When Oscar-winning “Black Panther” costume designer Ruth E. Carter calls to ask for help with background styling—as she did with Kairo Courts on “Coming 2 America,” Amazon Studios’ sequel to the 1988 film—“you don’t say no,” Courts quips. Here’s how the background stylist makes sure every background actor feels their best in front of the camera, and how she and the rest of the costume team brought the original film’s iconic looks into the 21st century.
What is the role of the background stylist on a film?
It is exactly what it sounds like. Essentially, Ruth [E. Carter] has the eye for the entire costume process; she’s picking out all of the things she wants to see. As a background stylist, it was our job—I’m saying “our,” because I was one of four other stylists on the team—to create looks. That generally means piecing together garments to be stylized [and] using the jewelry that was there. All of that is chosen by Ruth, but the end result of how it’s styled and how it’s worn is the job of the stylist.
How different is the background stylist’s job compared with the costume designer’s?
Generally, as a costume designer, you have carte blanche for what goes in front of the camera. You’re the one who has to sign off on these looks. So although, as a stylist, you create looks for the background, the costume designer for the film will sign off on the looks. Or she’ll tweak them and say, “No, I wasn’t quite thinking this. Let’s change the jacket out; let’s move the jewelry around a little bit; let’s get a different color.” She’s the deciding factor on how the images go to camera. It’s our job to help her with those images, because she can’t be in all places at all times.
“I always say: Get in where you can, and flourish in that position. I know there are plenty of people who may even start in craft services, or they might be PAs, or they just come to day play”
How do you, as the background stylist, work directly with the background actors?
It’s almost like being a mini costume designer. When people come in, you definitely want them to feel good in what they have on, and you want your costume designer to love it. You have to develop a short relationship with the background to understand who they are and what they’re going to like. You definitely don’t want anyone going to set and trying to hide from the camera. You want them to bring their A-game, so the first part is really talking to them and getting to know who they are and how they feel comfortable in clothes.
Case in point: We had a young lady who’d never worn a dress in her life. But she came to us to be in one of the scenes, and she’s supposed to be in this elaborate dress. She put it on, and she was being a really good sport about it, but I could tell from her body language that it was just not for her. I said, “You don’t feel comfortable, do you?” And she was like, “No. Can I tell you, I never wore a dress ever in my life.” I was like, “So how would you feel in a tuxedo?” Ruth was like, “That’s great; let’s put her in a suit.” And we did, and everyone loved it. I don’t know if you can tell if she’s a man or a woman, and it’s the androgynous energy coming through. She felt amazing, and I actually watched the film and I saw her in there, and I was like, “Oh, yeah, she made her way to camera.”
What was it like bringing these well-known ’80s looks into the modern era?
I was so flabbergasted when they pulled out all the original dresses from the background of the original movie, when [Eddie Murphy’s character] Akeem is first being introduced to his bride at the beginning of the first “Coming to America.” There were these huge pieces, they were very hippie, and the shoulders were exaggerated. But the crazy thing was, back then, women were much smaller. The waists were, like, 22 [inches]. And I was like, “Who ever fit [in] this?” I had to realize it was a million years ago; we’re built a little different now. What Ruth had the seamstresses do was take them apart and recreate them. People probably don’t even realize that those dresses were used again. But they were. I was kind of amazed that she was able to re-tweak it and that the dresses had held up that long.
Do you think that costumes and styling, when done well, can tell an audience something about a character they wouldn’t otherwise have gleaned?
Absolutely. I always tell people: Watch a silent film, because you can really tell [a lot about] a character by how they’re moving and by their costumes. The first thing you see when you watch something is the clothes and how the person is moving in them. Especially in silent films, that makes you understand who the character is. If you watch a movie silently, you already have a preconceived notion about them. We all do—we do when we look at people on the street and how they are dressed. We just kind of look them up and down and go, “OK, that’s a lawyer. She looks like a college student.” We do it every day, so of course we’re going to do it when we watch films. It is a big part of telling who someone is on film.
“Watch a silent film, because you can really tell [a lot about] a character by how they’re moving and by their costumes.”
So, in the costume department, where do you start figuring out who a character is through what they wear?
It starts with the script, and then talking it over with your director. Because you always want to put forth the vision that your director is trying to unveil to the audience. That’s first and foremost. You’re interpreting someone else’s vision. Yes, you add your own flair [to] it; but essentially, it’s the director’s vision. Scripts are all interpreted differently by different people, and that’s the beauty of it. I can talk to the director and it’s one thing; I can talk to Ruth and it’d be another thing. And then I have another idea, and now it’s compounded with something from makeup, and then hair has another idea. And once you get it all together, it’s like you’ve made this character—like you’ve all like birthed this baby. It’s like childbirth: You don’t know what you’re going to get, but in the end, it’s beautiful.
What advice would you give someone who wants to get into the costume craft?
I always say: Get in where you can, and flourish in that position. I know there are plenty of people who may even start in craft services, or they might be PAs, or they just come to day play. There are quite a few people I’ve met who started as background and realized, “You know what? I want to do costumes.” People always remember what you brought to the position at hand, so be the best at whatever you’re doing. If you were a great background artist, you came on time, and you did all the things that you were supposed to, of course casting’s gonna scream your name from the top of the mountain: “She was great! She was punctual.” And then the next person hears it; perhaps it’s the designer, [who says], “Oh, they were great? They want to interview? Yeah, let’s try them out.” People always think you’re trying to impress the higher-ups, but usually, it’s the lateral people. So be kind. Be respectful. And just put forth the best you in the position that you’re in.
This story originally appeared in the March 4 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.
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