Kirby Howell-Baptiste Is a Fashion Fanatic Who Loves an Extremely Dramatic Look

When the first image of Emma Stone as Cruella de Vil was released back in August 2019, you got the sense Disney’s Cruella was going to be a fashionable film. Her punk-inspired black leather jacket with puffed, checkered sleeves was certainly a statement. Having seen the movie, I realize calling it “fashionable” may have been a major understatement. Watching Cruella is like getting a front row seat to the most incredible couture show, each look more imaginative and jaw-dropping than the last. It’s a level of detail that was especially exciting to actress Kirby Howell-Baptiste, who plays Anita in the film. “You can’t be a fashion enthusiast and not covet every single thing Cruella wears,” she says over a Zoom call. 

Howell-Baptiste is definitely one of those enthusiasts. When she steps into a fitting with her stylists Wayman + Micah, it’s always, “Let’s make a statement!” That confidence, she tells me, comes from growing up in London, where she was influenced by the city’s daring and creative fashion culture. It’s that same culture, albeit in the ’60s and ’70s, that sets the stage for Cruella, the gritty origin story of the infamous Disney villain, who—before becoming the Cruella de Vil we know today—was Estella, a down-on-her-luck aspiring fashion designer. Alongside a set of ruthless characters, including the delightfully devilish Baroness played by Emma Thompson, Howell-Baptiste’s Anita, a photojournalist and fierce ally to Cruella, brings heart to the film—and her own noteworthy wardrobe. I connected with the actress hours before the big Los Angeles premiere (where she wowed in Dior, BTW) to talk about adding her own flair to Anita, the look that stole the movie, and that open-ended credit scene.

Photo:

Christian Högstedt; STYLIST: Erin Walsh; HAIRSTYLIST: Erinn Courtney; MAKEUP ARTIST: Brandy Allen

Congratulations on Cruella! I absolutely loved the film. This is the origin story of the infamous Disney villain Cruella de Vil, but were you a fan of the original cartoon 101 Dalmatians and/or the ’90s live-action film? 

I watched the cartoon, and then I definitely watched the Glenn Close 1996 film. But I feel like Cruella was one of those iconic villains that you knew even if you weren’t someone who religiously watched any of the movies or cartoons. She is just in the cannon of villains that everyone knows. 

What excited you about this particular take on the iconic Disney character? 

I was really excited about there even being a live-action Cruella because I think it’s such a cool story, and we feel like we know her, and she is such an extreme character, but we meet her so late in her life. Origin stories are really fun anyway because they give you a chance to reset the clock, and it completely changes the trajectory, right? This could be the prequel to the films we’ve already seen, or it can go in a completely different direction. That was exciting. And then knowing the creative voices that were on board. Knowing that Tony McNamara was one of the writers. I am a huge fan of his writing from The Favourite. And then Craig Gillespie being the director, it gave me the confidence that, although I was doing this Disney film, I wouldn’t be doing a saccharine-sweet Disney film. There is just no way with those kinds of people on the creative team. 

You play Anita, who is a key character in the original. What were some of the elements you wanted to bring to her story? 

So this is obviously an origin story for Anita and for the boys as well, Horace and Jasper. It’s seeing how all of the pieces connect. For me, when you are doing something like this, there is a certain responsibility to honor previous iterations of these characters but not to imitate them. [Cruella] described Anita as naïve, but I didn’t see her as naïve. I think she is someone who is very kind and very sweet and someone who thinks about other people, and that is, at least in our version, so different to someone like The Baroness and also to Cruella. So for me, it was bringing the heart of Anita to this new one. But all of the rest of the body was my own and my job to bring my flair to who Anita was. 

Speaking of bringing your own flair to Anita, I am always curious to hear how people get into the mindset of their characters, whether it’s creating a playlist or journaling as that person. What was that for you?

Well actually, it’s interesting what you said about the playlist because I love music, but I don’t think I’m super musical. And Craig had this huge eight-hour-long playlist for this film. Also Joel Fry [who plays Jasper], he is very musical and listened to a lot of music on set. But I’m not really that person. I’m more someone who takes information by reading, so I read a lot about journalism, a lot about the ’70s, and just speaking to people. This Anita is a Black woman in the ’70s in an industry that would be largely dominated by men and/or white people, so she is obviously, I think, going to have a different path. So the way you approach this Anita has to be true to who that person would be in the ’70s. It was also interesting to me because generationally now we don’t understand or we don’t remember or some people don’t even know the weight of print media. Back then, if you were someone who could get your name on the front page, your career would be skyrocketing. So for her, when she meets Cruella and they are at a point where they can both help each other career-wise, that’s huge. Now we have so much media that it’s not the same. I think people in that time will remember how big that was. 

You got to work opposite not one but two incredible Emmas (Stone and Thompson, of course) in this film. How was that? 

Normally, you have one huge star, so to have two was a real two for the price of one. It was great. What’s interesting is they are playing characters who have these similarities and this connection, and that’s in their characters not just plot-wise, but they are also both these fashionistas. The Baroness is way more ruthless than Cruella, but they do share similarities, and actually, [Emma Stone and Emma Thompson] share similarities in real life because both are really kind and really generous. I think the reason they can play villains so well is because they are such genuinely nice, empathetic human beings that when you are on the other side of it, it feels safely dangerous. When you are in a scene with them, you can lose yourself because you know, when the camera cuts, it’s going to be fun and games after. Emma Thompson has a wicked sense of humor. 

Photo:

Laurie Sparham/Disney

Anita is tasked with covering some of London’s most glamorous events, and there were so many incredible themed galas and parties throughout this film. Which was your favorite to film in terms of the costumes and setting?

I absolutely loved the red-dress moment. That was such a wonderful day on set because it was so fun. Obviously, the transformation is CGI, but it was really fun to see the physical transformation from one outfit to the other. Jenny Beavan, who is our costume designer, is incredible as well as Nadia Stacey, who designed the hair and makeup. Top to toe, Emma as Cruella was always visually stunning to look at because no stone was left unturned. The attention and the level of detail was something that I had never seen before. And then on top of that, filming in Helmond Hall was unreal because of Fiona [Crombie], who was our set designer. I think there is a certain amount of liberty and budget she has being that it’s a Disney movie, but her mind is so creative. I remember that day when we were filming. There were candelabras in the room, and there were maybe eight of them. Each one of them had individually lit candles in them, so there were hundreds, maybe thousands, of candles that we would light and then do the full scene. I have never seen anything like it. Most people would put on those little tea lights or fake ones or do it in CGI, but there was just a level of detail that, as an actor, allowed you to lose yourself in the script and in the world that you were playing in. 

This film is a feast for the eyes in terms of fashion. Jenny Beavan created some spectacular looks. What was the fashion conversation for Anita? It seemed like she had a specific color palette. 

You are absolutely right. She has a very specific color palette. When you look at Anita’s wardrobe, color-wise it’s a lot more subdued than the other ladies. It’s a lot more professional. I don’t think there is a single character that doesn’t look stylish. Even Horace and Jasper have this really cool London street style. It’s like pickpocket chic. We had really amazing conversations because Jenny has an encyclopedic knowledge of fashion, and she was around in the ’70s, so every fitting was also, for me, actor research. She would go, “Oh yes, I remember being on Portobello Road in the ’70s, and we would wear this, and we would wear that.” Truly, I think a part of my character building was just talking to her. She has an amazing collection of vintage clothing, and I had a couple of pieces that were vintage, and what was new was handmade and tailor-made for me. When [Anita] comes out to meet Cruella for the first time, I’m in this polyester suit, which is amazing. It fit amazingly, and it absolutely was the ’70s. It was just fun seeing people on our crew who were around at that time being like, “Oh yeah, I remember people dressing like that.” It was nice that every part of our outfits sold the movie even more. 

Do you have a favorite look from the film?

I do have a favorite look. It’s unfortunately not my own. I genuinely loved my outfits, but I’m also someone who is a fashion enthusiast, and you can’t be a fashion enthusiast and not covet every single thing Cruella wears. My favorite look—I think because I have never seen anything so beautiful, and I’ve also never seen anything so creative on screen—is the garbage dress. It’s iconic. It will go down in history. They need to put that somewhere where people can go see it. Actually, I think all of the costumes need to be in a place where people can see them because I was looking at a still of the shot where Cruella is on the car and she’s in that very punk rock/Prince Charming [jacket]. The shoulders with those weird little figurines on it, it’s unreal. 

The film centers on the influential fashion scene in London in the ’60s and ’70s. Growing up in London, how did the city influence your own personal style?

The ’60s and ’70s put London on the map in terms of fashion, music, culture, and being a major exporter of culture. I think it absolutely influences my own personal style. In general, what I love when I go back to London is it feels very daring compared to living in somewhere like L.A., where the highest achievement—or I guess the goal—is pretty. In London, the goal is obviously interesting. That really influences my style because I think it makes way for a lot more creativity and for a less homogenous standard of beauty. That’s something that I really love and that gives me confidence and makes me try things and be daring because that’s all I’ve known.

There is a credit scene that potentially leaves things open for a sequel. What are your thoughts on that?

I think it’s exciting to know that, should there be the interest or desire from both the audience and/or the creative team, it could go further. It’s the perfect teaser. It was an additional scene that I got that Craig said, “We’re going to have you film this scene. Don’t worry—there are no lines.” And I was like, “Okay, sure. You know, I’m here. It’s no big deal.” We filmed that scene, and I had absolutely no idea where it would go or if it would even be in the film, but I think it’s such a wonderful way to end it, ending on an open-ended question. 

Photo:

Getty Images

Tonight is the premiere of the film, and there is going to be an in-person red carpet event, which we haven’t seen in a long time. Can you share any details on what you will be wearing?

I am so excited. I’m wearing this stunning Christian Dior wrap dress. I think it’s so fitting to have a premiere for this film. One, it feels like this movie is marking the return to cinema, and after the year that everyone has had, it’s going to be so nice to sit in a theater—if you can and you’re comfortable doing that—and experience the beauty and majesty on a large screen because that’s the way this movie was always intended to be seen. And then to have an in-person premiere, just from a little girl dress-up point of view, I am so excited to get glam. It’s a film that is undeniably enthusiastic about fashion, so how fun that we all get an opportunity to represent that today. I can’t wait. I’m also doing Kimmel tonight, so it’s a double whammy! 

Looking at some of your past red carpet moments, it’s clear you love a bold look. Is this something that translates into your everyday life as well?

Yeah, I think it definitely translates. You know, when you see those best-dressed and worst-dressed lists, they mean absolutely nothing to me. For me, whatever I wear, I have to be comfortable in it. As long as I feel comfortable and happy in what I’m wearing, then I’m good to go, and that’s how I feel about my everyday life as well. I remember when I first heard RuPaul say on Drag Race, “We’re all born naked, and the rest is drag,” and to me, that’s always how I’ve seen my wardrobe. It’s dress-up. There might be a day where I feel and look really androgynous and another day where it’s hyper-fem. Or one day, I am inspired by wearing monochrome. It’s so much fun. The clothes you put on your body don’t have to be expensive—the majority of my things are from thrift stores—but they are a way for you to outwardly express what’s inside. 

You are working with styling duo Wayman + Micah, who have an incredible client list that includes Regina King, Tessa Thompson, and KiKi Layne, to name a few. What do you love about their approach to styling, and what are some of the conversations you had going into the press for Cruella?

I love them as stylists. I think what’s amazing is they offer a really great balance to each other. The way they see fashion is very holistic, and you feel very well taken care of. I have worked with them for a little while, and they understand I am someone who would like to take risks, and I like wearing something that is edgy and fun or, most of the time, just extremely dramatic. When we go to fittings, I’m like, “You know I love drama. Let’s make a statement.” And they are here for it. They are so creative, and we get a chance to be our most creative together, so that’s really fun and why I enjoy working with them. For this press tour, it’s kind of like a journey. They are really intelligent about creating a story with your looks, particularly if you do have things in succession. And then, there are certain thematic nods that are really clever. Like tonight, my suit for Kimmel is gorgeous. It’s this red suit. I don’t think I have ever worn red on a carpet, but it’s really fitting for Cruella. There’s a slight nod to that, but it’s also really chic and really glamorous and really like a bold statement. If I had my way, I would be like, “Whatever you have for the Met Gala, give it to me for every single event, even if it’s digital press.” 

Later this year, you have the comedy Queenpins with Kristen Bell. Can you tell me a little about that project and teaming up with Bell again?

So Kristen and I have worked together. I think this will mark the fourth time, so I see her probably more than I see my family at this point. Queenpins is a comedy about these two women who start a coupon-scamming empire. It’s based on a true story, but it was about three women, three housewives in Arizona. It’s bizarre and fascinating and incredible. We just had a great time. We shot that during the pandemic, and you know, everyone knows most of the things we’ve had to do are via Zoom. Had I gone onto that set with a brand-new actor, we would find a way, but so many other things we used to do in the past—like meeting in person, table reads, and rehearsals—we never had that. Having the chemistry and the familiarity with Kristen made it so, so easy to work on that job, and I think the chemistry comes through. When you are doing a two-hander like that, a comedy that is just the two of you, it’s almost like the essential ingredient is chemistry. 

Experience Cruella in theaters May 28; It's also available on Disney+ with Premier Access. 

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