Costume designer Sonu Mishra on dressing up Albert Einstein for Genius
If clothes do indeed make the actor, then costume designer Sonu Mishra has just finished making the Oscar-winning Geoffrey Rush as Albert Einstein.
As the costume designer on Genius, the National Geographic's high-profile series about the physicist, Mishra has enjoyed an opportunity to exercise her creative sartorial vision even while keeping it "authentic to the period".
The series' Oscar-winning director Ron Howard's most important brief to Mishra while designing the costumes was to ensure authenticity. In order to achieve that, Mishra, a Mumbai and New York-trained designer, closely studied the evolution of dressing styles, fabric and cultural changes over close to seven decades between 1886 and 1955 during which Einstein lived.
Mishra said she did not go about just designing the costumes but in a sense recreated the whole era with clothes as the reference point. "I had to keep in mind the socio-cultural backgrounds of the various characters which would reflect in the way they dressed up in terms of their hats and other accessories. We chose the dressing style on the basis of who those individuals were in real life," Mishra told IANS in a phone interview from Rome.
"It was like a painting with so many pieces. Einstein was the main focus, but I had to consider an entire cast of characters that included great scientists such as Max Planck, Niels Bohr and Marie Curie. These were all powerful and amazing personalities whom we had to also represent through their clothes," Mishra said.
Along with the make-up, costumes constitute the frontline of any movie or television production. In historically demanding roles such as Einstein's, actors are known to pay particular attention to the clothes because they can make or break their movements and gait and, eventually, performance. Mishra said it was a joy and privilege fitting Rush and other members of the cast because Genius is a period piece about the world's most famous scientist's personal life.
While doing background research before designing the clothes, Mishra said she discovered that students in the Europe of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were known to dress up formally and in a classical style. That was equally true of Einstein, unlike the more popular view of him as a stylishly dishevelled, absent-minded scientist.
"He acquired that relaxed look only after coming to America where dressing was far more informal than in Europe. It was only in America that Einstein's way of dressing underwent a dramatic change toward the look we all seem so familiar with," Mishra said. Even within Europe, she had to pay attention to the differences in the way the young Einstein and others dressed up during his days as a student at Zurich's Polytechnic Institute and a working scientist in Prague later.
Quite apart from choosing the right fabrics, Mishra had to bear in mind finer details such as collars, hats, ties, belts and cravats. In addition, fabrics had to be linen, cotton, gabardine and corduroy . "Anything that was not natural had to be avoided because of the early period," she said. Mishra said she found the changes in the evolution of women's costumes for the same period as men "quite rapid". Details such as hip pads and bicycle skirts had to be taken into consideration.
While Mishra found fitting costumes for the entire cast exciting and joyful, it was particularly so for Rush as Einstein. "We had to make sure that he and all other actors felt comfortable, especially for him because the series rides on Geoffrey," she said.
Mishra graduated in fashion design at Sophia College, Mumbai. She moved to New York as 19-year-old in 1989 to work in the wardrobe department at the Roundabout Theatre Company on Broadway and at Odds Costume Rentals. After that stint she moved to Rome where she has emerged as a successful costume designer for major television and movie productions, both Italian and international.
Mishra does not necessarily keep her Indian background as a reference point while working on international projects because their requirements tend to be rather different. However, she said, she is subconsciously influenced by the rich fabrics and colours of India.
Asked about the difference between designing for the movies and television projects, she said, "Television tends to be very focused and costumes are often concentrated on the upper part of the body because of the close-up nature of the medium. The movies, on the other, hand are broader. Of course, both depend a great deal on the kind of scripts," she said.
Mishra has no plans to work on any Indian productions so far mainly because her hands are full with opportunities in European and American productions. Genius in general and working with Ron Howard in particular could open major doors for her in America, although she sees herself mainly based in Rome. She has, of course, worked on major US productions such as Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York and Renny Harlin's The Legend of Hercules, apart from the TV mini-series Prison Break: Sequel.
Apart from television and movies, Mishra has designed for a host of international commercials that include an airline, a beverage company and a brand of post-pay card.