Sundance Interview: Costume Designer Charlese Antoinette Jones for NANNY

Charlese Antoinette Jones is a costume designer who has worked on such films as Judas and the Black Messiah, See You Yesterday, and Ride. She most recently brought her talents to this year’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner Nanny. Nikyatu Jusu wrote and directed the searing portrait of a Senegalese nanny named Aisha (the stellar Anna Diop), who is working to bring her son Lamine (Jahleel Kamara) to the United States while she deals with her racist, exploitative employers. The film focuses on West African folklore and weaves in terrifying and affecting supernatural elements. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Jones about her work on the film. We discussed how she wove in elements of the African diaspora on screen, the ways that Aisha dresses to protect herself from stereotyping, and what it was like contributing to the film’s creature design.

Congratulations on Nanny winning the Grand Jury Prize! That’s very exciting.

Charlese Antoinette Jones: Unexpected, but not surprising. Like, I knew it had all the makings of being able to command that kind of prize, but you just never know how people are going to vote, you know? Or what other projects are going to be in the festival. You just never know. But I knew it definitely could win an award like that. Yeah, it was — I mean, I’m still kind of speechless. I haven’t really fully processed it, because it kind of happened — you know, we’re all so disconnected. So I haven’t really had an opportunity to talk to that many people about it or celebrate it, you know? It’s kind of surreal. But I’m really excited for everybody who was involved, because we all deserve it.

Absolutely! I mean, it’s an amazing movie. I’d like to start off, if you don’t mind, talking about Aisha and her color story in her wardrobe. Because there’s a lot to talk about there, but I especially loved how you played with the warm versus cool colors depending on who she was around and what was going on with her. So can you talk about that? I especially like that we see a lot of light blues, which kind of ties in with the Mami Wata story throughout the movie. Can you talk about her journey?

CAJ: Yeah, sure. So, you know, when we see her in her environment with her community, you know, the diaspora, we see her definitely in a lot more brighter, vibrant colors that represent how colorful and vibrant the diaspora is, how colorful and vibrant West Africa is. And I like to say “the diaspora” because, you know, there are other Black people in the film who aren’t necessarily from Senegal, or West Africa, but we’re all part of the diaspora. So we have a lot of these colors and themes in common. As she discovers when she goes to Malik’s home and meets his grandmother, she finds this commonality, right? And I think that’s really beautiful, that the film shows that we are a diaspora and that we do have these things in common.

But there’s a lot of water energy and a lot of water imagery in the film. And so the choice of using pale blue was intentional, but it wasn’t always intentional in the sense of, like, “Oh, I’m going to use this color blue, because there’s going to be water present in this moment.” It was also because of low lighting and trying to find other colors that looked good on her skin tone and in the environments that weren’t necessarily whites or creams, because the whites worked more in environments where there was sunlight and we were outdoors. Or in a low-light setting, like inside of the restaurant when her and Malik have their first date. But the blues really worked well in her employers’ home because of the colors that the production designer picked for that home. So the light and pale blues really worked well in that environment. And it also is a call back to the water energy and imagery that you see throughout the film.

Yeah, I really loved the scene where Malik’s grandmother is talking about Anansi and Mami Wata, and she and Aisha are wearing complementary colors. There’s also so much vibrancy in the home. Can you talk about working with the other departments for that scene?

CAJ: Yeah, definitely. So, you know, a lot of this was happy accidents, and just us kind of all being creatively and aesthetically in sync. So we had a last-minute casting change with the role of Kathleen. So there were some pieces picked out for another actress, and I had to rework a lot of it really, really last-minute. But at the core of it, she was always supposed to feel warm, and the color white was supposed to be important for her, you know, as a medium, as a spiritual person, and without being specific to what kind of spirituality she practices. But I imagine she practices an African-based tradition, and in those traditions, you wear a lot of white. So that’s the choices behind her coloring and things like that.

And you find — when they meet, you know, they’re wearing these complementary colors. Aisha’s wearing white and she is in the living room, and, for me, the color white represents being elated, and also it represents clarity and grounding. So, you know, in those moments where her or Kathleen are wearing white, that’s what I was trying to convey. And even towards the end of the film, where we see Aisha wearing white and she gets the news that she gets, it’s still a moment of clarity. And then we have Malik in earthtones there to help ground her and all that stuff. So I really, really, really tried to not be so heavy-handed with the use of color. Things kind of just happened and flowed and landed in the right spots, which is why I like to say there’s a lot of happy accidents in this film. I had a strict color palette, but I wasn’t like, “Oh, okay. So in this environment, she has to be in this color, because bah-bah-bah-bah-bah.” It was just like, “What’s happening in the scene? What is the feeling of the scene?” And then we kind of worked from there. And it just kind of all worked out with the environment, because we were all working off of the same color palette.

A still from Nanny. Aisha stands among trees with a concerned look on her face. She wears a dark green headwrap around her long black braids. She has a light green tank top and a light blue button down shirt open on top of it.

I thought it was interesting when Aisha is in Amy and Adam’s home, especially on the overnights, she’s wearing a lot of grays and a lot of — she’s really covered up. It’s kind of like the color has been drained out of her. Can you talk about the way the colors work in that home? Because there’s a lot of white and gray, but it’s very sterile and clinical. Can you talk about that?

CAJ: Yeah, absolutely. So, I definitely wanted to show a contrast between her feeling comfortable around her community, in the diaspora — you know, this community that lifts her up and holds her, right? So she’s herself and she’s vibrant and she’s happy and she smiles more. There’s this starkness, like you said, and a seriousness of going to that home and taking care of this child and wanting to be taken seriously. And also wanting to be — you know, the cleanliness is a big part of it, too. As a Black person, my grandmother, she was always so hellbent on our cleanliness and how we presented ourselves when we went into white spaces. So that’s also part of it. She definitely presents herself in that way because she feels like it’s what she should be doing for her to be taken seriously and for her to be seen as being clean.

Because there is this stereotype of people of color, immigrants not being clean, right? So she wears very, very sterile-looking things a lot: this top that she wears when she first comes is this beautiful pale blue gauzy cotton top, and this is her dressing up and trying to show, like, “Hey, I can do this, and you can trust me. Look at me, I’m so clean and put together.” Right? It’s a very intentional act when people of color, immigrants go into spaces like that and get jobs. Like, you buy a separate set of clothes; you don’t wear the clothes that you would wear on the weekends. And I really tried to show that contrast. Even when she’s out doing errands and she ends up at the pier, what she’s wearing there, she would never wear inside of that home, ever.

It becomes — we literally talked, me and Nikyatu talked about what she wears in their home in terms of like a uniform, and kind of had some rules around what she couldn’t wear there. So it’s like she always wears a practical speaker. You know, she’s never really wearing open-toed sandals, unless they’re these slides that are clearly for going to bed when she’s doing an overnight. And she’s always wearing, you know, modest denim that kind of fades away into the background, that you don’t even notice the denim. She’s always wearing leggings and sweatpants and t-shirts and just very, very covered up, not sexy at all. And in contrast, when she goes on the date, you’re like, “Oh, she’s young, she’s flirty,” and there’s that big, big contrast. But she’s comfortable, you know, in that setting, in that situation.

And then also when you’re working in those kinds of environments, particularly in a home with a man, right? And a wife is present? You don’t want to attract any attention. And you’re staying overnight? You know, you don’t want to be sexy and attracting any attention. So you’re really, really, really subduing your body and what you’re wearing and covering up, and I think a lot of women can relate to that, if you’ve been in domestic jobs or any environments where you’re — even just going to work every day in an office. It’s like, you dress different because you don’t want negative attention from men. Because, you know, we have to do the work for them, apparently.

Yes. And I found that really interesting, that kind of work uniform contrast, when Amy forces her into the red dress. It is very territorial, spending too much time touching her skin and very — dressing her up, like a doll almost. Can you talk about that dress and that scene?

CAJ: I mean, that scene is honestly violent. It is. Because like you said, there is, you know, some lingering touch and her being forced to wear something that she’s not fully comfortable wearing. And even the color red denotes the violence, too. And, you know, it’s odd because — it’s this weird thing. And I think when I read it — this is how I read it. It was almost like Amy, the wife, is using this as a way to become a victim later on, right? It’s like, so you serve up this woman to your man who you know is a philanderer. And you know he likes women of color, right? And so, she’s in your home, and you’re like, “Well, here you go. Here’s another one for you.” Because we don’t know what happened with the last nanny. We don’t know. You know, in my mind, I’m like, maybe he had an affair with the last nanny, you know, because of how she’s acting in this scene, particularly, and how she kind of serves her up to be — because this is a party where he’s coming home after being gone for a while on a work trip. So it’s just really odd timing. And, you know, in my mind, I’m like, oh wow, she kind of did this so if something happened between them, it’s like, “(gasps) I’m the victim here. I’m the victim.” But you actually set it into motion by putting her in that dress, you know? And that’s why I say it’s violent.

Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, there’s so much discomfort in the movie, but that was the scene where I recoiled the most, just because it felt very proprietary and just extremely uncomfortable. 

I did want to ask: there are a lot of kids in the film, and every kid has their own personality. You’ve got Rose and Lamine, and the kids at the birthday party. Is it especially challenging working with kids? Can you talk a bit about dressing the kids in the film? Because I loved how they each had their own little personality.

CAJ: Yeah, you know, I’ve worked with kids almost my entire career. One of my second films was The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete and that was about two kids in Brooklyn who are pretty much fending for themselves after their mothers go missing. So, I enjoy working with kids, I really do. I have a lot of fun. I mean, kids have the best personalities, especially child actors. Child actors are sometimes more professional than adults. (laughs) And, you know, it’s also nice because usually their parents come and they help you get them dressed. And the parents are so great about bringing stuff, like, “Oh, we have this awesome hoodie that they love,” or whatever. So I have a lot of fun doing fittings with kids and dressing kids. And I try to play to their personalities, but also what’s going on in the story.

So Lamine needed to feel like a kid who was back home in Senegal. And that’s a very, very different look than Rose, or any of the kids at the birthday party. It’s a lot simpler. I mean, there were some scenes of him — I don’t think they made it in the movie — where we had the French African soccer team, football team’s jersey on him, because that’s something that’s very specific to kids running around Africa, particularly Senegal. And based on a lot of research of children that I’ve just found, you know, different photographs of people just on the street, kids were just wearing really simple stuff, like really simple tees and basketball shorts and flip flops. That’s the direction I went for Lamine.

And as far as Rose, I mean, I just really wanted to reflect a lot of little girls that I know in that age range, you know, even like my nieces and stuff like that, where they kind of just wear whatever they feel like wearing on a particular day and it doesn’t always make sense and it just feels like really young and youthful and playful and sometimes messy and bright and just all over the place. They’re kids, you know? And she’s of the age where she would be dressing herself. So I just really wanted that to be reflected. And even in the fittings, I had a bunch of clothes and I would be like, I would let her pick stuff out and we would put it together how she saw it, because I just wanted it to really show how playful children are when they get dressed and start dressing themselves.

A still from Nanny. Aisha and Rose stand next to each other in a bedroom looking up at something in alarm. Aisha wears a loose-fitting grey top, and Rose (who is slightly out of focus in the background) wears a yellow t-shirt.

Yeah, absolutely. And it’s such an interesting contrast between Rose and her mother, who was very, you know, all white or white and gray and very buttoned down. The second we see Amy, we know who this woman is. She’s wearing very expensive clothes, but there’s not a lot of personality to them, besides just being very closed off. Can you talk about her a little bit? Because you know who that character is immediately as soon as you see the clothes.

CAJ: (laughs) Yeah. Yeah. I mean, again, she is much like Aisha when it comes to having to put on a uniform to go to work around a bunch of men, you know? Which is why that previous scene we talked about, in the dress, is especially violent, because she knows exactly what she’s doing. Right? And so, you know, she mentions briefly being the only woman and the VP and the boys’ club and getting a promotion. And so all that, I wanted to reflect in how she dressed. I wanted her to dress really, really, really conservatively. And she’s putting on a costume and a uniform when she goes out of the house every day, you know, for her reasons. And yeah, I wanted her to reflect this really high-level taste.

But simmering underneath that is, like, she really doesn’t have her shit together at all. You know? Her relationship with her child is a mess. She’s not really good at being a mom. At some point, there’s no food for the child to eat, you know? And she’s coming home drunk, and her marriage is a mess. But she looks put together, and she wears really nice things. And so that was the thinking behind that. It was like she needs to look put together, needs to look pristine and perfect. The first time we meet her, she’s wearing all white and she’s just clean and pristine. And then it just kind of starts to devolve for her, where the last time we see her, she’s just a mess.

We touched on the birthday party briefly, but the gorgeous dresses — can you talk about designing for that? And you mentioned the diaspora. Not everybody at the party, obviously, is necessarily from Senegal, so can you talk about dressing all the different people there?

CAJ: Yeah, so we got really, really lucky. Nikyatu, the director — a lot of people in that scene were her family. And so they brought amazing things. And I got to just play in clothes with them. Me and my team just went through what they brought in and picked out stuff. And then there’s some background actors that we also dressed as well, and just kind of wanted it to be non-specific, you know, to a particular region of West Africa. Just that we knew the party that they were at was West African. I believe that the couple was supposed to be from either Ghana or Nigeria — or maybe one of them was from Ghana, one was from Nigeria — so I kind of wanted to represent the meshing of that.

And also the modernity, because, you know, the couple, they’re not necessarily wearing African fabrics and textiles and things like that. But there’s other people who are older, who were coming to the party wearing that, or the younger girls are wearing it, but it’s got a little bit of a twist, you know, to the silhouette and the design and it’s playful and younger-feeling. And then the kids are just kind of wearing a combination thereof: there’s a kid in a Nets jersey, there’s a kid running around who has on a more traditional outfit and girls that have on traditional-looking dresses. So yeah, I just wanted it, again, to feel like this merging of West African-ness, African-ness, and Black American or American-ness. Because when you go to functions like that — I mean, I grew up going to Liberian functions. A lot of my friends are from Liberia. And that’s how it would be: you know, not everybody’s wearing traditional African clothing. Some people are wearing designer modern pieces and showing off, and the older people are wearing more traditional pieces. So, it was fun to be able to design a scene like that and represent something that I knew and experienced.

Yeah, absolutely. Is there anything that you want to talk about that you haven’t had the chance to, that nobody’s asked you about it? Or you’ve noticed people aren’t picking up on something that you really think they should be picking up on?

CAJ: I mean, I feel like people really get what we were trying to say and I feel like that means we did a good job. I will say, this was the first time that I got to be a part of creature design. You know, the most I contributed was references for snakeskin and textures and things like that. But that was so cool. My friend and collaborator, Risha Rox, her and the SFX and the VFX team did — like, they really designed it, but it was cool to be able to contribute some material, you know, references for them to get inspired by and photograph. So that was fun.

Oh wow, that’s so cool. Is that something you want to do more of in the future?

CAJ: I hope so. Yeah. It would be cool. It’s definitely something I would like to try. I mean, I think a lot of my work ends up being contemporary, and I’m starting to do more period work because of the success of Judas. But yeah, I would love to do some fantasy and sci-fi. And that’s what also attracted me to this project. Because it was like, “Oh, there’s a creature in it, so I can kind of learn about creature design and stuff like that.” And yeah, I’m just glad that — I mean, I love how it turned out. I think Risha and her team did an amazing job. And like I said, I was just happy to be able to just kind of be a part of the process and observe and contribute what I could. 

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