Quick Change Artist: Costume is the Key to Accessing and Discarding Character, Says the Star of Hunky Dory

“Clothes make the man.” — Mark Twain

When director Michael Curtis Johnson and I decided to make Hunky Dory, we knew I had to commit to becoming the lead character: Sidney, a glam rock dilettante who moonlights as drag performer at a seedy downtown L.A. dive bar. Real immersion stuff. I had done the obligatory prep work in acting classes and plays, but stakes were higher because this was my first feature film. I was in every scene and we only had 10 days to shoot.

So off I went. Short of indulging in hard drugs, I set out to live the life of an aimless grifter in the dim glow of L.A.’s underbelly. I made new friends and stayed out late—like, really late. I’d go to my local juice place but wouldn’t order anything. I’d wait around until someone’s shake order got messed up and I’d drink the throwaway. Sometimes I left empty handed. I started smoking those fake cigarettes that us actors smoke. Mostly though, I sat at home alone, looking up YouTube videos of complete strangers talking about themselves. This was what I had to do. This was my job. I had to be Sidney in order to know who Sidney was.

It was all valuable preparation, but the one question I didn’t think to ask of this character (for longer than I’m happy to admit) hovered like a storm cloud on the horizon:

“Why does Sidney dress the way he does?”

Our costume designer Kaitlin Weichsel asked me over a cheap cup of coffee. Somehow I had failed to ask myself the same thing. It seemed like an important thing for me to know if I was going to be able to pull off this role of a lifetime. Why did Sidney wear what he wore? Why the tights and the leopard print? The makeup and painted nails? Why glam rock? And would this be the missing piece that I so desperately needed to unlock the treasure chest of Sidney’s inner life? Was glam rock his true identity, or was it a lack of identity?

People often claim that their outfits are a physical representation of who they are and how they would like the world to perceive them. For some, it’s about how the clothes make them feel. For many, it’s just a matter of function or convenience. They wear what they wear without giving it much thought and because, well, they have to wear something. I’d say that getting dressed is a type of personal expression. A way to communicate something about oneself. A way to tell a story of who we are without having to use words or actions… but it can also be a shield, concealing something.

So much of our identities is shaped by our clothes. Not just the identity that we want to share with the world, but the identity that we create for ourselves. We are the curators, so to speak, of our wardrobes, the same way we are of our homes, our friends and our loved ones. The same way that we curate our wardrobe, we may not realize that it, in turn, affects our behavior, our feelings and ultimately our identities. Our day-to-day costume has more power over our sense of selves than most of us may care to acknowledge. It wasn’t until I put on Sidney’s clothes that I started to fully understand that man underneath them.

I realized that his leggings and leopard print were a device to hide the true, fragile core that lived within the character. Putting on that costume everyday made Sidney feel powerful, because he commanded attention as a way to compensate for his failures and lack of personal growth. But that very same attention from others came at a steep price. Others were quick to make assumptions about a 6’5 man in his 30s with bleached blonde hair and mismatched nail polish. People I interacted with made careless and superficial assumptions about me. They objectified me. Those shallow interactions, over a period of time, paid off in buckets of misery.

I brought everything I learned in my preparation onto the set. While Sidney is a damaged character, Hunky Dory is an earnest story. It’s about love and the family you choose. On the set, Sidney (and I) found that family. I felt empathy from my fellow actors and collaborators. Their desire to figure out who Sidney was helped fuel my performance and reveal him to the world.

I felt safe and at home on the set for those 10 days.

Actors always talk about how they get into character. The incomparable Philip Seymour Hoffman once spoke of re-wiring his brain in order to become Truman Capote. He said that he wasn’t a great mimic and so, through technique and artistry, he created a reality where his brain believed that it was supposed to speak with that unique Capote cadence and pitch.

What you don’t often hear is how the actor gets out of character. What is that process like? I would have loved to ask, respectfully, how Hoffman removed the software and return to his factory settings. And like most hardware, did some deep, almost undetectable, evidence of that character remain?

The day after we wrapped filming, I wanted nothing to do with this character anymore. I needed to get back to feeling like myself again. I was tired of feeling so objectified, frail and alone. I walked around my apartment desperately doing things that I thought a responsible and well-adjusted human would do. I tried doing laundry. I paid bills and parking tickets. I scheduled a hair appointment to get rid of that fried mop on my head.

What I was doing was re-creating another character. It was research all over again. It was making choices in order to tell the story of a character. It was asking myself, “Who is Tomas?” What does Tomas do with himself that will say to the world, “Hey everyone!! It’s me, I’m back!”

So there I was, going through my closet, picking out the clothes that I could wear that would make me feel like myself again. Curating my interactions with my friends through my choice of pants and T-shirts—fitted to show confidence; jeans worn in just enough to say “I’m laid back;” accessories that communicated modest amounts of masculinity. The version of me that I had so carefully tailored all these years without giving it a shred of meaningful thought.

Sidney made me realize that what defines me is the image I create as a representation of who I am. Not just to others, but to myself. It’s a scary thing to think about. Still today, almost two years after shooting this film, as I’m putting on a pair of pants, I sometimes think to myself, “How do these pants look, what are they saying about me and how will I feel when I wear them?” It’s a little much and can quickly become paralytic if I indulge in those thoughts.

Am I saying that there is some definitive guideline of what people’s personalities are—what defines them—as a direct correlation with their outfits? No. Our most defining trait is that under our clothes, we are all human. But we’d be foolish in pretending that what we do, what we say and what we wear don’t all share the same stage.

Man makes the dress; the dress makes the man. MM

Hunky Dory has screened at festivals around the world, including Slamdance Film Festival, Outfest, and the American Film Festival in Wroclaw, Poland. It has also screened as part of ArcLight Presents Slamdance Cinema Club.

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