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Interview: Costume Designer Mitchell Travers Talks About Designing ‘George & Tammy’

Costume designer Mitchell Travers has reunited with Jessica Chastain and writer Abe Sylvia from The Eyes of Tammy Faye to Showtime’s George & Tammy. The six episode miniseries chronicles the complex relationship between singers George Jones (Michael Shannon) and Tammy Wynette (Jessica Chastain). In the costume department, there was a lot to discuss, because the show goes through many periods, as it starts in the 1960s and ends in the late 1990s, close to Wynette’s death.

Speaking to Awards Radar on Zoom, Travers discussed reuniting with Chastain and Sylvia, alongside how extensive the research and prep process for a show like this was. Travers also discussed crafting the looks for Steve Zahn‘s George Richey and how the costumes serve as a storytelling device for George and Tammy’s relationship throughout the series.

Read the full conversation below:

Were you familiar with the story or music of George Jones and Tammy Wynette or even the book on which the show is based [The Three of Us: Growing Up with Tammy and George] before signing on to the project?

I knew “Stand By Your Man,” of course. That’s probably their most famous track. However, I was actually more familiar with George Jones’ music than Tammy’s. If I’m being 100% honest, I didn’t know much about the visuals. I knew the classics of George Jones, and from there, I could color between the lines and understand how they looked and dressed over their legendary career. There’s a lot to look at when you look at George Jones and Tammy Wynette. And once I started to understand who they were as people and how they got dressed, I quickly realized this was a costume designer’s dream project.

You’ve previously worked with Jessica Chastain and Abe Sylvia on The Eyes of Tammy Faye. How did your collaboration with the two of them go about this time around?

Abe has the most insane insight into character. He really likes clothes himself. I think he has a lot of understanding about why people dress the way they dress, and he had been so entrenched in that research for what I think about a decade. He could speak to video clips or exact references when talking about a performance, a scene, an interview, or a photograph because he had been looking at them for a long time. He was extraordinarily helpful to me in terms of character insight when I started building out their closet.

With Jessica, we have a working relationship where I understand how she works, and she understands how I do. We’re able to communicate in a shorthand way, which, when you’re shooting six hours of content, there’s a lot of conversations to have. When you’re able to mind-meld about something, it makes the process so much more seamless. I build a dressing room or a dress-up box where we experiment together and try on different shapes, colors, and textures. We land on universal truths that we want to be true for the character throughout the show. After that, it’s up to me to color within those lines once we establish them. I could also catch Jessica between takes and ask her about something we’ll shoot next week to jump ahead in our schedule and answer some of those questions. It’s a great working relationship because she’ll give me a few snippets about how she wants to portray the character, and then I’ll interpret that through the clothes. It’s a real pleasure to get to work that way, where you understand an actor’s mindset going into a scene and what you want the clothes to convey in that same scene.

Can you talk about your collaboration with director John Hillcoat on this series? Did he have specific input on how he wanted the costumes to look?

John was extraordinarily trusting with me. I like to work with tangible things and to show clothes. He was always gracious as I pushed another rack into his office. I like to touch and see, and I think it’s important for directors to do the same. Based on his work, he’s so visual, and I was fortunate that he likes to work that way with me. He gave me so much free time to create these characters. Of course, I was tied to the fact that were based on real people. It had to be an honest representation of these human beings. There were also other characters I got to create from my imagination and with the actors. He was always very kind about letting the actor and the costume designer work together to create this person that had to feel real. More than anything, what was important to him is that we would world build in a way that we got to understand when the characters are being presented to an audience and when we have two people at home. It was really important for us to figure out the public persona for both George and Tammy. Those portrayals had to be deeply rooted in different truths but felt like the same person getting dressed.

Can you expand on wanting to contrast their public and private moments?

I think showbiz can be a really treacherous environment. It can be gorgeous, joyous, and celebratory but also dangerous, disappointing, and heartbreaking. You really want to show what that looks like. Somebody may be surrounded by the luxuries of life and feel like they have nothing. I think it’s really important that you keep the characters consistent through both of those experiences. For us, we wanted to feel the presence of a team behind those performances so that you could get a sense that there were meetings about color palettes, and the band’s fits. You want it to feel that there were some performances when those conversations were streamlined. As a costume designer, you have this wonderful opportunity to show what both of those performances would look like.

When it’s good, it’s good, and when it’s bad, you can tell. That’s the fun of costume designing both of those. You get to feel the extremes. The same is true for being home. I think the way you dress yourself says a lot about your outlook on the world and the way that you want people to perceive you. There are times where George and Tammy are entering the world and they’re loving their fame. They want to be noticed and to be seen in their private lives. But there are other moments where they’re at the pharmacy trying to stay hidden. It’s a wonderfully delicate balance between both of those worlds that has to feel real and authentic.

Was there a lot of research done on what George Jones and Tammy Wynette wore during the time periods of the show? How extensive was the process?

Insanely. I was like a a stalker, getting every photograph I could ever get of these two people from different angles [laughs]. When you’re looking at real people, it’s very hard to see them from the waist down often because the framing in old school photographs is very tight. It’s always a luxury to me when I get to see what somebody is wearing head to toe, because it helps me understand them so much. I catalogue every single photograph I could find of these people. I interview the people who are still living and used to work with them: former stylists, friends and family that they have left. I want to understand what they remember how George and Tammy got dressed, or specific events of their lives. I would get everybody’s perspective and funnel it into my research to try and understand what their closets would have looked like. Earl “Peanutt” Montgomery told me he used to have go bags ready for George Jones, because he was so impulsive that he would get a call and hop in with a bag ready for George. I thought that was a great detail. There are times in George Jones’ life where he had no idea what he was going to wear because somebody else packed it for him. It’s fun to get to decide when those moments will or those costumes will appear on camera compared to moments where he’s put himself together.

Was there a lot of prep time on designing the costumes for the show?

There was never enough. You always want that one or two extra week. And there were thousands of costumes on this show. They range from beautifully choreographed performances to moments at home with children to touring to stadiums and concerts at the speedway. It’s such a vast range that you want to show and you want to be honest about what the American South looked like at this time. It was very important to me that the crowd design was as thought out as the main characters were. When you’re talking about George Jones and Tammy Wynette, the audience is also a character. We live in a world now in which we’re so connected and globally minded. However, at the time that our story takes place, it wasn’t. There was a discernible difference when these people were on tour, and the difference in the audience they would get every time. I thought that was a fun detail to get right in our show.

As I’ve previously mentioned, the show chronicles through many periods of George and Tammy’s lives, and their relationship complexifies itself as it progresses. How did you want to portray not only an evolution in time, but also showcase how the characters would progress in their own journies throughout the show?

When they were younger and in the honeymoon phase of their romance, they had this very lovely habit of matching. It was great to find that in their young love. As they got older, and when they’re more gentle towards each other at the end of their lives, there are some subtle matching moments. It’s not done in as romantic of a way, but it reminds the audience that there was this deep bond that did not fully break over time. That’s the biggest arc I wanted to carry through both of their storylines. With the split, you want to feel other influences come into their life when Tammy has this full team around her and she’s leaning more into pop and. She is still competitive in a way that, unfortunately, women have to be in our society where they have to reinvent and evolve in the ways that we’ve watched musicians and pop stars do for ages, whereas men don’t really have to play the same game. George could still present the way he always did, and his audiences ate it up. However, you had to watch Tammy navigate trends and cultural references in a way that George didn’t have to do. It was fun to watch the differences that happened to them over the course of their careers and the different pressures that would come to them.

What was the process like in designing costumes for Steve Zahn’s George Richey in the show?

You could tell he was my favorite, right? [laughs]

He had great fits! [laughs]

He did! Steve is the kind of actor you hope comes into your fitting room, because he’s so game to throw stuff at the wall and find what sticks. In our story, he serves the role of a bit of a villain, but done in a stumbling way. We wanted to have the same mismatched, tryhard, and irritating approach to the way that he got dressed. When things start going well for him, you want to feel that he’s spending the money and wants people to know who he is and wants to take up space in the room. When we get to the 90s, one of my favorite things is this polar bear graphic on this horrific fleece with these giant white pleated chinos with a western belt. In every area where you could try to do too much, he did. That’s so much fun as a costume designer to have not only an actual reference of a person who dressed this way, but also an actor who’s willing to do that with you. That’s what you hope for.

Is there a particular costume that you designed for the show that you’re the proudest of in crafting?

I’ve got two answers for you. I am very fond of the nudie suits for George Jones. They’re incredibly heavy, and intricate designs. When we meet George Jones, you meet this man who has the audience waiting for him as so many audiences over time did. We find him in the men’s room at the stall on the side of it. We see this beautifully designed suit on the floor of a men’s room. Who knows how much that thing cost because it’s covered in rhinestones. It was embroidered in New York City, manufactured Los Angele, and shot in Wilmington. The pieces of tracking all of this suit around the world in its creation were as stressful as getting it on. I’m very proud of that costume, because the inspiration really came to me. I was trying to find a motif or an embroidery pattern to get right, and I was running through our stock one time and just happened to catch this an old-school period cowboy boot on the corner of my eye. It had the most extraordinary stitches on the top and I had this “A-ha!” moment whre I knew exactly how to blow up the graphic and do the suit.

On the Tammy side of things, there’s an actual friend of mine who is a vintage dealer. Once she found out I was doing this, she got me the original gown that Tammy Wynette wore on her album cover for Tammy’s touch. It hadn’t been in a family, or in a museum, but it found its way to us. I told Jess that I had got the dress and she was so excited to see it. It was in fantastic condition, and we were able to get Jessica into it. That was on her very first fitting. As we zipped it up, through whatever universe you believe in, “Stand By Your Man” came on playing on our playlist, the moment we stepped up the dress. I’m very proud of the fact that some of these clothes which have been in private collections for so long were able to come to come back and have their turn in the spotlight with us.

All episodes of George & Tammy are available to watch on Showtime and on video on demand.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]


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Written by Maxance Vincent

Maxance Vincent is a freelance film and TV critic, and a recent graduate of a BFA in Film Studies at the Université de Montréal. He is currently finishing a specialization in Video Game Studies, focusing on the psychological effects regarding the critical discourse on violent video games.

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