'Gangster Squad' Costume Designer Reveals How Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone Suited Up for the '40s Crime Story (Q&A)

Mary Zophres discusses her collaboration with the film’s stars, and showcases exclusive character designs in Celebuzz' image gallery.

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Genetics may get all of the credit for movie stars being so darn attractive up on the screen, but truthfully, it’s costume designers who often do most of the work. And over the past two decades, Mary Zophres has helped George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio and Jeff Bridges among many others look their best, earning BAFTA and Academy Award nominations in the process.

Most recently, Zophres gave a glamorous sheen to Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone and Josh Brolin in Gangster Squad, a crime thriller that required her to recreate the look of the 1940s in order to bring to life the true story of a group of cops who were assigned the task of taking down one of Los Angeles’ most notorious mob bosses, Mickey Cohen.

Zophres spoke exclusively with Celebuzz about her work on the film, which involved tracking down an extensive collection of period costumes, and assembling new ones that perfectly fitted the ensemble cast, which also includes Sean Penn, Nick Nolte and Anthony Mackie. Additionally, she offered an inside look at a handful of the designs that she came up with as she created the characters’ vintage wardrobes.

Celebuzz: First of all, you did a fantastic job on the costumes in Gangster Squad. I was deeply envious watching those guys walk around in those suits.

Mary Zophres: Well you can do it. I mean, totally. Do you live in L.A.?

CB: Yes, I do.

MZ: There's a great vintage clothing store called Play Clothes that is on Magnolia, and she has some '40s suits, a lot of '50s suits there and they will totally fit you up if you're in to it. Or take a suit in your closet and just make sure it fits or if you don't have one, it's tailoring. That's the difference between looking good and looking a little shlubby.

CB: Where do you usually start when you are researching something that demands the kind of period detail that Gangster Squad does?

MZ: I start every movie I do, but particularly a movie like a period film, I start doing research. Because it's based on a true story, there was a lot of visual research on Mickey Cohen and even the gangster squad because there really was a John O'Mara, the character that Brolin plays, there really was a Frank Whalen. [But] we got lots of photos of police detectives from that time period and I looked at a lot of magazines because there's so many nightclub scenes. And in those days there was magazines called like Photoplay, for instance, and I got like a year or two straight of Photoplay, where you can see candid photos of people out and about, and just to get the feeling of like what people in Los Angeles were looking like and what they were wearing to these nightclubs. We also got movies of people walking in downtown L.A. So we could watch those just to let it sink in, “this is how people looked and dressed in every day life in Los Angeles.” So to make a long story short, [I do] tons of research – a lot of it out of Western Costume; they have a great research library, some of it just online. And then you kind of get ideas, like I based Anthony Mackie's character on Jackie Robinson because I couldn't find any African American detectives in that time period, to be honest with you. Like we took a little bit of license there. So Jackie Robinson, for instance, was an inspiration and there were plenty of research photos on him and you just kind of pick around.

CB: What or who was the inspiration for Emma Stone’s character?

MZ: Emma was a sort of a made-up character, her character Grace Faraday. But I looked to Rita Hayworth and I wanted her to have that sexuality. I mean, she was like Mickey Cohen's arm candy basically, and so I talked to [director Ruben Flesicher], and he was like, ‘I want her to evoke Rita Hayworth and Lauren Bacall and Gene Tierney.’ So by the time I finish doing my research, I know the script inside and out, and so then it's just like that's your reality. I didn't even look at any other time period piece of clothing or a magazine or anything the whole time I was on Gangster Squad because this was my thing.

CB: Men now are kind of built a little differently than men were then, at least in terms of the way they wore their clothes. How much tailoring did you have to do to suit the actors who were in this film or even just what we perceive as style now as opposed to what was fashionable then?

MZ: Well, the men's suit back then is different than it is now. A very fashion-forward suit nowadays is shorter -- it comes up on a high hip on a man and is more tapered in the leg. It's a flat front; it has a lower rise. The 1940's suit has got a stronger shoulder, a niche waist and it's longer -- it just covers the butt. And so the gangster squad, all of their clothes, we made, because every change for those guys ended up having to need a double at some point. And so we built all the clothes for Josh, for Ryan, for Kennard [Robert Patrick], for Ramirez [Michael Pena], for Anthony Mackie's character. And what we did was we would usually find something that was original, maybe a jacket or a pair of pants from another suit and we would tailor them to the actor, because everybody has different bodies and they're movie stars and we wanted them to look good. A lot of the fabric came from overseas, from England, from Italy, because we were [looking] for like a textured wool, and then we manufactured it from L.A. tailors who are used to cranking out these large numbers of multiples. We made Josh's hats, we made Ryan's hats, and we made Sean Penn's hats. And everybody else's hats we found in stock -- there's great costume houses in L.A. where we could find some really good originals, [but] you have to try a lot of hats on to get the one with the right crown and the right brim. So it was a lot of tailoring and a lot of manufacturing, and for Emma, we built all of her clothes.

CB: Who was the easiest to find a style that matched their personality or the personality of the character with that sort of period detail?

MZ: I thought not only were they enthusiastic and willing to get inside their character and the period, but everybody sort of listened to me when we were talking and prepping. You mentioned that all the men are built differently than they are, and we said try to lay off the heavy weights if you're going to work out -- work out like they did in those days with just push-ups, sit ups, pull-ups. Because you don't want that big thick body in this time period, and everybody did that. And Josh had a great haircut and he looked great in his fedora, and to me, the minute he put his costume on he looked like he stepped out of the 1940s. And Ryan wears clothes really well. Michael Pena was just very open; he had never really done a period piece before, and it was a huge learning experience for him. Anthony Mackie has done some period work and he totally understood it – they were all so in to it.

CB: Ryan and Emma’s costumes say so much about their characters. How much participation did they have in their costumes, and how much were they reliant on you to sort of find costumes that were appropriate for their characters?

MZ: I think because they both were coming from very busy schedules -- like Ryan was on another movie -- they were very reliant on my research. I don't know how to say this without sounding [full of myself], but I sort of guided them – like, this is the world that this movie is and this is how I see your character and how I see your costume. And they were really receptive to this idea and kind of just accepted it, because you have to remember I had been on the movie -- not only have I done this time period, and this is my area of expertise, but I had been on it longer than they had. And so they accepted this way to sort of get in to this time period, get in to their character. Emma was like a sponge -- she was totally receptive and wanted to know why and who's and what's. She was really cooperative. She had to wear undergarments like girdles and we really pinched in her waist. -- she's got such a nice figure, but she is built more contemporary than a girl from the '40s is. So, we sucked her in like three inches on her waistline and gave her a little bit bigger bust line. She was totally in to it, and of course she has an opinion, but I think she and I [both] realize what works on her and what doesn't, so it was a very good relationship.

CB: How about Ryan?

MZ: In the beginning, the audience doesn’t know whether [he’s] a gangster or a cop, you know, and neither does people that [he] hangs out with. And so he dresses a little bit more like a gangster and I also think he cares about his appearance and spends the majority of his income on clothes, whereas Josh's character is much more utilitarian. Like in his mind, [Josh] went from an Army uniform to a cop uniform, and then now that he's a detective his suit is a uniform. He had maybe five different suits that we put him in in the movie and they all kind of look alike, and that was intentional. Like he doesn't want to think about his clothes, whereas Ryan's character, every day he gets dressed and he's much more dapper and cares about his appearance and he's still trying to get a lady, too. There's a comment in the beginning that not for a lack of trying, but he hasn't had any action in a couple of weeks. So he's going for it -- he's out every day, out on the town and trying to look as sharp as he possibly can. And then he has a bit of an arc, [because] as he gets more and more in to being a member of the gangster squad, he becomes a little bit more serious, like you'll see him wear ties a little bit more often at work as opposed to just an open-collared shirt. That was an intentional arc for his character, just because he cares more -- he's trying to be a member of the squad and be more like what was considered appropriate for a detective to wear in those days.

CB: How feasible do you feel like it is for someone to be influenced by this and take that style now? Do you feel like there's a way to sort of borrow that and bring it in to sort of a modern, the modern day?

MZ: Oh, absolutely. I think that if the guy was going to purchase some clothes, I think it's a more formal outward appearance than some people have nowadays, I often think the 1940's silhouette is quite flattering. So if they did go and purchase '40s clothes, it's an intention to tailoring because basically I think that's what sets the '40s silhouette apart from some other time periods -- the shoulder fits, the waist fits, the sleeve length fits, the pants fit. It's a formality and attention to tailoring and detail that it works in any time period I think.

CB: Do you have a favorite costume that you designed for this film, or even a favorite character that you worked?

MZ: I love Emma's red dress -- I have to say that red dress to me is a showstopper. I love the cream dress also that she wears when she catches Ryan breaking in to Mickey's house, but it's such a short scene you don't really get a good glimpse at it. But I loved all of her clothes. And also there's – there was a pimp in the movie that had a huge part got way cut down, but it was my first zoot suit that I ever designed and had built and that was a lot of fun. But I guess it's Emma's clothes I really enjoyed doing, just finding those gowns. It was fun because I didn't copy an original design. That red gown was directly built from my sketch and it was very satisfying to see it go from an idea in my brain on to paper and then into a garment and then on to an actress's body. To me that red dress is a showstopper. I think she looked fantastic in it and so I have to say that's probably my favorite.

Which of the costumes in Celebuzz' gallery is your favorite? Watch the Gangster Squad trailer and let us know what you thought of the stars' style in the comments below!

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