Ashley Heathcock currently lives in Natchez and grew up in Brookhaven. She has served various roles in the costume department during her career including lead costume designer on the reboot of Magnum P.I. and assistant costume designer on American Horror Story, Venom and Bright.
Where did you grow up and go to school?
I moved to Mississippi when I was 12 from Louisiana. I went to Brookhaven High School and graduated there half a year early and went to Co-Lin to get some foundation credit for college. And my junior year in high school I attended Ole Miss for a summer and got some art design credit.
After I finished high school, I knew I wanted to pursue fashion design. That was originally what I thought my career was going to be because of early interest in sewing and drawing clothes. I went to design school in Tampa, Florida. I finished with an Associate’s degree, and I learned we had a sister school in London. So I finished my bachelors out in London, England, because, you know, why not?
At what moment did you discover an interest in working in Film/ TV?
It took a little while because I finished school and pursued fashion design first in Austin, Texas. I know that’s not where you might think. You think New York or L.A., but I wasn’t quite ready to make that leap. So, I wound up in Austin, worked for a designer, had a little bit of a small chapter there, and then a fashion design job brought me to New Orleans. It was 2009, the year the Saints won the Super Bowl. New Orleans had this kind of comeback happening in many ways. And it was the same year that the TV show Treme was shooting there. It was a pretty big deal for New Orleans to have a TV show that size.
So a lot of people were talking where I was working at a restaurant in the Marigny, and it was in that moment. I don’t know why it took me all these years growing up watching movies and being very, very fond of and interested in film where I was like, oh my God, I bet all these fashion skills would transfer over to whomever is dressing these actors. I didn’t even know it was called the costume department, but I knew that someone was putting clothes on them. So, it was just like a light bulb because I can sew and I was like, I bet that could be very useful. And then I just had to figure out how to get in from there.
Other than school, what type of training have you had and where?
I had work experience in retail, and I’ll tell you why that helps in costuming specifically. In retail, you’re trained on organization and curating space, right? You’re also developing a color eye when you do the different layouts with the clothes that you’re selling. And all that does go into a costume department, certainly just for organization skills and being able to source things and track things down. Understanding retail language when you’re the person calling ten different stores, knowing what an article and a style number is, it really helps a lot.
What is the daily work of costume design? Do you create from scratch, buy off the rack, rent from a costume house or all of the above?
When I talk about entry-level costume design, like if I’m doing a course or an educational video, I do try to explain the workings of what that means for costume design. Sometimes it really is the truest of the true form of design when you’re sketching it and drawing it and you’re getting the fabric and you’re having a craftsperson put it together, or if it’s low budget, that craft person is you. (laughs) I did a theater play before and I had to make a few gowns because of budget reasons. I just couldn’t find anything that glamorous for the price I needed, so I had to just make it.
But a lot of the time, especially in TV, time is money. You don’t have time to make things, so you do rent, you do buy, and you buy and augment a lot. You buy, you take it in and you change the collar, or you buy it, take the buttons off and add a zipper in. It’s using every resource you can find to develop what is right for the character. Anything goes as long as you have the right piece and the right number of pieces.
What kind of show allows the greatest creative freedom for costume design?
Sci-fi is totally fun. I did get to work on The Orville as assistant costume designer under Joseph Poro, and that was one of the most creative shows I’ve ever worked on. We did so many different things. This was a show where we developed our own textiles, so we’re not even buying like a textile that’s ready to go. We’re burning designs into it and painting on top of it. So that’s really creative and very hands on. I love sci-fi. And then for the projects I’ve done where I was designing it, I did a fantasy film called Please Baby, Please, which is mostly set in the ‘50s, but it’s kind of like a surreal fifties, very stylized. And that was fun, I had a lot of creative freedom on that.
And then, believe it or not, I just did a kung fu movie. The concepts were very creative and I got to build a lot on that. But some things we made from scratch, I had to source them out. A lot of time crunch, but I had a certain amount of money set aside for that. I went to Chinatown and I found a ton of different kinds of robes where I would chop the sleeves off, dye them a different color, than sew the sleeves back on to a different one and dye that one, and we just made these very beautiful, layered costumes from a few different pieces. And that was fun, too. Part of working on a kung fu movie is creating costumes that allow movement. You can’t do anything restricting, there’s certain shoes you have to use, but that’s part of the fun design challenge. And when you finally see it on camera or on the monitor, and the costume is on the stunt person flying through the air, and it’s moving so beautifully, you’re like, “Yes!” (laughs)
What was your first Film/TV job?
I actually did film first, and it was a small little indie movie called From the Rough in New Orleans. And I learned so much on that first movie, and I probably asked a thousand questions, but thank God I worked with a team of people that wanted to train someone the right way. So, my questions were met with really good answers, and encouraged. I’m still friends with a lot of those women to this day, but they gave me my intro into this business. I think it clicked when they told me how the movie industry works, how you shoot by location and not in script order because of location availability. It all made a lot of sense to me. Then my first TV job was actually Treme. But it all started with that first film job. Because I did a good job on that show, and I had got some union days in between day playing on other things after that. And then when Treme was looking for a background costumer, the costume supervisor on From the Rough gave them my name and that’s how I wound up on Treme, which was initially the light bulb in my head where I realized I needed to look into this path.
What are some of your current/recent projects?
It’s been a pretty slow and devastating year for all of us, but thankfully with a positive outcome. But I did do a kung fu movie in Mexico. First time I worked in Mexico. We prepped in Los Angeles. So I flew from here to Los Angeles. I prepped from here with my design on my computer, and did all of the research. I watched a ton of kung fu movies that the director referenced, which is the fun part. And then I dove into the origin of kung fu. It’s really important for me to know different cultural influences on something that is so big and expansive. So I did my design boards from here in Mississippi, and then I went to Los Angeles because I just knew I was going to be able to find the most resources in shops ready to go like shoes, martial arts shoes, and that’s close to Mexico. You have to always think like, how can I get it down there or how can I get it to where we’re shooting? So that’s why I was like, I’ve got to go to this place, get everything I can, and then we will finish up loose ends with the team in Mexico. And that’s what we did. It was fun. And my Spanish is better now too. I was also working on the TV series Big Sky last year. We just finished at the end of the year, but sadly it wasn’t picked up for another season. That was in New Mexico. Also a lot of fun. I bounce in between film and TV. I’ve always really loved both for different reasons.
What has been the most surprising thing about working in the film industry?
There’s maybe always one of those a-ha moments. That’s one thing I really love about it. But go back to that conversation of working on that first movie. I didn’t know that people shot out of order. Why would a viewer know that? You know, it’s really kind of insider knowledge, but it made sense as to why. I feel like every job I’m learning something completely new, like the origin of kung fu. And I really like that aspect to it. And I like that we get to work in different locations and meet different people in our different corners of the world. I think that’s really fun.
Who has been an influence on your career and why?
I’ve been fortunate to have a few mentors throughout my career, at least two in New Orleans, when I was really starting out. They were eager to share knowledge and insider things with me, and some people share more than others. It can be competitive out there. But if you can find someone that really wants to encourage growth, it’s wonderful. And then, I later had two mentors in Los Angeles. One I already knew from working in Louisiana on American Horror Story, Lou Eyrich. And then the other one, Kelli Jones. I costume design assisted her for a couple of years and she took me on really big projects like Venom. And I had never had a role where I was second or third in command of a department that big. I’m talking like 30 people on a big budget film that’s just working on costumes. And to see how that worked—it all works the same, whether it’s small or big scale. But if you have more money, obviously you can branch out and kind of have different people working on different things for time reasons.
Has being from Mississippi helped you stand out in the industry in any way?
Well, obviously I have my little Southern accent, so that’s a positive. I feel like most people from Mississippi and from the South are hospitable and kind, and I think that goes a long way.
If you could create a scene built around one location in Mississippi, where would that be and why?
Well, you know, I’m going to say Natchez. (laughs) I moved here for a reason. I’m completely in love with these old houses, and the view from the bluff. I’ve been so many places, and places are beautiful for different reasons. And I’m still blown away by the view from the bluff. And, I know I’m a costume designer, but I am writing a feature that takes place here from some locations that’s inspired me on my bike rides. And I’m also writing a pilot that I could see shot here. But the pilot is, well, they’re both a little supernatural, but the pilot would be more contemporary. There is an old abandoned, antebellum home that you can ride your bike to and walk around. And it’s just kind of amazing that it’s still standing there being overgrown. But you can walk through it and just imagine how much money this person had who built this house and their lives. And to see it now, it is very scary. (laughs) But going to that location, your wheels start spinning.
Do you have a favorite moment on set or with a project?
There is always a moment. I mentioned the movement of the costumes for the kung fu movie. So this is one of those most recent moments, where I’m watching the stunt actors on wires come down slowly, and their costumes are just flying behind them perfectly in the right way. And you can see all the layers of green. It’s that kind of moment where me and another team member look at each other, smile and give a nod. I can see our work working, but I can see the other departments’ work working. It’s like this beautiful little alchemy happening in front of you.
What would you say to convince someone to bring a project to Mississippi?
I would probably start with the incentives that Mississippi has because they’re really good. It’s a cash rebate, which is better than tax credits. I would start with that. And then also the locations. You know, the locations that I mentioned, I would probably put together a pitch book, which is beautiful photos of the locations. And then I would mention the crew that’s already here too. Because those are all, I think, key points. Money, location and crew.
What are your hopes for the film industry in the state?
I really hope we get a TV series. And I love film, but a TV series means like 300 plus jobs for crew members and it means almost a full year of work. And if a series comes back, season after season it’s sustainable jobs for people. And I think if we just got one, it would be enough for most of us film people so we don’t have to bounce around so much. It could possibly work miracles to our hometowns. I think it’s really good for the local economy, too.
What’s your advice for someone who wants to get into the film or TV industry?
To educate yourself as much as possible. If you have interest in costumes, I would suggest watching interviews with costume designers to get a feel for what the job is. Or if you have an interest in production design, do some Internet research and then find people that are not that far away from you, the closest film hub, and reach out to them and tell them that you want to start as a production assistant and you can give them references.
Where can people find you and connect with you?
My Instagram is @ashleyheathcockcostumedesigner and my website is ashleyheathcock.com.