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How a costume or a prop helped actors meld with their roles

A bow tie, a small purse, old glasses, a GTO: Actors reveal little things that helped link them to characters

"If you sum up what acting is, it's just the ultimate expression of empathy," Emily Blunt has said. That seems just about right, empathy and refusing to judge a character, understanding what his or her needs are. It all comes from an emotional well that actors can perhaps tap more easily than the rest of us. But sometimes external forces can give them a little head start — such forces as just the right purse or shoes, or a perfectly precise bow tie. Here, a few actors share their connections with their props and costumes.

Chadwick Boseman

"Get On Up"

It was the scene "in Vietnam, with the pinkish-red kerchief, with the slicked-back hair, particularly because I had seen pictures of him getting off that plane. Sharen Davis didn't do that costume exactly; it was a different color. But it's very similar to what he actually wore. And because he was going to Vietnam, he didn't get to do his hair as much as he normally would, so it's a sweated-out version of that process. I just loved that part of — it helped me get into that part.

Rosamund Pike

"Gone Girl"

"I felt that the cool girl Amy was being on that night; she had to be able to attract that guy not cause she was in a hot dress. She was in a sweater with a skirt. I felt strongly about that, and [costume designer] Trish Summerville agreed. We actually had a purse that was bigger, and we folded it in half. Cause all those things read. The girl with the big purse fills it with a few more neuroses than the girl with the tiny purse, right? I'm sure the girl with the tiny purse has a large purse somewhere."

Ralph Fiennes

"The Grand Budapest Hotel"

"The costumes by the brilliant Milena Canonero crystallized for me certain aspects of the way M. Gustave needed to present himself. I became obsessed that the bow tie be absolutely straight, that nothing be amiss about the precise persona I was trying to inhabit.

Ethan Hawke

"Boyhood"

"The GTO. The car. Once you kind of sit in the car, you know the man."

Reese Witherspoon

"Wild"

"The boots! They were transformative."

Patricia Arquette

"Boyhood"

"Part of the process that helped was I'd fly in every year, we'd rehearse, we'd talk about scenes, Rick [director Richard Linklater] would make changes and we would do a wardrobe fitting. And the wardrobe fittings were basically things from Goodwill. So just the fact that the Goodwill tag was on there, just the fact that our wardrobe was actually $1.99, was helpful in itself."

Mark Ruffalo

"Foxcatcher"

"It was really important to me how [Dave Schultz's family] felt about it and that they were honored through the process. It took a long time to get people to feel comfortable with me playing this part. There was a key moment where Nancy Schultz, who has been so generous to me, basically gave me Dave's glasses to wear in the movie. I was looking for a pair that was like them and couldn't find them anywhere. I said, 'Do you know by any chance what kind of glasses those are?' And her son said he'd ask if she'd loan them to me, and they did. And that was kind of a blessing. It was permission to really do what I felt needed to be done for the role."

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