How Jennifer Lawrence, Timotheé Chalamet, Ariana Grande, and More Transformed for Don’t Look Up

Who would have guessed that 2021’s most star-studded film would be an allegorical climate change comedy? The idea might seem outlandish on paper, but director Adam McKay’s timely feature, Don’t Look Up, comments on the environmental crisis in a way that’s wholly original. As its academic protagonists, played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence, attempt to inform the populace about the comet hurtling towards the earth, they’re forced to deal with clueless politicians, soulless bureaucrats, and a media more interested in ratings than serving the public good. The antics onscreen reflect the contradictions of the current cultural moment thanks to both McKay’s sharp script and a cast that includes Cate Blanchett, Timothée Chalamet, Ariana Grande, Jonah Hill, and Meryl Streep. 

As they confront the apocalypse, each familiar face has been dramatically transformed. Lawrence gets a red dye job and an undercut to play a nonconformist grad student, DiCaprio’s movie star’s good looks are hidden beneath wire-framed glasses and tweed blazers, and Chalamet dons an epic mullet. The makeovers add to the feeling that the world we’re witnessing is just slightly off-kilter—one where Grande’s vocals can still top the charts, but without the aid of her famous ponytail. For costume designer Susan Matheson, creating the film’s distinctive mood meant exploring one of her favorite archetypes. “That characters I love are always going to be gritty outsiders,” she says. “Someone who is a bit of an iconoclast and doesn’t follow the same path as everyone else. I get very excited whenever there is any character like that, but here, we had several.” 

Having collaborated regularly with McKay since 2006’s Talladega Nights, Matheson has seen the director move from creating iconic comedies to Academy Award-winning satires. Before their partnership, Matheson specialized in costumes for dramas like Crazy/Beautiful and Friday Night Lights. “I was known for doing gritty, realistic movies, so when I first got the call from Adam, I was shocked,” says Matheson. “Before Talledega, I hadn’t done a comedy, and I felt like it was such a different world, but in the end, it worked out pretty well.” 

Matheson would infuse the NASCAR-focused film with references to Americana—Wonderbread patches on racing uniforms, the Old Spice logo splashed on jackets—keeping the focus on the story’s humor rather than outfitting the characters in zany outfits to hammer the point home. “In a lot of comedies, the costumes are over the top, so you know the moment is meant to be funny before anything is said,” explains Matheson. “Adam’s whole point was that you don’t want to signal the scene is funny in advance; you want to let things unfold until that audience realizes the joke. It was important to him that we ground everything in reality.” 

Lawrence’s Kate in one of her many sweaters. 

©Netflix/Courtesy Everett Collection

That approach carried over into Don’t Look Up, where real-world counterparts inspired each character’s wardrobe; Lawrence’s collegiate scientist Kate Diabiasky, for example, began with an extensive study of aspiring astrophysicists. “I think I looked at every picture of an astrophysics grad student in the world,” says Matheson. “What I found was that a lot of them would wear down puffer jackets, jeans, and boots because a lot of the time, these observatories they work in are quite high and cold.” The deep dive eventually led her to images of students who diverged from that formula with expressive dye jobs and body art. “One woman had blue hair and tattoos, another who is very respected has this incredible dyed red hair and wears edgy t-shirts,” she continues. “Once I saw them, I knew it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility for Jennifer’s character to do something similar.” 

With authenticity in mind, Matheson scoured secondhand shops for handmade sweaters and faux fur coats, before going on an exhaustive search for the perfect combat boots. “I just remember back in the day when I went to clubs having this vintage faux leopard coat, and I knew we had to get one for her,” she says. “Then, with the boots, we needed something different from the usual pairs you always see in movies, [as] I didn’t want to use anything typical for Kate. I wound up finding this company in Italy called Moma—no relation to the museum—that craft these incredible boots with a much bigger toe cap and use aging machines to create a patina on the leather. Jennifer and I are the same shoe size, so I’d be walking around my office in them to stretch them out and make sure they’re wearable.” 

Chalamet’s Yule 

©Netflix/Courtesy Everett Collection

The choices for Chalamet’s skateboarder bro Yule were equally individualistic. Chalamet wanted a hairstyle with visual oomph, and he came to the table with a reality star muse in mind. “The first thing he said to me was ‘I want a mullet,’ and of course, he sent me pictures of Joe Exotic,” Matheson says, referencing the outré zoo owner at the center of Netflix’s Tiger King. “At the time everyone was obsessed with Joe, but instead I found this guy from New Zealand who had this amazing mullet and the moment I showed it to Timotheé, he said: ‘Bingo!’” 

Beyond the epic hair moments, Matheson used Yule’s clothes to signal details about his upbringing. “He grew up as an Evangelical Christian, and towards the end of the film, he says a prayer,” says Matheson. “I wanted to reference the religious element of his character, so I used vintage patches and T-shirts from Christian camps. They aren’t always visible, but underneath his other clothes he’ll always have on one of those shirts.” Among the various shirts, one in particular stood out as an ingeniously devised Easter egg. “My friend’s brother designed the art for a fictional Christian rock band called Noah’s Flood,” says Matheson. “Throughout the film, Adam wanted there to be these little symbols within the movie, signs of the impending doom. You have to look in order to see the shirt, but the hand-painted design was this incredible image of Noah’s ark riding aTway like a surfboard with an electric guitar sticking out.” 

The edgy look of Grande’s Riley Bina

Yule’s metal tees may feel surprisingly on-trend, but the character with the truly high fashion wardrobe is Grande’s pop diva Riley Bina. Engaged in an on-again, off-again relationship with Kid Cudi’s hip-hop star DJ Chello, she performs their duet in Valentino haute couture. Since Grande’s signature look is instantly recognizable, Matheson’s main challenge was separating her onscreen persona from her image. “I knew I had to do something that was contrary to how Ariana looks in real life,” says Matheson. “I went through everything she’d ever worn in a music video or was photographed in during an event. I wanted to do something much edgier than what we’re used to seeing her in.” 

During the pandemic, the perfect look revealed itself: A shimmering look from Pierpaolo Piccioli’s all-white fall 2020 Valentino collection that struck a chord with Matheson and McKay. “Adam wanted something hopeful that could fill the stage,” says Matheson. “The film Valentino made that season was incredible because Pierpaolo realized he could create colors by projecting light onto the dresses. The effect was brilliant, and there are even scenes in where the models are flying across the screen. I showed it to Adam, and he went wild for it.” Though there were around 15 bombastic looks to choose from, Matheson ultimately settled on this specific design for its plumes of feathered embellishments. “We loved that it had this birdlike quality,” Matheson adds. “There was a lot of wind on the stage and we knew the with the fullness and length of the dress it would add a lot of life to the scene.” 

Of course, getting the right outfit is only half the battle. Matheson had to ensure that the scene’s special effects didn’t damage the priceless couture. “The producers had the effects people running over to me to say they’ve got fireworks going off next to Ariana who was suspended in the ceiling,” she says. “They’re telling me that we have to fireproof the feathers, and I had to go, ‘Do you know what happens to feathers when they’re wet?’ Plus, I couldn’t let them touch it or get firework sparks anywhere near Ariana.” In the end, the pyrotechnics were moved far from Grande to avoid any unwanted danger. “We had to figure out ways to do everything safely,” says Matheson. “I may have yelled, but that’s a museum piece; I felt incredibly protective.” 

Streep’s President Orlean in her signature red

©Netflix/Courtesy Everett Collection

With so many stars and costumes, there are plenty of moments worth singling out—the hypebeast-y suits of Jonah Hill’s nepotism beneficiary and White House chief of staff, Jason; the sleek Armani Privé dress Cate Blanchett wears as a Megan Kelly-esque reporter who turns DiCaprio into a media darling—and a sense of purpose unites all the outfits. Each look underscores a particular character trait or plot point—and from the moment Meryl Streep’s polarizing President Orlean comes on the screen in a bright red suit, you know you’re in for a ride. “Adam said to me that he wanted the audience to be on a journey into Hades from the moment they meet her at the White House,” says Matheson. “We descend with her, and it all comes full circle in the end when we’re about to face that moment of destruction, and she appears again wearing red. You get pulled into the world of the media and the White House, and it all comes at you fast and furious.” 

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