‘The Last of Us’ Costume Designer Cynthia Ann Summers on Crafting Post-Apocalyptic Looks

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Photo Source: Liane Hentscher/HBO

On HBO’s post-apocalyptic drama “The Last of Us,” style is the last thing survivors Joel Miller (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie Williams (Bella Ramsey) are concerned with while trekking across a country ravaged by fungus-infected zombies. That’s where costume designer Cynthia Ann Summers, who’s nominated for an Emmy for her work on Season 1, came in. She knew exactly how to tap into creators Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin’s vision. “They wanted to keep it very grounded,” says Summers. “The characters felt like you could connect with them. [They] could be anybody: your neighbor, your family members, you.” Here, she discusses her work on the critically acclaimed video-game adaptation.

How did you go about creating costumes that fans of the 2013 video game would recognize? 

We stated early on that we wanted to pay homage to certain looks [from] the games, especially for Joel and Ellie. Also, [we wanted] to be able to build out from their looks, because they’re real-life people. We were shooting in 35-degree [or below] weather, in the snow, [so Pedro was] going to have to have more layers; then you build into the story where they acquired these pieces. Fortunately for us, this is a travel story, [so] there are many places for characters to acquire additional pieces of clothing, and we worked off that premise throughout the season. 

RELATED: How Bella Ramsey Finds the Truth in 'The Last of Us' 

Many characters only appear on one or two episodes. Did that present any costuming challenges? 

It’s a huge gift. If you look at Joel and Ellie, there would be four episodes where they’re wearing the same costume. Maybe it’s a little more tattered; there’s dried blood or maybe a layer that we’ve added. When they get to their different destinations, what a gift for a costume designer and a set designer, because we get to build a whole group of people. The background performers in a show like this are paramount. 

The background performers in a show like this are paramount. What they look like is important, because you only have X amount of time to establish: Oh, we’re [at] Bill and Frank’s in a small New England town. This is a little unusual, but I did most of the background performers’ costumes because we weren’t going to fanciful places; we were going to Everytown, USA, in an apocalypse. All of those background performer elements add to our main characters. They give us time and place immediately, and it’s like painting a picture when you’ve got all those great scenes happening in the background. 

Are the clothes builds, off-the-rack, vintage, or a mix? 

All of that. Tons of vintage shopping, because everything had to have a somewhat timeless feel to it. [On the show,] the world stopped in 2003, so fashion had to speak to that era, say, minus 10 years, because people are wearing older clothes all the time. We didn’t want to be stuck in the ’90s, and we also started in Austin, Texas, so we had to feel global, in a sense. Background performers or main cast—it was helpful to dress to the person that walked into the room so you had diversity and character, as opposed to everyone looking the same.

The Last of Us

A lot of “clickers” (a type of infected person at the furthest stage of fungal mutation) appear on Episode 5, “Endure and Survive”—including a little girl played by Skye Cowton. I’m curious about the process for designing their costumes. 

I think Skye was 9 then. She’s a contortionist and gymnast, and Craig wanted her to have bare feet. Clickers in the game have bare feet because they feel nothing. But we’re dealing with real [performers] standing in the snow, running through muck and glass, jumping off walls; we had to have shoes on them—there was no getting around it. We built [prosthetic] feet for [Skye] to go on top of her feet so that she could run across all this rickety terrain, climb through the car window, and do somersaults [while viewers can] see her feet.

Can you talk about working with the prosthetics team?

We work from day one with the makeup effects team—Barrie Gower’s team—and our props team. Each clicker had four fittings. That started from a costume that was a shirt and jeans that had nothing done to it. We would have the person in the room, and the prosthetics team would come in with their bits and pieces. We would have a compression garment underneath the costume, and then we would map out where these prosthetic pieces might go. My team would have this flesh-tone compression suit with marks on it, and they would start distressing and dyeing [it]. Then we start gluing the pieces on and…cutting holes and weaving the fabric of the costumes into the prosthetic pieces on the body. They would do touchups on the prosthetics to marry our costume into it so that it looked like the cordyceps mushrooms were bursting through—and maybe if they’re acidic, they would be disintegrating the fabric.

You’ve also worked on Netflix’s “The Baby-Sitters Club” and “A Series of Unfortunate Events.” What’s it like to work with young performers? Do you have any advice for child actors in the fitting room?  

They’re open to suggestions…. They come in, and it’s play for them [in] some sense. If their parents are doing it right, it’s a great experience. All I can say to young performers is: Listen to your parents, but also listen to the [other] adults and glean all the good stuff. Kids are so smart these days. Just be yourself, because diversity matters and individuality matters.

You call “The Last of Us” a “jeans and T-shirt” show, but it has spawned fashion moments. Were you surprised by how strongly fans responded to Joel’s jacket?

It was! The whole point was to make these characters relatable. It’s one of these shows where the costumes are so important because they need to almost be invisible. They need to be a part of the character, not the character [themselves], and that’s tough. Once you get it, you get it; and I think I got it. Pedro was himself and became Joel, and it was magic. That’s when everybody started realizing: I can wear that jacket. What is that jacket? Where do you get that jacket from? The jacket sold out. 

This story originally appeared in the Feb. 8 issue of Backstage Magazine.

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