How ‘Nightmare Alley’ Costume Designer Made ‘Everything Look Seamless’ in Fitting Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett

Oscar nominee Luis Sequeira talks about stitching psychology into wardrobe and what can be figured out from costume fittings

It’s the job of movie costume designers to quite literally know every inch of an actor or actress’s body. And that impeccable tailoring creates a close bond on a film set, whether the performer knows it or not.

Take Luis Sequeira, currently an Oscar nominee for his staggering 242 costume changes on Guillermo Del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley.” Sequeira decked out the whole cast, including Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, and Toni Collette, in 1930s and 40s suits and gowns, and it was during a series of fittings with Rooney Mara that he began to, shall we say, conceive something was amiss.

“With Rooney, during each fitting, I was letting out her costumes a little bit more each time,” Sequeira told TheWrap. “And so I whispered to myself, ‘Oh, I think she’s pregnant.’”

Sequeira’s instincts were right on the button.

“A couple of days later I was called to her trailer,” he said. “In my experience, when you get called to an actor’s trailer you think ‘Uh oh, what did I do wrong.’ But I walked in and she said, ‘I just have to tell you, please don’t tell anyone, but I’m pregnant.’ She even apologized because of how it was going to affect our fittings. So, of course, I’m a locked safe with information like that. But it was good to know.”

Mara gave birth to a son with Joaquin Phoenix (named River after Phoenix’s late brother) in the summer of 2020. But during the filming of “Nightmare Alley,” the actress also had to break the news of her pregnancy to producer J. Miles Dale, an Oscar winner four years ago for “The Shape of Water.”

“We were filming in the Buffalo City Hall in February 2020,” Miles recalled to TheWrap. “And Rooney says to me, ‘What do you think of this COVID thing?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, we’re keeping our eye on it, but I’m trying to be optimistic. I don’t think it’ll affect our shooting schedule.”

But things changed quickly, as we remember, and “Nightmare Alley,” along with every other production, completely shut down by mid-March of 2020, with about half of the film having been shot.

“Two weeks before the shutdown, Rooney called me into her trailer and says, ‘I’m having a baby.’ And I said, ‘Oh, wow, that’s so great, that’s incredible,’ while in my head I’m also doing the math in my head and thinking, ‘Hmm, we’re going to finish production in May and Rooney’s pregnancy should be no problem at all.’ And then, along with the rest of the world, we were completely shut down.” 

But both Miles and Sequeira praised Mara for rebounding without any complaints once the film resumed production in September of 2020.

She came back to the production about a month or so after having River, looking pretty much the same,” the producer said. “But I can’t watch the bus station scene in the film without laughing a little bit. Because when Bradley Cooper’s character goes to get her, that scene was filmed in Buffalo a year before she arrived at the bus station. So even though it’s in real time in the movie, her arrival was filmed in Toronto, one year later and one baby later.”

Sequeira added, “When we came back after the lockdown, Rooney did a remarkable job of picking up right where we left off. And the one scene where she tips over on the chair, she had just had her baby a month or so before and it’s pretty incredible that she could do that.”

The costume designer mentioned that Mara’s dilemma was actually not a dilemma at all.

“We had other actors that gained weight and other actors that lost weight,” he said. “You know, it’s a pretty normal thing that happens to every human being. But it’s just one of those things we do in the costumes department. We’re there to make everything look seamless.”

Sequeira also added how important costume fitting was for the movie’s other main female character (and Mara’s costar in 2015’s “Carol”), Cate Blanchett as the mysterious psychiatrist Dr. Lillian Ritter.

“Especially in regards to Lilith, we played with flat tones and sheen,” he said. “We needed to have the ability to bring her forward in that wonderful set. Even in the fitting, the costume was fine-tuned to fit the psychology of her character.”

For Sequeira, the costumes were essential both in concept and in motion. “When Lilith is onscreen, the camera moves and she moves. Every move enhances her character, and it was important that each costume she wore would would work when she leaned forward or laid back.”

“Nightmare Alley” is available for streaming on HBO Max.

Check out more in the special Oscar nominations issue of TheWrap magazine.