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From matching Victorian ensembles to strangely menacing jazzercise looks, Laura Montgomery brings an attention to detail and eye for storytelling to her designs that makes her work truly special. Her costumes for the What We Do in the Shadows season three episode, "The Wellness Center," won her an Emmy for Outstanding Fantasy/Sci-Fi Costumes, and she recently scored another nomination for the season four episode, "The Wedding."
We spoke about gradually coming to terms with what she was always meant to do, collaborating with the cast in season five, and what made working on her Emmy-winning episode so meaningful.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Sally Weitzner: What drew you to costume design? Tell us about your journey to working as a costume designer in television.
Laura Montgomery: I think it's something that I was always interested in, but I didn't know that it could be a career, and I didn't know anyone working in the arts. Also, coming from an Asian background, the arts are not an encouraged career path. So it was always relegated to being a hobby. I would do sewing and play-acting and putting together costumes and drawing a lot of things, which, in hindsight, were actually just costume sketches. I had this whole series of fashion illustrations, but looking at them, there was a whole story behind each character.
It wasn't until I graduated from university that, little by little, the more I worked on independent films and music videos, I saw this could actually be a career. So it was really a gradual acceptance both on my part and on my family's part that this could be something. And now of course they take full credit, but I'm like, well… [laughs]
SW: I'm glad they came around. Can you talk a little bit about your heritage and what it meant to you growing up?
LM: My mom is Japanese Canadian, and I’m actually very Canadian. All four of my grandparents were born in Canada, which, especially in Toronto, is a very unique thing. And during the war, the Canadian government treated Japanese people terribly. I mean, that's an understatement. We had internment camps, so my grandparents were both interned. Every Japanese Canadian was rounded up.
I think because of what happened, the Japanese Canadian experience was very much about assimilation. So something like 93 percent of Japanese Canadians of my mom's generation, born after the war, married non-Japanese. Because they were so persecuted for the way they looked and for being Japanese, there wasn't a lot of passing on of the language or of the culture. So I think I always felt very connected to being Japanese Canadian. But we don't have a lot of authentically Japanese culture.
And then also being half-Scottish, I'm not a quick read as Asian, so sometimes I feel like I have to defend it and really state, no, I am Japanese.
SW: You've worked on projects like What We Do in the Shadows and Spiral. Were you a big horror fan beforehand?
LM: No. No, and I remain not a big horror fan. Um, no, I am not. [laughs]
What I liked about Shadows was the camp aspect of it and the opportunity to do so much period costuming. For Spiral, I was initially put off by the gore and the torture aspect of it.
But the director's vision for it was kind of a modern film noir, and he had a really specific design that he wanted to pursue. So that interested me, because I thought, OK, design-wise, aside from all the blood, we can do this fun, modern, ’50s noir vision.
SW: I'm happy you were able to find something in it that spoke to you, even though in season five of Shadows, there's quite a lot of blood.
Speaking of season five, there were some amazing looks in episode three, "Pride Parade," including a shirt that says, “Ay, I'm being gay over here!” Can you talk about some of the costumes from that episode?
LM: That episode is so much fun. I think the two versions of the shirt were in the script already. So what we could choose was the color and the font, and the design of it was Sean's [Anthony Atamanuik’s] face. Actually, one of the directors texted me, because we're going to be on hiatus soon because of the strike. And she was like, if you need some income, you should sell those shirts.
SW: I would buy one.
LM: Yeah, everyone at the end wanted one. So that was scripted, and the rest of it was just about having as much fun as we could.
SW: Were there any other details from past costumes that you feel didn't get enough time to shine on screen?
LM: The one that really made me sad was, in the pilot, Nadja and Laszlo on a talking head have these enormous collars behind them that they haven't worn since. And the basketball game [in episode one], I was like, this is our time to bring them back! Because what's more annoying than sitting behind someone with this huge fan? So they're sitting there in the stands with those collars on and I was like, the fans are gonna love this. Because when people think of Nadja and Laszlo, they think of those, but then it's cut. You don't even see them at the game.
SW: How much do you work with the cast to create their looks?
LM: Quite a bit. I always like to collaborate with the actors as much as possible. With this cast in particular, because we're going to start our sixth season, we know the characters really well, so I love hearing if they have any new ideas or inspiration. Like last year, Matt Berry showed me a Harry Styles music video he thought would be a good twinning look for him and Nadja. It's a video for As It Was, when they're in the sequined jumpsuits. I didn't get the opportunity to use it, but yes, love hearing their ideas, and it is really a collaboration.
SW: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me! I really appreciate it.
LM: I'm glad we got to talk. And honestly, I think any kind of representation is so important.
That's part of why I wasn't really motivated to go into the arts, because I just didn't see anyone who looked like me doing it. That was why "The Wellness Center" was a really important episode for me, because even though I’m not African American, Lisa Bonet and Cree Summer were some of the only mixed-race people I saw on television. So then getting to work with Cree Summer, when she had meant so much to me growing up...
I'm hoping that people can see more of us out in the world and be like, "Oh, I could do that too."
All episodes of What We Do in the Shadows, season five are now streaming on Hulu. See Montgomery’s work next on The Boys' spinoff Gen V, which premieres on Amazon Prime Sept. 29.
Published on October 16, 2023
Words by Sally Weitzner
Sally Weitzner is an animation student and bird enthusiast in Brooklyn, New York, who has worked as a production assistant and graphic designer for off-off Broadway theater. When not wrapped up in sketching, Sally enjoys assisting on student films, watching corny horror movies, and experimenting with bubble tea.