Hair stylist René Warnes had been working in the film industry for nearly ten years as a key member of the hair and makeup teams on numerous projects. George & Tammy represents her first film credit as a department head (in this case, Head of Hair). René had been looking for the opportunity to step into a leadership role, and as luck would have it, Showtime’s George & Tammy (starring Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain as the star-crossed country music legends George Jones and Tammy Wynette), had a sudden need, and René stepped right in and took over.
George & Tammy was a challenging shoot. The show was shot quickly, and with René lacking prep time and dealing with supply chain issues, it was clear she took on a big job. As a person from the south who is familiar with the era and the story covered in George & Tammy, I can say that René truly nailed it. All the men and women looked like the aunts and uncles of my youth. In our conversation, René and I talk about these challenges and why George & Tammy was one of the best experiences of her professional career.
Awards Daily: I am from Kentucky originally, even though you can’t hear it in my voice. So big southern hair is not something I’m unaware of. [Laughs.] I was looking at your resume and there wasn’t another project that I saw that was overly similar to this, other than maybe Dynasty. With that in mind, what was your biggest challenge taking on the task of hair for George & Tammy?
René Warnes: Well, we always have limited resources – particularly because we had to use so many wigs and didn’t have a lot of prep time, just the way the circumstances were. When we made our first major wig order, we found that there were supply chain issues and we couldn’t get some of the things that we needed: color sizes, things like that. We didn’t do a lot of custom things for the cast other than for Michael Shannon, who played George Jones and Jessica Chastain, who played Tammy Wynette. They were customized and they had personal hairstylists. Jessica’s stylist, Stephanie Ingram, has worked with her on all her shows and had a whole trunk full of customized things she could work with. But even so, trying to get them off the shelf quickly like we needed to, we just had to be creative and do what we call MacGyver hair. [Laughs.]
You can cut and color and repurpose and restyle wigs, but again, we were so pressed for time. Another thing was the periods we had to cover. We went from the sixties and into the mid-nineties. So, we did a lot of work on the background musicians too. You don’t always see a lot of them, but they’re musicians out of Nashville. They’re really playing the instruments onstage. They were the “Jones Boys,” they started with George Jones early on, and they stayed with him throughout his career when he met Tammy. Then they backed up both of them, and eventually ended up with Tammy when George kind of spiraled out of control.
We had to ace them, so we used a lot of their own natural hair to start with because that style could be shorter. If they had longer hair, we had to really slick it back and make it really look tight and more period. In Nashville in the sixties, men didn’t wear their hair full and long. Then we blow it out, add some hair pieces, add some wigs and make it bigger and feathered for the seventies and then, in the nineties and we had to take those same waves and add some gray, add some silver at the temples, then maybe recede the hairline. If the original historical character had a receding hairline, then we would show that.
Awards Daily: What are the challenges and advantages to wigs versus natural hair?
René Warnes: With wigs, you’re looking to really avoid any of the tells that they are wigs. Then when we watch them on camera, we’re looking for all those little things like necklines. That’s one big giveaway. A wig likes to sit kind of away from the head. It doesn’t really lay that well. It’s tricky to get it to really lay flat on that neckline because you’re moving your head and the wig wants to fluff out. With the hairline, you’re wanting to make sure that little fine lace is really laying flat and it’s not perceivable on camera, and it really fits well. And so you’re trying to really make sure that it looks authentic, like it’s growing out of their head.
Awards Daily: With the tight timeline and the supply issues you were struggling with, how did you avoid having to cut a corner that would bleed over into something that looked not realistic?
René Warnes: That is the challenge of performing magic tricks, you know? We were on the fly, working with what we had – it was just teamwork. I had a fantastic team. Everyone pulled together, everyone worked really cohesively together. Everyone brought different skill sets. One person would be really great at one thing and another person, another thing. And we would just collaborate. Even with the personal stylists, we collaborated. Supported each other, and just brought all of our skills to the table and had a really great team and, and different people were responsible for different characters so that they could really take ownership.
Awards Daily: You didn’t just have to do a period, you had to do multiple periods. The sixties and even into the seventies is the big grand Ole Opry hair. And then we get to the eighties, we get a little more sleek. I actually thought Tammy’s hair reflected her condition as her health got worse. Her hair got smaller and even sadder.
René Warnes: I would say that we all observed that. A couple of interesting points about her hair and how her hair progressed is that Tammy had a hair stylist and a makeup artist that were sisters: Nan and Jan Smith. They are sisters that are like her best friends and went with her everywhere. They helped create her fabulous, very glamorous looks – lots of hair. And then we see as the story progresses that when she takes up with George Richie, they leave her. And they say we can’t do this anymore. Because another one of her very best friends was Sheila Richie, who was George’s wife. And, you know, we see her just be crushed. Sheila was also somewhat of a business manager for Tammy and in a supportive role administratively. They leave her and she’s got to now make due with either other people or herself. And I think that also reflects in the story where she doesn’t have quite the glamorous looks that were so signature. early on.
Awards Daily: Were you surprised that Michael and Jessica decided to sing these signature songs themselves? It’s hard enough to look enough like a well known person, but to try to sound like them too?
René Warnes: What I would say about what I observed with them is that they’re 100% committed to their craft. Both of them were committed to the look, the sound, the portrayal. They were very dedicated and very in it from the beginning of the day to the end of the day. They’re really strong. It was, it was fun to get to know them a little better. They’re true artists. and they really brought their heart and soul into it and let the hair and makeup and costume team swirl around and do their job. They were very patient and yet very ready to give their performances. There was always a feeling that they were prepared, they were rehearsed, they were ready. They had done a lot of prep with the music and they would just be able to turn it on. You know, some of those scenes where we’re like in the bar and they’re up on stage, there’s crowds of background and it’s a chaotic environment intentionally? They would just get up there and perform. But it’s not always easy. It’s not always that simple. And they were just amazingly ready and so talented in all those ways.
Awards Daily: What always struck me, and I think this is particularly true in the South, is that the sixties was when long hair became trendy, but people in the country music industry in the sixties were still kind of in the fifties. Then in the seventies, that’s when they started to get long hair. That’s when Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson went to a different look. So when you were trying to manage the look of the men as they grew across these decades you not only had to match the era, but also where country music was during those eras.
René Warnes: Yes, absolutely. Our writer (and show creator), Abe Sylvia, and his team did amazing research. So we had, we had these binders full of archival footage, photos, real concert film of George and Tammy, and also of the country music industry and of just the general population of the eras so that we could refer to those. We did some research on our own as well. When we got ready to do a scene, we would make sure we knew where we were going. And then we’d say, wait, where is this? Oh, this is in Indiana. Oh, Indiana. In the sixties, we would have to stop and always sort of check our location. Some of those rural, more country areas typically are just a few years behind your major cities.
We always took that into consideration. If we were thinking, we’re going to do this really great, fabulous, current, trendy, modern look on this person for this era. And then realize, wait, no, this is a different part of the country. That probably wasn’t the case. And then we would look up things, we would watch Hee-Haw and other shows. Even for the little girls that played the daughters early on, we would look up like the Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family for the hairstyles that the children had.
Awards Daily: I went to high school in a little town called Niles, Michigan, which is just over the border from Indiana. We had a really good football team in the sixties, and there was a big portrait of them outside the gym, and they all looked like they were from the previous decade.
René Warnes: That’s what we found when we would really start digging into the research and the archival photos, photos, we would find that it wasn’t necessarily what we assumed. We just really learned to not assume. We would have a direction in mind and then we would verify it as best we could with the actual photos of that day.
Awards Daily: So how long does it take to create Grand Ole Opry hair?
René Warnes: It really varies. On film we could use a wig. Wigs are more labor intensive and costly. but we could prep those wigs ahead of time. We had a technical process for the wigs. We would do a wet set with rollers like you would’ve done back in the day where women went to the beauty salon on a Saturday and got their hair roller set and put under a dryer and styled for the week, They would use a soap pillowcase and do all kinds of things to keep the look. We did a lot of that. That does take a couple hours to shampoo, roller set, and dry. And I know there were many nights that Stephanie Ingram, Jessica’s personal Assistant would work late. It’s a long process now for an actress. It’s really difficult if you’re using your own hair to try to do something like that in the timeframe that we had. We usually don’t get more than a couple of hours to get someone ready. And that is even trying to fit in makeup and things like that.
Awards Daily: That’s the other part: if you aren’t on time, makeup and costumes won’t be either.
René Warnes: We all worked together: the hair, makeup, and wardrobe. We got excited to see what the characters were wearing every day. Sheila had a lot of fun looks and I really enjoyed doing her hair. We had just the one wig, but we would repurpose it and make it real big for the sixties, and real loose and more Angie Dickinson’s in the seventies. We had fun with that. We would always check what she was wearing, and she would match her nails and her makeup, her lip color, because women were very matchy at the time. In those days you would always match your lips and your nails to your outfit. And then of course the hair. If the outfit’s big or sleek, you would work with that look.
Awards Daily: I imagine the performer who had to be the most patient was Jessica.
René Warnes: She’s absolutely lovely. She truly is. She’s a sweetheart and she has a great, strong team: this group of ladies who all work together. Some are younger and some older, but they’re all just. the best to work with. They all are so down to earth and personable.
Awards Daily: You forget how close, at least in terms of costuming, country music outfits were to glam rock. Is there a huge difference between Bowie and what Tammy Wynette was wearing? I don’t really think so.
René Warnes: That’s funny. That’s a great observation. You’re right. It was very much that way. Very dramatic, flowy, and big, with lots of sparkles.
Awards Daily: This was your first time working as Head of Hair, what has this project meant for your career? ,
René Warnes: I had always done key roles for a long time and I liked being a key and a key is like a right hand person. I liked being that and I never really wanted the responsibility of the department head because I was happy executing whatever needed to be done. It’s a safe place and I didn’t have to make a lot of decisions. I got to the point where I really was burned out cause it’s a lot of work, but then I thought, well I’m kind of doing everything anyway a lot of times. So I might as well just do it. Getting to the point of making my own decisions and being responsible for the outcome, and not feeling like perhaps I’m executing things that I may not agree with, which is just part of the progression of working your way up in your career. So, I kind of put it out there in the universe – that I was ready. I just needed to get a department head position and get my feet wet. With George & Tammy, I just was in the right place at the right time, which is what so often happens. I was in Wilmington, North Carolina. I had just finished a show, and I called a colleague that I knew was working on the show. George & Tammy had just started and I said I was asked to come over and help.
When I got there, I realized that she was stepping away (from the department head position) and she offered me the opportunity and I just stepped right in, which was challenging for sure because I didn’t have the advantage of any real prep time. It was a lot to wrap my head around, but I brought in a good group and we all worked together and got up to speed pretty quickly. We definitely felt like we were running on the hamster wheel the whole time. There were times when I was like, well, what have I got myself into and why did I wish for this? [Laughs.] But, in the end it was really fun and I just watched the last episode not too long ago, and it just made me teary-eyed because I felt so proud of it. I felt so proud of our team. The whole entire show, the whole cast, the production, I felt really proud. I think that now I’m on my third or fourth department head, so it just keeps rolling. So what it’s done for my career, you just keep rolling into it. It just, the next thing comes up and we just keep going.