“Early on, people would say that their wives could probably do what I did.”
Colleen Atwood laughed softly into the phone as she spoke of her career as one of the most Oscar-celebrated costume designers of all time. “It’s sometimes underrated in terms of the level of skill it takes to accomplish,” she said.
“Level of skill” is something of an understatement. This year’s nod for “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” brings Atwood’s nomination tally to an even dozen; if she wins, as she did for “Chicago,” “Memoirs of a Geisha” and “Alice in Wonderland,” it will be Oscar No. 4.
Atwood, who launched her costuming career on the set of Milos Forman’s 1981 Oscar-nominated film “Ragtime,” has spent more than three decades creating iconic designs that fold invisibly into the characters of films like “Edward Scissorhands,” “Silence of the Lambs,” “Ed Wood” and “Sweeney Todd.”
For “Beasts,” she and her crew designed and dressed thousands of extras in vintage and custom-made duds that helped bring J.K. Rowling’s unique vision of 1920s New York City magically to life.
“The thing that makes it special is that you have all these different cultures coming together in New York at a very alive kind of period,” Atwood said, speaking from London where she’s working on Disney’s live-action “Dumbo” movie with director Tim Burton. “It was great to take the palette and the energy of New York in that period and merge it with the secret wizarding world in the story.”
And yes, ahead of Sunday’s Oscars she has already custom-tailored her red carpet ensemble. “I made a top with my team and I bought an amazing Alaïa skirt that I took and reworked,” Atwood said. “It’s probably not the fanciest Oscar thing, but it’s something that I feel good in and I know I can wear again.”
On “Fantastic Beasts” she lent that trademark eye for practical but dazzling design to the wizards, witches and “No-Majs” (the American version of “Muggles”) caught up in the mayhem that ensues when “magizoologist” Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) unleashes magical creatures into the unsuspecting civilian world.
For the lead cast, she crafted costumes tailor-made to amplify character. Alison Sudol’s Queenie pops in light, bright Jazz Age satins and silks, while Katherine Waterston’s Porpentina goes modern in trousers and Colin Farrell’s security officer Percival Graves sports a sharp black and blue ensemble threaded with Lurex for a sinister sheen to match his personality.
Atwood, whose 2016 work also included the stunningly detailed gowns of “The Huntsman: Winter’s War” and the Victorian-inspired costumes of “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children,” is famous forher meticulous attention to detail — even those details the audience will never see.
With Redmayne’s input, Atwood combined a rumpled brown suit with a peacock-blue wool coat that moved with the actor’s physicality and magnified Scamander’s quirky outsider sensibility. She sewed multiple hidden pockets into his coat, envisioning hiding places for Scamander’s creatures.
“We know they’re there,” she said. “It’s our little thing. Sometimes things like that are character-building for actors, and to be honest, you never know what’s really going to play in the film and what doesn’t.”
British actress Carmen Ejogo, who plays the commanding Seraphina Picquery, head of the Magical Congress of the United States of America, sports a series of dazzling African-inspired headwear throughout the film paired with period power suits and, in one pivotal wizarding summit scene, a regal Art Deco-inspired navy and gold gown.
“Carmen pretty much has a perfect face for anything,” said Atwood. “The crown she wears there is based on an Indonesian wedding headdress.
“Because there were people in ethnic attire from all over the world in that scene,” she added, “I wanted her to have something with scale that would hold up in that room. And the way [cinematographer] Philippe [Rousselot] placed it in that shot. … I walked in and went, ‘Oh, this looks amazing.’”
Her trick of the trade? “Perseverance. Keep moving forward in time. Stuff changes and you always have to be able to move with it,” she said.
She also credits her mentor, the first woman to win an Oscar for production design.
“I started my career working for Patrizia von Brandenstein in New York as a PA in her department,” Atwood said, “and she was one of the first women to ever crack the production design world.
“She was so formidable and such a force,” Atwood added, “that I never thought about being a woman as being a liability.”
Now in a position of influence, Atwood tries to do the same for others. Her department can swell from four to 150 employees at various stages of production on a film the size of “Fantastic Beasts,” which is also nominated this year for best production design.
“I have a roomful of mentees around me on every job,” she said. “I just never know who’s going to crack it.”