Depicting Authenticity and Realism Behind Diverse Characters in Flamin' Hot with Costume Designer Elaine Montalvo

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

We recently spoke with Costume Designer Elaine Montalvo about her work representing the Montañez family in Flamin’ Hot, which tells the true story of Richard Montañez’s incredible journey from working as a janitor at a Frito Lay plant to creating the massive success of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.

Inspired by her own Mexican American heritage and photos that the real Richard Montañez provided for her, Elaine’s work presents an authentic aesthetic that depicts real people without stereotyping. The film depicts five different decades, and Elaine specially designed each decade with a distinct look through her use of various silhouettes, colors, and textures. She also uses costume as a way to represent the hierarchy of status, as Richard works his way up in the ranks of the Frito Lay company.

Blindspotting season two picks up where season one left off with the exploration of tender relationships forced together from incarceration. As the series deals with multi-cultural topics and deep socio-economic issues, it was crucial for Elaine to give each diverse character a distinct identity while also portraying a convincing community. Elaine worked with Oakland-based vendors and designers to put Oakland’s unique style on screen, including brands like Ade Dehye, Beast Oakland, Dope Era, and Meadow Futur.

PH: Hi Elaine! Can you share how you became involved with Flamin’ Hot? 

Elaine Montalvo: My representation, Eastern Talent Agency, submitted me for the feature. Matthew Greenfield, Co-President of Searchlight Pictures, called me to reconnect (we had worked together years prior) and discuss Flamin’ Hot. We had a great conversation about ways I could contribute to 

the film and character depiction, not only because of my years of experience as a costume designer but also because of my personal background. I share some cultural similarities with the main character Richard Montañez, and Matthew felt I could bring a unique insight to the authenticity of the story. He encouraged me to pursue taking part in the project. I next met with Eva Longoria, and it was immediately clear that her vision for the film was powerful. I knew instantly that this was a project I wanted to be a part of. So we got to work right away. It was meant to be. It was a truly great experience. 

PH: What are some of the challenges with depicting real people, culture, and heritage without stereotyping, and how did you overcome that for this project?

Elaine Montalvo: There are challenges when depicting real people and heritage without stereotyping. Some images of a culture are overused and simplified. One way to overcome the risk of repeating unwelcome clichés is to find the truth and context in a story before making a design decision. For example, in Flamin’ Hot the family of main character Richard Montañez made a modest living by working in agricultural fields such as vineyards. In his life story, this is not a stereotype, it’s a fact. That’s the difference. When we portray the family and their circumstances, we do so with accuracy and dignity. My approach to the costume design of Flamin’ Hot was to deliver an authentic aesthetic that both honors Mexican American culture and tells the story. I chose to depict real people in a real way. 

PH: How did your own Mexican American heritage play a role in your work?

Elaine Montalvo: My Mexican American heritage made my involvement in the film extra personal. All projects, no matter the genre, require a deep level of commitment. A designer becomes immersed in the world and empathizes with all characters. But because not enough of our Mexican American stories get told, I take on an additional sense of responsibility when I design a project like this one. You want to do right by your family and friends and present us in the best light possible, which Flamin’ Hot does. 

PH: Can you walk me through designing for multiple decades? How did you plan and prepare? 

Elaine Montalvo: I approached the research in a very personal way, first by going into my own family’s photographs from the different eras. I felt that those images would be the most accurate and truthful regarding the way people dressed at the time. Then I met with Richard and Judy Montañez in their home, and they shared their family photographs and gave verbal descriptions of details. For example, Richard emphasized the 1-inch cuffs on his jeans to the hair nets that employees wore at the Frito-Lay factory. Then Eva Longoria and I reviewed the research and decided when it was appropriate to take creative license for the sake of visual impact. Sometimes a depiction in the movie would differ somewhat with that reality but would still however maintain the essence of what actually happened. For example, in reality the factory workers would get dressed into their uniforms at work in a locker room, and the uniforms would be cleaned by a cleaning service. But in our movie, Richard gets dressed at home, because we wanted the emotional connection between his wife Judy and Richard as he proudly prepares and goes to work wearing his uniform. The film takes us through five decades, each having a distinct look. We start in the 1960s. 

1960’s: In 1966, the clothes conveyed our characters’ modest beginnings, struggles, and joy while maintaining the family’s dignity. We first see the family working in a migrant labor camp picking grapes, and we knew it was important to depict the evidence of sweat and dirt. Richard is a young boy during this time and going to public school. For research and reference, I pulled from real family photos of Richard’s and my own. This project had a personal aspect. It was vital to get it right. Work clothes showed evidence of dirt and sweat. School clothes showed an economic divide where some children wore new outfits and others wore hand-me downs. We sourced and rented authentic clothing from the era. A lot of these vintage items were still in great condition. It’s a delicate balance to convey a modest income without depriving a character of dignity. The real Richard Montañez emphasized to me that even when they were poor, they were always ironed and clean. That was crucial to me to represent poor without falling into clichés or stereotypes. 

1970’s: This is the first decade where we meet Richard and Judy as adults. Richard is played by Jesse Garcia and Judy is played by Annie Gonzalez, both super talented actors and wonderful people. In the 70’s, Richard’s and Judy’s styles depicted their street gang life - they were reckless youth with nothing to lose. We get a glimpse of the cholo and chola crowd they ran with during these years in their youth. I balanced cool and warm tones in the clothing choices, again basing garment decisions with styles actually worn in Southern California at the time. 

1980’s: The 80’s represented an effort to progress in life as Richard and Judy’s family responsibilities grew and Richard started working at the Frito-Lay plant in Rancho Cucamonga. The styles showed a progression of practicality and responsibility. Their clothes become a little more mainstream, gradually losing the cholo/chola edge. 

1990’s: In the 90’s, Richard and Judy are more mature in their outlook and more practical in their style. By this time, the street edge for the most part fades from their clothing. 

2016: We get a glimpse of the culmination of Richard’s and Judy’s success. This is the most refined way that we depict their style. I represented Richard’s success by refining his clothing. He’s no longer buying his clothes at a second hand store. He can now wear a real Versace tie. There’s a moment earlier in the movie when Richard and Judy are shopping at a second hand store and buy a knock-off Versace tie. It’s subtle and not mentioned, but some people might notice.

PH: Where did you draw inspiration to ensure that you were staying true to each decade? 

Elaine Montalvo: I initially drew inspiration from my own family history and that of Richard Montañez. In a biopic film such as Flamin’ Hot, the best inspiration is from true life captured moments from the various eras. It’s good to reference photographs of what people actually wore in everyday life before relying on fashion images where style is often heightened. 

PH: Can you talk about the importance of giving each character a distinct identity?

Elaine Montalvo: Costume designers help define each character through the visual art of clothing. It’s helpful to the audience if each character has personal distinction. Sometimes this is accomplished through silhouette, which gives a general shape to the character. Color control is also a reliable technique for adding distinction. Fabric texture can also be effective. 

PH: How do you approach multicultural topics and socio-economic issues in a realistic, compassionate, and accurate way through your work? 

Elaine Montalvo: It’s important as a designer and person to remember that poverty does not directly equate to a diminished appearance. A character can present dignity even in the worst of circumstances. And when a point in a character’s journey calls for a weathered appearance, it’s crucial to align that costume detail with a purpose in the script. Flamin’ Hot tells the story of Richard Montañez, a janitor who rose up the ranks at Frito Lay. The factory uniforms represented a hierarchy of status - those of privilege and those without. CEOs and managers at the very top wore pricey suits and those at the bottom rank wore practical utilitarian uniforms. Though at the bottom of the rank, Richard’s uniform was his badge of honor, his first legitimate job. The uniform started off brand new when he was first hired and progressively became more lived in and tired as the years passed and as his hopes of promotion faded with every passing year. These details help emphasize story and character progression but in a compassionate way. 

PH: Can you also share how you collaborated with Oakland-based vendors and designers to highlight Oakland’s unique style on screen? 

Elaine Montalvo: Blindspotting Season 2 is set in Oakland, California, but we filmed mostly in Los Angeles, partly in Oakland and briefly in Santa Cruz. I brought Oakland to LA by seeking out Oakland vendors and designers and putting those looks on the screen. Some vendors were found through internet searches, some were leads from showrunner Rafael Casal. All businesses were excited to take part. At that point, the Bay Area community was very familiar with season one of Blindspotting and loved the show. Early in prep, creators Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs noted that Oakland’s style has more in common with Baltimore than Los Angeles partly due to climate. It’s often quite cold in Oakland so people dress in layers, and colors tend to not be very vibrant. There’s also a very unique and diverse tapestry of style. For example, Afrocentric influences are sometimes brought into textile design and shape. In the fitting room we were able to infuse various styles and brands seamlessly into the outfits. We’re not out to exaggerate what people might be wearing in Oakland, but we want to be artistically and culturally representative.

PH: What were some of those brands and why was it important to showcase them?

Elaine Montalvo: Some Oakland brands and designers to mention are Ade Dehye, The Bay Hoodie, Beast Oakland, Chula Aesthetics, Clouds and Ladders, Dope Era, Good News Apparel, Love Iguehi, Madow Futur, Oaklandish, Oakland Native, Oakland’s Own, Oakland Roots and Taylor Jay. It was important to the Blindspotting creators Rafael Casal, Daveed Diggs, Jess Wu Calder and Keith Calder to represent Oakland accurately and respectfully. This is their hometown, their community, this is where they grew up. We wanted to tap into some of the designers and vendors not immediately known to those outside of the Oakland area and to introduce these looks to a wider audience. 

PH: Can you talk about any upcoming projects you have in the works? 

Elaine Montalvo: Some of my upcoming projects include a short film entitled The Kill Floor, which I produced with my husband, Carlos Avila, who was the writer and director of the project. I did the costume design. The story focuses on the neglect of worker safety in meatpacking plants during the pandemic. The film premieres Saturday, March 18 at the San Diego Latino Film Festival and will stream on PBS in September. 

I also costume designed One True Loves, a feature film starring Phillipa Soo, Simu Liu and Luke Bracey directed by Andy Fickman, produced by Betsy Sullenger and Willie Kutner. It’s an adaptation of the best selling book of the same title by Taylor Jenkins Reid. The main character, Emma Blair, finds herself suddenly having to choose between her long lost husband and her new fiancé. The movie will be released in select theaters on April 7 and on Apple TV April 14. 

Currently, I am in Albuquerque, New Mexico costume designing a movie for Disney+ entitled Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. It stars Eva Longoria, George Lopez and Jesse Garcia. Marvin Lemus is directing, whom I worked with on the Netflix series Gentefied. And of course Eva and Jesse I worked with on Flamin’ Hot. It’s great to be back here and to see some familiar faces.

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