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How Double Oscar Nominee Sandy Powell Tackled Both ‘The Favourite’ and ‘Mary Poppins Returns’

TheWrap Oscar Magazine: ”It’s nice to have the freedom of expression and let your imagination run wild,“ costume designer says of being the most nominated living designer

A version of this story about Sandy Powell first appeared in the Down to the Wire issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.

On the road to notching eight Oscars and 35 nominations, costume-design legend Edith Head was often nominated for her work on both black-and-white and color films, which during most of her career were separate categories. Sandy Powell, who just became the most-nominated living costume designer with 14 nods, doesn’t have that same luxury, so she probably won’t get near Head’s record.

“Depends on how long I live,” Powell said with a laugh. “If I keep getting the jobs and the right ones, who knows?”

Like Head, Powell is accustomed to multiple nominations in one year; her nominations this year for “The Favourite” and “Mary Poppins Returns” mark the third time she’s competed against herself. But while she also received double nominations for “Carol” and “Cinderella” in 2015 and “Shakespeare in Love” and “Velvet Goldmine” in 1998, this year’s two noms mark the first time Powell worked on two projects simultaneously.

And despite how many times she’s been nominated, it’s also the first time in a while she’s on set for a film while juggling awards season.

“It’s really, really difficult because my job is all consuming,” Powell said, adding that the easier part is getting into the right mindset between projects. “Once you finish a project, the day you finish, you leave it behind. It holds you for a little bit. It holds you for a week or two afterwards. But it doesn’t take that long to forget it, get it out of your head and start another one. As soon as you start another one, that’s the thing that’s at the front of your mind.”

Thankfully, the early 18th-century costume drama “The Favourite” and the 1930s-era “Mary Poppins Returns” are worlds apart. Speaking from the set of a film about the life of ’60s feminist icon Gloria Steinem, Powell said it’s trickier differentiating between 1962 and 1969 than 1708 and 1932.

“It’s the subtle differences that are harder,” she said. “You think, ‘Hang on, is this right? Is the hem length on the knee, or is it above the knee, or is it below the knee?’ That’s where my head is now.”

But the costumes on “Mary Poppins Returns” did have to detail subtle differences between the sequel and the original 1964 film. More than two decades have passed between the time frame of the two films, and the fashions changed dramatically.

“It has the essence of the original,” Powell said of the new film. “[Mary] wears skirts that are conservative or strict, and the shape of the coat is very similar to the original coat — but I’ve updated it, and I think made it a little bit more fashionable than the original Mary Poppins. Maybe that’s unfair, maybe the original Mary Poppins is fashionable, too. She’s very chic.”

As for “The Favourite,” Powell said her designs are “based in historical accuracy with some artistic license.” The silhouettes and constructions are period appropriate, but the fabric is contemporary and she did away with the “mountains” of lace, which she says the production couldn’t afford.

“On the whole, any period film, you’re not making museum pieces,” Powell said. “And since we’re telling stories and not documentaries, it’s nice to have the freedom of expression and let your imagination run wild.”

Powell said that finding that freedom of expression often comes when working with actors she’s designed for more than once. She was excited to finally be able to design for Meryl Streep on “Mary Poppins Returns,” but she’s most enjoyed working with actors she’s known from past projects, including Blunt, Julianne Moore, Cate Blanchett and Leonardo DiCaprio.

“It gets easier every time,” Powell said. “It’s really great when you have a relationship with an actor because you have the shortcuts, and you really know them. They have a confidence in you, and also, you’re confident that you know them and you know what’s going to work on them.”

And with an imaginative spirit in mind, Powell said she’d keep an open mind about taking her talents to a far different time period like the future, in one of Hollywood’s endless science-fiction films.

“If it was the right sci-fi, maybe, but on the whole, I shy away from them,” Powell. “It’s not the kind of film that appeals to me to go to see, therefore it’s not necessarily the type of film I’d want to do. But having said that, there might be the perfect one around the corner.”

To read more of TheWrap’s Down to the Wire Oscar magazine, click here.

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