Alex Moreland talks to costume designer Caroline Duncan about her work on new Apple TV+ series Servant, how she reflects grief through costumes, and more…
Note: this interview contains some discussion of grief and bereavement, in keeping with the themes of the show.
Hello! So, how did you first get involved with Servant?
Hello! I wish it were a more interesting story, but I think that Night’s [M. Night Shyamalan, executive producer of Servant] producing partner suggested that he and I meet because he had seen some work of mine. He and Night and I had a lovely breakfast and really hit it off. We had the same visions and ideas for the characters, just seemed to be on the same page. That was how it started.
Servant is quite a claustrophobic programme, quite concerned with grief – how do you reflect that in the costuming?
In the beginning of the season, we wanted to stress that sense of claustrophobia – and of the grief that had taken place in the walls of this brownstone that we never leave – imposing itself on Dorothy. [We had] fabrics from the wallpaper and the draperies seeping into her wardrobe, so that she reflects and echoes how the house looks in her costume.
Meanwhile, with Sean’s wardrobe, I went in the other direction. He’s very stark, his clothing is almost all blacks and greys or stark whites, very drained of colour.
You were also the costume designer on The Affair, and there’s a similar plotpoint about the death of a child in that show. Was it a similar approach, in terms of… dressing mourning, I suppose, if that way of putting it makes sense?
Yeah, it does make sense. I seem to be followed by dead children wherever I go in my projects. I’ve just done a lovely romcom in-between seasons to sort of –
Balance it out?
Yeah, walk away from grief. The Affair is a very naturalistic show, even though some of the storylines felt a little more heightened and dramatic as the seasons went on. The deaths and the settings are very, very natural in terms of where they’re shot, and the trick of The Affair with wardrobe and grief was in the storytelling and the changing of the perspective.
On Servant, this is a very different kind of grief: this is a repressed grief, vibrating on a frequency of a heightened sense of anxiety because the grief is not public. The death of the child has been kept pretty quiet as a tool for Dorothy to cope and ultimately to accept that the child is dead. In terms of how the clothing reflects it, her character hasn’t accepted that her child had died, so she’s not grieving. Inwardly she is, but she’s not consciously aware that her son is dead. For her it’s almost an opposite reaction. There’s a showiness to her: she’s dressing her wound in peacocking a little bit. Meanwhile, The Affair was very natural, and Allison’s wardrobe – especially in the beginning of the series, when she’s most dealing with the death of her child – was elemental.
On Servant again, I wanted to ask you specifically about Julian, Rupert Grint’s character. Rupert Grint obviously is already quite closely associated with one particularly iconic role – so when you were working on the costumes for his character, was there any sort of conscious reaction against that?
Oh, definitely. [We were definitely conscious] about what an audience expects when they hear that Rupert is in a project – what we attach immediately to is a vision of Ron Weasley. We had a desire to push away from that and help carve out a character that feels very, very different, very adult, very American, and the desire to inject elements of addiction and gluttony into his character.
We fell into this rhythm, Rupert, Night and I, of liking the idea that he has these extra pieces that he doesn’t take off. He never stays put long enough, if you think about him: he’s always blowing in and out of the set. He comes in, he slams a shot with Sean and then he leaves, or he comes for dinner, but his scarf stays on. There’s always a piece of him that’s sort of still outside the doors.
In terms of the actual wardrobe itself? They’re all monied, and I think that’s quite obvious from the set and the way that they live their lives, and the way that they dress, Dorothy and Sean, but Rupert is attached to that as well. He’s Dorothy’s brother, and they’ve been raised in this very blue blood Philadelphia home and this upbringing that’s quite posh and he leans pretty heavily into that.
He’s got very sartorial elements in his wardrobe, and that interplay with his addiction is interesting. I think we think of addicts as falling apart or not looking quite so pulled together in their wardrobe normally. That’s the one place in which instead of something falling off or falling apart, he’s adding on.
Do you often have to be quite conscious of audience expectations when it comes to costuming?
Do you mean in terms of the celebrity attached to an actor?
Well, yes, but more broadly than that too – building on what you were just saying about how we think of addicts, and how they might look.
Oh yeah, always. You always have to be conscious of your audience and considerate of your audience, but you’re not working to satisfy your audience, you’re working to satisfy and fulfill the creation of real characters. Ultimately in doing your job, you help your audience to feel the characters are grounded and real, identifiable. The opposite of that is I’ve never worked with an actor who I think had so identifiable a role before that I was trying to push away from, which was your original question about Rupert. Kind of an amazing challenge! It was just fun to think about that element when designing his costumes too.
M. Night Shyamalan was an executive producer on Servant, and in an interview with one of my colleagues recently he’s said he took quite a hands-on role in making Servant. What was your collaborate relationship like?
He takes a very hands-on approach. He is an incredibly specific and visual director. He storyboards the entire episode, which is amazing, and I would say not the norm in television at all. By the time you have finished prepping the episode and you’re ready to shoot, you have a real sense of the inside of his head of how he sees this world and what you need to do to support that, or how you can heighten or help create that world for him. He’s hands-on, he’s incredibly likeable, well-mannered, so smart. He has such a good technical sense, as well as an amazing emotional core when it comes to the work, so he’s beloved by everyone.
Servant has been renewed for a second series – have you already started making plans?
It’s our first day of filming today!
Oh, that’s exciting! Congratulations.
Thank you! Here I am.
Is there anything you can tell us about how you’ve tried to evolve the costume design for your second year?
I don’t think I can tell you anything, because it’s all caught up in the story! Sorry, I wish I could.
Fair enough! That’s alright.
Are you caught up on the show?
Not quite! So probably best to avoid spoilers. On a slightly broader note – how did you first get into costume design yourself?
I first got into it through theatre. I grew up in New York city, so I was lucky enough to be exposed to theatre my whole life and I always wanted to have a hand in theatre, whether it was onstage or offstage. For a few years I was almost sort of auditioning what I wanted to do, or how I wanted to be involved in it. I went to Yale for undergrad and started fitting costumes while I was there. Yale has an incredible, an intense drama programme.
I was again, just really lucky to be surrounded by people who were as passionate about it as I was and expose me to it, and then after school, we all – somehow – the majority of us shifted into film making. I had this great group of people, all transitioning from theatre into film at the same time, and so the first few jobs I worked on were with my colleagues and peers from college and some of us still work together. We’ve all since then made careers out of it.
Some of those earlier skills must have come in quite useful on Servant, I suppose, because that first episode is quite theatrical in a way, isn’t it?
Yes, it’s very theatrical. I think that was the biggest draw for me before I met Night – and once I met Night I was like, “I will go anywhere with you. I will do anything to work with you”, he’s so dynamic. On the page reading it, it reads like a play reads, in that the house is really the fifth… Well, in our case we have the four main characters and the baby/doll, and then we have the house, and the house creates so much of the psychosis of the storytelling. To be able to have an interplay, not just with the characters but also with space through the costumes, felt like a challenge I hadn’t had in television in quite this way ever. I was really excited about that and continue to be really excited about that.
That’s something I can say about season two: it’s fun to get to go back to it having seen how that mapped out in season one, having watched the show and knowing where to lean in and where to deviate to highlight new parts of the house that we haven’t seen. I’ve learned a lot about how our et is lit and what pops and what doesn’t, and how to work with the set and the production design.
Did you collaborate much with the set designers, and the production design department?
Yes, very closely. It’s a great team and they built the house from scratch. When the project started, there was just a sound stage – and the production designer built a functional four-story house.
Yeah, it’s incredible. It’s split between three stages at our space, but everything is – the plumbing works! When you see the rain on the show – there’s so much rain, there’s so many elements – you can flip the stage, the rain towers are on the set.
We do go out into the world about one day an episode, to get certain shots – but we park cars, and we drive cars on our stage, it’s incredible. It’s like a little microcosm of centre city Philadelphia inside, pretty amazing.
It sounds it! On another note, are there any other projects you’re working on at the moment you’d like to tell us a little bit about?
I did a film right before I started season two.
Yeah, the romcom?
It was a comedy, very different, starring Jennifer Lopez. It was very funny and sweet, a very fashion driven show and I haven’t leaned into that muscle in a long time. That was really fun, it’s coming out this summer and it’s called Marry Me. I guess that would be the only thing, since The Affair already aired.
Finally, then, just to draw everything together: what’s the most important thing you’d want someone to take away from your work?
That’s a great question. I think… People approach and absorb grief differently; everyone absorbs it differently. In the case of this show and these characters, the costumes are really mapping out a reflection of their interiors and of their interior, emotional foundations, maybe more literally than on projects I’ve worked on in the past.
We didn’t talk about Leanne’s wardrobe – she’s the fourth element of Servant. That’s a whole other conversation, which is about superstition and is she alive? Is she dead? The mythology of that character is very interesting. In terms of the characters that we have talked about, it’s an exciting challenge to be given a way to make people both feel real and to feel incredibly heightened in a stylized genre TV show. I hope it comes through.
Caroline Duncan, thank you very much!
Servant is available now on Apple TV+.