HBO’s Watergate limited series White House Plumbers featured over 300 principal cast members and thousands of extras for the 1970s period piece. Many of the background actors were cast locally, forcing anyone designing for them to rely on photos for best fit. Filming also took place in three different states — New York, Washington, DC, and Los Angeles — with varying climates during the COVID pandemic. These were all challenges that, in any other project, would strain any partnership between the makeup and hair departments.
No so with White House Plumbers‘ Hair Department Head Katherine (Kat) Drazen and Makeup Department Head Sarit Klein. They leveraged their nearly 20-year friendship forged in their early days on the set of One Life To Live to carry through the experience with relative ease.
“We had each other, which was wonderful. We had great actors, and we had such a strong team. We had two people supervise background artists. There were days that we had, when we had the Watergate hearings in upstate New York, over 150 background artists,” Klein recalled. “We had 20 artists, each department, laying facial hair, covering tattoos… Just so much. So all of these little pieces created this one big challenge that we managed to accomplish.”
White House Plumbers narrows the focus of the Watergate scandal to the unlikely and rocky relationship between E. Howard Hunt (Woody Harrelson) and G. Gordon Liddy (Justin Theroux). Given the notoriety of these events and these two infamous characters, Drazen and Klein did have some historic evidence on which to build their looks for the period piece, but there were several characters who weren’t captured photographically as frequently.
For example, Hunt’s wife Dorothy (Lena Headey) was seldom photographed, so Drazen and Klein needed to rely on their carefully researched lookbook to find period and character-specific hair styles and makeup color choices. That lookbook contained inspirations from newspaper articles, magazines, catalogues, and period celebrities / political figures to allow the departments to quickly and accurately settle on looks. Klein also found modern cosmetics who have vintage lines from different decades that worked well to help ensure the makeup looks were all as period-specific as possible.
“For me, I designed character makeup for Lena that is late 60s and early 70s, so I had influences of both eras. One of the staples for her was a Clinique lipstick that originated in 1971 called Black Honey that still exists today and is very well known now. So there are a lot of different brands that still have these colors and Revlon was one of them,” Klein said.
For Liddy, Drazen helped Theroux style and dye his real hair to match Liddy’s specific characteristics, including a change in his hair part and an emphasis on the widow’s peak. Harrelson grew out his own hair to allow Drazen to create Hunt’s comb-over look.
But a particular comic sequence early in the series allowed Drazen to play around with deliberately misguided wig choices. In an ill-advised undercover jaunt to Los Angeles, Hunt and Liddy don ill-fitting and hilariously awful wigs and clothes. You may think finding such examples of awfulness would be an easy task, but it had its own challenges.
“It was definitely a process. I probably started out with 8 to 10 wigs for each character and narrowed it down to what the desired look was going to be. Again, very few photos of what those disguise looked look like. The only photo of those disguise looks were in an evidence bag. When we were handed those those research photos, they were flat and black and white. There was just rumors of what they actually looked like. We knew that there was a shade of red for Howard, and Liddy’s was that like Sir Lancelot-type hairdo,” Drazen explained. “Through different trials of cutting and coloring, we narrowed it down to two or three for each, and then we had a camera test day where we tried the wigs on and sent pictures out for approval. That was the process. I had all the wigs set up in my kitchen. I even have a photo of the night when I had them all set up, cut them in ways that I thought the creators wanted, and just kind of narrowed it down from there.”
One of their greatest accomplishments, however, was transforming Kathleen Turner into the controversial American lobbyist Dita Beard. Famous for a memo exposing illegal campaign contributions, Beard’s middle-aged woman look required Klein and Drazen to partner extensively with Turner who was completely game and fully trusted the artists. After finding a perfectly generically made wig, Drazen cut, colored, and performed a classic shampoo set not typically used today, requiring her to return to her beauty school days where she was taught that very specific way to set the hair.
According to the team, Turner loved playing Beard and relished the opportunity to completely disappear into the character once the wig and makeup profile were established.
In fact, Turner is nearly unrecognizable in her brief scenes in the limited series.
“I’m so happy to hear that,” Klein enthused. “That means we did our job correctly.”
White House Plumbers streams exclusively on MAX.