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Interview: Costume Designer Cynthia Summers Talks About HBO’s ‘The Last of Us’

HBO’s The Last of Us honors the foundation behind the Naughty Dog video game while also expanding on certain elements that were slightly explored in the game to make it feel richer and more lived-in. One of its most impressive elements is its costumes, designed by Cynthia Summers.

Summers spoke to Awards Radar on Zoom about the process of designing costumes for a video game adaptation after admitting that she was slightly unfamiliar with the world of the game before joining the project. She also discusses the challenges of crafting worn-out costumes for a post-apocalyptic world and getting to work with Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey, among other topics.

Read the full conversation below:

So I’m a huge fan of the game and the show, and I found the series to be a terrific adaptation of the games. First and foremost, congratulations on an incredible first season. 

Thank you, and this is good because the most important opinions are the gamers’ opinions of the show because it can be great or not great at all [laughs]

I don’t play games often because I start a video game but never finish it. But I’ve played both Last of Us games to completion, and to see it come to life in such an incredible series like this one was amazing. 

Oh, that’s great!

So were you familiar at all with The Last of Us video game before you joined the show?

Ah, that question! [laughs] There were two camps in the crew. Some didn’t know, and others were heavily invested. I fell into the first camp. I knew little about the game, but I’m not a gamer. I highly regard gamers because, wow, what a commitment. But, no, I wasn’t that familiar. It was all brand-new to me, making it exciting, especially for a game like this written like a screenplay. Much is translatable to film and whatever genre you will do it in. That hooked me, alongside Craig Mazin’s spiel, where he sold me the show as a love story. And I thought, “How can that be? It’s a game, and the object is to get out alive!” Of course, it’s much deeper than that, and that’s why I think the translation to film and TV was brilliant and turned out so well. 

Did look at the game as a main inspiration for the costumes, or did you want to slightly distance yourself from it to create your own spin on the material?

Yes, and this is something we talked about early on. Were we going only to emulate the game, take some things from the game or go on our own journey with these looks? It was really important for us to hit, especially on Ellie [Bella Ramsey] and Joel [Pedro Pascal], iconic looks from the game. As you can tell with the series, we have much more time to delve into the stories and characters that come into their lives. So there’s a much broader story to tell. We had to add pieces and were shooting throughout the winter. Winter coats became important, which did not exist in the game to the degree we needed them. We had to add, but we tried to build from what we saw in the game for most of our two heroes, especially,

Did showrunners Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann have a specific roadmap for how they wanted the costumes to look for the show?

Absolutely, apart from recreating the ones that exist in the game. They definitely wanted it to look like 2003 because the world stopped then. So anything that anyone would gain as far as costume pieces or wardrobe pieces would be found items, repurposed items, recreated items, and items that they would find that would be new but would have been 20 years old in the box that they found somewhere, as they do when they get to Bill [Nick Offerman] and Frank’s [Murray Bartlett] town. We wanted to ensure that we stayed true to the characters in anything we expanded on unless it was specifically scripted. It was a bit out in left field. We mostly stayed close to the game, and built upon it, to lean into the environment and what they were doing in each successive episode.

Can you talk about the process of creating worn-out and used costumes for the characters and in creating this post-apocalyptic setting? 

In any post-apocalyptic show, that is 80% of our costumes.  We would take old, found, or aged pieces and make them look even older and more lived-in, depending on where the character is going, especially for our story, because we are in different parts of the country in different seasons. The aging was really important for us to tell the story. We had a certain tone that we overdyed all of the pieces of the people that you see in each town so that it felt like you were in a different bubble with them when you were in the Boston QZ when you went to Jackson or in Bill and Frank’s town. Everything had a different aura about it, if you will. That was very important because Craig and Neil wanted the show to feel grounded amidst the infected. We wanted to ensure that it didn’t get too far into the sci-fi-looking realm of the future and any post-apocalyptic world. It needed to look accessible today in a sense where you could relate to it and the characters. 

How extensive was your collaboration with the hair and makeup department on matching the costumes that would fit the looks they created?

Super important. We all worked together instead of being separate departments. I like to say on this show that we were one department. We didn’t do anything without keeping the other departments in mind. We would share information and have meetings. You wouldn’t be at that level on another production because you’re trying to finish your work. You pay attention to what they do, but maybe not as much as we did on The Last of Us. That was really important for us to bring the looks together and make them feel like they belonged with all the pieces we were putting together. When you suddenly see a clicker or an infected person in the background, you want to believe that that could happen to somebody. That’s just it: maybe that could really happen. This was the whole point of everything we did. 

How extensive were your designs for the infected on the show?

Every single one was unique. The makeup team did prosthetics for every single person you see. Everyone was unique, so the costumes had to be unique for every infected or clicker. Keeping everybody else looking grounded, real, and accessible was very important, and everyone could do their job in their wardrobe because everybody was so physical in the show. When we got to the clickers, my aging team worked really hard on them. They were the biggest part of my department. I always shout them out because the show wouldn’t be what it is without them. It was a beautiful dance between Barrie Gower’s team in London and my breakdown team. We really had to team up to make this work.

The show contains these elaborate action sequences but is also very character-driven. How did you want each costume to elevate the actors’ performances and the evolution of their characters throughout the eight episodes?

Good question. As I mentioned, we go to places they don’t go in the game. It was very important for us to stay original to the characters’ color palette and the weight of the clothes they wore. Those things had to remain with Joel and especially Ellie because she’s a newbie out in the world. She grew up in the Boston QZ and really never went outside those walls. We were able to expand a bit with her costume and show her growth as a 14-year-old person who is going to go out into the world. That gave us more latitude to branch out, but we wanted to keep everything to speak to her original looks while slightly expanding on what she looks like in the show. You saw growth in Ellie that way, but Joel stayed slightly more consistent with his look. His style remained very similar to what it was from 2003 to 2023 because many things were going on with him. He’s lost faith in the world and humanity. He’s just getting by and doing what he needs to do. Not everything he’s been doing is commendable. He’s a survivor. Then we see him with Ellie, and something change in him. When they go to Bill and Frank’s, Ellie and Joel, get their new iconic outfits that last for the next few episodes. She says to him at one point, “You clean up nicely,” or something to that effect. The costume does take a journey throughout the show. 

And what were your initial discussions with Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsay on creating the looks of Joel and Ellie?

Both wanted to honor the characters in the game, which is one reason why Pedro did not want to wear a hat. In the game, Joel never wears a hat. We were working at 30 below, with a wind chill factor, snow, and everything else, and I asked Pedro if he was sure not to have a hat. He said, “I’ll do the gloves, but I won’t do the hat.” [laughs]. He was really honoring Joel in the game, which was great. He came in about a week before we started shooting, and I didn’t have much time with him at the fitting room I set up. 

I was a little worried because he’s done The Mandalorian and all of these fantastic things, whereas The Last of Us is pretty much a jeans and t-shirt show, but it needed to honor the game. Those clothes needed to be comfortable on him and something he could work in and feel like Joel. Achieving that is a little difficult when you don’t have a costume. When he arrived, I had walls of jeans and t-shirts that we source from all over the world, and he just said, “Thank God I don’t have to wear a helmet.” [laughs] We found the jeans and the basic shirt from 2003. We also found the boots that he loved that he wore throughout. The jacket was one thing that was a little bit of a journey for us, but we finally found it. It was a real relief for me. The same applied to Bella. For them, it was all about being true to Ellie in the game, but they hoped the fit might be a little looser because, in the game, it’s very close fitting. We went down that road, and it worked out really well. Working with both of them and many of the other cast members that came in and were interested in emulating the characters in the game and really paying homage to the people that they are in the game, and not just the action-packed characters, helped set the tone for us in making this. 

Were there any specific challenges in crafting some costumes for the show’s guest characters?

Not really. It was pretty straightforward. The clickers were a challenge, definitely, because it was so multifaceted putting their costumes together. It wound up being with each clicker and infected. For fittings for each person with different degrees of makeup effects and costumes,  my background department had to create from their own materials the similar prosthetics that you see on the body to translate onto the costume to give the effect that it’s growing through the costume, but the latex doesn’t stay on the costume, so we had to build our own. That was like a science project trying to get that together. There was a little back and forth in trying to get the same colors that the makeup effects were using. It was a concerted effort between our two departments. The makeup effects of the mushrooms are glued onto a compression garment underneath our costume. That was finicky and difficult. With action characters, you have more than one costume. Whether it’s a stunt performer or even an actor with a stunt double, you always have more than one. However, because the infected and the clickers only had one set of prosthetic makeup, we could only do one costume. That was pretty nerve-wracking because many of them are super physical characters. They bite, crawl, bleed, and all sorts of things happen to them. Their costumes were really shredded, to begin with. We had bits and pieces of everybody’s costumes on set in case we had to insert or stitch something if anything broken came off because we had no backups. It was a little nerve-wracking for our department, for sure. 

Is there a specific design for the show that you’re the proudest of?

Oh, that’s a hard one. I’m going to say the child clicker for the moment. There are so many, but that one comes to mind. It’s fresh in my mind because we were dealing with a nine-year-old child in real life who is a physical performer and a gymnast, and also because of the t-shirt and the logo on it. We had built bare feet for her because she runs at night. We had more of her showing than some of the other clickers. She did have a stunt double that was a very small adult. So there was that we had to translate her costume into that. But her prosthetic was so beautiful. You see a little ponytail sticking out the side because Craig and Neil wanted to portray that this was a child and that we’re all susceptible, and no one is immune to being infected. The costume fitting was also amazing because her mom was there, and we wanted to ask her daughter if she could do some contorted movements that she would do in this costume so we could make sure that it stayed on the right part of her body. Sometimes, a costume will shift on your body, meaning the mushrooms will go one way, and your movement will go the other way, especially when you’re doing backbends and contorting your body. And she did a backbend just like that and crawled around the floor. It was great because this was a point where we had the character’s action in one person at one point and willing, and she was small enough to crawl around the fitting room and everything. That was instant gratification for me, and it was a true “A-ha!” moment for sure. 

All episodes of The Last of Us are currently streaming on Max.

[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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