Oscar Watch: Dressing the part

Actresses discuss the importance of research and costume to character

It's any parent's worst nightmare: A trusted authority figure might or might not have initiated an inappropriate physical relationship with a child in his care. In such a scenario, that child's mother would be beside herself with rage. And that's precisely how Viola Davis, who plays Mrs. Miller, a mother facing just that situation in Miramax's "Doubt," initially approached her role.

"For me, being a black woman living in 2008, I'm thinking red alert," Davis says of the scene in which Sister Aloysius, the nun and school principal played by Meryl Streep, relates her fears about Mrs. Miller's son and the parish priest, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. "I'm looking at the confrontation, and I'm thinking hostility. I'm thinking confrontation the way a person in the 21st century would think of confrontation."

But then, writer-director John Patrick Shanley, who also penned the play on which the film is based, reminded her that the story was taking place in another time. "He said, 'No, you have to remember it's 1964, so there's a certain politeness to it,'" Davis recalls.

To convey that sense of '60s-era propriety and to inform her character -- who has only two scenes to communicate a lifetime of pain and struggle -- Davis did what any period role demands: research.

Because her character converts in order to get her son into the Catholic school, Davis studied Catholicism. And she delved into what was happening in society during the '60s, referencing such books as Anne Moody's "Coming of Age in Mississippi" and Claude Brown's "Manchild in the Promised Land," as well as a wealth of 1960s-era footage aired during Black History Month.

"I took a lot of things from that footage -- just how women acted in public in terms of how they articulated themselves, how they carried themselves," Davis says, citing one woman in particular, the mother of Emmett Till, a black teenager whose murder was one of the events that spurred the civil rights movement. His killers were acquitted by an all-white jury in 1955. "It was her speech after the acquittal that really ran through my mind constantly because it wasn't what you would expect after the horror that had happened to her son. Her reaction was so dignified and so restrained and so polite and articulate that it stuck with me. And especially in this scene with Mrs. Miller and Sister Aloysius, there is a certain etiquette involved in the confrontation that you have to remember throughout because of the times."

Coincidentally, Fox Searchlight's "The Secret Life of Bees" also takes place in 1964, and in order to help the members of her cast immerse themselves in the atmosphere of the era, director Gina Prince-Bythewood sent each actor a care package of '60s-themed materials, including books such as "Faces of Freedom Summer," a collection of civil rights era photographs; music, like soul singer Irma Thomas' 1964 recording of "Breakaway"; and movies, including Spike Lee's 1997 documentary "4 Little Girls."

"It was good to get us into the music that was out at the time, to get images of what the segregated South looked like at the time, and also to understand that this was a point in time where blacks were just given the right to vote, but the attitudes hadn't changed," says Queen Latifah, who plays the film's matriarch, August Boatwright. "The legality of it all had changed, but many people's attitudes toward black people having the right to vote or just being -- just existing, period -- there would be lots of racism still rampant, and violence, and hatred."

Elizabeth Banks, who portrays Laura Bush in Oliver Stone's "W." (Lionsgate), which chronicles George W. Bush's life from the '60s through the early 2000s, likewise mined all manner of research material, including the government Web site dedicated to the first lady and hours of footage on YouTube. Banks also read four biographies, of which she says Ann Gerhart's "The Perfect Wife" was the most helpful, "partially, I think, because Ann Gerhart is similar to myself in that she's sort of an urban liberal journalist, younger -- and sort of had that question, 'What the hell is Laura Bush doing with George Bush? How does this intelligent, thoughtful woman end up married to this guy?' "

Banks also found a window into Laura Bush's personality through the first lady's interviews with Charlie Rose. "I found those really helpful because she and Charlie Rose have a good rapport -- they seem almost like friends," Banks says. "So she would let down her guard with someone like him more than she would with other people. Ultimately the movie we were making was about (the Bushes') private lives and not their public selves, and they're so good at keeping those separated that you really had to dig through the materials to find those moments where their guard was down, where you really felt like you were seeing in and getting a sense of their true selves and what they really believed or thought or felt."

Another integral part of any period role is costume, which Banks regards as crucial to how she portrayed Laura Bush, particularly in what she calls "the barbecue scene," which takes place in 1977, when George meets Laura for the first time.

"Laura, we had read, just wears jeans and a white button-down shirt. If she could have a daily costume, that would be it -- like when she's at the ranch, when she's being casual, that's what she wears," Banks says. "Obviously white is never good for a movie, so (costume designer Michael Dennison) dyed a white lace '70s button-down shirt light blue for the scene so that we got a sense that Laura is a little bit flirtatious in that she's wearing lace, because it's kind of see-through," along with some tight, high-waisted blue jeans.

"All those things feed the person that you're playing, and all those decisions help you understand that situation and that moment," Banks continues. "She came to that barbecue -- she knew she was going to meet him; it had been planned by their friends -- and she wanted to look good, but still herself. All those things play into it."

Costume was also central to Nicole Kidman's character in Fox's "Australia," which takes place in the 1930s and '40s. Kidman's character, the Lady Sarah Ashley, an English aristocrat, arrives on the island continent looking utterly out of place in an elaborate navy-and-white suit, with gloves and a parasol. But as her character relaxes and grows accustomed to the outback, her wardrobe evolves as well. Ultimately, she looks right at home in cotton and khaki.

"I had to find the character's essence, being an Englishwoman who slowly gets absorbed into the landscape of Australia, and her essence changes from English to Australian -- and how do you show that? How do you depict that?" Kidman says. "Wearing the English garb, the cashmere suits, the gloves and the hats -- and the way (production designer/costume designer Catherine Martin) designs her clothes, they're authentic, so it's not pretending in terms of (substituting) lightweight fabrics -- they're very, very hot. But that was good because my character's meant to be completely ill at ease in the environment in which she's placed."

Similarly, "Doubt's" Davis used her character's costume and the way she interacted with her handbag and umbrella to convey what's at the core of Mrs. Miller: vulnerability.

"I had on a wool skirt-suit, a shirt underneath the skirt-suit, the galoshes, then the coat," Davis says. "It helped a lot because what I discovered as I was going on the long walk with Meryl is how hidden I was, how my life was based on hiding and how much I needed that protection in my life in order to keep going, how I needed to kind of be in the dark to keep going, and how much I needed to shield myself. I held on to that in the scene as much as I could -- I even was clutching the purse for dear life, and the umbrella. What happens with the costume and clutching the umbrella and clutching the purse was that I found her vulnerability. I found how absolutely terrified she was. With her vulnerability, I felt like if I didn't find that, then I wouldn't find her."