How Nicolas Cage’s ‘Adaptation’ Character Got His Brilliantly Bad Hair

On the film’s 20th anniversary, hairstylist Larry Waggoner reveals the secrets to making the fictional Charlie Kaufman look comically terrible
How Nicolas Cage’s ‘Adaptation’ Character Got His Brilliantly Bad Hair

At the start of Adaptation, the screen is black but the film’s main character, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, is doing what he does best, which is debasing himself. “Do I have an original thought in my head? My bald head?” he moans in voiceover. “Maybe if I were happier, my hair wouldn’t be falling out. … I should get my hair cut short, stop trying to fool myself and everyone else into thinking I have a full head of hair. How pathetic is that?”

The Oscar-winning meta-comedy, which celebrates its 20th anniversary today, had a fairly radical concept. Real-life screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, who’d come up with the idea for Being John Malkovich, had been hired to adapt Susan Orlean’s nonfiction book The Orchid Thief. Stumped, Kaufman instead decided to write a screenplay starring himself as a struggling screenwriter who’s stumped on how to adapt The Orchid Thief. Oh, and he’d invent a twin brother, Donald, who was a hack writer who just wanted to make high-concept, brain-dead Hollywood blockbusters. Reuniting with Being John Malkovich director Spike Jonze, Kaufman delivered a script that satirized the artistic process and the crippling neuroses of creative types. And it gave Nicolas Cage the opportunity to play both Charlie and Donald: one man a fragile bundle of insecurities, the other a happy idiot. 

In the movie’s opening moments, when Charlie is eviscerating himself, it’s hard not to laugh at all that self-loathing. It only gets funnier when, soon after, we actually see Charlie and his hair, which is comically bad — unkempt and curly, barely hanging on up top, resembling a furry wreath of failure wrapped around his head. Both he and his brother have this bad hair. It’s never not hilarious.

Someone had to come up with that ‘do, and that man is Larry Waggoner, a hairstylist who’s been working in Hollywood since the early 1990s. He’d never teamed up with Cage before Adaptation, but the two men hit it off. Cage’s direction for his character’s hair was simple: He told Waggoner he wanted it to look crazy.

Initially, Waggoner got into hair to get dates. Growing up in Texas, he left home in his early teens, landing a job in the warehouse of a grocery store when he was about 17 or 18. “I was loading trucks with a forklift, and it was a union gig,” he tells me. “But a friend of mine said, ‘I took my sister to this beauty school. Man, there was a lot of cute girls in there.’ So I went in and I signed up, but I didn’t take it very seriously. I was just like, ‘Well, let me go just check out the girls and see what this is all about.’ I had nothing else going on.”

Funny thing, though: He quickly discovered that he was good at it. “I enjoyed meeting the people every day,” he recalls over Zoom from his home in Frisco, Texas. “Typically, during the day, you’d have five or six or eight clients come in — I really enjoyed the different conversations, and I enjoyed cutting hair. I liked what I did.”

Eventually, Waggoner parlayed that into a show-business career, assisting on movies like A Few Good Men and The Flintstones. Then, in the late 1990s, he was the hairstylist on Fathers’ Day, the Ivan Reitman comedy starring Robin Williams and Billy Crystal. “I was taking care of Robin Williams,” Waggoner says, “and Billy had this hairdresser out of New York who was a great guy — a lot of energy, his name was Bill Farley, and he had worked with (Cage) in-between working with other clients of his. Nic’s hairdresser, who had been with him for a very long time, had a heart attack. And so Bill Farley called me and said, ‘Can you work with this guy Nicolas Cage?’”

Waggoner absolutely wanted to do just that. Earlier in the decade, Cage had won a Best Actor Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas, and then transformed himself into an action star thanks to The Rock and Face/Off. Waggoner didn’t know much about Adaptation, and he’d actually already signed on to do a different film. But, as Waggoner puts it, “I went on just a feeling. I just felt like it was the right thing to do. I was trying to work with the top players.” And so, Waggoner quit the other movie, and “it turned out to be a very good move on my part because I went on to do many films with Nic.”

When he and Cage first met to discuss Adaptation, Cage had ideas about Charlie’s appearance. “I just want to look a little crazy, like Andy Kaufman,” Waggoner remembers the actor telling him. “He’s got that crazy hair.” 

So, in truth, there were two Kaufmans who served as visual inspiration for the character: the writer of Adaptation and the groundbreaking 1970s comic, no relation. But although Cage’s character was based on Charlie Kaufman — and Charlie Kaufman has curly hair — Cage wasn’t necessarily concerned about being entirely faithful to the writer’s appearance. “Nic didn’t want to talk about (his character’s hair) around (Kaufman) because he didn’t want him to feel like he was making fun of him,” Waggoner says. “But Nic had his moments with me where he was like, ‘Crazy-looking hair like that. Look at that guy. Look at that guy.’”

For hairstylists like Waggoner who work with big stars, the process is very much a collaboration, the actor and the stylist bouncing thoughts off each other. Waggoner took Cage’s suggestions and then figured out how to implement them. “Andy’s hair was a little bit wild and messy — it wasn’t quite as curly,” Waggoner explains. “So I tried to tighten up the curl a little bit so I could keep it more of a short style that wouldn’t move too much — that would just be in place. Charlie Kaufman had a little bit of thinness up top, so I said, ‘Maybe we should make it look like you’re going bald, almost like you’re thinning there.’ And he goes, ‘Yeah, I like that.’ He’d really worked this guy out in his head.”

Next, Waggoner had to find the right wig. “Nic has straight hair — I could have never dressed his hair to look like that, so I had to go with a wig,” he tells me. “I had this fantastic wigmaker, and we came up with this curly-hair look.” According to Waggoner, the wig was made of “human hair — this beautiful, very naturally wavy hair. The wigmakers, they get their hands on all types of colors, and I asked them to blend the color to be not quite as dark as Nic’s hair. I needed to keep the color somewhat similar to his eyebrow shade so it would look believable. I knew it was going to be a darker-brown, medium-brown sort of color — and then just a crazy sort of look, fuller on the side, thinning on the top and just out-of-control.”

That said, Waggoner didn’t want it to be too out-of-control either. “Nic had mentioned, ‘I want it to be like, when you look at the guy, you chuckle a little bit,’” he explains. “But there’s a fine line there to where you just go a little over-the-top” — in other words, you don’t want a situation in which “you can’t get past the wig or you can’t get past the hair. But I think we found the right angle for that. It just wasn’t too over-the-top. It made a statement, obviously, but it didn’t take away from the performance.”

When Waggoner put the wig on Cage, he loved it. But there was one more thing to add. “We have what they call in the film business plumpers. It’s this unique little thing that they make that sits on your teeth and puffs your cheeks — like they did in The Godfather with Brando. Once we had the plumpers for Cage, the character really started coming alive.” The plumpers helped make Charlie look sadder — and also less like Cage. “Nic’s got these great eyes, great eyebrows, but we shifted (the viewer’s focus) to down here,” Waggoner explains, pointing to his own jawline. “The focus was on the plumpers and the crazy hair full on the sides.”

Because Cage has often played eccentric characters — and because, in real life, his hair (or lack thereof) has been a topic of discussion — I asked Waggoner if the actor was ever self-conscious about baldness. “He has no ego about that kind of stuff,” says Waggoner. “I’m sure, in everyday life, he would like to have a head of hair like Chris Hemsworth, but he doesn’t. And now he’s probably thinning out a little bit more than what it was. But sometimes I prefer wigs because you can only do so much to enhance, to make people look like they have more hair than they actually do.”

“When we put the wig on Nic, he has dark hair, so I had to airbrush the thinning part of his actual hair,” Waggoner continues. “I’d slick his hair back with this gel, and then I airbrushed this lighter dome on top of his hair, so when I put the wig on, it looked like scalp. That was actually painted underneath the wig because he’s not bald. I painted this water-soluble circle every day — it was about a 40-minute process. I painted that, I let it dry, and then the final thing was I put a wig on him, tacked it on, glued it on, and then he was ready to go.”

There were a total of four wigs made — two for Charlie, two for Donald. In some scenes where the characters are talking to each other on camera, Jonze would use a stand-in for whichever brother Cage wasn’t playing in that shot. “We put a wig on the double and shot over his shoulder,” Waggoner says, laughing. “There’s no way they were going to find somebody that had the same sort of hair.”

Waggoner has fond memories of that Adaptation set. “Spike, he’s an interesting guy — he was very creative,” Waggoner says. “But you could tell also that Spike would just rather be out on his skateboard. At lunchtime, he would bring in all these boarders, and he would set up these ramps. They’d bring bicycles and skateboards, and they’d put on a show every day at lunch.”

Plus, Waggoner hung out with Cage a bunch. “We spent a lot of time together. Some actors, they come in, they’re very methodical, they won’t get out of character — they’re sort of the Jim Carrey crazy types. Nic, he’s able to just have a conversation with you — like, we’re talking about what kind of wine that we were going to have, and then, ‘Nic, ready for you on set,’ and he would just go right into the character and just go out there and be fabulous. He’d come back and just go back into the conversation like it never happened. He was really good like that.”

When Adaptation opened December 6, 2002, it wasn’t a huge hit, but it got great reviews and earned four Academy Award nominations, including Best Actor for Cage. (Chris Cooper, playing the titular orchid thief of Orlean’s book, won for Best Supporting Actor.) The film helped Waggoner raise his profile as a hairstylist as well. “Sometimes you think these big films that I’ve done would help me,” he says, “but it’s the smaller films. I’ve gotten more jobs off of Adaptation and just small, random films.”

Along those lines, he and Cage went on to do several more projects together over the next few years, including National Treasure and Cage’s directorial debut, Sonny. “He always loved dark hair (for his characters),” Waggoner says, “but I’d be like, ‘Nic, you’ve got this really light skin, and this really black hair sometimes is overpowering — it’s not the best hair color for you. We should go with the browns and maybe some highlights or something.’ Anytime that you go onto another project with somebody — whether it be a director or an actor — obviously they believe you can do this, or you wouldn’t be there.”

They haven’t worked together in recent years, but not that long ago, Waggoner went to New Orleans to work on the new series adaptation of Interview With the Vampire. “It was a big period show, so I was pulling out lots of old wigs,” he says, “and I pulled out one of Nic’s boxes of wigs. These are wigs from National Treasure, all these wigs.” Sadly, the Adaptation wigs aren’t there. (Waggoner thinks he had to give those back to Sony, which put out the film.) But he also found some Polaroids of hair and wig tests he’d done with Cage during those years. “It was Nic, just 20 years younger. That’s been a long time ago.” 

Waggoner laughs at the memory. “I don’t have too many photographs of me with Nic, because we were drinking a lot. I’ve never partied so much with an actor. He was great. I had the time of my life with that guy.”

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