Hairstylist-milliner Chris Clark works on the TV series "Pan Am." (Eric Liebowitz, ABC )
Chris Clark first discovered the joy of hot rollers during a theater production of "Little Shop of Horrors" at Southern Utah University, where he had enrolled with the intention of becoming a Shakespearean actor. "Doing those big, '60s bouffant wigs was a total transformation," he said. "Once that roller went into my hand the first time, the acting was over."
The heated hair implements are a routine presence behind the scenes of "Pan Am," ABC's new period TV series about a group of high-flying stewardesses in the 1960s that premieres Sunday night, with Clark serving as hair department head. "There are about a dozen sets of hot rollers at any given time that are blaring in the trailer," he said. "There are curling irons and flat irons, but it's mainly our hot rollers, which are our best friends."
Clark's love affair with hair dates back decades. After his freshman year, he moved to New York and spent a year doing hair and makeup for off-Broadway plays to confirm that he had found his calling. He then finished his bachelor's degree in theater at Arizona State University before returning to New York, where he worked on productions including "Rent," "The Lion King" and "Wicked."
When "Wicked" kicked off its out-of-town run in San Francisco, Clark met makeup artist Mindy Hall, who asked him to do hair and wigs for the 2005 film version of "Rent." Since then, he's curled and back-combed his way through such film and television productions as "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps," "Gossip Girl" and "Pan Am."
"When the characters are in [the Pan American airline] uniform, that's when they're at their most polished, their most precise," Clark said. "They had rules and regulations for Pan Am in their uniforms. There could be no updos in uniform. The hair had to be short, and it had to be immaculate. And there had to be no roots. There couldn't be any hair ornamentation. It was all very clean, precise beauty. At the time, these women were icons of beauty, so Pan Am was very precise about how they looked."
Group think: On "Pan Am," Clark collaborates closely with the heads of the makeup and costume departments. "We go over the script, and the three departments get together and come up with the entire look," he said. "I look at the lines of the dress, what the action of the scene is. For some reason, for me, I have to see the clothes. I want to know what the neckline looks like. I want to know if there's any jewelry, what they earrings look like. Some dresses will want updos; some don't. It usually becomes pretty clear which direction I want to go based on the story and what the costume designer is doing."
Up in the air: "What I find exciting is creating them as people — not just at work and being stewardesses, but them as people," said Clark. "Today, we're in Monte Carlo at a casino, and they're in evening gowns. And so hair is looser, hair is up. I just did Kelli Garner's hair in a pretty elaborate updo to go with her look for tonight, which is really fun."
Fall colors: Clark hasn't used any wigs on "Pan Am," but that doesn't mean that fake hair doesn't fly. "We were lucky enough to score some vintage 1960s hairpieces, so I've incorporated a few of those into some of the looks," he said. "There's different vendors in New York and in L.A. that still have some dead stock of old pieces that people aren't interested in because girls don't wear falls anymore, really. So they just have them lying around, and we buy them up. It was really fun when the box arrived, and they're perfect, brand-new pieces from the era."
New heights: "When I'm on set, there's a can of hair spray in my hand or about 4 inches away from me at all times," said Clark. "There's the Kérastase, which is my favorite. There's a hair spray by Shiseido that I love. Elnett is a staple in hair and makeup trailers. Privé extra strength I really like for ultimate freezing hold. There are different products from different lines for different things."
Style guides: Clark's job also requires a good bit of homework. "We have a slew of '60s magazines — Italian Vogues and American Vogues and literally everything," he said. "I've Googled 'mom's portrait 1963' and stuff has come up from people's personal websites. We have one photograph of four or five Pan Am stewardesses. It's a black-and-white photo, and it was given to us for hat reference of where the ladies' hats should sit. And there's a corkboard right by my station in the hair and makeup trailer where we pin up different looks from different cities of the era, so we can always have a visual references right in front of us. It's very iconic for me to have these images."