Please tell us about yourself
With her designs for films like The Legend of Hercules, Gangs of New York, The American, When In Rome, and now for the latest and the fifth season of the television series Prison Break, Sonu Mishra, an Indian costume designer based in Rome, is taking inspiration from the bright colours and fabrics of India, across Hollywood.
Indian-origin costume designer Sonu Mishra has just finished making Oscar-winning actor Geoffrey Rush into Albert Einstein.
As the costume designer for Genius, the National Geographic’s high-profile series about the physicist, Mishra, a Mumbai and New York-trained designer, has enjoyed an opportunity to exercise her creative sartorial vision even while keeping it “authentic to the period.”
Ron Howard, the series’ Oscar-winning director, gave a brief to Mishra while designing the costumes was to ensure authenticity. To match-up Howard’s expectations, Mishra closely studied the evolution of dressing styles, fabric and cultural changes over the close to seven decades between 1886 and 1955 during which Einstein had lived.
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
“I had studied fashion design, but stumbled into the world of costumes. A friend I met while taking classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York, asked me if I could sub for her on a Broadway show, while she was away travelling. I fell in love with the theatre world and continued that path. When I moved to Rome, I found out that there wasn’t much theatre work, but film was thriving. So, I went with the flow and started working on films and commercials,” Sonu shares her journey.
Tell us about your work
Mishra said she did not go about just designing the costumes but in a sense recreated the whole era with clothes as the reference point.
“I had to keep in mind the socio-cultural backgrounds of the various characters which would reflect in the way they dressed up in terms of their hats and other accessories. We chose the dressing style on the basis of who those individuals were in real life,” Mishra told IANS.
“It was like a painting with so many pieces. Einstein was the main focus, but I had to consider an entire cast of characters that included great scientists such as Max Planck, Niels Bohr and Marie Curie. These were all powerful and amazing personalities whom we had to also represent through their clothes,” the designer added.
Along with the make-up, costumes constitute the frontline of any movie or television production. In historically demanding roles such as Einstein’s, actors are known to pay particular attention to the clothes because they can make or break their movements and gait and, eventually, performance. Mishra said it was a joy and privilege fitting Rush and other members of the cast because Genius is a period piece about the world’s most famous scientist’s personal life.
While doing background research before designing the clothes, Mishra said she discovered that students in the Europe of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were known to dress up formally and in a classical style. That was equally true of Einstein, unlike the more popular view of him as a stylishly dishevelled, absent-minded scientist. “He acquired that relaxed look only after coming to America where dressing was far more informal than in Europe. It was only in America that Einstein’s way of dressing underwent a dramatic change toward the look we all seem so familiar with,” Mishra said. Even within Europe, she had to pay attention to the differences in the way the young Einstein and others dressed up during his days as a student at Zurich’s Polytechnic Institute and a working scientist in Prague later.
Quite apart from choosing the right fabrics, Mishra had to bear in mind finer details such as collars, hats, ties, belts and cravats. In addition, fabrics had to be linen, cotton, gabardine and corduroy . “Anything that was not natural had to be avoided because of the early period,” she said. Mishra said she found the changes in the evolution of women’s costumes for the same period as men “quite rapid”. Details such as hip pads and bicycle skirts had to be taken into consideration.
While Mishra found fitting costumes for the entire cast exciting and joyful, it was particularly so for Rush as Einstein. “We had to make sure that he and all other actors felt comfortable, especially for him because the series rides on Geoffrey,” she said.
What did you study?
Mishra graduated in fashion design from Sophia College, Mumbai. She moved to New York as 19-year-old in 1989 to work in the wardrobe department at the Roundabout Theatre Company on Broadway and at Odds Costume Rentals. After that stint, she moved to Rome where she has emerged as a successful costume designer for major television and movie productions, both Italian and international.
Mishra does not necessarily keep her Indian background as a reference point while working on international projects because their requirements tend to be rather different. However, she said, she is subconsciously influenced by the rich fabrics and colours of India.
Apart from television and movies, Mishra has designed for a host of international commercials that include an airline, a beverage company and a brand of post-pay card.
What are the skills needed for a Costume Designer?
To make the actors fit seamlessly into their characters is not an easy task considering the amount of research that a costume designer puts in.
Each project is unique and the challenges vary. The filming location is an important factor — one has to consider what resources will be available — whether there are good costume rental places, good fabric stores and tailors.
One needs to have a good team as there’s so much work that goes in before we get to the actual shooting. So, the prep team and set team need to work closely to make sure what is done in the fitting room is what goes on camera.”
For the drama series, Prison Break, the designer had to show two distinct worlds of North America and Yemen for the latest season.
“I do a lot of research based on the scripts. I love looking for photographs, information from books, watching films and documentaries. We wanted to give authenticity to the costumes but also a timeless style. A lot of the inspiration came from classic movies like Cool Hand Luke, Midnight Express, etc. The prison guard uniforms were created from scratch and the colour of the fabric, the trimmings, the patches, emblems were all studied carefully, as we wanted to create the right contrast with the prison walls,” the designer explains.