Q&A: Hollywood costume designer Ruth E. Carter visits SUNY Cortland

Ruth E. Baker gave a talk at SUNY Cortland’s Old Main Auditorium Friday, Feb. 1 (Peter Blanchard/Cortland Voice)

On Friday, Feb. 1, Hollywood costume designer Ruth E. Carter visited the SUNY Cortland campus to speak with students. Carter recently earned her third Oscar nomination for her work on the Black Panther film. We sat down to interview Carter prior to her lecture at the Old Main Brown Auditorium.

Let’s start at the beginning. When did you first know that you wanted to work in Hollywood?

I knew I wanted to be in some type of show. In school, I was in drama programs and after-school programs. In college, even though I majored in teaching special education, I kept going to the theatre and auditioning. It was around my junior year in my college that I transferred my major to theatre arts and was asked to do the costumes for play. From then on, that’s all I did. I was known on campus as the costume designer. I really designed my own curriculum because there was no costume design specialty in the theatre arts department, so I had to kind of make it up. When I graduated, I thought, ‘Uh-oh, I don’t know if I’ve really been trained. I trained myself in a way.’ I did internships, including one in a local theatre in my hometown of Springfield, and I did a second one at the Santa Fe Opera. Then a family member asked me if I wanted to come to Los Angeles and pursue my career in Hollywood. That was the farthest thing from my mind. I knew some great theaters all over the country that I thought were places I’d like to land and design costumes for, but since I was a broke student leaving college having done low-paying internships, I took the offer to stay in my relative’s house for a year. Three or four months later, I landed a job in theatre, and I started meeting people in the film industry, namely Spike Lee, and he said, ‘Go to New York City or go to UCLA. Sign up in their film department to volunteer on a student thesis project.’ Before long, I was on the set of a USC student’s film doing their costumes. Months later, Spike called me and asked me to do a film. I met a filmmaker who was not really known but later became known, and the rest is history. I ended up doing 14 films with him.

Don’t just be passionate, be a student of your passion. Take your ideas, like I did, and if there’s no curriculum, create one.

The Black Panther film had more than 1,000 costumes. When you learned you would be working on this film, where did you start?

I asked a lot of questions. Marvel and Ryan had been working on the concept of the world of Wakanda for a long time before I got there. They didn’t know how we were going to use African elements, but they had the idea of the African elements. Wakanda had been written in the comics for a long time. Ryan Coogler and Hannah Beachler, the production designer, put together a road map: This is Wakanda. This is how it looks. It’s a sustainable community. I started there to really read through it and understand it because I wasn’t exactly the biggest comic book fan in the world. I read the Archie Comics but not Black Panther, so I really needed to learn what it was. After reading this road map, which talked about African tribes in different parts of Africa, I started to borrow elements and ancient techniques to take the idea and infuse it in a futuristic way. You could translate a lot of the artistry in a superhero form very easily.

What upcoming projects are you working on?

I worked with Eddie Murphy last summer on a film called Dolemite Is My Name. He plays a comedian in the 1970s, so all summer long I was putting people in Afros and bell bottoms while recreating the comedy club circuit. Now I’m reuniting with Spike Lee again. We’re working on a film that’s going to shoot in Thailand.

When you go to college campuses and speak to students about your work, what kind of advice do you give students who may be interested in working in the film industry?

Be a student of your passion. Don’t just be passionate, be a student of your passion. Take your ideas, like I did, and if there’s no curriculum, create one. If you don’t know how you’re going to get to Hollywood but you want to work on a Marvel film, think like you will. Study. It’s the foundation of innovation.

This is your third Oscar nomination. Black Panther was well received by critics and performed well at the box office. Do you feel like this might be your year?

I don’t know. I don’t want to jinx it, but I’m hopeful. I’m very hopeful.