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Look the part

November 11, 2009|Tina Daunt

Costume designer Mary Zophres' attention to detail might strike some as excessive. But it made perfect sense to the woman who has dressed characters for almost all of the Coen brothers films that the people in their latest effort, "A Serious Man," should wear vintage undergarments, whether they ever undressed on camera or not. For Zophres, it's all part of making sure the wardrobe has been "aged well." She believes that costumes make the characters and, from underwear to eyeglasses, she's fixed on getting it right.

As a result, her characters have become legendary for their look -- consider Jeff Bridges' robe and shorts in "The Big Lebowski" or Brad Pitts' gym rat togs in "Burn After Reading."

On a recent afternoon, she paused from her work on the next Coens film, "True Grit," to discuss her costumes in the current film, a black comedy set in 1967 and centered on Larry Gopnik, a Midwestern professor who tries to make sense of his unraveling life.

First off, what is it like working with the Coen brothers?

They're very funny, but not in that wink-wink, nudge-nudge kind of way. Funny in a smart way. Also they're so nice. They're very organized filmmakers; they're fiscally responsible. They don't yell, they're very calm and their scripts are incredibly evocative. As soon as you read them you know how the movie should look.

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How do you know when they like something you've done?

I know when one of my costumes can make them laugh. And they're not easy laughs.

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"A Serious Man" comes directly from the brothers' own lives. Did that pose special challenges for you?

Although it was never specifically said in the the movie, I knew that the story took place in Minneapolis, where the brothers are from. I also knew that the movie was firmly entrenched in 1967, in a place that was very square. There were no bell bottoms. There were no hippies. So I started by doing research at the Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest. Let me tell you, that was the mother lode of research. They had the greatest research photographs I had ever seen.

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Tell me about the main character, Larry Gopnik, and his look?

I saw Larry in a sport coat, skinny tie and the little pocket protector. I found a lot of his clothes in thrift stores, but I had all his shirts custom made because I wanted him to wear short sleeves. There's something about short sleeves that just says "nerd." I also wanted him to wear glasses. . . . I have a vintage clothing source in New Jersey. She sent me bucket loads of old glasses.

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Who is your favorite among all the Coen characters you've dressed?

I'd have to say Jeff Bridges as the Dude. I got a lot of his clothes from a thrift store that's now closed in Venice. When I found the old sweater that he wears in the movie, I knew it was right. But we had to find someone to make three of them because there were a few stunt scenes with it. I found his robe at Marshall's and the drawstring shorts were mine from college. I remember thinking the Dude's . . . a guy who does not separate the colors from the whites, and if something is stained, he still wears it.

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Which thrift stores do you use?

There's a couple I really like: Meow in Long Beach and Playclothes in North Hollywood. I got all of Mrs. Samsky's (Amy Landecker) clothes at Meow. Her costumes (usually tight and short) were my favorites of the whole movie.

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Do you think a costume can make a character?

Oh, I do. I see it happening in the fitting room. That's the best part of my job: When the actor is looking in the mirror, you can see it kind of click. They become their character. It's magical. And I get butterflies every time.

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