In Alginate

People filming a movie
Photo by KAL VISUALS on Unsplash

Inside the Star Wagon by soundstage ten, Anne sits with a bald cap stretched over her skull. We’ve gelled her hair in an unending combover. Skin pulls taut against cheekbone. It’s six in the morning, and I’m cross-legged on the floor holding a portable speaker. A British voice recites affirmations. You are present. Your body is rooted deep in the Earth. You are a whole person. Anne sits on a black salon chair in the middle of the trailer, tapping her thumb to her index, middle, ring, pinky. Repeat. Three special-effects artists work around her, slicking release cream across her forehead, eyebrows, and lips. I’m hair and makeup, the basics. Prosthetics isn’t my department, but Anne’s agent requested I be there to supervise. I bet one of the PAs that Anne would cry before the alginate sets, but tears will ruin the whole thing.

For the last episode of the series, they’re rotting her in time-lapse. Aging her from twenty-two to two hundred. Fat will line her jowls; deep wrinkles will shoot across her forehead. Her ears and nose will swell. It’s a decomposition shot, a false one-take. Holes tear from her skin and maggots feast. SFX needs a lifecast of Anne’s facial structure for the prosthetics. It’ll be the most expensive shot of the show, and the director fought for a streaming release because you can’t put shit like that on cable.

Anne’s hair is valued at three million dollars. Every time I take an iron to it, hives flare up around my neck. In the nineties, Entertainment Tonight’s Mary Hart had her legs insured for two million, but a lot less could happen. You break your legs or you don’t. You contract a flesh-eating bacterial infection or you don’t. A dye job gone wrong, even an unplanned pregnancy, could irreparably damage Anne’s curl pattern.

“Turn that shit off,” Anne says.

“Do you want music instead?” I ask.

Anne says nothing.

She has bonded to me like a kitten weaned too soon. In the mornings she skips small talk of traffic and weather and drones on about how naked she has to be for the shoot, her comedian ex-boyfriend, her agent who felt her up last Tuesday morning. Sometimes, before she gets to set, I’ll pop a couple of ibuprofen for the hell of it.

The first layer of alginate comes out thick. Pinkish, shiny like paint, and enough to coat everything above Anne’s collarbones: the ridges of her features, her pores, the hollow between earlobe and jaw. She’ll have two holes to breathe through, carved out just under her nostrils. It only takes half an hour, but Anne’s claustrophobic. Early in production, they filmed a scene in a tiny vintage Porsche, and Anne turned one shooting day into three. She said the camera sitting there, right there in her face, was making her fucking crazy. I asked her if she was on anxiety medication, but she said she didn’t trust chemicals like that. I told her that they weren’t too bad, that they could really help some people. And I looked at her in the mirror, curls down to her ribs, legs up to there, eyes like a Tim Burton character. And then I looked at me, red-pocked skin and stringy hair. A bald spot above the micro-bangs I’d cut myself. Anne had stared at me and stuttered over her words, something about not judging other people for needing medical help. I smiled as if I, too, had nothing to judge.

“Polly?” Anne turns her face just slightly, gravity pulling the sludge over her forehead and into her eyebrows.

“Right here,” I say.

“You really shouldn’t move,” one of the artists says. He holds a gloved hand in the air, a paramedic waiting on defibrillation.

“Can she hold my hand?” Anne asks.

Two of the artists glance at each other. One rolls his eyes and checks his watch.

“We have to be able to move around you, it dries fast—”

“It’s fine,” Anne says. She looks over at me one last time and then closes her eyes.

***

Anne’s hair is a deep brown, nearly red. It’s impossibly thick all the way down to her waist. Like a young Julia Roberts but bigger, richer in tone. It’s curly but not too tight, defined and frizz-free yet touchable. It takes an hour to dry with a diffuser, and I never let it air-dry for fear of a fungal infection. The weight of it wet leaves my arms shaking.

She is twenty-two and the star of a mini-series adapted from a novel. Opposite nobody, a real powerhouse. She plays a freshly widowed young woman living alone in Appalachia—an inherited haunted house—who processes her grief with tasteful nudity and sex with ghosts. Single-camera, unbearable to watch, hardly any humor. Will win multiple Emmys, everyone is sure.

Tongue depressors smooth the alginate over her eye sockets. I wait, listening for whimpers. As the solution dries—five minutes become ten minutes become fifteen—Anne simply squeezes her fingers into small fists. Every thirty seconds she stretches them flat, palms up, before tightening them again. The trailer, which usually smells of rose talcum powder and argan oil, stinks of ammonium. I try to check on Anne in a way she’ll respond to. How are we feeling? Do you want to work on your breath? But she cannot move, cannot speak, only gives small, dismissive flicks of her fingers.

Anne’s ringtone blares beside me. She told me to watch it for emergencies only.

“Paul’s calling you,” I say. “Want me to pick up?”

She moans in response. Like trying to talk at the dentist.

“I’ll just leave it,” I say.

The call goes to voicemail, and then there’s a text chime.

“He says he’s sorry,” I tell her, “and he’ll call when he gets to New York.”

Anne crosses her ankles tight and twitches her foot up and down.

Plaster bandages follow, laid on thick like papier-mâché. Anne has stopped moving entirely, and my forehead is slick with sweat. There are no studies on how lifecasting affects hair follicles. And it’s not my area, not really, but the scalp can’t breathe. People wear bald caps all the time. But the friction and pressure on Anne’s head might suffocate her hair into recession. This specific chemical cocktail might dull the shine and texture. The stress of it all could send Anne into gray hair a decade before she’s due. And her agent, or her manager, or the fucking director, could take me to court.

They tell her to start making faces. She opens her mouth wide and raises her eyebrows until the cast falls away. They cut along the curve of her scalp to release it, and as soon as she’s free, I take over the bald cap removal. I scrub at the ring of glue lining her hairline, and her shoulders shake against me so rapidly that I’m sure I’ve won the bet, that she’s breaking down for good, but the whites of her eyes are bright as ever. Her skin is slick with petroleum jelly but free of tears.

***

It has been hours since the alginate came off. I’ve washed and dried Anne’s hair twice over. Her eyes are still puffy, though I spent ten minutes massaging them with the stainless-steel roller I keep in the mini-fridge. Today’s scene requires full nudity above her hip bones. A disembodied hand will fondle Anne’s breasts, moving down her stomach, and descend into the nether. Her hair, mermaid-like, will hang over her nipples.

“I think you’ve fucked it,” Anne says, unblinking in the mirror.

“What?”

“Doesn’t look right.” She sticks her fingers in and agitates the crown. She picks thick clumps of curls apart and toys with the pieces framing her face. She grunts before shaking her head back and forth, a violent, unending no. Nauseated, I pluck one of Anne’s reference photos from its place on the vanity mirror and hold it up next to her head. I dart between the real and the polaroid.

“It looks normal,” I say.

“It’s not my hair.”

An intimacy coordinator knocks on the trailer. I google “alginate on hair side effects” for the third time in twenty-four hours. The coordinator lectures on hip placement and heavy breath simulation. Reactionary convulsions of the stomach. She asks if Anne needs a moment to herself before rehearsing with the “hand” (a model from Ventura who’ll be edited out in post). Anne nods and mumbles thank you, something about being in a funk, and that she’s sorry. The coordinator and I step out of the trailer. I wait as close to the door as possible, ears trained for hiccupping sobs. I’ve only heard her cry once, but it’s unmistakable. Oscar-worthy.

Anne invited me to her house in the hills a few weeks ago. She had a dead herb garden in her kitchen and a hairless cat stalking the hallways. She’d just fired an assistant who wouldn’t even go home for Christmas. I walked into the house and Anne told me that she loved how I prioritized comfort over fashion. She poured herself a gin and tonic, but the “tonic” was just sparkling water from a SodaStream. She talked about the show and how the casting director asked about nudity at her first reading. She made a quip about how she wasn’t getting paid enough for this shit, and that she normally didn’t bare ass unless the picture premiered at Sundance.

I knock on the trailer door after fifteen minutes of silence.

“Polly?” Anne says, muffled. “Just you, okay?”

The coordinator taps out a message on her phone, a warning that Anne won’t be on time. A golf cart whizzes her away and I step inside.

Brown curls, detached, form a circle around her feet. Anne holds a pair of silver shears, her robe discarded. They’re my favorite, Japanese steel. They were two hundred and fifty dollars and I ate canned chili for three weeks after to make up for the cost.

“Finish it,” she says. Her ends are botched and hardly pass her collarbones. Her nipples are covered in trimmings, prickly and infinite.

“You have to be out there—” I start. I can’t seem to blink and my deodorant is failing.

“I just need you to finish it,” Anne says.

Even-keeled, she brings a finger to the nape of her neck.

***

Shooting is postponed due to a “scheduling conflict.” Anne leaves the studio in a polka-dotted headscarf and sunglasses. I cough up thirty dollars from the bottom of my purse for the PA, now smug. I think of telling him to shove it, that Anne could lose it right up there with the best of them, that she did, but I bite my tongue. The director is convinced that we can find a wig that will work. That Anne won’t sue the production. That she won’t be checked into a rehabilitative spa in Sedona within twenty-four hours. But it’s no longer my job to make her look good. And it’s not my job to tell them she won’t be back.

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