November 25th, 2014
He exploded onto the scene this year with a Primetime Creative Arts Emmy win for his work on our favourite Dowager Countess of Grantham’s wigs on Downton Abbey under legendary make-up and hair designer Magi Vaughan, but Adam James Phillips has more than served his apprenticeship. Warpaint catches up with the boy from Newport who has the world at his finger tips.
“It wasn’t always about hair,” explains Adam when we meet in a riverside pub in South West London, “I started out in musical theatre with my sights on acting, something I’d loved since I was in high school, and was offered a place at the prestigious Arts Ed in London, but ended up helping out more and more with the creative work for our performances, until that took over.”
After graduation, Adam found himself as a regular backstage and knew that this was where his future lay, so focused on building up contacts with theatre schools and providing workshops for students while applying everywhere. Answering a chance advert in The Stage, he gained an apprenticeship at Ray Marston Wig Studio where he spent five years learning his craft under the tutelage of Jeanette Brown, doing every aspect of the job including a memorable fitting with Cate Blanchett for The Good German. “I was so nervous,” Adam remembers, “but I didn’t need to be, as she was so lovely.”
Following a stint freelancing, he went on to the likes of Priscilla Queen of the Desert and was introduced by Vanessa White to another of the people who’ve been seminal in his career: Campbell Young.
“Priscilla was so fast paced; the atmosphere backstage buzzed and you had no time to sit still,” Adam confesses. “I did the first year of its London run and loved it. It’s full of quick changes of look and the use of lots of face masks so that the cast can keep up with the changes.”
This lead via Campbell onto Love Never Dies – which will always have a special place in Adam’s heart – and then to Crazy For You as Department Head of Wigs for the whole six month run. Sweeney Todd came next, again via Campbell, working with Imelda Staunton and Michael Ball. “You had to watch out for blood splatter; the cast had Pigs Might Fly pouches in their pockets which were pumped to produce the arterial effects.”
Eventually this took him to the Old Vic’s production of Kiss Me, Kate which had moved from Chichester into London. Kiss Me, Kate was Adam’s first HoD, taking him four years to achieve after making the move into theatre. “I was thinking that for my first Head, a small production would be ideal – and then I got Kate,” explains Adam, “Initially there was me, a deputy and a show person with 20 wigs to maintain, with another show person coming on in time. It was a great experience, though if I could change one thing, it would be to get more budget, so you can do more – isn’t it always the way?”
On opening night, Adam was offered an intro to another of his mentors – Magi Vaughan, again through Campbell – and ended up as Key Hair for Downton working on the characters of the Dowager Countess, Lady Edith and Mrs Hughes. “It was a whole new world for me,” confesses Adam, who’s only done the odd daily on crowd work prior to this, “although there was no time to think.”
And the rest – as they say – is history. “We really didn’t expect to win, especially as Downton hadn’t done well in other categories that night, so we thought that perhaps it wasn’t its year. And we were up against four big US titles in Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, The Originals and Game of Thrones. Magi and I were initially so shocked when our names were read out that we didn’t stand up to collect the award.”
And he’s not stopped working since. There was Clarence Darrow at The Old Vic, Kevin Spacey’s one man show, and Girls Night Out, the fictional account of the night that Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret celebrated VE Day by heading out incognito to join the jubilant crowds, as well as the M&S ad with Robert Frampton in Prague. Now he’s in the wilds of the East Coast shooting the remake of Dad’s Army with a stellar cast, including Catherine Zeta Jones.
When I ask about kit saviours, his list is comprehensive:
Schwarzkopf Got2b Glued Blasting Freeze Spray – “gives more structure”
A good wig stand – “I hate clamps”
Matador Tail Combs – “brittle and can break if you’re not careful”
Benders Hot Stix
Screenface Theatre Pouch – “small is better on set”
MAC grips, Toupe clips and M&S Mints
Dermalogica Clearing Mattifier – “great for helping a lace to stick”
Bumble and Bumble Shine On Spray – “love it”
And his most challenging technical situation? “Shooting an ad in Iceland and it was so cold that nothing, and I mean NOTHING, would stick. Products freeze, glue won’t dry, you’re on your own without the extra pair of literal hands that an assistant would be able to give you to hold the lace down until it eventually takes. You just keep pushing and replying until they dry.”
“I’ve been so fortunate in my career,” Adam confesses, “With three of the most amazing people who have taught me so much. With Jeannette, it was the technical know-how – how to style wigs of every type. Campbell taught me to believe in myself and Magi showed me how to work on film. It’s a little bit all ridiculous.” You can take the boy out of Newport, but…