This Saturday marks the premiere of Lifetime’s latest film, House of Versace. Based on Deborah Ball’s book, House of Versace: The Untold Story of Genius, Murder, and Survival, the film gives an in-depth look at Donatella Versace’s life in the years after her brother and renowned designer Gianni Versace was shot and killed at the height of the brand’s success. It follows Donatella, played by Gina Gershon, as she falls into a world of drugs, disorder, and chaos. And even though Versace recently told WWD, “Since Versace did not authorize the book on which it is based, the movie should only be seen as a work of fiction,” actress Gina Gershon still had a very large task in front of her when she took on the part: Playing a well-known public figure with a very distinct look.
We caught up with Gershon to talk about her amazing transformation into the iconic fashionista. Here’s your checklist for the long road to becoming Donatella Versace:
The body: “You have to lose weight and start working out like a fiend, especially your arms because she has those amazing arms, which was good because I needed to do that anyway so that forced me into doing it. It was right before summer so it was like, ‘Alright, I’ll do this.'”
The voice: “Start smoking a lot of cigarettes, which I wasn’t really used to, but I had to learn because she smokes quite a bit and it also helps with the voice. I can’t do her voice unless I have that sort of thing going on.”
The face: “You gotta have some tape to flatten out the face when you need to. You pull it a little bit. That helps with the lips. Her lips get kind of wider as she gets older.”
The shoes/walk: “High, high heels! You have to wear super high heels at all times even when you’re going to the gym. She’s a little thing and she likes to be big, and she wears those heels like nobody’s business. But it also helped with the walk. The tighter the skirt and the tighter I made my waist — sometimes a corset — and the higher the heels, I felt like I could fall into her walk and her stance a little bit easier. She kind of walks with her hips more, her hips are jutted forward and her shoulders are a little bit caved in, which is completely the exact opposite, I’m usually more swayback-y. So I had to really really concentrate on that probably the most of anything.”
The accent: “I listened to her non-stop. I would listen to her as I was going to sleep; I was listening to her in my trailer. Luckily for me, she’s done a lot of interviews, and I’ve done Italian accents before, but hers is very different. Not only is it Southern Italian, she comes from Calabria. The more Southern you get, the lazier the sound becomes and the wider it becomes. But then on top of it she has a very specific Donatella-esque accent. And she’s really funny, so she’s got a very dry sense of humor. I really started totally going for her accent, but then I guess, with TV, they want to understand what I’m saying. [Laughs] The truth is, if I was really doing Donatella, she’s tough to understand sometimes. I kept requesting we use subtitles, but no one really went for that suggestion. But I was kind of being serious. But that was one thing: I had to pull back on her accent, which kind of bummed me out a little bit, but I also understood why people want to hear what I’m saying.”
The make-up: “I had a zillion pictures of her … It’s like painting your face looking at someone else’s. You’re just putting the shadows and the highlights in a different area. She has a bit of a longer, wider forehead than I do, so I would lighten it up as much as possible. I love makeup, and I love lighting, and I love changing my face. It’s like painting. It’s all an optical illusion, an then hopefully if the lighting’s right then you really can create that illusion.”
The hair: “It was a really nice wig which was important. When I first got the gig I said, ‘Listen, the wig’s gotta be great,’ because I hate when you watch these sort of movies where it’s supposed to be someone and the wig is wrong. I find it so distracting. Her hair is part of her look. She’s got this iconic look, and she’s had that hair since she was 11 years old. If you saw an invisible face with that hair you’d be like, ‘Oh that’s Donatella Versace,’ so it was really important to me that we got the wig just right in different periods of her life.”
The eyebrows: “I can’t say I looked great after I’d leave the set because then I had to dye my eyebrows white as well, and I dyed the front of my hair white just so it looked. I wanted the illusion of my hair being further back, like a longer forehead. I looked like a crazy alien once the alien came off. I put my hat on, went home, and didn’t look in the mirror because it was too scary.”
The clothes: “She’s like a little teeny tiny thing; she’s like a little Barbie doll. She’s always had a great body, so the clothes, I found a couple vintage pieces from that time period that I was really happy with and the costume lady was happy with, and then some of the stuff we just had to try to recreate, which is tough. Versace’s Versace for a reason because they build those dresses so you look incredible, but unless you have the time to do the corsets and the pulling the way they do it, it’s not quite as fabulous. [The movie's] an illusion, so hopefully it shows up. Some of the clothes I thought were amazing; some of them I thought were not great. When it’s not really Versace, it’s not really Versace.”
The presence: “The most important thing after you get the look together, and even before you get the look together, hopefully you capture the essence of the person. That’s the most important job you have as an actress playing someone. I was really interested in how shy she was. I know she seems so flamboyant but there’s an actual real shyness that she has, and there’s a softness and a vulnerability, but then there’s that absolute protection that she has. Her sense of humor I thought was really important; she kind of has a very dry wit. And who she trusts and who she feels comfortable with and who she doesn’t, I found that informed how I played certain parts.”
And although Gerson has never met Donatella, she didn’t have a problem taking on the role. She actually preferred it. “At a certain point, I didn’t want to [meet her]. If I had met her before I probably wouldn’t have done it because you feel very protective over people. Although I feel like it’s ultimately a very flattering portrayal of her. I only have super respect for her,” Gershon said. “But I’ve done projects where I’ve been in touch and worked with the living person of who I was playing, and I think what happens psychologically or subconsciously, you start protecting them in weird ways, so you don’t play certain scenes as intensely as you would had you not known them.”
So how then did she prepare? “I read anything I could on her. I read all of her interviews; I watched every single piece of video tape that she had. There was a really great French documentary when they were getting ready for a show, which I thought really was pretty helpful. It showed her personality and what she was like and how she dealt with people, the rhythm of how she spoke.”
All in all, Gershon calls the role “one of the most challenging parts I’ve ever done” due to the film’s large amount of “emotionally trying” scenes, but that doesn’t mean Donatella never smiled. “There’s a couple scenes that were certainly fun before everything started going wrong and she was just sort of fabulous and in her element. There’s something really fun about her,” Gershon said.
House of Versace premieres Saturday, Oct. 5 at 8 p.m. on Lifetime.