Interview: Amy Andrews-Harrell, costume designer for ‘The Good Lord Bird’ on dressing antebellum America
The Good Lord Bird is a Civil War-era series unlike any other. Based on the book of the same name by James McBride, the series follows the journey of abolitionist John Brown (played by Ethan Hawke), shown through the eyes of a recently liberated slave named Henry “Onion” Shackleford (portrayed by newcomer Joshua Caleb Johnson). Infused with humor and action, The Good Lord Bird is a unique portrayal of Antebellum America. It also takes a slightly different approach to racism, gender roles, and religion in the United States. The show’s greatest humor lies in the fact that Onion, the show’s lead is mistaken for a girl, and therefore embarks on a cross country adventure in hand-me-down, ill-fitting dresses. According to the series costume designer, Amy Andrews-Harrell, Onion’s dress is a character in itself.
A costume design veteran with a specialty in Civil War/Reconstruction era films, Amy Andrews-Harrell takes a fresh approach in The Good Lord Bird. Harrell’s previous design work can be found in Emperor, Mercy Street, and Killing Lincoln (which she gained an Emmy nomination for with fellow supervisor Renee Jones). As Costume Supervisor, she worked on projects such as Little Women, Just Wright, Rachel Getting Married, and John Adams, where she received an Emmy along with costume designer Donna Zakowska and costume supervisor Clare Spragge. We were able to speak with Harrell about the process behind the costumes of The Good Lord Bird.
Adriana Gomez-Weston: How did you get involved with this project?
Amy Andrews-Harrell: We filmed the project in Richmond, VA, where I have a home. I live both in Brooklyn and Richmond…I go back and forth. I was lucky because our Line Producer Shea Kammer knew that I lived in Richmond and brought it to me quite early, so I was able to get on board and meet with Ethan (Hawke) and Ryan (Hawke) about the project and then I was in.
AGW: Going off of that, how did the locations influence the some of your costume choices? I know the series begins in Kansas, then goes throughout Midwest.
AAH: It’s set in a few different locales but it starts out in Kansas. In the Richmond vicinity we have this amazing rolling, beautiful land that the state owns that they let us film. There’swonderful vistas, so my costume choices, because I was trying to put our characters into a different locale, I tried to bleed the color out of the fabrics that I used because the background was going to be so lush, so green, so Virginia. I really went with some paler colors, terra cotta, every shade of beige you can imagine. There were some tan grays, especially the first prairie dress that Onion receives as a gift. That, I just imagined was the color of the dirt of Kansas. Not that it was dirty because John Brown gives it to him as this gift. It represented to me, the dust of the trail. I wanted the costumes of John Brown’s army where you could feel the dirt by looking at them, so we aged and aged and aged. It was even to the point where right before they went on camera, they were still padding the fake dirt into the costumes. If you touched it swaths of dirt t would come off. The sweat, we didn’t have to work on very much because we were filming in Virginia in the summer.
AGW: I noticed you have a couple Civil War and Reconstruction Era projects under your belt like Mercy St., Killing Lincoln, and you’ve also worked as a Costume Supervisor on Little Women. How did you approach this project and try to bring something different and fresh? For example, you have characters like Daveed Diggs playing Frederick Douglass, who brings a unique flair to the role, and we’ve seen Frederick Douglass in multiple interpretations.
AAH: The wonderful books that James McBride wrote guided us all like a bright star. It was so easy to get into his words and his characters. There were even costume descriptions in the book that I could pull from really wonderful, vivid things that sometimes James couldn’t exactly remember because it was written in 2013.
What I feel about The Good Lord Bird is that it is not absolutely tied to the period, although, because I have such a strong background in this period, I can so comfortably do it, do it properly, and then I felt I could riff on it a little bit.
To me, what I took to this project was that the actors and the characters felt so at home and comfortable in their costumes that you wouldn’t even think twice if they walked in a room because it was solidly their clothes. So, someone as iconic as Frederick Douglass, and indeed played by someone as iconic as Daveed, (Diggs) it was fun because we were just making him look like the rock star he was. I got to pick these wonderfully rich, jewel toned fabrics and Daveed just walked into them, felt comfortable. We even made wonderful shoes for him that he really loved.
We just really wanted the characters to come to life. I think more than doing anything, taking it out of context, out of period. I just wanted to really bring it to life to illustrate the wonderful life that’s found in James McBride’s book.
AGW: I really liked your work the character Onion. It is kind of humorous watching as an audience because it is pretty obvious that he’s a boy, but in the in the show, the characters are oblivious to the fact that he’s not a girl. So how did you come up with the costumes for him?
The dress is really a character I feel in the series because it’s so important and it also is so iconic of Onion’s journey through this tale. In the beginning he’s wearing a potato sack since he’s growing so fast he doesn’t even get proper clothes. He goes from a potato sack to John Brown giving him a dress that he had that he was going to give as a present to his daughter. Then the next people that give Onion clothing to wear were the wife and the mistress of Frederick Douglass.
So, each of those, and going on, he gets a prairie dress when he goes back to the farmhouse. It’s from one of the men of the army who have died. Through it all, the dresses that he received, or the things that he’s wearing are of the moment and of the place where he procured them. It was fun to focus on the rich fabrics of the dress that the Frederick Douglass House gets to him, which even that dress, even though it was silk, we washed the silk so it would look broken in.
That dress that they gave to him was a hand-me-down quite obviously. And contrast for instance, that with the potato sack, where even that was used, worn, unraveling at the seams, each and every one of them has its own characteristics.
AGW: How much did you collaborate with Ethan Hawke on like the costume design process since he’s a principal actor and credited as the series creator?
AAH: A LOT, he’s so wonderful to work with. He was such a trooper because he had to wear all that black, he had to wear a long coat. It’s written that John Brown has this coat that he had that has these pockets. I just imagined that it was this coat that was his battle gear.
I gave him all these buttons like a general and had created pockets inside to hold every little trinket that he had as part of his character. At one point Ethan asked me to weigh down his arms, so I had to go to Ryan and his wife and other executive producers, and I said, “He told me to put weights in his sleeves. Do you think he means it?”
They said, “Yeah. I think he really wants to hold his carriage different.”
So, we sewed chain inside the hem at the end of his coats. Ethan is a very buoyant, exciting person, and he wanted a little bit more weightedness to his character of John Brown, so we helped him out completely, weighing him down.
AGW: With the characters’ journey, they have to go through a lot of wear and tear. So how did that work? What did the process look like?
We made almost everything for every principal you see. There might be an off principal that only appears in something that they weren’t going to wear over multiple episodes or get killed in. But most of the principals you see at least had doubles, and most have quadruples, and Onion had ten of those first dresses, because we had four stages. If you watch it again, if you look, when he comes out of the tents, you’ll see the creases, it was brand spanking new. Cut to the end, and it’s literally in tatters. That’s one of my favorite things that I love to see. They did such a beautiful job on set.
There were many stages and for John Brown, he had at least at five complete outfits, with his battle gear and his suit that he wears when he goes to give speeches. He had a couple of those too.
AGW: Is there a specific outfit or look that you enjoyed working on the most?
AAH: All of them! Let me think…Frederick Douglass, getting to pick out clothes, and really diving into his research such as photographs so I could look at his lapels. He wore beautiful clothes. So, to get to pick his waist coats, those beautiful silks. It was really enjoyable.
To develop Ethan’s costumes was also very rewarding because in the book it describes where John Brown doesn’t care about what he wears, and he’s got these boots and they’re so worn out you could see his toe. We had to age them very specifically, so Ethan’s toe would show. Also, he had many pairs of boots, as the limited series progressed, there’s a scene where he’s patching the boots. I could go on and on about Ethan’s costumes because it was so rewarding to work with him to get in depth in there and there was so much to mine for the character. Those pockets were made of different fabrics that John Brown had sewn in there at different times. His buttons even have an evolution through the series, because when he goes off into the woods to meditate, I felt like he would have needed to take the metal from the buttons and melt them down to make bullets out of to shoot dinner. When he comes back from the first time we see him, he only has wooden buttons on his coat. Then, when he goes into battle again, he’s got the most matching set of buttons he has through the whole series.
The Good Lord Bird is available to stream in its entirety on Showtime.
Photos and images courtesy of Amy Andrews-Harrell/Showtime