional destruction of the needy Martha. The disguise choice helps to create an alter ego that is entirely convincing. Phillip allows his costume to inform his persona, which makes “Clark,” with his limp hair and dated glasses, seem authentic. What does not ring true, however, is how Phillip’s wig miraculously stays in place during his hours of energetic lovemaking. I dated a guy for five months and had no idea he wore a hairpiece (it was very realistic). Lust can blind you to the realities of a toupee and erase years of government disguise training.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth’s world is spiraling out of control: Her KGB handler is untrustworthy, her kids hate her, her marriage is in ruins, and she just may be the target of an FBI sting. In one scene, Elizabeth embodies an alter ego that is all about control, wearing a black dominatrix wig and tight red leather skirt with vampy lipstick. Her costume informs her alias, which gives her a vicious edge and the necessary authority over unstable mole Sanford. Disguises for Phillip and Elizabeth are not frivolous; they are a critical element in the execution of their missions.
The Americans understands that perception is reality. When characters embody their aliases fully (with disguises), the aliases appear to become real, for both the characters and their targets. After witnessing her husband’s faux wedding, Elizabeth says, “The thing you need to understand is we see what we need to see in people — things that aren’t really there.” Even though “Clark” looks like he should be on a Registered Sex Offender list, Martha suspends her doubts — because she needs love. Phillip feeds into Martha’s insecurities by creating a nebbishy persona, which helps him gain her trust. Martha needs Clark to be real, so he is.
When FBI agent Stan Beeman and the rest of his team try to identify the Soviet S agents, the Jennings’ disguises mask their true identities. Wigs, glasses, and facial hair alter facial structural appearance, making identification difficult. While disguise can’t completely hide distinguished features (like strong cheekbones), when properly applied and utilized, they can create enough doubt to let spies do their jobs in anonymity.
Before I joined the CIA, my only experience with disguise was wearing giant powdered wigs in bad college restoration comedy productions. While I knew how to don a waist-cinching corset and apply a fake hairy mole on my lip for comedic effect, I had no idea how to disguise a CIA officer. But after months of interviews, polygraph tests, and background checks, the Agency identified something in my background that convinced them that they could train me to create disguises. I readily admit that I was a challenging student (I once disguised myself as Ruth Buzzi, an actress who played surly old ladies on Laugh In), but I learned how important a complete alias and disguise is to espionage.
When I left the Disguise Department to become an actual spy, I was able to infuse my acting skills with my disguise experience to create an authentic alias. I loved this part of the job. When I traveled on missions, I would change the way I wore my hair, my posture, voice inflections, and even my gait to create a unique persona that felt genuine.
When living overseas, I became my alias. During one mission, my alias was celebrating a birthday, so I had the town where I was stationed throw me a party. Real people celebrate birthdays, and so do fake people. My alias got a ton of birthday presents.
The 360-degree approach to creating a persona gave me the confidence to successfully execute overseas assignments. I don’t know if I needed to employ all of those techniques to be effective, but I do know that my outward appearance influenced my ability to convincingly retreat into my alias persona and do my job. The best benefit of working in the disguise department? I learned how to spot a toupee a mile a way…unless I’m dating the guy who is wearing the rug — then all bets are off.