How Julia Roberts Transformed Into Martha Mitchell in ‘Gaslit’

Starz’s new series “Gaslit” takes a look at the Watergate scandal, focusing on one of the lesser-known figures involved in uncovering the controversy that defined President Richard Nixon’s time in office.

The limited series, which airs new episodes each Sunday, tells the story of Martha Mitchell, a Washington, D.C., socialite and wife of then-Attorney General John Mitchell, who was known as a gossip and regularly appeared in the media on magazine covers and TV shows. The series chronicles how Mitchell, played by Julia Roberts, was one of the first to uncover the Watergate scandal after overhearing her husband’s conversations and attempted to go to the press with the news.

Roberts’ portrayal of the late socialite was brought to life in part by the series’ costume designer Susie DeSanto, makeup artist Jean Black and hair stylist Terrie Velazquez-Owen, who looked to the real-life figure’s style and recreated it for the show.

“Martha being Martha Mitchell was very much in the public eye, way more than a lot of movie stars,” DeSanto said about her research process for the costumes. “Her name recognition as you learn when you watch the first episode of the show was even higher than [former First Lady] Pat Nixon or even [former Secretary of State] Henry Kissinger. More people knew who she was than her husband. She had an 87 percent recognition level at a time when there were only a few channels on TV and magazines and no social media, so she was very famous and infamous in her own right.”

Mitchell was known for wearing lavish clothing and always overaccessorizing. DeSanto explained that she “definitely dressed to attract attention” and “was not somebody that wanted to blend into the background.”

Sean Penn and Julia Roberts in “Gaslit.”
Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/Starz

While DeSanto recreated several of Mitchell’s actual looks — like the outfit she wears during a Barbara Walters interview — her strategy was to take a loose interpretation so the costumes would be flattering on Roberts and not detract from the storyline.

“The director used to say, ‘we’re not doing a documentary, we’re telling a story,’” DeSanto said. “There were some things that I think we got really close to, some of Martha’s stuff that she actually wore, but it was more an interpretation of Martha, so that wasn’t completely knocked off.”

When it came to hair, however, Velazquez-Owen took fewer creative liberties with her approach. The hairstylist considered Roberts’ face shape and how it was different than Mitchell’s and decided to recreate two of the socialite’s most well-known hairstyles during the 1970s: her bouffant and her flipped-out bob. Velazquez-Owen used wigs on Roberts to expedite the getting-ready process each day.

As Mitchell’s overaccessorized outfits and signature hairstyle were the hallmarks of her look, Black kept her makeup relatively simple, using subtle eye shadow colors to match Roberts’ costumes and keeping her lips neutral.

“We weren’t trying to make a replica of Martha,” Velazquez-Owen said. “We were trying to bring out Julia’s best features, too. A lot of the styles were not so flattering [on Roberts]. Martha had a rounded-out face and Julia is more angular, so I couldn’t do some of these really severe hairstyles. I kind of, I don’t want to say modified, but I wanted to take the feeling of the Martha silhouette, but customize it to Julia’s features.”

Julia Roberts in "Gaslit"

Julia Roberts in “Gaslit.”
Hilary Bronwyn Gayle

For the three leads, it was important to give Roberts beauty and fashion looks she could incorporate into the character as Mitchell’s style played a pivotal role in who she was. Mitchell often used her appearance to get people’s attention, particularly when she was speaking out about the Watergate scandal.

“I don’t want to say she weaponized [her style], but she used it in her own way because I wouldn’t say she was a trendsetter or a follower, but she had her own very specific look,” Velazquez-Owen said. “She was a socialite, a lady who lunched in Washington. She was a woman of importance and she had a big personality and a big mouth. I think she dressed accordingly.”

Black continued the sentiment, adding: “Her beauty wasn’t so much about just what she wore with these outrageous costumes and hair, but it was her persona. It came naturally out of her because she was really such a likable, funny, smart and witty person.”

Roberts herself was closely involved in the fashion and beauty for her role, which the three leads think helped her get into character and bring Mitchell back to life on the screen.

“That’s my favorite thing: working with an actor like Julia who is so into her clothes and the clothes are so important to her in creating a character,” DeSanto said. “Some actors you have to be really careful when you’re doing a big character like that with these really big outfits because sometimes the clothes can kind of wear them, but Julia being who she is and how she played the character, she could wear all the big looks and pull it off and it didn’t diminish her. Her performance and ability to transform herself into Martha — that all came through.”

READ MORE HERE: 

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A Closer Look at Lily James and Sebastian Stan’s Transformations in ‘Pam & Tommy’ 

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