Costume Designer Sammy Sheldon Differ Is A Superhero Stylist (Literally)
Spandex is only the start.
In Elite Daily’s I Have The Job You Want series, we tell the stories of people working in the most ridiculous, unbelievable, and totally envy-inducing fields you never thought possible. In this piece, we talk to the woman who styled some of your fave Marvel superheroes, including the stars of the upcoming movie Eternals.
“To be honest, I’ve always been into clothing,” says costume designer Sammy Sheldon Differ. “[But] I wouldn’t say fashion. I didn’t necessarily ever want to follow what’s fashionable.” Since her big break in creating the costumes for Black Hawk Down in 2001, the woman behind the looks has been designing for action and fantasy films for nearly 20 years. Her latest project, Marvel’s Eternals, has her designing outfits for some of the biggest names in Hollywood, dressing for a journey that will introduce an entire pantheon of new superheroes to audiences.
Though mainstream audiences might not know her name, they’re almost certainly familiar with Differ’s work. Designing costumes for Ridley Scott’s 2001 film Black Hawk Down was only her first major blockbuster: Audiences have seen her designs in everything from X-Men: First Class to the movie adaptation of Kinky Boots. But some of her most significant projects have been 2018’s Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, 2015’s Marvel’s Ant-Man, and now Marvel’s newest upcoming film, Eternals, which will be released in the United States on Nov. 5.
As a costume designer, Differ’s duties range from analyzing scripts and breaking down every outfit to budgeting and research. Working with a project’s director, she develops the concept that becomes the guide to costume design creation. This, in turn, becomes sketches and fabrics, and finally, garments to build along with dyeing, printing, distressing, and more. It’s a process that requires collaboration with a huge team of fabric artists, cutters, and sewers.
“It’s quite elemental,” she says of her creative process. “I love to work in that way where I break things down into a color theory, or some element, whether it be a mineral or a tree. There is always an element of organicness, putting that into the makeup of the character that you’re creating.”
When it comes to the specifics of Eternals, Differ focused on individuality. “They were all so different!” she says of the actors. “And so individual. They were a delight to work with. I mean, if I had to pick [a standout], it couldn’t just be one.” She calls Salma Hayek “amazing,” along with Lauren Ridloff. Kumail Nanjiani is “equally delightful,” and Richard Madden “came with such stuff.”
The diversity of the characters led Differ to focus on creating a distinct look for each character, while thinking of how the characters and their styles made up a team. “Having it be such a big group and having individuality in that group, instead of them having a team outfit, is really important,” she says.
A Marvel movie might be a high-energy spectacle, but there are a lot of early mornings that go into it. Differ is usually most present for the process of “establishing,” or setting up the opening shots that give the audience the first look at the settings and characters. A typical day on set establishing costumes for the principal actors begins “super early,” around 6 a.m. “We usually check in with the actor, [making] sure everything’s there,” Differ says, before the costuming team follows the actor to the set while they shoot their scenes. After shooting is complete, Differ and her team head back to the costume shop for more work preparing for the weeks to come.
Once you’ve designed a costume, it might not practically work.
Some people might think designing for huge names on blockbuster projects is “champagne and wandering around in designer clothes,” Differ says. But the reality is far more mundane: wall-to-wall research, long hours, and “an awful lot of problem-solving.”
“Once you’ve designed a costume, it might not practically work,” Differ explains. “You’ve got to rethink it in order for it to mechanically work for scenes of stunts, and movement, and whatever. Wet, dry, underwater, flying through the air, on wires. There’s so much mechanical stuff.” That’s why the team she works with is so important. “Our department [is] so bound with other departments like stunts, makeup, prosthetics, even props because of weapons,” she points out. “As a designer, you cannot do this job without your team.”
Another reason the team is important? As the person providing the big ideas, Differ isn’t always the one doing the hands-on work of getting an actor dressed and maintained on set. “You realize that actually, you’re not very useful there once things are set in terms of the look. And also, getting up early is really hard,” she laughs.
While anyone who’s ever put together a really great Halloween costume knows the appeal of dressing up, Differ knew she wanted to work on costumes from the moment she saw Star Wars at age 10. “I didn’t know what I was looking at, but I knew I wanted to be involved in it,” she recollects. “I remember sitting in the cinema, turning to my mum and going, ‘This is what I want to do.’”
She didn’t know what that meant at the time, but it sparked something in Differ anyway. “From 10 to 16, I started making clothes for myself,” she says. “At 16, I went to art college and immediately knew that I didn’t want to be in fashion because there was no costume. It was probably from that point I knew I wanted to be a costume designer.”
When she finished art college at 18, Differ went to the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester and threw herself at them. She remembers begging, “‘Please give me a job. I just love costume.’ I said I’d work for nothing.” The shameless self-promotion worked: They took her on as a trial run, and four weeks later, she was accepted as a trainee.
Differ spent the next four years working as an apprentice, until one day, the costume supervisor told her she needed to take the next step. “‘Sammy, you’re wasting your time staying here,’” she remembers her supervisor saying. “‘I want you to go and apply to Wimbledon [College of Arts] and [get] a degree.’” The entire department helped her apply, with designers and supervisors coming up with projects for her to create designs for her portfolio.
Wimbledon wasn’t just a chance to get a degree, but also a chance to make contacts. Most of Differ’s teachers were working professionals as well as professors. Differ soon found herself working on music videos, which moved her from the world of live theater to film. It was while working in this world that she met future Academy Award winner Janty Yates. Yates hired her to work on Gladiator (the film that would earn Yates her Oscar), opening the door to big-budget films. And when Yates found herself too busy to take on a project on offer — a little film called Black Hawk Down — she passed along Differ’s name as the one to do it.
Though Black Hawk Down might not seem like a project that would translate to superhero films, it set up a line of projects Differ would work on, including the 2007 fantasy film Stardust. The film wasn’t a massive hit, but Differ says it was the one that led her to V for Vendetta, the Kick-Ass films, and Assassin’s Creed, and pushed her into the superhero sphere.
“One thing leads to another when you start in the superhero world,” Differ explains. “It just kind of builds and builds.”
One day around 2013 she got a call asking, “‘Will you do this little test for a film we’re thinking of doing called Ant-Man?’ So we did this three-day test; we built the ant suit in four weeks. And then a year later, Peyton [Reed, the director] rang me and went, ‘So we’re going to do that film. Do you want to come to Atlanta?’”
Her schedule didn’t work out to do the second Ant-Man film, Ant-Man and the Wasp. (Differ had already committed to the Jurassic World sequel, and as she explains, she’s “quite faithful” once she picks a project.) But she’ll be back for Quantumania in 2023.
I think it’s really good to give it back.
When asked how others can follow in her footsteps, Differ says she believes anyone who wants to work in costume design should learn as much costuming history as possible and how to build garments. “Be interested in clothing. If [you] can learn to make things — even in a small way — I think that’s a really big help,” she says. “See how good you are at drawing, so you can actually draw for designing. And have an awareness of fashion even if it’s not following it. Just know what’s going on.”
But for Differ, the real key is being into film: “Love film. Watch films. Really watch films.” She is passionate about this point: “There are some amazing films out there through the years that are, for me, very influential. Star Wars, Blade Runner, Westerns, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly...” Above all, she says, “Have an opinion on film. Watch films.”
Differ’s journey into costume design was made possible with the support of artists around her, just learning on the job. Now, with her own success, she tries to pay it forward. “Certainly [in] my department, we always try and get trainees to come in on every single job, and try and move them up. So there’s always a constant flow of young people coming through. People helped me when I was first starting out,” she says. “I think it’s really good to give it back.”