Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with two-time Academy Award winning hairstylist, Yolanda Toussieng. Her amazing list of credits includes Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, Mrs. Doubtfire, Ed Wood, and Oz The Great and Powerful (just to name a few). We talked about her background, the industry, and the work that fulfills her as an artist.
Erin: I wanted to interview you because you have an incredible body of work, and I wanted to shed light on what being a hairstylist in your industry entails. Can you speak a little bit about the specialized type of work you do and how it differs from hair work done in a salon?
Yolanda: As a hairstylist in the movie industry, you have to think in terms of characters. You’re not getting paid to make people look better, you’re getting paid to make actors look like the characters they’re playing. There are a lot of hairdressing skills I use – tricks that are temporary and done on the spot – that we don’t do in a salon. I use wigs and hair pieces. I might use a hair color palate to add gray to age an actor, or I might add roots to create a character that can’t afford to go to the salon. My background is in art, and I think I draw a lot from that.
(Photo caption: Colin Farrell character progression. Lace wig and beard on right)
E: Can you also speak about doing doubles. I’m not sure that the average movie-goer understands how important that work is.
Y: Doing doubles is a very important part of my work. Having a quality double can really benefit a director. On one movie I worked on, the big end sequence required a stunt man on a motorcycle to double the lead. The director let the hair and make-up department chose the stunt man, and we were able to create a double that was such a good match, the director was able to shoot a lot closer and get a lot more coverage than he was expecting….so much so, the stunt man ending up working a week instead of one day!
E: What separates a good double from a bad one?
Y: The difference between a good and bad double can be in the quality of the wig, finding an actor with the proper hairline, whether or not you need to use a bald cap to double a bald actor, etc. A lot of it comes down to experience – knowing what tricks to use and what choices to make.
E: Can you talk a little about covering the set and continuity?
Y: Well, it doesn’t only matter how good the work in the make-up and hair trailer is, it’s also what happens on the set. You can create something in the trailer, but if it’s not constantly maintained on set, you’ve lost it. The most important job after the look has been created is….Does it still look right? Is her ponytail still on her right shoulder? Did the dirt stay on, or did the actor wipe it off? It’s a constant, all-day-long maintaining of the look you created in the trailer, so covering the set becomes the most important thing for the rest of the day.
E: I’d love to hear how you got into this business. Did you attend a school or training program? Who were your mentors?
Y: When I started, there were apprentice programs at the studios, and I was fortunate enough to get a job at Universal. They put me in the wig room, and I stayed there almost a year. Unfortunately that doesn’t exist much anymore. (The old make-up and hair department at Universal is now the Jurassic Park ride!) My mentors were all of the hairdressers I met when I first started in the business. Seeing them work their magic – doing tricks with hair that I didn’t even know were possible, made me want to do this work.
E: You said that your background was in art. What do you mean by that?
Y: I made it through school by drawing. I had the same art teacher in middle school and high school, and we would illustrate two books a year for the writing department. It was the most success I had in school. When I needed to pass English in order to graduate, my English teacher said, “I know you have an ability with art, but you can’t spell. I’m going to get you out of high school by not failing you, but you need to go into a career in art.” At that time, I had no idea what that art would be – there’s a world of art. So I went into hairdressing and took that art with me.
E: What advice would you give to someone who wants to follow in your footsteps and do the type of hair and wig work you do?
Y: First you need your license. That’s something that’s unique to hairstylists (and not make-up artists) in this industry. I would then recommend working for the public for at least three years. No one’s going be tougher on you than the public – they’re paying you their hard earned money. If you learn how to deal with the public, you’ll learn how to deal actors and difficult directors. It isn’t just being a good hairstylist, you need to be able to deal with personalities. Regarding learning the skills we use in film, since the old studio training programs don’t exit anymore, you have to pursue other ways to learn what we do. Some schools – mostly make up schools have courses. You can also get involved in theater and opera to learn how to use wigs. We work with a lot of people who started off doing wig work in opera. And once you do get into the union, the union offers classes and seminars on period work and wigs.
E: What are your favorite types of projects to work on? Do you have any favorite looks you’ve created?
Y: Some of my favorite work I’ve done in my career is the work I’ve done with Tim Burton. I’m a huge fan of his, and I feel honored to have been part of the Tim Burton world. Also some of the work I did on the Batman Movies – the character, Poison Ivy, ended up being one of my favorite characters to work on. It’s funny because one Halloween I saw people dressed up as four of my characters: Poison Ivy, Beetlejuice, The Riddler, and I think Edward Scissorhands. To stand on the street and watch these characters walk by in a Halloween parade made me realize how satisfied I was with that part of my work.
E: A lot of our readers are actors. What is the best way an actor can collaborate with you? Do you like actors to share their ideas with you, or do you find that limiting?
Y: No, it starts with a combination of the director’s vision the actor’s input. It’s the actor’s character, and they have to be comfortable with how they look. I think there’s always something that will work for the actor and the character. An actor may need to look the period, for example, but there are choices within that period.
(Ed Harris in a lace wig)
E: I heard an infuriating story about an actress, who refused to wear a period hair style for a role because she “wanted to look cute”. What are your thoughts on that?
Y: You know, I think some young actresses hurt themselves by worrying too much about how they look. If they’re so worried about how they look, they’re really not thinking about how the character should look. We’re making a visual product – it’s visual storytelling – and when actors are afraid to use the art of make-up and hair for their characters, they’re losing something.
E: I love that. We also have lot of readers are also aspiring directors. How can a director best collaborate with you?
Y: I think it all starts with the director. I may be the head of the hair department but it’s not really my department, it’s the director’s department. It’s my job to pay attention to what the director needs and then explain to him or her how we can do it within our budget. You just asked me about how I collaborate with actors – well, really, I have to take care of the director and make sure his wishes are met, listen to the actors and make sure their thoughts are blending, and then make the producer and the unit manager happy by keeping the budget down. There are three elements coming together, and oftentimes, it’s challenging.
Aside from Tim Burton, who’s relentless about how his characters look, the majority of directors I work with are better at explaining what they don’t like rather than what they do like – they know it when they see it. I think directors can best collaborate with us by really expressing all of their ideas to us. When I worked on Mrs. Doubtfire, Chris Columbus brought me a picture of his grandmother, and said “This is how I see Mrs. Doubtfire.” And that was great! I got as close to that picture as I could.
E: You work as a department head in a business where men still hold a majority of the leadership roles. Are there any challenges you’ve faced as a woman in this industry?
Y: Sometimes I feel it’s harder to get my voice heard as a woman, but that’s mainly in dealing with some crew positions that have less of an impact on my artistic work. With the positions that do affect my art – directors and producers – I don’t find that that’s an issue. I come from an art world. And if you’re good at your art, people are going to listen to you. I feel like the women producers I’ve worked with have probably faced more challenges with this than me because they’re in a different position of power. I can lead with my art, and people either get it or they don’t.
E: In Hollywood, you need to be both an artist and a business person. Do you work with an agent? How do you negotiate your deals?
Y: Well, when I started in this business there weren’t agents for hairstylists, so I’ve always worked from my last deal memo. I’ll say, “This is what I made on this last movie, the going rate has gone up, so I need a $2 raise.” I fight for myself, and that’s how I negotiate. I do think the business has changed, though, and my advice to new people is that I think they’re going to have to get an agent to get their names out there in front of the new producers and directors.
E: Finally, what do you love about your job? What fulfills you as an artist and keeps you going?
Y: You know, every hairstylist and make-up artist wants to do a Mrs. Doubtfire or an Edward Scissorhands – we all dream of having that big responsibility…that career gold. But why I do it every day, is for that one actor that needs me to tell the story. I remember an actor who came in to play a military Special Ops person. When he walked into the trailer, he just wasn’t the character. But then we shaved his head, gave him a suntan and a tattoo, and he became that guy. He needed everything we did to walk out of that trailer and be successful in that part, and that brings me joy. That’s why I come back every day: To be of service…to help the actor tell the story. I’m really just doing the same thing I did when I illustrated books in high school. I’m still illustrating characters and stories. And that’s what’s rewarding and fulfilling to me.
(Yolanda and her mother after her Oscar win for Mrs. Doubtfire)