One of the closest relationships an actor has on a movie set is with a costume designer, who is there from the beginning and in such intimate settings as a fitting room to help them find their character. And the crux of that relationship comes down to trust, according to the four costume designers on our Meet the Experts panel, moderated by this author (watch the exclusive video above).
“You want the actor to go to camera in something that they’re completely at ease and they feel that they’re inhabiting they’re character in, no matter what you’re doing, whether it’s a period film, fantasy or contemporary,” Mary Zophres (“First Man,” “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”) said. “That’s probably job No. 2. Job No. 1 is you make sure the costume is helping to tell the story and helping to tell the story of that character and tell the story of the script. So you build a trust with the actors and you let them know that I got your back. I’m taking this very seriously and I’m going to make sure that this is right.”
Since costume designers are often the first people actors meet on a film, they become “ambassadors” of that project, according to Alexandra Byrne (“Mary Queen of Scots”). “We are introducing the actor to the whole take on the project,” said Byrne, who also dismissed the notion of conflict if an actor doesn’t like a costume.
“I know quite often people ask, ‘What happens if the actor doesn’t like what you’re putting them in?’ And it never is that because it’s a dialogue,” she said. “We can only help them develop the character. And I quite like it when they come in with very different ideas because it means you’re probably going to end up with a completely different solution, which is better than anybody could’ve achieved on their own.”
Betsy Heimann (“Green Book”) agrees that it’s the costume designer’s job to help the actor find their character from the first fitting. “I’ve had them look in the mirror and maybe say a few of their lines, and a becoming starts happening, and you know you’ve found them. You’ve both found them,” she said. “And from there, I give them shoes and I watch them walk away.”
And when there is a discussion and collaboration, honesty is the best policy, Jenny Eagan (“Widows”) believes. That saves time and gets everyone on the same page. “Sometimes they just want you to make the decision. ‘What should it be?’ And rather than waffling back and forth, being honest and direct and saying, ‘This is exactly why I feel this,’” Eagan, who used to be Zophres’ assistant, said. “But Alex and Mary are right [about] having their back and protecting them and just saying, ‘This is exactly what’s right.’”
Not everything goes right during a shoot, of course, and all four have had to make adjustments and adapt along the way. And in some cases, literally put out some fires. Christine Wada, an ager/dryer with whom Zophres and Eagan worked on “O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), accidentally set a pair of pants on fire. But Byrne did them one better.
“Samantha Morton’s veil went up [in “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” (2007)]. Shekhar [Kapur, the director] put candles on the floor, which nobody knew about, and her veil went up in flames like air,” she said. “[It was] in rehearsal, but you’ve only got one!”
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