How the Story of ‘Pose’ Is Told Through Its Heroes’ Hair

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Photo Source: Eric Liebowitz/FX

“You don’t expect these things to happen,” says “Pose” hair department head Barry Lee Moe of his Emmy nomination. “Especially with it being the show’s final season and receiving the most nominations that we’ve ever had, it’s such a humbling moment.” Moe, who worked on the FX series from Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Steven Canals on all three of its seasons, hopped on the phone with Backstage to discuss the significance of creating hair looks for a show about trans women of color, and the importance of actors feeling heard when it comes to their coifs. 

Can you describe the role and responsibilities of the head of the hair department? 
It’s my job and duty to read the scripts, break it down, and collaborate with the costume designer, director, and creative team to execute the storylines through my department, which is hair, and to create these head-to-toe looks with everyone who is involved and make sure they’re cohesive and that they’re telling the story authentically when we send our actors to the set. That can mean a number of things. Sometimes on “Pose,” that’s crazy, fantastical, over-the-top looks for the balls. Other times, it’s very real moments where we’re dealing with AIDS and we’re in the hospital, and I’m finding a balance between those and being able to execute them in a way that is truthful. 

Once you’ve gotten the scripts, what is your process for really getting in there and figuring out the hair looks? 
For me, it all starts on the pages of the script. You read where the character is going in that episode, where they’ve come from, and what moment they’re currently in. All of those things affect one another in terms of how they look and how they’re dressed, how their makeup looks, how their hair looks. It’s taking those things and applying them to my vision for what I see when I’m reading the script and jotting it down, and taking note of it. When we go in for a content meeting, which is when we sit down with the director and the creative team—usually, Ryan Murphy’s involved—we kind of go through the creative brief for that episode as a whole. Then we can listen to the ideas of the director and the other people involved and see what their vision is and determine how we apply our vision to their vision, and get one cohesive thing so that every party is happy and we’re all able to tell our version of the story together. 

How do you collaborate with the other departments to ensure that the aesthetic is cohesive and all the elements are in the same world? 
These projects are completely collaborative between every department, especially costumes, hair, and makeup, because we’re ultimately the three departments that you see together in one place on one actor, and it all needs to make sense when it is executed. The biggest thing for me is costumes. Analucia [McGorty], our wonderful costume designer, she and I would talk daily—many, many times a day—because the idea I may have for something may be completely different from what she has. Once I see her costumes and what she has in mind, what I originally thought could totally go out the window, because I’m like, “Oh, this is where you’re going.” It inspires me to do something different. It can go the other way around, too, where I can say, “I’m thinking about doing this amazing updo for Elektra, and I want to incorporate the strand of gold to the back, and I want to tie into the design lines of the costume. We were really able to create some special things together, especially when we did that fairy-tale ball at the end. A lot of that was Analucia and I kind of bouncing ideas back and forth: How are we going to choose these things together? And then makeup, of course, as well, ties into all of that, because it all has to make sense together. 

“My goal is that [actors] feel 100% comfortable when they step out of the trailer, and that they’re ready to do their best work and that they’re not held down by their hair…. That’s the worst feeling ever as a creative.”

Obviously, hair is hugely important on “Pose,” as most of the main characters are trans women of color. What were some of the specifics required for your work on this show?
When you’re working with a group of Black actresses and women of color in general and then you add another layer to it—working with women who are of trans experience—hair is incredibly important to their story. Black women wear hair. It’s their crown. It’s something that is extremely important to their existence and how they’re seen in the world, whether someone looks at them in one way or another. It’s reflective. When they step out on the street. It was super important to me that every actress felt authentic but also beautiful at the same time, and that their vision of these characters was brought to life through their hair, and that they felt uplifted by it, not held down by it. It was such a collaborative effort to talk with each actress, to talk through their hair journey and where they wanted to take each of these characters—especially with Elektra and Blanca, because they were two very different women on the series, but hair was important to both of their storylines. We really saw a huge journey with both of them from Season 1 to Season 3, and input from both Mj [Rodriguez] and Dominique [Jackson] was crucial to my process. 

How did you work with the actors to help communicate their character development through their hair? 
With Dominique specifically, she and I talked a lot, because she brought a lot of experience from her own life to the show. I mean, every single actor did, but Dominique especially, because she was a bit older than some of the other girls; she had more life experience and therefore more wisdom and knowledge to share. She was in the ballroom scene for a long time, and would share stories from women she looked up to when she was coming up. We would look at photos together and Polaroids from the ballroom scene, and she had a story about each and every woman and how they affected her journey. Specifically in Season 3, she and I together really wanted to incorporate as many hair looks as possible that were representative of these women, some of whom are no longer with us and some who are still thriving. We wanted to pay tribute to them through Elektra’s looks. 

That was huge to my process in Season 3, because it felt honest and authentic; because we weren’t just making a TV show and doing some amazing hair—we were telling the story and honoring someone’s history and paying tribute to them through our work, which, I think, has been the greatest gift of this show. We’re able to be intentional and impactful with our work rather than being kind of selfish and making choices that are driven by individual creative goals. That happens in a lot of shows, where you’re working toward: What can I do to showcase my work the best? This was such a different experience. My goal became: How can I most successfully tell these women’s stories? And [to] make sure that when people watch [the] show, they felt they were being represented on television. 

In general, do you expect actors to arrive with ideas and a desire to collaborate, or does that impede your process?
I think it’s an exciting part of the process. I think there are people out there who are not as open to it. They have ideas, whether it be their own or an idea from a director or a creative that has come from them, saying, “This is what I want for this scene.” Sometimes when it’s coming from above, it can feel like: I have to do this because that is what they want. I think as creatives and as designers, we have the power to shape these looks. Sometimes, I may have an idea for something that nobody else has thought of, and if you don’t bring it to the table [and] you don’t share it with the other people, they may never think of it themselves, because everyone’s brain is different. I think limiting yourself to your own creative process is [detrimental], because we’re working with human beings, and they’re the ones ultimately portraying the character. 

My goal is that they feel 100% comfortable when they step out of the trailer and that they’re ready to do their best work, and that they’re not held down by their hair because they don’t feel it really suits them or they wanted something different. That’s the worst feeling ever as a creative, for an actor to be like, “I’m not really into this, but I’m told I have to wear this.” No one should ever have that experience. I always have a vision for everything that’s planned for the next few weeks on the schedule. When I see a costume, when I read the script, I’m like, “OK, this is what I want to do for this.” Then, it’s always part of my process to make time to have a conversation with the actors, like: “Here’s what I was thinking. I’d really like to do this. What are your thoughts? How can we do this together?” I receive input so that we’re kind of working together to create the look. Sometimes, the actor brings something to the table that I never even thought of, and I’m like, “That’s genius. Let’s make that happen.” 

Do you ever watch other series or films, and it’s clear to you that the person in charge of hair had put their own work—and wanting to show off their abilities—ahead of the storytelling? 
Absolutely. I think we’ve all had moments like that, because you get excited about the project, and you get excited about the opportunity to showcase your work. Ultimately, we’re all artists and do our best to showcase our work. You can see, in a project, when all of the departments are aligned, and you can see when certain departments have stepped out and kind of done their own thing, and it’s clear they haven’t collaborated fully. That happens. Sometimes, it’s time. Sometimes, two departments don’t get along. There can be a lack of cohesion at times. I think with “Pose,” we were really successful in showing how collaborative a project can be, from hair and makeup and costumes to production design to acting to directing—everything. It all really came together in a way that felt truly whole. 

What advice would you give to someone who wants to do hair for TV and film? 
I worked on Broadway for a long time. When I stepped into the TV world only five years ago, I had to be open and ready to receive information, because I knew nothing about it. I had an idea of what went into it just from watching TV shows and movies from the time I was born, but I didn’t know the ins and outs of it. The greatest test I had at that time was that I came into [the] space respectfully and just paid attention to what was going on around me. Through that, I was able to observe and really pull from everyone who was working around me. I am very fortunate to work with some of the greatest people in the business, who have all been mentors to me in different ways. These great department heads who I’ve worked with in the Ryan Murphy world have really shaped my career, because I silently observed them and was able to pull a lot of information from what they were doing. My best recommendation is just to show up and be prepared to learn, and be open to it. We all have a lot of skills, and we all want to get there and be designing our own show and doing our own thing. But there’s a process to getting there, and if you skip some of those steps, you end up getting in over your head, and you’re not ready for what you thought you were because you didn’t take the time to learn how it really works. That’s the biggest thing you can do in this industry: Just be a vessel for information and be open to it, because we all have information to share and we all have talents and gifts. Nobody knows everything, and we all can learn from each other, and that’s what I continue to do. The teams that I hire are diverse and [include] people from all different backgrounds and fields, because they are all able to contribute something to the conversation. If we all did the same exact thing, nobody would ever move forward.

This story originally appeared in the Aug. 12 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

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