Dressing Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep and Lawrence Olivier on screen is a tough job, but someone has to do it. For that matter, costume designer Albert Wolsky has pretty much costumed everyone major in Hollywood history. He’s been rewarded with seven Oscar nominations and two wins for his work.
Wolsky is the man responsible for the iconic sewn-on leather pants for Olivia Newton John in Grease, Neil Diamond’s shiny shirt in The Jazz Singer and Julia Roberts dashing look in Duplicity. His costumes have enhanced the performances of legends: Warren Beatty, John Travolta, Salma Hayek, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks and Jennifer Lopez — to name a few.
With Revolutionary Road’s arrival on DVD and Blu-ray June 2, SheKnows was given an exclusive opportunity to pick the brain of Hollywood’s most legendary working costume designer.
Going to Revolutionary Road
SheKnows: When you first met with Sam Mendes three films ago — how did your expectations of the meeting vary from that first experience of sitting across from him?
Albert Wolsky: From the beginning it was always a great comfort — an openness. He’s very open to new ideas and other thoughts. He doesn’t always agree with you, but he always listens. Since I first met him on Road to Perdition, it has just been a joy.
SheKnows: The look on that film was so priceless. When you tackle all these films from all these different eras, do you find that there are certain looks that you are inspired by certain eras, or is each project uniquely defined?
Albert Wolsky: It’s really immediate. When you read something and you realize where it’s going to be, you also sit with the director. It’s kind of hunt and peck. What is the subject matter? What is the period? What do we emphasize? I lot of it is the research, which I love doing.
SheKnows: Is it safe to say that you are a continual student of these times?
Albert Wolsky: Yes, even if it’s something I’ve done before. It’s interesting when you go back and do the same period again. First of all, you have to refresh. Secondly, the particular project needs something else. Let’s say I’ve done â€˜40s in Brooklyn, but now I’m doing â€˜40s in Hollywood — it’s a very different look even though it’s the same period.
SheKnows: I would think, because of the passion you have for your work after 40 years, that is one element that keeps it exciting for you.
Albert Wolsky: Oh, absolutely. And what I love most is that first, I can contribute something. Secondly, if it’s something I haven’t done before.
Two flims, two differing looks: Revolutionary Road and Duplicity
SheKnows: You have two recent works with very different looks. Duplicity and Revolutionary Road and I’m looking at Duplicity right now with Clive and Julia and looking fabulous and your costume designs. Specifically, when you are working on a film and you have an actor or actress of the caliber of a Leonardo DiCaprio or a Julia Roberts, do they bring something to the table for you?
Albert Wolsky: Absolutely, absolutely, absolutely! In my naive days, when I first started, I used to feel like I was in a documentary movie. I would start at one end and the star would be at the other end. I realized, you have to meet in the middle. You have to be conscious of who you’re dressing. They do also contribute. I like the contributions from an actor because they’re going to wearing the clothes.
SheKnows: I can’t tell you how many big-time actors and actresses I’ve sat across and how many times they mentioned a light bulb going off when they put on the costume as far as the final definition of their character. As an artist, how does that feel to honestly play such a big part of helping Leo or Kate or Julia find their character?
Albert Wolsky: It’s the best part. It’s really what my job is. My job is to define character. It’s not fashion. It’s about character. That light bulb that that you’re talking about is what we all live for as designers. To see an actor look in the mirror and discover who they might be — I find that theater actors or British actors don’t make a move until they know what the yare going to look like. I remember dressing (Lawrence) Olivier many years ago, he really works from out to in — oddly enough, so does Meryl Streep (laughs).
SheKnows: Why does that not surprise me given the two names you just mentioned.
Albert Wolsky: Nothing surprises Meryl (laughs).
SheKnows: How has costuming changed over the years?
Albert Wolsky: I think it’s really the same — you get together, you create, and you get it on the screen. I’ve always worked the same way. What changes is the project. Sometimes it’s not the most enlightening project (laughs).
Dressing today versus history
SheKnows: Is history harder to dress, as in Revolutionary Road, than a modern day reality set film?
Albert Wolsky: I find period much easier than modern because period, you’re observing something that’s past. You can look back. You can see things more clearly. With modern, it’s today, you can’t even tell trends today because you’re too on top of it. It’s also easier with actors. An actor in a period costume can remove themselves — â€˜I wouldn’t wear that, but it’s a costume.’ With today’s clothes it becomes much harder with today’s actors because they are much more sensitive to the trends and how they’ll look. It’s hard for them to see beyond what they would naturally wear.
SheKnows: What was it like to work with a visionary like Bob Fosse?
Albert Wolsky: I did three films with Fosse. He was probably the most important director in my career because when I did Lenny with him, about Lenny Bruce with Dustin Hoffman — by the time I finished that movie I knew I had gone to another level. I had been stretched and pulled up to from what I had done until that point. That gave me a push-up. Without doing Lenny, I could not have done All That Jazz. He was very meticulous as far as directing. He’s probably one of the best directors I’ve ever worked with — he set up everything himself. It wasn’t fun (laughs). It was very intense. But, that’s OK. I’ll take that anytime.
SheKnows: Lastly, you’ve shared time with some of the most talented people in cinema history, how does winning Oscars rank in terms of importance over your career?
Albert Wolsky: I must say, I’m a little taken aback and mystified that I’ve got seven Academy Award nominations (laughs). It’s wonderful to win. It’s wonderful to be nominated. I was thrilled to be nominated for Revolutionary Road — a work that I am truly pleased with and I didn’t expect it. I didn’t expect to win. I knew it was going to be The Duchess. I kept going to all these events and watching The Duchess win (laughs).
Albert Wolsky’s greatest costume design hits
Charlie Wilson’s War
Across the Universe
Ask the Dusk
The Manchurian Candidate
Maid in Manhattan
Road to Perdition
You’ve Got Mail
Up Close & Personal
The Grass Harp
The Pelican Brief
Scenes from a Mall
Moon Over Parador
Crimes of the Heart
Down and Out in Beverly Hills
The Journey of Natty Gann
The Falcon and the Snowman
Moscow on the Hudson
To Be or Not to Be
Still of the Night
The Jazz Singer
All That Jazz
An Unmarried Woman
The Turning Point
Next Stop, Greenwich Village