The Hollywood Reporter joined artists behind some of awards season's top contenders — including 'A Star Is Born,' 'Black Panther' and 'The Favourite' — in a lively chat about their latest work and finding the character "on a page of words."
From the hand-painted looks of Mary Poppins Returns to Lady Gaga's pop star transformation in A Star Is Born, costume designers find inspiration in unlikely places. They discussed these, as well as how to reboot existing storylines and the designer-actor relationship during "Candidly Costumes," a Nov. 2 panel discussion hosted by The Hollywood Reporter at the newly renovated Beverly Center in L.A.
THR's chat with some of this year's top costume designers — A Star Is Born's Erin Benach, Black Panther's Ruth E. Carter, The Favourite and Mary Poppins Returns' Sandy Powell, The Girl in the Spider's Web's Carlos Rosario and Mary Queen of Scots' Alexandra Byrne — is condensed and edited here.
What is the relationship like with actors? Because you are really with them in the most intimate moments in a dressing room.
ALEXANDRA BYRNE My relationship with actors is great because I'm married to one [British actor Simon Shepherd].
CARLOS ROSARIO It's always different, depending on the actor. It's about connection, it's about really understanding how to communicate with the actor. You have to understand what makes them feel more comfortable. As a costume designer, it's about supporting them. I am there to help them find their character.
In Black Panther, did those actors have insecurities that you had to dance around when you're working with them?
RUTH E. CARTER None that I could talk about. (Laughter.) When I consult with them in the beginning, I try to keep the atmosphere very open — I'm here to listen as well as to give you some tools to help you create this character. With Black Panther, Marvel has a very clear idea of what they want for each one. The sketch is in the fitting room. But then there are other times when we can actually explore beyond just what is their iconic character and delve into the personal side. And that's where the conversation gets really juicy and I enjoy it.
You've said you took a lot of inspiration from Africa. What kind of research did you do?
CARTER Ryan Coogler and his writing partner, Joe Cole, wrote a story about the first black superhero, the Black Panther. And they did it their way. Within that story there were characters that were not really developed within the history of Black Panther, like Killmonger. So delving into ... Killmonger's character and his disconnect between Africa and his African-American roots was an exploration of culture and what it means to make that connection, not only for someone who is African-American but also a connection to the motherland of Africa. We also went into the traditional tribes for a lot of the characters, and we extracted a lot of the beautiful elements and we put them in this superhero model so that they could transform us into this fictitious world of Wakanda. It was very important for it not only to be a fantastical world but it also be rooted in culture.
Sandy, Mary Poppins Returns blends live action and animation. What does that mean for a costume designer?
SANDY POWELL The animated scene was actually the first one that I thought about, even prior to what Mary Poppins looks like when she arrives. I knew we were going to be doing a scene that was sort of reminiscent of the famous animated scene in the original, the Supercalifragilistic scene. As much as that was an incredible scene, for me it looked a bit like the live-action characters were really quite removed from the animation. What I wanted to achieve was to try to blend them in a little bit. My idea was to make the costumes look as if they were part of the animation, to actually make the costumes look as if they were 2D as opposed to 3D.
Carlos, how did you create a new look for Lisbeth Salander, who was played by a new actress for this big-screen adaptation?
ROSARIO Well, this is a completely different version from the last one, which was much more character-driven, so much more contrived and serious. This one is much more Hollywood, action-packed. That's the reason [director] Fede Alvarez decided to change the cast and go for Claire Foy. In terms of Lisbeth Salander, obviously we wanted to keep the darkness and the grittiness, but Fede has his own vision. The concept was that it was more about pulling back on all the Gothic and punk vibe and going a little bit more into the motorcycle vibe, which totally makes sense because Lisbeth Salander spends her time on a motorbike.
Alexandra, for Mary Queen of Scots, how did you decide on these costumes for this drama about two rival queens?
BYRNE My main aim was that the costumes have to be regal — they're two queens, they have to have a sense of history, but I didn't want it to be "Here comes another queen in another frock," because it's not that kind of story. The story is about two women holding on to their position in a very predatory male world. There's a very pivotal scene in the film which is really about the two actresses, it's about their faces. I didn't want the clothes to distract in that scene at all. One of the first challenges was to create that balance and then to kind of reverse engineer the two different stories out of that.
For A Star Is Born, was it intimidating working with Lady Gaga?
ERIN BENACH Yes. (Laughter.) Just the first moment of walking into her house, but after that it was just like every other actor-designer relationship, where you're really just trying to find a character on a page of words.
And how did you build the story of her becoming a star through the costumes?
BENACH This project maybe more than any other project was about the evolution of her character, planning it from beginning to end. So I think there was — in my mind there was — always a story to be told in the costumes, from the beginning and the start of Ally to the end of Ally, and hitting each beat as we told our story. And I made sure in the beginning that we had a map, always, and we kind of followed it.
What was she wearing for the moment she finally became a star?
BENACH At the iHeartRadio concert, when she's dancing for the first time onstage — it's the first time she's alone, without Jack, and that costume was about $21 in Santee Alley. (Laughter.) Truth.
This story first appeared in the Nov. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.