The Costume Designer of Underground and Preacher: Karyn Wagner (Interview)
Many of you are familiar with shows like Preacher, Underground, and Netflix’s The Red Road. There one common thread happens to be the master costume designer; Karyn Wagner. We got the chance to talk to her about her past work, story telling, and her most recent project; Waco. Waco is about the 1993 stand off between the FBI and the Branch Davidians. The show incorporates some real life facts and shows the stand off from multiple viewpoints.
What got you into costume design?
I have a degree in art history and painting actually. And I always thought I wanted to be a painter, but I’m not very good painter. So I thought I would get into the film business and become a director of photography and paint with light, which didn’t exactly go the way I thought it would; but I got into costumes from there. So I became a painter of costumes.
I notice you do a lot of period pieces. Is your love of history why you do those projects?
That’s part of it, however I primarily pick my project based on story. People often ask me what my favorite period to design and I say unequivocally a good story. Story is the main reason but I do love research and I love finding all those details about people’s lives. Finding a photograph and extrapolating an entire personality in someone’s eyes or the way they hold their hand. The research often helps me find the characters, so I think it’s a combination of I pick period and the period picks me. But ultimately it’s about story with me.
Explain how a costume designer tells a story through the details of the costume, makeup, and jewelry?
We’re all based on the sum of our experiences, right? Our background, where, how, and by whom we’re raised. What opportunities did we have and what were we exposed to. And you can sort of tip your hat to all of those things in a costume. Maybe someone comes from a very poor background; their clothes may be worn but they’ll always be very clean. They may be experiencing some mental anguish, so their clothes may be a bit rundown, dishevelled, or the combination may be odd. Why is that woman wearing a full length maxi skirt over her really tight blue jeans? Things that just don’t make any sense. You want to tell the story of the individual, you want the audience to know a lot about them before the actor says any of their dialogue. You want to help and support the actor by telling the story of their background and current mental state through their clothing. Sometimes it’s jewelry, and sometimes its just a general key piece about the character; we often find that in the fitting room. It could be a pair of pants, a jacket, a tie; I remember one character being all about cravats and matching pocket squares, and that really brought is character to life. With every character it’s something different; you find that key piece and evolve the rest of the character around it in the fitting room.
We know your most recent project is Waco but you’ve also done some work on Preacher. Same general area but two different time periods. Was there any overlap between the two shows?
There was some overlap between Waco and the extras in Preacher. Preacher is set in a very small town also, but I wanted to give that kind of back dated look to the background characters. They both feature people with the attitudes of the small town mindset, even with access to the internet today. They don’t necessarily care about being fashionable. However in Waco, it was more of a choice based on exposure and economics. But their choices conformed to their religious beliefs, they believed sincerely that they should be covered up. Boys shouldn’t tempt the girls and the girls shouldn’t temp the boys with any displays of flesh due to their lofty ideals. There is an overlap but it’s more of a coincidence than an on purpose choice.
What is it about the characters in Waco that you hope the audience get at just a glance?
The thing about the Branch Davidians is that all of them were there of their free will and they all come from different walks of life. There was a guy there named Paul Fatta, he was the child of millionaires. It wasn’t a cult, it was a gathering of like minded people from different places in the world who believed that David had something special to offer. You look at a lot of cults, and you see that the dress alike, everything about their life is very carefully monitored, but that wasn’t so much the case here. There were some things that were monitored. When there’s that many people living under one roof, you kind of have to do that. But I really wanted to convey the personality difference like between Rachel his first wife and his second wife Michelle. You complete personality differences just in the way they’re dressed. You can see by looking at the drawings, that they’re just very different people. As par of the research I did for Waco, I created a wall in my work area where I put up the name of every single person who underwent the siege and what happened to them. If they survived or if they died during the siege. I only missed about three people by the end of the show. Sometimes just from one photograph, I would extrapolate one thing about the person and I would put that into motion with the costume. We cast extras that looked like people who were at the compound and I made sure to ask if they were available throughout the entire shoot. I didn’t wanted to maintain continuity and not switch out one hundred or so extras that were cycling through. We really got that sense of family and continuity. This takes place in 93 but the fashion is very much late 80s. It can be very stereotypical or cartoonish. It was really important to strike the right note with each extra, so I treated each one like a principle. It was really important to strike the right note these people: who they are, what they want in life, and why they were there.
I wanted to ask where you were from. I noticed some regional consistency with the projects you choose.
I’m actually third generation Hollywood born. My grandfather was a cinematographer, my grandmother was a silent actress, and my father was a sound mixer. There are a lot of things that draw me to the South. I think that our history is so tense in that part of the country in terms of color and sex. There’s something about the hot South where issues just kind of bake and grow. I also think that my first film Eve’s Bayou continues to influence my decisions today. When I read the script, I didn’t see it as poor people in the bayou, I saw it like handling the Kennedys. The director loved that idea, and I got lucky and hired. That was also the first time I worked with Jurnee who I just finished two seasons of Underground with. And again, I’m drawn to good stories which are often dark; and stories out of the South are often dark. And I think we’ve kind of picked each other. I love stories with a lot of character arc in them. You have choices everyday and the choices you pick not only affect your life but everyone around you. Do you pick the high road, low road, or do you not pick? I just think I’m drawn to those kind of stories.
You can check out Waco and Underground through various streaming and On Demand services. Want more interesting interviews and profiles? Check them all out right here on FanBros.com!