Frances McDormand as Olive Kitteridge. HBO. Photo of Eagan below courtesy of FIDM.
It's one of those blistering hot August days in the Valley but Jenny Eagan is the picture of cool, calm and collected. The Emmy-nominated costume designer is, for the moment, headquartered at Western Costume in North Hollywood, where she is prepping for a new project in a large air conditioned trailer on the grounds of the Los Angeles institution. There is nothing glamorous about the utilitarian space — just a few desks for Eagan and her assistants on one side of the room and multiple racks of clothes on the other. She has allowed me to interrupt a very busy day of fittings to chat about working on "Olive Kitteridge," the 2014 HBO mini-series that has brought Eagan her first nod from the television academy.
Coincidentally, Eagan had read the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Elizabeth Strout (on which the mini-series is based) a year before getting the job. "Olive" is set in a small town in Maine and spans several decades, starting in 1980. The lead character, played by Frances McDormand, is a math teacher, wife and mother. She is frumpish, irascible and possibly one of the most complex characters McDormand has ever portrayed.The cast includes Richard Jenkins, Zoe Kazan and John Gallagher Jr.
McDormand acquired the rights to the book shortly after publication and spent about six years developing it for television. In addition to starring, she served as a producer. "Frances and I met very early on," said Eagan (right). "I knew her from previous projects so we had a comfortable relationship. She already had a pretty strong sense of who Olive was." She acknowledged that arriving at a specific look was a process. She researched the silhouette of the period and clothing typical of the region, even looking at yearbooks from the area where Olive would have lived and taught. "I started sending Fran things I thought would represent the character. It's important to get the look and color palette of the lead character done, and then everything on the outside sort of grows."
Eagan and McDormand eventually decided that Olive would only wear skirts (because maybe that's what HER mother did) and would most likely make a lot of her own clothes. That bit of character development plays out when Olive makes a dress to wear to her son's wedding. "That was the first costume we really hit on," says Eagan. "We wanted to give it a dated look and purposely made it a little ill fitting — maybe her bra strap shows a little — that's so Olive."
Another issue was weight. "In the book, Olive is much larger," says Eagan. After a lot of discussion, the decision was made for McDormand to gain about 20 pounds over the course of the series by gradually adding padding. For Eagan, the toughest challenge was "getting Frances to a place where she could look at herself and say, 'this is her,' because she'd been envisioning this character for so long. This was a pressure I put on myself-just wanting her to look and say 'this is what I always hoped for'. I hope I accomplished that."
Growing up in Independence, Mo. Eagan developed an early interest in clothes and fashion and she recalls sewing lessons with her grandmother. After studying merchandising and textiles in college, she made her way to California in the mid-90's. By 1997 she was in Los Angeles. A job in film production connected her to highly respected costume designer Mary Zophres, for whom she worked as an assistant for 13 years. She considers Zophres to be "100% my mentor." The films they worked on include "Catch Me If You Can," "True Grit," "The Soloist," and "Iron Man 2." She went on her own in 2010 with a Mark Wahlberg film, "Contraband." "It was a great first film where I got my sea legs handling a crew and delegating the work," Eagan said. "In the beginning there's the anxiety of whether I could even pull this off. I still get nervous, especially working with a new director or show runner and you're not sure if all the personalities will click. Years of experience help you become more relaxed — you think, OK, it's gonna be fine — we're just shooting a movie here!"
While Eagan has no qualms about dressing the entire cast of a movie, dressing herself for the red carpet is another matter. On the day we talked she still hadn't decided what to wear to the Emmy ceremony. "I'm a procrastinator when it comes to things for myself," she said. She has to be her own stylist and tries to wear vintage whenever possible. She also doesn't usually have the time to properly hunt for the perfect outfit saying, "I hate it, it really stresses me out! My mother's like, 'what are you doing? Get yourself a dress!"
The Creative Arts Emmys ceremony will take place on Sept.12 at the Microsoft Theater at LA Live.
Jenny's "Olive Kitteridge" costumes can be viewed at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in downtown Los Angeles through Sept 26.
McDormand and Richard Jenkins. HBO.