Spotlight On: Daniel Orlandi
By Diana Eden
The day we spoke, Costume Designer Daniel Orlandi had just found out he had received an Emmy nomination for “The Normal Heart,” an HBO film starring Mark Ruffalo and Julia Roberts.
“I had seen the play in 1985 at The Public Theater in New York and was so blown away that I returned and saw it again the next day,” Orlandi said. Nearly 30 years later, a fellow costume designer called him to see if he was interested in designing the movie, and the next day he had the job. Shot in New York, Fire Island, and the Hamptons, the film proved a fantastic experience, though Orlandi admits to feeling responsible for getting it right. The movie dramatizes the onset of the HIV-aids crisis in New York City in the early 1980s and he never wanted to the characters to look jokey. “These are real people, so I never wanted the clothes to distract from the powerful script”.
Orlandi was born in New Jersey, the younger of two sons born to a first generation Italian-American family. At the age of 10 he went to see his first play and knew instantly that designing for theater would be his passion, and by 11 years old he would take the bus into Manhattan on his own, and buy a second balcony ticket to a Broadway show. “Nothing made me happier” he said. His parents were somewhat unfamiliar with his interests, but totally supportive.
After graduating high school, Orlandi was accepted into Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, which offered one of the few undergraduate programs featuring set design, lighting design, and costume design. There he was to get his BA and make lifelong friends, some of whom were to become future collaborators.
A stint in New York followed, where he designed off-off-Broadway, worked for free much of the time, and realized that designing Broadway shows was already monopolized by a few well established designers who were not going to relinquish their positions willingly. In 1980 Orlando headed west to Los Angeles.
It wasn’t long before his life changed forever. A friend asked him to come in to Elizabeth Courtney Costumes to help meet a deadline for some costumes for “Jubilee.” His job was supposed to last two days, but he stayed for eight and a half years as Bob Mackie’s assistant. Almost immediately he found himself working on a big Hollywood film, “Pennies from Heaven”, and credits Ret Turner for looking out for him, guiding him, and steering him away from making the mistakes a film novice might make.
When asked what he learned from Mackie, Orlandi says that it was the work ethic and Mackie’s complete attention to every detail that most impressed him and informed the rest of his own career.
The ‘80s were full of movies, variety shows, and TV specials with Mackie, but eventually Orlandi knew it was time to strike out on his own. A colleague from his Carnegie Mellon days was doing the production design for a David Copperfield TV special and got Daniel an interview for the costumes. Not only did he get the job, but he won an Emmy!
Orlandi’s first feature was as co-designer with Rita Ryack for a film called “The Fan” with Robert De Niro and Wesley Snipes, which led to De Niro’s producing partner asking him to design a miniseries in New York called “Witness to the Mob”. Then followed the film “Flawless,” (again with De Niro) as well as Philip Seymour Hoffman, which began a long association with producer Joel Shumacher, and later with Jay Roach on “Meet the Parents.”
“Working with De Niro”, Orlandi said, “was truly a joy. De Niro loves costumes and is willing to try on 200 things in a fitting to find to find the perfect piece for the character. No detail is too unimportant, no research too much trouble.”
Orlandi has a great love for his work and find it endlessly fascinating. Once immersed in a project he learns all sorts of unexpected things and finds it all consuming. For the 2009 film “Angels and Demons” he became obsessed with Catholic rituals, not to mention finding original ecclesiastical sources in Rome in order to create over a thousand cardinals, priests, bishops, Swiss Guards, and nuns to recreate the Vatican in Los Angeles.
When asked if he prefers to design period or contemporary films, Orlandi says only that he likes to design character. “I often feel like I am a psychologist, working with the actor, getting at the underlying psychological reasons why people and characters are wearing what they wear, and finding the details that make it so rewarding.”
On last year’s film “Saving Mr. Banks”, for instance, he learned that PJ Travers always wore silver bracelets in real life. Orlandi had an original turn-of-the-century piece that he put on Emma Thompson. “She wore it almost like a talisman, with every costume, even with her nightgown. I enjoy those kinds of character touches.” For “Saving Mr. Banks”, Orlandi was nominated for five major awards for Best Costume Design, including the Costume Designers Guild award for Excellence in Period Film.
Another example of his abilities to work with actors is his design for Sandra Bullock in “The Blind Side”. Based on his research on the real Leigh Anne Tuohy, much of what Orlandi originally brought into the fitting wardrobe was in pastels. In the fitting with Bullock it wasn’t working, but once they chose pieces that were drained of color—very classic, neutral, and well-fit—it all came together.
Jobs have also taken Orlandi to interesting parts of the world, such as London and Paris for “The Da Vinci Code,” Italy for “Angels and Demons”, and more recently to Morocco where he spent eight weeks in Marrakesh designing a pilot called “Tyrant” with British director David Yates.
He is currently in New Orleans, filming “Jurassic World,” a huge and challenging project about which he is not free to say much, and after a quick visit home will return to New Orleans to design “Trumbo” about the career of Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and the Hollywood blacklist of the late 1940’s. It stars Bryan Cranston and Helen Mirren and will be another collaboration with director Jay Roach.
Clearly Orlandi is a man who finds great joy in his chosen career. When not working, he loves spending time at his home in Los Angeles and his weekend house in Palm Springs.