Reportedly, Sebastian Stan clocks in at 6 feet tall, comparable with 6-foot-2 Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee, whom the actor plays in Pam & Tommy. Co-star Lily James hits 5-foot-7 in flats, which corresponds with Pamela Anderson. But, via extensive research, Pam & Tommy costume designer Kameron Lennox determined that Anderson’s documented height may be with her trademark 4-inch heels on.
In the Hulu limited series (nominated for an Emmy for outstanding contemporary costumes), James often wore Anderson-style high heels, such as for an incognito trip to the library to access the nascent internet, where her Christian Louboutin boots (a take on Uggs) brought James near Stan’s height. But, in the preceding scene, shot from the waist up, James actually stood flat-foot for a tension-filled conversation with Stan as the hotheaded Tommy. “It was so important that [Pam] felt smaller, like she’s vulnerable,” says Lennox.
Whether taking on film productions or television projects, many costume designers often face similar challenges that involve math calculations when it comes to dealing with the varying heights of actors. And they find creative ways to work through the differences — or to play them up for storytelling.
In The Northman’s fictional Viking realm, costume designer Linda Muir intensified a battle between two actors who already cut imposing figures outside of their Norse costumes. “At 6-foot-4 and ripped, Alexander [Skarsgard, as Amleth] presents a formidable silhouette,” explains Muir. “But The Mound Dweller [7-foot-1 Ian Whyte] had to appear terrifyingly huge — even compared to Alex.” So Muir topped Whyte’s head with a mohawked Vendel Period helmet and worked with costume armor master Giampaolo Grassi to devise a bulk-building “underlayer,” featuring spine-chilling bones peeking through the undead character’s tattered robes.
On season three of Netflix’s time-hopping superhero series The Umbrella Academy, Christopher Hargadon needed two sibling-counterpart characters to appear to be of equal height. But because Luther (Tom Hopper) wears a prosthetic bodysuit to play up a bulky body shape and custom-built boots with internal risers that add a couple of inches to his already 6-foot-5 frame, Hargadon had to up the height of Marcus (played by 6-foot-4 actor Justin Cornwell), too. “We just built up his boots so he’d appear like he was hovering above everybody else,” says Hargadon.
Playing up a size differential also can juice the comedy in a scene. On Apple TV+’s The Afterparty, overgrown bully Brett (6-foot-3 Ike Barinholtz) trades insults with nerd turned superstar Xavier (5-foot-7 Dave Franco) as the two relieve themselves at urinals. Costume designer Trayce Gigi Field padded the shoulders of Brett’s leather motocross jacket for a “Vin Diesel-like” effect, she says, so he towered even more over Xavier, who is outfitted in a purple brocade suit and no shirt. “They’re completely different and also you feel the animosity [between them],” says Field.
On Hulu’s mystery-comedy Only Murders in the Building (also Emmy nominated for outstanding contemporary costumes), the varied sight lines of amateur Upper West Side detectives Mabel (Selena Gomez, 5-foot-5), Oliver (Martin Short, 5-foot-7) and Charles (Steve Martin, 6 feet) also play for laughs during their rapid-fire — and often improv-inflected — banter. Costume designer Dana Covarrubias adds upward of 5 inches to Mabel’s height via her signature lug-sole “cool boots” (as Oliver called them last season) to lean into the trio’s millennial-versus-boomers dynamic. “So she’s towering over Marty and able to sass him around and tell him the business and also see a little more eye-to-eye with Steve, and tell him the business,” says Covarrubias.
Obviously, on HBO’s Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty, height is integral in chronicling the basketball team during the victorious era of Magic Johnson (played by Quincy Isaiah) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Solomon Hughes). For storytelling, Emma Potter needed to not only re-create the accurate height dynamics among the people portrayed but also emphasize that the players were “often larger than the life or sets and locations around them.” To do that, she employed a variety of heeled boots with hidden lifts, plus, “We built tall, sculpted platform shoes using high-top sneakers as a base for support,” she says.
On This is Us, costume designer Hala Bahmet uses costume subterfuge to support the show’s signature nonlinear story parallels and various portrayals of key characters. In the present day, 5-foot-5 Chrissy Metz’s Kate comes to an understanding with mom Rebecca (5-foot-10 Mandy Moore). Cut to the grunge-y ‘90s, with young adult Kate (5-foot-1-ish Hannah Zeile) and Rebecca in the midst of a fraught mother-daughter moment. “We gave [Zeile] Doc Martens boots with a three-and-a-half-inch heel,” says Bahmet. “Not only to maintain the character authenticity to match Chrissy, but so the two shots together would be in the same frame.”
Beyond relying on augmented footwear and apple boxes on sets, cleverly designed clothing can also trick the eye. In the film The Harder They Fall, Regina King as “Treacherous” Trudy Smith is a force of nature but at 5-foot-3 stands petite next to her gunslinging crewmates. So costume designer Antoinette Messam created a custom solid blue Victorian gown with “buttons all the way down the front that just made it feel like she just kept going.” Trudy’s finale standoff with “Stagecoach” Mary (5-foot-7 Zazie Beetz) called for a simple solution to even the field. “We removed Zazie’s hat but kept on Regina’s,” says Messam.
Or there’s the case of maintaining a character’s stature for continuity, like in the multiverse-jumping Everything Everywhere All at Once. For a Wong Kar-wai-inspired alternate reality, Shirley Kurata accessorized protagonist Evelyn’s (Michelle Yeoh) majestic Elie Saab gown with appropriately high heels. Later, Evelyn runs toward star-crossed love Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) in a sweeping romantic scene outside in the rain. “So we got some platform sneakers for [Yeoh],” says Kurata. “It’s much more comfortable and safer for her.”
All this clever devising further underlines the fact that costume design is about more than just clothes and accessories — the work literally shapes stories.
This story first appeared in the July 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.