From Spock to 22 Minutes, Ailsa MacMillan helps actors wig out 

Posted on September 20, 2023 | By Ian Porter | 1 Comment


Ailsa MacMillan’s handmade wigs can take up to a hundred hours to create. (Submitted photo)


Ailsa MacMillan’s fascination with hair goes back to when she was a little girl in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. She and an older sister played at making movies. They used make-up and styled her thick curly black hair to create new characters.

That fascination with hair led her to train as a stylist in Halifax and then head west to work for 10 years in Vancouver’s booming film industry. Movie-making always needs hair-stylists and makeup artists, but what Ailsa liked best was working with wigs.

Once on the set of Star Trek Beyond – a later version of the series – her job involved care of the wig for the dour half-Vulcan commander, Spock. When the actor playing the part sat down in the make-up trailer and she placed the wig on his head, she says he immediately stepped into the role. “He was Spock as soon as he put that wig on. His posture changed. He sat upright. He just looked – I don’t want to use the word stern – but like, regal,” MacMillan recalls with a smile.

“That’s what’s so fascinating about wigs and hair and makeup. As soon as you put a wig on somebody, they turn into a completely different character.”

Once on the set of Star Trek Beyond – a later version of the series – her job involved care of the wig for the dour half-Vulcan commander, Spock.


Learning how to make wigs became “something that I would like to do.” Acting, as she says, almost on “instinct” MacMillan borrowed money for a four-month course at the Wig Academy in Bournemouth, England to work with Barbara Burroughs, a legend in the industry: “She taught us how to do things the way they’ve been done for a long, long time, aspects of it from hundreds of years ago.”

Actors wearing wigs go back at least 2,500 years to classic Greek drama, when male actors would play female goddesses. MacMillan learned wig-making is a demanding art and craft. A handmade wig, fitted precisely to the wearer’s head, can take a hundred hours of eye-straining needlework. Top fashion models, wealthy folk losing their hair prematurely, or people suffering hair-loss through the medical condition of alopecia pay $10,000 or more for a fine wig made of human hair.

No such market awaited Ailsa MacMillan back in Vancouver. At first, work on film productions was “fantastic” but then the pandemic hit. Opportunities dwindled, thoughts of family and home strengthened, and word about the growth of a film industry in Nova Scotia lured her East.

The province provides incentives of $40 million a year to the industry through such agencies as Screen Nova Scotia. Cinematic coastal scenery is a draw for international productions. Their spending on services and accommodation boosts the economies of seashore towns and provides jobs in a wide variety of trades. Local 849 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) represents hundreds of workers in off-screen services, from lighting, carpentry and transportation to costumes, makeup . . . and hair.

When MacMillan arrived in 2022, Nova Scotia was in recovery from its Covid nose-dive. Production of one big streaming series – Washington Black – had finished. Another – From, based on a book by Stephen King – had yet to be confirmed for a third season. Just ahead was the ongoing strike by the Writers Guild of America that would be compounded this year by the screen actors’ walkout.

In Halifax, though, Neptune Theatre’s 2022/23 fall winter schedule featured two musicals. In Billy Elliot, a miner’s son wants to become a dancer. In Elf, actors play more than one role each and have to duck on-and-off-stage to switch identities and hair-pieces. Wigs would be coming out of dusty cupboards to fly and dance. They also needed to be cleaned, shaped and kept ready to wear. MacMillan knew how to bring them to life.

Neptune helped with her first winter back. In May, the touring production of a Broadway hit, The Book of Mormon needed her backstage skills at Scotiabank Centre for a week. Seasonal shooting for Canadian film and television has provided more opportunities and she leads hair-and-makeup training sessions for members of IATSE.

As a skilled wig-maker – perhaps the only one east of Quebec – MacMillan has one client who needs fine wigs and eyebrows for work in Hollywood. CBC’s 22 Minutes comes to her for sideburns and beards. It’s beginning to look like a business that could expand, with clients across the country and maybe, also, “an artist residency somewhere.”

So far, the landing back home has been a success.

For more Web Exclusives, click here.


One response to “From Spock to 22 Minutes, Ailsa MacMillan helps actors wig out ”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comment policy

Comments are moderated to ensure thoughtful and respectful conversations. First and last names will appear with each submission; anonymous comments and pseudonyms will not be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that Atlantic Business Magazine has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner it chooses. Publication of a comment does not constitute endorsement of that comment. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.


With ABM

Help support the magazine and entrepreneurship in Atlantic Canada.


Stay in the Know

Subscribe Now

Subscribe to receive the magazine and gain access to exclusive online content.

    Your Cart
    Your cart is empty