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Emmys: 'Behind the Candelabra' costume designer on bedazzling Michael Douglas and Matt Damon

Ellen-Mirojnick.jpg

Image Credit: David Buchan/Getty Images

On Saturday night, Los Angeles’ FIDM Museum & Galleries unveiled its annual television costume design exhibit, which features more than 120 costumes from both period and fantasy shows like Game of Thrones and Downton Abbey, as well as fan favorite contemporary series like Nashville and House of Cards.

Also on display are pieces from the oh-so-fabulous-and-blingy wardrobe seen in HBO’s Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra, for which costume designer Ellen Mirojnick scored an Emmy nomination.

EW caught up with Mirojnick at the event — co-hosted by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences – to ask her about re-creating Liberace’s campy costumes for Michael Douglas, convincing Matt Damon to slip into that rhinestone-studded G-string, and the movie character that inspired her to become a wardrobe designer.

Entertainment Weekly: How did you hear about your Emmy nomination?
Ellen: Mirojnick: I [was in] in New York working on a new project with Steven Soderbergh. I was in a hotel room waiting and my assistant said “Just stream it!” [After I heard], I went to the office and had champagne and celebrated. Steven, Michael, Matt, myself, [production designer] Howard Cummings — all of the support team, makeup, hair, everybody. It was one nomination after another. Everybody was like, “How many now? How many now?” This is a small team that is so respectful [of each other], and the synchronicity between us all is so sublime. I’ve never experienced anything like it. I felt so privileged to have been asked to be a part of this.

Liberace had so many outrageous costumes, where did you start your research? 

I did a very, very large amount of photo research. We had also the great fortune of seeing the costumes for real. [Producer] Jerry Weintraub arranged for our whole team to visit the Liberace Foundation, where they archive every single costume — they’re in extraordinary condition — [and] cars, jewelry, the works. It’s not open to the public anymore, but the archivists were so generous with their time. My assistant and I examined everything. It was the most glorious visit but the most intimidating assignment because you look at the work that was created for Liberace and it’s staggering, staggering, the amount of effort, time and money that was put into it. Between photo research and what our story was… It’s really not the story of Liberace, it’s the story of his relationship [with Scott Thorson]. So what we did was to try to lay a foundation, and the foundation was laid simply by a color palette. I came into the office one day with a very beautiful picture of sherbet-colored macaroons, and I went – “This is it!” There were mints, shell pinks, corals even turquoise blue and sea foam green. It was all pastel-y and sherbet and it was delightful, it was delicious looking. The essence of that alone was what launched the visual concept. We then [asked] “Who are these two guys? What would best represent them and the essence of who they are without going over the top?”

What were some of your biggest challenges?
Every day was a challenge for me because I was intimidated, I’d be insecure, [asking myself] “Is this right?” You really had to ride a line that it didn’t become too much and too campy, knowing that Matt and Michael had to embody these two [real] people. You had to take that into consideration. It was a trip. It was the best trip I’ve ever been on. Michael would come in and put the coat on and he would move in it and you would watch the magic of transformation in the fitting room. [At the beginning] Matt said “I don’t like fittings, but this is like being a kid in the candy store.” We’d put a fur coat on him, a little jewelry and he was on his way.

Was there such a thing as too over-the-top when it came to the costumes?
We had to interpret what was real and we had certain clear evidence of what was real. There is that wonderful expression that Liberace uses that he lifted from Mae West, which was, “Too much of a good thing is wonderful.” We need to interpret [that feeling] and [decide how] to best represent what the stage shows were and that was a challenge. We had the great fortune of having today’s easier approach to intricate costumes… you can do things now in a much more efficient way. The challenge was to get it right. Is this too much? Not enough? We never knew.

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Image Credit: Claudette Barius/HBO

What were the fittings with Michael Douglas and Matt Damon like?
The day we put the fur coat on Matt. Matt is not standoffish, [he's] just observant. He’s the most professional, delightful guy in the world. We laid out the jewelry and some real clothes, then we lined up eight furs. I said, “Would you like [to try on] a piece of jewelry?” And he said “Yeah, what else do you have?” Then [he'd put in on and say] “What else do you have?” It was just joy to watch [Matt and Michael] be free and easy… watching their transformations. In Matt’s case, because he was [Liberace's] trophy, with his robes we kept [shortening] them. In the fitting, we just went shorter and shorter and shorter. We said, “You need [to show] your legs!” He’d stop us for a second and say “I can’t believe I’m doing this!” Then came the rhinestone G-string and he loved it. He said, “I think we need a few more rhinestones, don’t you?” It just went from zero to 100 — men in jewels, furs, diamonds.

Was there a TV show or film that inspired you to be a costume designer?
Auntie Mame. Mame was the wildest character I had ever seen on film. She had the most elaborate wardrobe that was so free and gorgeous and glamorous. She was a riot and she changed continually.

reporting by Archana Ram

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