Esther McCarthy meets Oscar-winning costume designer Alexandra Byrne.
cap: Alexandra Byrne won an Oscar for her work with Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth The Golden Age.
She’s the woman heavily involved in Marvel’s movie-making magic, the designer who creates superhero outfits for some of the world’s biggest stars.
As the costume designer on many of Marvel’s blockbusters, Alexandra Byrne has designed looks for A-listers like Scarlett Johansson, Robert Downey Jr and Benedict Cumberbatch.
Her role for the top US studio sees her working the very top of her game on the biggest stage in cinema.
It was she who created much of Marvel’s iconic onscreen fashion — Star-Lord’s uber-cool red jacket in Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor’s mix of leather, metal and cloak, Black Widow’s form-fitting costume, and Doctor Strange’s amazing Cloak of Levitation.
Byrne was already an established force in cinema before working with the top studio; she won an Oscar for creating Cate Blanchett’s stunningly regal golden gown, among others, in Elizabeth: The Golden Age.
Blanchett, she agrees, is one of her favourite stars to work with. “She’s amazing because she’s got great clothes sense, she can wear clothes, she really inhabits a costume,” says the English designer.
“There’s a scene in The Golden Age where she’s walking down Ely Cathedral in a gold dress to meet the Spanish ambassador, and the way she strides in that dress, you can hear the petticoats cracking as she whips it, as she walks, and that’s an extraordinary thing.
"A lot of actresses, they can become a bit swamped by the clothes. That’s a thing, of not overwhelming the performance as an actor, and to actually take on the clothes and make them work in that way… she’s extraordinary.”
She won an Oscar for her work on the film and has been nominated four times — and says that the experience of Oscar night can be quite surreal. “If I’m watching it at home and hear the music playing, my stomach absolutely clenches,” she says of the memories it stirs.
“It’s quite a nerve-wracking night because you really don’t know if you’ve won. I’m a behind-the-camera person, I’m not at ease speaking in front of people, and there’s the reality that you’re going to have to stand on that stage.
"You can’t even stand behind a plinth or anything, there’s just a spindly microphone, and this huge auditorium, and you might have to say something — it’s frightening!
“As I was walking down I do remember thinking: ‘Have I made the most embarrassing mistake of my life?’ because there’s a moment where you hear your name, and then, I don’t know, maybe it’s just a huge adrenaline kick-in, but you’re not quite here and now.
"And you’re thinking: ‘Was that my name? Did I move on reflex on somebody’s else’s name?’ I can remember moments of it, but it’s a very surreal bubble.
“The best bit is when you come off the stage there are literally two people in the wings who take you by your elbow by both sides, because I think a lot of people go into such an adrenaline rush that they pass out. So they literally kind of nanny you off the stage.”
We meet in Dublin just hours before she is to take part in a fully-booked masterclass hosted by another legend in costume design, Irishwoman Consolata Boyle, nominated for an Oscar this year for her work on Florence Foster Jenkins.
The event is hosted by the Audi International Dublin Film Festival in partnership with Warner Bros Creative Talent, which supports the creative industries in Ireland and the UK.
Byrne has plenty of perspective to bring, not least because she became a designer through an unconventional route.
She trained as an architect but long harboured a love of theatre — as a woman born in Stratford-upon-Avon, it was virtually a part of her DNA.
But financial circumstances, initially, led her to explore film work, and she became “intrigued” by the filmmaking industry.
“I started designing for the theatre where you obviously do sets and costumes, and worked there for quite a long time. I was doing big shows. It’s a fantastically poorly paid but rewarding job.
"By then I had children and you realise that much as I love the job, it was in danger of becoming a housewife’s hobby. I was having to pay childcare, which was costing more than I was earning, and you’re thinking: ‘How does that sustain?’
“That was at a time when the BBC were running director’s courses, and the directors I was working with in the theatre were beginning to make a move into film and television.
"I became intrigued by film and the film process. I think the great thing about what we do is we learn on every job we do. Every job has taught me something, and you keep learning.”
Working closely with some of the world’s most successful actors, Byrne forms a bond with her cast.
“The moment an actor is cast, that’s a big component in your design process because every actor is different.
"They bring their own shape, proportion, their physicality, their colouring, how they wear clothes, how they move, and that’s a big part of your design process.
“Obviously, you need to get to know that and understand it, and learn about that actor. So to work with somebody again means there’s a body of knowledge and understanding there already, which means maybe you can take ideas further.”
Recently, she got to work with compatriots Tilda Swinton and Benedict Cumberbatch on the blockbuster Doctor Strange.
It was she who developed Swinton’s cutting-edge outfits for her role, and she who created Cumberbatch’s powerful Cloak of Levitation.
“The cloak is almost a character. I always thought it was number two on the call sheet!” she laughs.
“They were great, fantastic. Tilda is extraordinary, another actress who can really wear clothes and has a sense of style. They’re both really pleasant to work with.
“The superhero films can be amazingly hard work — there is no historical context. You can do anything, which means what do you do? It’s a different set of boundaries. The cloak was an amazing thing to design.
I’d done some Marvel films before, I knew their language and how they work quite well. Having done Thor’s cloak I knew the process of how to evolve that.
“It’s all about the behaviour of the fabric. You can draw in terms of proportions and scale and symmetry and pattern, but you have to actually trial it — you have to work it in the workroom because it’s all about how it behaves, the drape, the movement.
“There was a large graveyard of red fabric because it’s trial and error and you do have to take it quite a long way before you know how it’s going to work.
“You have all the practicality because, contrary to what people think, Marvel like to get as much on camera as possible, so the amount of CG (computer generated special effects) work is as small as possible. It’s got to look right, but he’s got to be able to run and fight and move.”
Moving from a career primarily involving period and costume dramas into tentpole US blockbusters was quite a change in terms of the momentum of Byrne’s career and, while the designer embraced it, she admits it was challenging.
It was a top British director who too has a background in theatre who encouraged her to get on board.
“I’d worked with Kenneth Branagh before and he was doing Thor and he asked me to go and do that and, actually, that was the steepest learning curve I’d ever been on.
"I’d never worked in LA, I’d never done studio pictures, I’d never done a superhero film. That’s a lot to take on, but you just learn a vast amount.
"It’s a different way of making clothes, different practical requirements. You have to make most of your textiles.”
She’s currently working on a new adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express — “It’s set in the 1930s which is a fantastic period to work in”.
Now one of the most in-demand designers in cinema, she says that she prefers to take on projects where she can collaborate.
“The really exciting part is it’s through collaboration. Whether it’s the director, the production designer, actors, everybody brings something to the table and I think, in that collaboration, they do what they do and I do what I do, and between us we can achieve something that neither of us could achieve on our own.
“That’s the work that is exciting. You end up creating these extraordinary things.”
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