Showtime’s limited series “The Good Lord Bird,” based on James McBride‘s period novel of the same name, tells the story of John Brown (Ethan Hawke), a real-life abolitionist who wanted to end slavery at all costs. As costume designer Amy Andrews-Harrell explains to Gold Derby in our TV Costume Designers Panel (watch above), she used McBride’s work as a jumping off point. “I was so lucky to have the novel as a reference because as often happens in television, we didn’t have secure scripts far enough in advance that I could get everything together,” she reveals.
Henry “Onion” Shackleford (newcomer Joshua Caleb Johnson) is one of the show’s standout characters, a young boy who starts dressing like a girl when he gets mistaken by Brown as a member of the opposite sex. “In James’ novel he describes the prairie dress that John Brown had in his possession that he was gonna give as a present to his daughter, and he takes it out of his saddle bag and gives it to Onion,” Andrews-Harrell recalls about Onion’s look. “Besides doing research for the period, which was loosely 1858-59 in Bloody Kansas, I did research myself and kids dressing up, because I wanted the dress to have the elements that it didn’t fit him quite right and he wasn’t quite comfortable in it.”
One of Onion’s most memorable scenes was when he professed his love for Brown’s daughter by ripping open his shirt and proclaiming, “I’m a man!” But what kind of pressure does such a moment put on the costume designer? “I’ve done it so many times and it’s so stressful to figure out what you’re gonna do,” Andrews-Harrell notes. “You try to make the button holes a little bigger, or sew the buttons on barely. Nothing ever works and it all works too well. What we did was we just sewed the buttons on so some would pop off. We made the button holes a little bigger because I also didn’t want him to have to run around the rest of the movie with his shirt wide open.”
As for Hawke’s wardrobe, Andrews-Harrell confirms she was all about making his clothes as dirty as possible, saying, “When you read the book you can just definitely imagine what they smelled like. I wanted if you patted them on the shoulder the dust to come off of them. Certainly we weren’t gonna have any trouble with the sweat because we were filming in Virginia in the summer and it was humid and hot, hot, hot.” She readily admits, “It takes a little bit of courage and you have to have everyone come along with you.”
Also in our exclusive video interview, Andrews-Harrell talks about her close collaboration with creator/writer/producer/actor Hawke, how much she knew beforehand about the John Brown story, and why she chose the “modest and practical” shawl for Harriet Tubman (Zainab Jah).
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