Like most people, Susan Lyall didn’t grow up knowing exactly what she wanted to do, career-wise. She knew she enjoyed sewing clothes for herself, and decided to take that hobby to New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, where she signed up for a one year program, studying everything from design to marketing.
The first time a script landed in her hands, she knew she’d found something special. Through working on a series of one act plays, she learned how to analyze and break down the elements of a script. Hearing the actors speak lines she’d studied was, as she says it, “exhilarating.”
As it often does in the world of entertainment, one thing led to another and her path led her from theater to film. To date, she has designed costumes for dozens of film and television projects, working with Jodie Foster, Wes Craven, Steven Soderbergh, and now, on all three of Aaron Sorkin’s directorial efforts.
I recently spoke with Susan Lyall about her work on Being the Ricardos, what it meant to her to help tell the story of Lucille Ball, and how this project instilled in her a strong desire to protect her actors. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Karen Peterson/We Live Entertainment: Before we specifically get into Being the Ricardos, someone asked me a question recently that I couldn’t exactly explain, so I thought I’d ask you. Can you explain where the line is between dressing someone and creating a costume for character?
Susan Lyall: That’s a good question, and it really depends how you define dressing and costuming. I think dressing someone is dressing someone not for character. And to me that means getting someone to look their best for something that is not in character. So you costume someone, and I think this person might be asking you, well, if I wear jeans and a T-shirt in a movie, is that a costume? It is. Everything has thought behind it. This is something that costume designers everywhere run into, particularly when costuming a contemporary film, is that everyone wears clothes, and everyone thinks they understand what it means to wear clothes. So how hard can it be? If I have to costume someone who is the mailman and I have to costume a police officer and I have to costume a child in a bathing suit, it all has to be found, thought about, considered. Is it the right color? How does it fit? Does it serve the story? Is it funny? Is it sad? Is it beautiful, whatever it is, and that is really the depth of thought that has to go in to every single thing. It may seem fleeting, or just happened magically. But it didn’t. Someone thought it through. And somehow it was delivered. And somehow it was on camera and someone was taking care of it. It’s all a costume.
KP: And it’s such an art. The art of costume design is so fascinating. I love looking at the textures and the colors and the way that they work with the production design and the way that it’s captured by the cinematographer, the makeup. We know film is collaborative, but it’s fun to really see the way all the elements work together.
SL: Yes, and and we all know, it’s a collaborative business and so on, but we don’t always get the chance to check with each other about every little thing. But there is a certain code and understanding of what is cinematic, and I think that can be communicated very quickly. Sometimes something changes on the morning. To be a good costume designer, you have to be able to change something at 6am because it’s cold outside, because the wallpaper is the same color as the sweater, because someone changed it in the art department or you didn’t know. Or the actress says, “I really just can’t wear this wrist, is there anything else?” You need to be ready for that.
This happened in Being the Ricardos, in fact, when there’s a flashback. Lucy is working at the radio show “My Favorite Husband,” and she is standing on the stage and they’re singing the jello song and she’s in this beautiful teal dress. Afterwards in her dressing room, she’s approached by some executives from CBS. I had her in the same dress as she was wearing on stage and and Aaron thought, well, wouldn’t she have changed? He kind of wanted her to have a change there, and he also wanted her to have business at her dressing table so that she had a hat to put on and she had a jacket to put on and gloves and a purse and a bunch of business that she could sort of ignore the men a little bit. That happened in about 10 or 15 minutes because I had something that I knew was a nice suit on Nicole, I knew it could be used somehow in that era. I didn’t know where it was going to get used. I didn’t know if it would get used at all. But when that happened, I was able to nod my head and step away and talk it through with Nicole, who was great. She can turn on a dime like no one I’ve ever seen. I mean, no actor. She was like, “Yeah, I think that’s right. Let’s do it.” And just like that, that happened.
So for all my careful planning and illustrating and gathering and watching and everything else, sometimes it just happens like that. And that’s not dressing someone. That’s years of experience and knowledge in the end and understanding what could happen. And this is working with someone… it’s my third film with [Aaron Sorkin]. I don’t always know when something’s going to come up, so it’s super important to be prepared and have an option up your sleeve.
KP: You’ve worked with Aaron Sorkin now on all three of his features. What is it about working with him as a director that keeps you coming back?
SL: Well, he okay with me coming back! So that’s one. Honestly, we don’t have to talk a lot. He is someone who communicates very well, unsurprisingly, through the written word. And if you write him a paragraph, or two paragraphs or whatever, he actually reads them. Unlike most people who don’t read anything you send them in an email, they only read the first three sentences and then they glaze over. He actually reads them and he responds in kind, and that has served us very well. It works for me, seems to work for him.
What I do like about him is that he trusts me as he does, I think, all of his department heads to deliver his script to him, whatever our area of expertise, and he appreciates the thought that everyone puts in. He’s always pretty thrilled to have you think about this, costumes for example, because then he can comment on it. But he lets you do your job. I’ve said this to him and probably said it in another interview is that he gives us all a very long leash, but he doesn’t let us get strangled or tangled or anything. He’s there, he’s present, he’s interested. But if you want to do the teal dress or you want to do the green dress, it’s okay with him whichever one it is. But if you’re going to do a pink striped dress he might say, “Do you have something else?” And so it’s sort of like that. He doesn’t let you make a mistake. Or if it suddenly jars with whatever he had in mind, that’s when you get a note. And actually he’s pretty helpful if there’s a character that needs a little more definition.
On The Trial of the Chicago 7, the woman who fooled Jeremy Strong. He played Jerry Rubin. She was an undercover agent and so she looked one way when she met him and then later you see her on the stand and now you see that she worked for the FBI. But Aaron wanted her to really look really contrast to what she looked like before. And the suits of the era for women are a little dowdy and his direction to me was, well, what would she wear if she was in a James Bond movie? And I thought, oh, okay, I can do that. I mean, I knew he didn’t mean a bikini! But you know, so you can find a beautiful picture of Brigitte Bardot in a double breasted suit and a cool Carnaby Street scarf and okay, I get it. Something just really cool and modern and, and that worked very well.
So that’s what you might get as a direction from him is something that is not specific to a piece of clothing but more to a moment or a feeling in another movie, or some other visual reference of some sort.
KP: When Being the Ricardos came about, this being a story about Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz and this week in the life, what were some of your initial thoughts and and ideas going into it?
SL: Well, when I first heard of it I said, “Please God let this be true! This is great. And I’m sorry, did you say Javier Bardem?” Anyway, I immediately started to watch episodes of I Love Lucy even before I got the script but I just knew the title. I knew a little bit — that it was set in one week and during production — so I just started that process of watching them, rewatching them of course.
Like everyone I’ve seen… I have my points of reference from childhood and reruns, because a lot of people today may have seen it the first time around, but more likely they saw reruns. And by the way, if you didn’t know, Desi had the idea for reruns.
KP: I didn’t know that.
SL: He at some point proposed, “Why don’t we air them again?” and CBS thought it was the most preposterous thing in the world. Why would anyone want to watch a show that they’d already seen? Wow, how wrong can you be?
Anyway, so all of us had an image and a lot of our images are Lucy Ricardo. Of course, we know, from the world of comedy, the world of drag queens, everyone thinks they know Lucy, and they’re always talking about Lucy Ricardo. They’re never talking about Lucille Ball and her career as an actress throughout the 30s, and 40s. She was in a lot of movies, but she was always very, very good, and sometimes the best thing in a movie. I’ve watched a lot of those, I did a lot of that sort of thing just to see how good she was, and how professional she was. And then started to read Love, Lucy, which is her autobiography, and flagging anything that had to do with her approach to clothing and costumes and parts of her personality that would influence how she dressed.
She started her early life in New York as a model, so she knew how to hold and pose and wear clothes well. She, I would say, always had that quality. And she was very ambitious and was very good at make making the rounds of being at whatever you needed to be seen, and so on. She was good at that. Ending up in Hollywood was such a romantic, silly story. You have to read this, it’s how she ended up there. It’s just amazing. This happens to people still, I hope happens to people, where you just are somewhere and someone asks you something and you get lucky or you make your luck, I guess. You follow through or if they’re looking for a blonde to sell a product and you show up there’s a chance you’ll get picked. She made herself be in places where she could get lucky.
So I feel like I learned that from her, but I also took all of that knowledge and slowly built what I felt would be her costumes — Nicole Kidman’s costumes as Lucille Ball out of her Lucy Ricardo costumes, when she’s at home. I was very meta about the whole thing. You know what I mean? I have the costumes that are the costumes for the show, and there are the costumes for the film.
KP: You got to recreate a couple of costumes from really iconic moments. Can you talk a little bit about that?
SL: That is where I put my focus initially. Because there’s no wiggle room on that stuff. You are recreating it exactly. So you have to watch each episode over and over again, and you freeze frame, freeze frame, freeze frame, for the little portion that is included in the script. And you have to imagine what all of it is because there are no production stills or no behind-the-scenes footage. There’s no way to know what color it was, all of that has to be imagined. And it’s not really imagined so much as deduced. It’s detective work, it’s forensics, you look at what the the fabric of the blouse is and then you blow it up and blow it up. You have a textile artist to make the little squiggles and then you shift them around and then you figure out the scale. Then you figure out the color. And then you try different colors, and you run the fabric in different greens and blues and fuchsia. Then you show it to the production designer, you show it to the cinematographer, you talk about it, you compare it, you do all of this stuff, and eventually, you make the blouse.
The grape stomping scene, which that’s probably the most iconic of the episodes featured in Being the Ricardos. That was a major back and forth with the costume maker who was very invested and really loved it. We had to imagine the color and we literally, so many people had something to say about what the color is because there are colorized versions of that costume all over the internet. None of them are accurate, in my opinion. I think we found what we needed it to look like in terms of color. Piecing together all the lace work on the top of the bodice and those earrings that are flipping back and forth, they’re massive. Same thing, the jewelers, we sat down, we tried different types, we hammered the metal a different way, we treated it a different way, we sanded it this way, that way.
All of this stuff goes in, and really it is on screen, I don’t know, seven, eight seconds tops. It’s not there for very long, but it’s truly already in everyone’s memory, iconically speaking, so you really want it as close as possible. [The audience] will see it the same way anyway, even if it’s different, but the goal was to get it as close as possible. And I think we were very successful at that. The photo of Nicole is very similar to a photo of Lucille and you can, see wow, that was good. It’s very satisfying.
And same with “Lucy Tells the Truth,” where she won’t lie for 24 or 48 hours. Which honestly, I just say that sentence, it makes me chuckle. That dress was so beautiful on [Nicole] and she was walking around on set with it. I could just tell she just loved wearing it because that was the true sort of silhouette of Lucy Ricardo, that huge full circle skirt and a little teeny collar and everything was actually quite prim. That’s how women had to look on television in the 50s. You know, we couldn’t be walking around in trousers. I mean, okay, they do wear them but my point being that everything she wore as Lucy Ricardo was kind of prim.
KP: Working on this film and helping tell this particular story about Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, what did this mean for you personally?
SL: For me personally, it confirmed something that I truly believe, which is one part of my job is to protect the person that is the actor playing the character, and that they are different. And I feel like I sort of had to do that on a triple level because I had Nicole Kidman — who, by the way, had to withstand all of this crazy, early social media frenzy of how she was inappropriate for Lucille Ball. I mean, can you imagine what that does to an actor? So first of all, even though I’m sure she was trying to avoid it as much as possible, there’s literally no way you can. So, I have a lot of empathy for that, because that is really unsettling. It would be like, “Oh, Susan Lyall? She can’t do Being the Ricardos. She’s never done 1952!” I just can’t imagine how that must have felt. So I felt very protective on that level. That’s doesn’t happen typically, though. That’s that was really weird.
But the idea that everyone thinks Lucille Ball is Lucy Ricardo is something that really bothers me, that people can’t divide character and person. And I feel like I learned so much about her as a person, that I would protect anybody, any actor from that same fate of being constantly attached to a character they played for a while. It must be such a curse in a way. You can never not have it on you. And to remember that they are people and they are actors. That’s one thing.
But also the takeaway of… they were people who took great risks. And I feel that that’s something we can all learn from. Just try and say it, you can be told no, just ask again, try it a different way. They went out all the time like that, they had the conviction of what they felt and what they knew. And they were professional, and they had the skill. They were good at it. So they were good at getting through. Even if it’s a little tough on the people around them, ultimately, they weren’t wrong.