Ruth Myers Talks Dressing Nicole Kidman and Clive Owen for HBO's Hemingway and Gellhorn

 Nicole Kidman Clive Owen HBO Hemingway and Gellhorn

Photo courtesy of HBO

Clive Owen, as Ernest Hemingway, and Nicole Kidman, as Martha Gellhorn.

Though she demurs, "you could put [Nicole Kidman] in a plastic bag and she'd still look wonderful," Ruth Myers had her work cut out for her transforming Kidman and Clive Owen into real-life couple Martha Gellhorn and Ernest Hemingway for HBO's Hemingway and Gellhorn. The industry vet has costumed everything from L.A. Confidential to Big Love to office guilty pleasure Center Stage. Here, some highlights from our chat.

What was it like costuming characters based on real-life figuresnot just the titular couple but others like John Dos Passos and Maxwell Perkins? Did you do a lot of research into their actual wardrobes?

I'm a huge Martha Gellhorn fan. She means more in England than she does in America. She's considered—certainly in England—to be the greatest war journalist ever. So neither of [the main characters] came unknown to me, which is part of the appeal of the job. I have an enormous passion for this period, these people. I know quite a lot about them. It is fortunate that because they both lived very much in the world of journalism and photography and films, the [visual] research is very rich indeed. So yes, there was a lot of serious research that went into this, which is a long answer to a short question.

You have Gellhorn in this very memorable ensemble of a white shirt and khakis, which are simultaneously kind of masculine, but they're these very tight-fitting khakis.

Are you going to ask me if that was 100 percent accurate? [laughs] It's not. The thing about costume design, all costume design, is that it's storytelling. Just to be slavishly accurate is never going to tell you a story, or be that interesting...I think the idea is, with these people, that they were icons. Both of them. So to take what was there and then be able to re-look at it in a way that you as a modern audience would just go, 'Oh my God, these are the most glamorous people in the world.' So it's slightly more complicated that just going, 'Oh yes, this is what they wore in 1946.' It's a romance, so there's an air of the romantic about it, but at the same time, never giving up on the idea that these are real people in real situations.

She does have this allure, even though she's one of the guys.

Exactly, and I tried to keep that going the whole time. And I don't think it's in the film, but in the documentary, there is a very famous quote where someone says to [Gellhorn] 'Do you think it helped, being beautiful and a blonde?' and she said, 'Well, it sure as hell didn't hurt.' Which is a real Martha Gellhorn answer. And that was the sort of spirit that I was trying to get into the clothes. This is a woman who knew who she was. She knew she was marvelous-looking. So it was very impressive that she lived in a man's world, but she conquered it by inhabiting both.

I thought her outfits at the Tropicana reflected the trends right now, with Stella McCartney and some others doing this sort of tropical dressing, which I realize is just coincidental. But the way she was dressing was more feminine and more showy, kind of look-at-me, in those scenes. I'm wondering if you were trying to show that Hemingway was bringing that out in her.

Well, she was in love. She was happy. That was the one moment when they weren't at war. That was them on holiday; they were having their vacation.

 Nicole Kidman HBO's Hemingway and Gellhorn ruth myers sketches

Photos: Sketches by Ruth Myers/ courtesy of HBO

Myers' sketches of Nicole Kidman's on-screen outfits.

She's also wearing this very over-the-top fur coat at the film premiere.

Yes, that's the coat that she bought in Spain. That was an original Forties coat. I actually bought it in Spain.

That's good, for verisimilitude.

Yes, it came with a real smell of authenticity about it.

Obviously Nicole is someone who wears a lot of couture and is a very fashion-conscious woman. Did she have any input into what she was wearing?

She's wonderful. It's the second time I've worked with her [the first being on The Golden Compass in 2007]. She's an extraordinary actress and an extraordinary woman. She comes with no vanity. I have the very good fortune—I draw, which not a lot of costume designers do. So on both films, as soon as I've got the script and we've connected, I have then sent her a small booklet of drawings...Once there's a connection, she goes with what you do, which is the sign of a real, true artist.

 Nicole Kidman HBO's Hemingway and Gellhorn ruth myers sketches

Photos: Sketches by Ruth Myers/ courtesy of HBO

Nicole Kidman's different looks as Martha Gellhorn.

And what was it like transforming Clive Owen into Hemingway?

We spent a lot of time playing with how he should look. For Clive, it was a bigger leap than Nicole, in that he had to gain weight and he had to play someone who was a visual memory to so many people.

Was it at all intimidating having to re-create such a famous figure?

Well, you have to go into everything with a lot of respect....Mine is a job for obsessive people. You don't go into this job to put a few women into pretty clothes. No, I wouldn't say intimidated, but excited. Yes, yes, I was very excited.

And you just wrapped Effie, another period piece, about John Ruskin and his wife.

Yes, Dakota Fanning plays Effie [Gray]. [She] is exquisite and bright, and came to me never having in her life worn a period costume. At seventeen years old. I put her in a corset. There are a lot of great actors that I've worked with in my life, and I would put her among them. But this wonderful girl was put into a corset—her waist was reduced to 21 inches. But she absolutely understood the nature of these clothes, which isn't easy, wore them for 12, 14 hours a day, which isn't easy, and did nothing but thank me. [Effie is] the height of Victoriana going into romanticism, and it's a beautiful film. And I'm pretty happy with the clothes! [laughs] Not to be modest about it.