Oscar-Nominated Costume Designer Alexandra Byrne on Jumping From ‘Emma’ to DC’s ‘The Flash’

Oscar-winner Alexandra Byrne, nominated for a sixth time this year for the pastel-colored Jane Austen adaptation, talks to TheWrap about bouncing between period films and superhero flicks

Emma movie Anya Taylor Joy

Of all the live-action movies nominated for Oscars on March 15, the one with the earliest release date was Autumn de Wilde’s “Emma.” The Jane Austen adaptation starring Anya Taylor Joy opened 13 months ago, in February 2020, before much of America and the world underwent COVID lockdown. But the vibrant film was cited with two nominations, for Best Makeup and Hairstyling and for Best Costume Design, the latter a sixth nod for Alexandra Byrne (who won in 2008 for “Elizabeth: The Golden Age”).

“My sixth, oh you make me feel very old,” Byrne said to TheWrap with a sharp laugh. “But that’s OK. It is my sixth and I’m proud that they’ve all been very different. That’s the most exciting bit. That’s the thing I love most about it.”

As if to prove the point about her range, Byrne was reached on the phone at the end of her day’s work on “The Flash,” the Warner Bros. film starring Ezra Miller and Ben Affleck, slated for release in November 2022. The film marks Byrne’s first foray into the DC Extended Universe after several iconic costume design successes for Marvel (“The Avengers,” “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “Doctor Strange”).

She discussed that project and more during our Monday conversation. The 93rd Academy Awards will be held on April 25.

Congratulations on your Oscar nomination. Isn’t it great that the Costume Designers branch remembered a film from over a year ago?
It was great that they remembered it, but I think it is very special, particular, unique film, this one. Quite a lot of the films this year have been pretty somber. But as (director) Autumn (de Wilde) once described it, “Emma.” is like fondant icing in movie form. I think that makes it really stand out. 

You’ve said that you felt a lot of adrenaline while working on “Emma.” Why was that?
It was a very frantic prep on “Emma.” because we didn’t have a lot of time or a lot of money. Which is why I remember it so fondly, before COVID and pre-masks, because I’m not sure how we would collaborated to the extent we needed to if we were behind masks.

It did remind me of my first feature film, which was also a Jane Austen adaptation, “Persuasion,” in the mid-90s. I’ve acquired a lot of knowledge since “Persuasion,” but “Emma.” reminded me to stay in touch with my instincts. What resonated was a feeling I could tell myself: You did all this before, when you knew almost nothing, so just trust yourself. 

Four of your six career nominations are for films with women protagonists. And both “Emma.” and your previous nomination, “Mary, Queen of Scots,” are stories about women, directed by women. 
And I’m a woman, which works out nicely. 

And your director on “Emma.” really had an interesting political take on certain gender roles in the film.
Absolutely. Autumn loves clothes and she loves fashion. So she said, “What was their underwear like?” I said, “The men didn’t wear underwear.” Instead, they would use their shirt tails to wrap though their legs. It was a measure of one’s class, about how white the laundry was, depending on hygiene and starch and all that. Autumn thought that was fascinating. She said, “I want to see that in the film.” So that’s how she devised the scene with Johnny Flynn being dressed as Mr. Knightley. I thought it was a great choice. To unbutton the men, as it were.

It’s a very eclectic bunch in your category this year: Imperial Chinese folklore (“Mulan”), Italian fable (“Pinocchio”), and the 1930s in Los Angeles (“Mank”) and Chicago (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”).
It’s a very high level and interesting list. And I feel really proud to be part of it. Some years it’s very predictable but it feels like this year in many categories, for whatever reason, the band has got broader. 

Ann Roth, who designed the costumes for “Ma Rainey’s,” ties the record as the eldest Oscar nominee ever, at 89. What do you think of her work?
She’s phenomenal. She’s right up there as somebody that one admires and aspires to be. And it’s so great that she’s still going. Why shouldn’t she be? The thing I love about the work I do is that we’re always learning. And that means you can keep going at it. You might get a bit tireder at the end of the day, but my goodness, that shouldn’t stop you from doing it. 

Can you talk about what you’re working on now?
I’m doing “The Flash” with Ezra Miller. So far it’s been a lot of fun.

You’ve gone back to superheroes.
I have. I can be very bipolar in my choices, but I love it. I get often asked about how do I move between period films and superhero films, because they’re so different. Actually they are not different. The challenges are different but the job is still all about telling the story through clothes. 

Do you get asked a lot about certain clothes from the genre films you’ve worked on, like that leather jacket from “Guardians of the Galaxy”?
I do get a lot of questions about the “Guardians” jacket, in particular. That idea came from when you silk-screen print on a table, you get a lot overspill from the screens that spread onto the table in a quite interesting way. So that was the inspiration for that piece.

When you won an Oscar in 2008, your speech was only 12 seconds long, but you make a point to thank your team.
Of course. I’m lucky to have people with me who are terrifically talented in very specific areas. On “Emma.” I was lucky enough to be able to pull together key members of my team, and a lot of them are working with me now on “The Flash.” I adore my team and I can tell you we were all certainly very happy today.


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