21CF Chats: Emmy-nominated Sonu Mishra, ‘Genius: Picasso’ costume designer

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Researching Picasso, costume tricks, fitting Antonio Banderas and more

There are many elements that must blend together in order to create an on-screen world that’s immersive, authentic and memorable. Costume designer Sonu Mishra played a role in doing just that for National Geographic’s “Genius: Picasso” through the medium of clothes, an achievement that was recognized with an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Period Costumes last month. Last year, Sonu was nominated for her work on the first installment of “Genius,” which focused on Albert Einstein’s life.

“Hundreds of people come together to make it all happen: the production companies, the cast, the crew and the various suppliers,” Sonu said. “We created huge sets, had several hundred background actors daily, and shot in various locations in four countries and under all kinds of weather. It was a unique experience and we became a family at the end of it. It is an experience I will always treasure.”

I recently spoke with Sonu about her work on “Genius: Picasso.” During our conversation, she talked about her start in the world of costume design, her research for the series, what she keeps in mind during fittings and more.

My understanding is that your career got its start in New York when you worked in the wardrobe department at the Roundabout Theatre Company on Broadway and at Odds Costume Rentals. How did you go from there to where you are today — a two-time Emmy nominee?
Life has its own way of opening doors for you. Jeanette, the owner of Odds Costumes, taught me a lot about how to recognize the various styles and the evolution of costumes through the centuries. I also learned a lot by watching the designers who came to pull costumes at the shop for films, ranging from huge-budget blockbusters to independent features. It was a great school for getting to understand the workings of our department.

Fallon, the wardrobe supervisor, taught me so much about the daily responsibilities of a costume team, including getting costumes ready and prepped on time, interacting with the actors, working with other crew members and understanding how we all come together to get moments ready for the show to start on time day after day.

Clémence Poésy (Francoise Gilot) with Antonio Banderas (Pablo Picasso) in National Geographic’s “Genius: Picasso” (National Geographic/Dusan Martincek)

When did you move to Rome?
I moved to Rome in 1999 for personal reasons. Theater isn’t big here, so I started working on film. One of the first films I worked on in Rome was Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York” with the amazing costume designer Sandy Powell. I was Cameron Diaz’s costumer on the film. Once again, I learned a lot by watching Sandy at work and the enormous team of people who helped make her vision come to life. It was one of the most incredible experiences I’ve had. Sandy is a true artist and I admire her a lot and appreciate the many months I got to work closely with her.

Soon after, opportunities to design some very interesting Italian films kept coming up. From there things started evolving steadily career-wise, and I started designing for international film and television, including Paul Haggis’ “Third Person” and the BBC drama “Zen.”

Fast forward to 2016: I was designing “Prison Break” in Vancouver, and when we were near the end of filming, Mike Posey, our producer at FOX, put my name forward for the first season of “Genius.” I met with showrunner Ken Biller via Skype and he hired me. Life has a wonderful way of surprising you if you keep trusting and doing the best you can.

When you begin work on a film or show like “Genius,” how do you begin your research? What key questions do you ask yourself?
I start by watching whatever footage I can get my hands on, read many books and, most importantly, start creating boards with archive photos to track the evolution of the person. Picasso lived for 93 years and went through many transformations in both his art and personal style. I tried to capture key moments through costume: his workman style at the Bateau Lavoir, his dandy style when he was with Olga, the imposing artist when he was with Dora and Francoise, his couldn’t-care-less way of dressing with Francoise and Jacqueline – so it was a lot to keep in mind.

Robert Sheehan (Carlos Casagemas) and Alex Rich (Pablo Picasso) in Season 2 of National Geographic’s “Genius” (National Geographic/Dusan Martincek)

You’ve said documentaries helped you in your research for “Genius: Picasso.” Were any particularly helpful?
The BBC documentaries on his life were very helpful. John Richardson’s interview with him and Francoise Gilot’s interviews about him were also very important, as were documentaries on the lives of other artists from his period. All the documentaries were helpful, as they helped me get insights into the life and personality of such a complicated and vastly talented man.

Picasso’s life spans many different eras, both for him as an individual and for the world at large. Which time period in Picasso’s life did you find particularly challenging to re-create?
Strangely enough, it seemed seamless to me. The world, and his world, changed so much, so quickly at times, that it seemed to me that we were flowing with it all. I had done my research, created the various iconic looks that we wanted to use. Once Antonio [Banderas], Ken and I were happy with the core look, which was this strong, structured, matador-ish silhouette, everything else just fell into place.

For the series, we started in the late 1800s with women in corsets and hip pads under their voluminous dresses and gradually started the slimming down of the silhouettes and the shortening of the skirts. Women’s undergarments play a huge role in the evolution of the styles and silhouettes over the years, not to mention hats and accessories for both men and women.

What was the biggest difference between your work on seasons one and two of “Genius”?
Einstein’s world revolved around science and Picasso’s around art. Strangely enough, both also became involved in, and influenced by, world events. Style-wise, Einstein was more structured, so darker, subdued colors were predominant. In Picasso’s world, I used a lot more color, softer and luxurious fabrics for the women: silks, chiffons and trimmings. For the men who were artists, writers, poets and art gallery owners, their styles were less formal and at times downright Bohemian. So a stark contrast to the scientists and politicians in Einstein’s world.

Antonio Banderas stars as Pablo Picasso in National Geographic’s “Genius: Picasso” (National Geographic/Dusan Martincek)

Since Antonio is taller and leaner than Picasso, you’ve said you had to use heavy wools and make Antonio’s suits bigger, longer and baggier. What other “tricks” did you use to make the characters fit a certain on-screen vision?
We used high heels for all the women around him. I made the jackets a little longer for the actors next to him. We added heel lifts if needed for actors who played next to him. All little tricks to create an illusion.

On your website, you recount the first time Antonio tried on the trousers at the costume fittings in Paris: “He put his hands in the pockets, stood up straight, feet pointed, and said, ‘Yes, I feel him.’” And you said that was all the confirmation you needed to carry on in the direction you chose. What other signs or confirmations do you draw confidence from when working on a movie or show?
I pay a lot of attention to how an actor moves during our fitting, and his or her body language. You can immediately tell if they feel good in the clothes (or not!) by the way they stand or the way they move. I want the actor to feel comfortable in his costumes and yet create a look appropriate for the character they are playing. I bear both factors in my mind during my fittings: the style and the comfort. They need to go out on set and perform and not worry about their costumes. I always say that they need to own their costumes – it shows on camera.

If you could go back to an era, purely for the clothing, which would you pick?
So many! The 1920s and 1930s are definitely an amazing era for women’s costumes! The styles, the carefree lifestyle they lived, all while not knowing the hardships that would come their way within a few years.