"Film has been good to me": Costume designer Tricia Gray opens up about working on 'The Tale', and especially with Laura Dern

Gray, who has worked with films, TV shows, and commercials, has designed the likes of likes of Will Smith, Rob Lowe, Steven Seagal, Olivia Munn, Isabella Roselini, and Anna Paquin

                            "Film has been good to me": Costume designer Tricia Gray opens up about working on 'The Tale', and especially with Laura Dern
Laura Dern (Source: Getty Images)

As a professional costume designer for acclaimed Hollywood projects, Tricia Gray is a firm believer in shapes and colors. With most of a cinematic masterpiece's storytelling being attributed to cinematography, shots, lighting and such technicalities, Gray believes a lot can be showcased using necklines too. 

Over the years, she has worked with the phenomenal likes of Gene Hackman, Will Smith, Rob Lowe, Steven Seagal, Olivia Munn, Isabella Roselini, Jennifer Beals, Anna Paquin, Jane Seymour, and Laura Dern too. And after all this time, in her own words, if there's one thing that has stuck with her in terms of the primary rule she abides by, it's "deep conversations with my actor about their thoughts and share my thoughts, and together we always create a great character."

Her upcoming project — The Tale — that stars Laura Dern, is the most exciting experience as a designer so far, as she spilled to MEAWW in a casual chat. Here are some excerpts of the conversation.

What was your goal while designing for 'The Tale?' Where did you draw your inspirations from?

My goal was to stay true to the 70’s yet in an almost timeless way. I wanted to tell Jennifer’s story but not have it so obviously tied to a time where audience members could think well that happened then and it doesn’t happen now, because it is still happening. Nine out of ten store clerks I ran into while shopping had their own me-too story. It was a real eye-opener. I have mine. In helping to fulfill Jennifer’s vision of her story, maybe I could come to terms with my own.

What was your experience working with Laura Dern? 

Laura Dern is an incredible actress and a wonderful genuine person. She exudes grace and love while being an excellent communicator and collaborator. And fun. She is fun! Very low maintenance because she knows herself, and very respectful of who you are. You find yourself wanting to work twice as hard to get the clothing choices perfect. We both had the advantage of watching Jennifer Fox’s 6-part documentary called “Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman”. This really brought us to the same place of imitating Jennifer Fox’s style of dressing, while making changes to make some things that worked better for Laura’s portrayal of her.

How did you show the transgression of Jennifer Fox from Jessica Sarah Flaum to Isabelle Nélisse and finally Laura Dern through how they dress? 

We worked mainly with Western Costume and found at least 10 tops that Jenny at 13 and Jenny at 15 could wear. Both had the same belts, tennis shoes, riding boots and jeans. To reproduce the riding pants, I contacted the largest store supplying hunting, jumping, English riding gear. The store owner sold her own brand of riding pants and her supplier actually had the riding pant patterns from 1973 as well as the correct fabric. He made pants for all the girls and their stunt doubles. The doubling of shirts helped when dressing the stunt doubles too. While I’m on the subject of riding gear, the helmets and the tan riding pants were being discontinued after all these years. I got the last of it!

So Jenny at 13 and Jenny at 15 wear the same wardrobe to help the audience understand the memory process. The colors of Jenny influenced Jennifer's colors. We added Grey to Laura because I wanted a neutral in the University scenes and to signal that the adult world is a grey area. When she is investigating a documentary, we add some black as the real Jennifer in "Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman" wears a lot of white tanks, red tops, and black jackets. Black makes Laura Dern look very upscale, so I saved it for her final scene where she confronts Bill. The scalloped edges at the deep v neck reminded me of a shark going in for the kill. She bravely takes Bill on and seems relieved for a moment. Then I think the reality hits her that the effect of his sexual abuse isn’t solved in one confrontation. The way Jenny at 13 looks up to her, you realize they are at peace with each other now. Wardrobe helped tell us as she is in brown tones which suggests a connection to the earth and the round neck is friendly and comforting.

Red and Demin are colors that are carried through from young Jenny and adult Jennifer. Young Jenny and Jennifer have clothing that has clean lines and practicality. Jennifer has three main areas of clothing 1. Her around the house casual 2. Her university professional look and 3. her investigative documentarian work clothes.

Real life Jennifer has conquered her fear of marriage but not rings! So, I made up a backstory for that. Little Jenny has a ring that Bill may or may not have given her but there is an intimate moment where he slides it on her finger. When she breaks up with him, she takes the ring off. I felt Jennifer’s response to Martin in not wanting a ring from him originates from that moment.

What are the distinct differences while designing costumes for different genres of movies? What are the titbits you usually pay attention to? 

I always use shape and color to tell my stories no matter the genre, I like clothing to look real and help to identify who this character is, where he/she is from and what does he/she want. I like to give my actors pockets and pieces they can use to help tell us who they are.
A complete story can be told by a neckline, overall shape, and color. I always have deep conversations with my actor about their thoughts and share my thoughts, and together we always create a great character.

What has been your most exciting experience as a costume designer so far? Who did you enjoy designing for the most?

I would have to say, without a doubt, that The Tale has been my most exciting experience as a designer. I mean, what a cast! All real pros and we all spoke the same language of character. I have always wanted to make a film that could help the world be a better place. I think this film does that and I am very proud of it.
Best actress- Laura Dern
Best actor – Christopher Plummer in 'Man in The Chair' A true gentleman and collaborator as well. Good manners win with me every time.

Many art forms use costumes to make a statement - be it fashion, music or dance. What is your take on this?

They absolutely do! All these forms lend themselves to telling a story through color and shape.

Who are your biggest role models within your profession or outside of it? 

Ann Roth acclaimed Broadway Costume Designer and film Costume Designer. I enjoy everything I have ever seen of hers. She never hits a false note.
Deborah Nadoolman Landis has created so many iconic figures – Michael Jackson’s red jacket in Thriller. Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones, and Coming to America which celebrates its 30-year anniversary this year. The Blues Brothers. Brilliant eye for shape and color. She has really helped to elevate the position of the Costume Designer.
Lou Eyrich whom I’ve known professionally for many years is so amazingly creative.
All three are very different and if each of them designed the same film, each would create extraordinary characters that would be totally different.

What was your biggest inspiration behind becoming a costume designer?

I was cutting my own patterns for my Barbie doll in the 3rd grade and sewing them on a real machine. My grandmother sewed and my mother sewed. They taught me and inspired me. I have always drawn and painted. It was natural in college that I would end up in the theatre department where all my natural talents could be utilized. I settled in the costume department and had great teachers. Lots of good experience with many genres of plays.
I moved to Los Angeles and found commercial and styling work. I missed creating characters, so I decided to do a film. I was lucky and got work right away and never looked back. Film has been good to me.

What would you like to say to someone who's an aspiring costume designer for the big projects?

Learn how to sew. Learn how to construct a garment so you can understand the structure of clothing. It's important that you can communicate to your stitcher what you want and need from a garment. Then pay your dues. Work only for the best of the best so that you can learn to be your best. Learn how to fit a garment. I always say an outfit can come from Kmart but I can alter it to look like it came from Neimans. Study character development and how to do a costume action plot. Above all, learn to respect the people on your crew. Always be kind because you are always only as good as your team.

What is in your career bucket list? What are the projects you are most excited about?

I love any genre of script that has characters that speak to me. When I read a script, I see it in 3-dimensional form. I see the actors in clothes entering the room, sitting down, everything. I’ll start to buy a few things that I love about the film because they belong in our movie. Then they will cast roles and invariably I have the perfect outfit for that character.
I haven’t decided on my next film. I know that is will either be a futuristic or a period piece. It will be the piece that speaks to me most.
I love what I do. It’s not for the faint of heart, that’s for sure!