“Lift” Costume Designer Antoinette Messam on Finding Fresh Looks for Kevin Hart’s Heist Film
In director F. Gary Gray’s new heist movie, Lift, now streaming on Netflix, Kevin Hart plays Cyrus, a blue chip art thief backed by an international crew with a penchant for “freeing” work, from Van Gogh paintings to trendy NFTs. After a showy sleight of hand in Venice, Interpol agent Abby (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) almost has Cyrus pinned, but a bigger threat than missing artwork offers him a shot at redemption. Cyrus and his crew are tasked with heisting a pallet of gold before it reaches Leviathan, a hacker group ready to unleash death and destruction at the behest of a malign billionaire, Lars Jorgensen (Jean Reno).
As the group’s handler, Abby winds up taking an active role in the heist, which sees the group traversing Europe, much of it in the air. Abby is low-key and casual, a professional contrast to Cyrus’s crew, who operate outside the mainstream but are still young, wealthy, and sharply dressed. And then there’s Denton (Vincent D’Onofrio), Cyrus’s master of disguise in a wig, wheeling around a fake oxygen tank.
We had the chance to speak with costume designer Antoinette Messam (The Book of Clarence, The Harder They Fall) about researching lesser-known high-end looks for the main characters (even if you’ll also spot plenty of Prada, YSL, and Ralph Lauren throughout), pulling together all the background looks for a Venetian Carnival, and dressing Jean Reno as an Italian lakeside-dwelling ultimate villain.
How did you figure out how to dress each member of Cyrus’s crew so that they each have a distinct look, but as a group, they’re all of a piece?
That was challenging. I did boards based on their character descriptions and their acts because each of them had special skills. We had the getaway driver, who just happens to be a cool female pilot who’s obviously European. Then we have the change artist who, thankfully for me, was Vincent D’Onofrio, as the man loves a character. I have to say, that was probably some of the most fun, working with him and our key makeup and hair, to create looks for him. Keeping it real, and who the real person is when he’s not in disguise, was probably the hardest, to bring him down. I had a cast who really wanted to get into it. The fact that it came together, I thank the costume gods, because I didn’t get the actors at the same time, but I was able to find a beat with each of them individually, and then the puzzle came together. For the heist, there were specific costumes, but for the time they spent talking and meeting, I built closets. Depending on the scene, I’d pull what each person was wearing so that it worked together as a group.
How do you balance the street clothing the actors need to wear for the scene with the action they have to pull off wearing it?
Thankfully, I had some really experienced actors who actually worked stuff out in the fitting. Billy Magnussen, who plays Magnus, and I went to an independent store in Belfast called The Bureau, where the owners allowed us to play after they closed for the day so that he could try on different things and move around. He had a Scotch with them. It was fantastic.
That sounds like something the character Magnus would actually do.
You walk into this renovated factory, and they had lines from all over Europe that were really interesting. These characters were unique, interesting people in their own right, and I had to keep that fine line — they’re millionaires, but they’re also young. I took Magnus’s character to a place where I thought he would shop. It was really true, classic character prep. When I met with Gugu for the first time, we were trying to figure out that character — who was she as an agent? It’s not until the very end that we see her in disguise. But if you asked me, Gugu had three beats. We had Gugu, the professional agent at the office. Then we had Gugu, who joined the team and was dressed a little more casually. She left her Burberry trench coat at the office. Then we had the final Gugu joining the team in disguise.
And boy does her character, Abby, hate that disguise.
Finding that beat was hard. That was probably the most studio input I had on the movie. It plays for a long time. How do we make her attractive and ‘guy-sexy,’ the way a guy would dress his trophy wife, and not be offensive? We really played with that one until we found the right look. Thank you, Balmain.
Otherwise, these youthful art-heisting millionaires don’t seem too dependent on big name designers.
It was really important while I was in London and Belfast to make sure I found places that were interesting, that were different. As costume designers, we have access to the majors, obviously, but I wanted to make Kevin Hart’s suit with a local tailor because that’s what his character would do. And I had the opportunity to do it, so why not? My tailor, Chris, is Savile Row-trained, so that was fantastic. I was able to find in London some new lines I’d never heard of before, like Jane & Tash and 57London. It was really important not just to have the Tom Ford on Kevin because those kids have those beats where, in their travels, they would have picked up new, unique pieces. This is a contemporary movie, and people would think you wouldn’t have to do research on a contemporary film, but there was lots of research on this one.
The film’s opening scenes must have been a challenge. Did you expect to outfit an entire Venetian masquerade?
Gary almost gave me a heart attack when he decided we were going to go to Venice, and we were going to do it with a Carnival. That was incredibly intense. I was prepping in London because we were originally going to shoot that scene in London. I had to pull together an Italian team to start pulling those costumes from all over Italy and then start prepping, which meant dressing all that background. That was a challenge, but the other challenge for me was that Gugu had to run through the sea of people and still stand out as the person who our eyes are supposed to be on, not the eye candy all around her. So I hope I achieved that. It needed to be strong without overpowering her.
Finally, how was dressing master villain Jean Reno?
What an absolute honor. I’m a big fan. His schedule is incredibly tight, so we flew from Belfast to Paris to do our first fitting with him. He’s such a gentleman. What are people’s perceptions about a wealthy man who lives where he does? He and I originally thought less is more — comfortable, organic, cashmere sweaters with slacks and loafers. But we were asked to pump it up a little bit, so we added a sports jacket, just a little stronger in a look and not quite so weekend casual. There was a little bit of tweaking with his character, but what was most important for me was that he’d look comfortable. It would be effortless.
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Featured image: LIFT (L to R) Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Abby and Kevin Hart as Cyrus in Lift. Courtesy of Netflix © 2023