Ann Roth’s artistic process begins with an actor.
She adds a shirt, a skirt, a shawl. Then no shawl—a cropped jacket instead. High heels, earrings, a bracelet. Swap the pumps for boots, throw on a hat and glasses. Lose the earrings. Add a haircut.
Stand back. Look in the mirror. Suddenly, the actor is no longer peering out. There’s a character in her place.
Don’t dare call Ms. Roth a fashion designer. Her world is costumes—and nothing makes her prouder.
“Let’s make that clear: I am not, in any way, associated with fashion,” the 80-year-old Academy Award-winner said during a telephone interview last week. “I’m a costume designer. A lot of people think that’s not as stylish a profession. It has nothing to do with that. It is its own profession. It dresses characters in theatrical literature, whether it’s a movie or the stage or the opera. A lot of people are ashamed to say that because it’s so artsy and not chic, but that’s what I do.”
After working with countless Academy Award-winning stars—from Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman to Dustin Hoffman and Richard Dreyfuss—on the big screen, to designing looks behind the scenes for Tony-winning Broadway productions, Ms. Roth will shine on her own at Guild Hall on Saturday, October 6, when she wins the Golden Starfish Award in Lifetime Achievement of Costume Design at the East Hampton theater.
In her honor, the 20th annual Hamptons International Film Festival will screen “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” starring Matt Damon and Jude Law, on Friday, October 5, at noon at Guild Hall. Ms. Roth’s work on the film earned her an Oscar nod in 2000.
“I’m really overwhelmed, quite honestly,” she said of the award. “Costume designers don’t get this kind of thing, that I know of.”
First a scenic designer, Ms. Roth arrived on Broadway in 1957 with “The Disenchanted” as a costume designer. After what she called a “marvelous experience,” she was hooked.
Her workspace—a loft in Chelsea dubbed the “Costume Depot”—is “a mess, but at the same time, a pleasant mess,” she reported. Scattered with memories from more than 100 movies and productions, the co-op pays homage to her six-decade career.
“I have a trunk that has stuff from ‘The English Patient,’” she said. “It’s your favorite stuff. I have a couple boned bodices from the 19th century and I have them in a plastic bag that I can put my hands on when I want to see them. I have hand-painted skirts from ‘Hair.’ It’s that kind of thing. What do you think, Luke?” she asked her friend, and producer of the HIFF tribute, Luke Parker Bowles, who was sitting in on the call.
“It’s amazing,” he mused. “I have to think about it. I don’t think I have the vocabulary.”
“It’s a place where Ms. Streep can walk into the fitting room and I’m there with the dressmaker and probably a hair dresser, makeup, maybe even a wig maker, an assistant to take notes and we’re going to try to find a character,” Ms. Roth said. “And soon, the floor is littered with five earrings, several pairs of shoes because we tried on this heel, no put this heel on, now put that on, and it’s very, very messy. And I’m holding a hem and we’re looking in the mirror and no one’s talking.”
It’s a creative process between the actor and herself, the costumer said.
“And then, there’s no longer Ms. Streep,” Ms. Roth continued. “It is somebody else and it’s just beginning to emerge and it’s a character. And that character tells you how to do the rest of it.”
The key is to consider the characters only, not the actors behind them. Their personal tastes don’t matter, and the vast majority of Ms. Roth’s clients understand that, she said.
“When we were doing ‘Ripley,’ Matt Damon’s character was making a trip to Italy, the south of Italy, to track down the Jude Law character,” Ms. Roth said. “And he goes to the beach and there’s a beach full of beautiful Italians and everybody’s tanned in 1956 bikinis. And he had to go and get a bathing suit from the local rental.”
Of course, there is only one set of trunks left. And they’re a hideous green knit.
“In those days, you could not get an aspiring actor to put those nasty, vicious, green trunks on. They were just awful wool,” Ms. Roth recalled. “So I said to Matt, ‘I’m telling you.’ He said, ‘I know what you’re telling me. I’m putting them on.’ And he did. And I was so happy. And he walked across the beach and when everybody looked at him, it was worth it.”