'Of Mice and Men': Dressing James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Depression-Era Denim

Of Mice and Men Franco O’Dowd Play - H 2014
Richard Phibbs

Of Mice and Men Franco O’Dowd Play - H 2014

Costume designer Suttirat Anne Larlarb tells THR about making her Broadway debut with James Franco, Chris O'Dowd, Leighton Meester and Jim Parrack.

When Of Mice and Men officially opens at the Longacre Theatre in New York on Wednesday, the star-studded drama will mark the Broadway debuts of James Franco, Chris O'Dowd, Leighton Meester and Jim Parrack.

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But it will also be a Great White Way first for Suttirat Anne Larlarb, the costume designer tasked with dressing those actors for John Steinbeck's stage adaptation of his iconic 1937 novella, directed by Anna D. Shapiro. A frequent collaborator of director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire and Trance on the big screen; Frankenstein at London's National Theatre), she branches into Broadway with the Depression-era tragedy of downtrodden field workers with high sights and heartbreaking backstories. To do so, Larlarb exclusively studied the script, staying away from the book, which she had read in high school, and the 1992 John Malkovich-Gary Sinise film version she once saw.

Larlarb has Franco fronting the production in a button-down shirt, belted jeans and boots -- a field workman's uniform that casts George as an everyman. "He's trying to operate under the radar, so he has to appear like everybody else, like he could fill any post at any time," Larlarb tells The Hollywood Reporter. "There's nothing remarkable about him."

George carries dreams of owning his own land and living a quiet but prosperous life. Larlarb normalized Franco's features because of George's ethos but also to level the actor's big-screen status for his Broadway-stage debut. The two last worked together on Boyle's 127 Hours, on which Larlarb also served as production designer. She helped initiate Franco into the theater world as a familiar film face. "I love working with him," she says. "He finds a way into the character that has a lot of the backstory just riding underneath it. I think we have a really good shorthand now."

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Alongside -- and towering over -- Franco is O'Dowd as Lennie, the gentle giant unaware of his own strength. To visually contrast the look of his best friend George, a bald and bearded O'Dowd is seen in a denim jumpsuit that evokes his character's childlike qualities and is also an overalls alternative that would have been worn by factory workers.

"It's off just enough to make you tilt your head to one side," says Larlarb of the look she chose for O'Dowd's Lennie. "He can't help but have all the attention to himself. He's so big, and having that big surface area that isn't broken up by so many lines actually helps."

The male characters stick with a single costume throughout the entire production, marking the passing of time by accessorizing with jackets and hats. "From the beginning, we decided not to do costume changes for every new day. It just seemed frivolous given the context of the play and the class and status of everyone," Larlarb explains.

Yet Leighton Meester -- as Curley's wife, the flirtatious farm beauty with broken dreams of movie stardom -- is strategically equipped with three costumes. That choice was made specifically, not only to ensure that the Depression-era dresses could withstand the production's rigors, but also to highlight the journey of the woman's forgotten face.

"In Steinbeck's book, she's more of a symbol than a character," says Larlarb. "She doesn't even have a name in the play, which speaks volumes about her position. Being the only woman, being a nameless woman and being seemingly the cause of the downfall of everything in this play, I wanted to make sure she was living and breathing and that Leighton achieve character status, rather than just play a pretty face."

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Therefore, to introduce Curley's wife "like a tart" to the male workers, she first appears onstage in a floral wrap dress "so that it could open ever so slightly." Then she wears a red "siren" dress when she's looking for trouble in the boys' bunker. But it's her third look (pictured below) that was the most important to Larlarb, as Curley's wife enters the scene with a suitcase, planning to take off and pursue acting, but instead meets tragedy at the misguided hand of Lennie.

"I was almost working backwards. She was going to be dead and lie there on the barn floor, and when people discover her, they mistake her for sleeping," says Larlarb of landing on a sophisticated light-green dress, demurely buttoned up to the neck. "I really took that to heart. I didn't want her to be in some tarty, hussy state of undress but feel the most innocent, so she appeared more like a victim … like a doll that he gets carried away with a little too much. And when she's dead, she doesn't look like a whore that nobody cares about."

Meester's below-the-knee looks always include a hint of red, either on her dresses or in her shoes and makeup. "In a landscape of blue utilitarian colors, she needed to feel like an alien in that world. Anna said she should come from a slightly different play," says Larlarb of the direction she received from Shapiro for dressing Curley's wife.

After signing onto the project from a Yale alumni connection, Larlarb says she had a straightforward, trusting collaboration with Shapiro that she appreciated. "I loved hearing how she had digested, chewed through and analyzed the script before we started," she said of working with the director, a Tony winner for August: Osage County. "She gave me what she needed from each character and then gave me the space to interpret that."

Larlarb herself has yet to process her own Broadway debut after finishing films The Good Life, with Reese Witherspoon and Corey Stoll, and Ten Thousand Saints, with Ethan Hawke and Hailee Steinfeld. She also debuted this academic year as a professor at Carnegie Mellon University. She assures, "On opening night, when my family flies in, I'll have a proper celebration with them about this new notch in my belt."

Of Mice and Men, also starring Jim Norton, Ron Cephas Jones, Alex Morf, Joel Marsh Garland, James McMenamin and Jim Ortlieb, opens April 16 at the Longacre Theater and runs through July 27.

Email: Ashley.Lee@THR.com
Twitter: @cashleelee