“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” film and TV careers, and learning differences
After getting a fashion degree from a college with a learning disabilities program, Stevie Ondra decided to follow her childhood dream: TV and film. She started as a production assistant on an indie film. Then, she worked her way up in the costume and wardrobe department on bigger productions.
Today, she works on hit television shows like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Gossip Girl, The Report, and Raising Kanan. At work, she’s open about her learning differences and what she needs to thrive in her job. Listen in for the inside scoop from Stevie on how to break into the TV and film industry.
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Eleni: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "How'd You Get THAT Job?!," a podcast that explores the unique and often unexpected career paths of people with learning and thinking differences. My name is Eleni Matheou, and I'm a user researcher here at Understood. That means I spend a lot of time thinking about how we find jobs we love that reflect how we learn and who we are. I'll be your host.
So my next guest is one of the brains behind the clothes you see actors wear on television shows. Stevie Ondra works in costume and wardrobe in television for shows like "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel," "The Americans," and "The Report." Stevie has language-based learning challenges, and we're really excited to have her on the show. Welcome to the show. Stevie.
Stevie: Thank you so much for having me. Happy to be here.
Eleni: Yeah. So we already had someone on the show who is a fashion designer.
Stevie: Which is what I went to school for originally.
Eleni: Oh, well, I'm sure we have a bit to talk about then. But your work relates more so to like costume and wardrobe specifically for television.
Stevie: Yeah. I always wanted to work in costumes because I love the medium of storytelling through film and television. And I've always connected with it ever since I was a kid. We used to make movies growing up, me and my best friend, Jamie, who lived a few blocks away. She always had video cameras and her family was very tech savvy. In fifth grade on the last day of school, we decided to make the classic first movie anyone ever makes, which is a horror film. It was just the two of us in this movie playing three different roles and yeah, it just spawned this very creative space. And we went on to make so many silly little movies. We loved it. And we were just so obsessed with the world of cinema. And so that was the beginning of my love in that storytelling world.
Eleni: So, do you think your learning differences played any role in your interests in film or storytelling or costumes?
Stevie: I think I was always a much more creative thinker with my learning differences and all of those things, and that was more of my strength and what I was focused and excited for. So I just started to gravitate toward those fields. But I didn't know anybody in the industry and film and television. So, the next thing that was tangible was working in fashion design. And I was also really interested in fashion and I thought it was very cool, which as soon as you get into it, you realize how rough and tough it is. But that was my interest.
I went to Marist College because they had a really good fashion design program and liberal arts degree, which is what I had wanted. And they also had a learning disability program, which was huge for me because I still needed to have help and resources within that workspace. And so Marist was the absolute perfect pick for me. And so I got a bachelor professional degree there and majored in fashion design, which was a very, very intensive program. But I did it and I finished and that was great. And by the time I left, did not feel it was really the fit for me by the end of it all. Fashion is just a very brutal business and the money's not great.
Eleni: So, what happened when you started looking for a job?
Stevie: So, I went into the workforce and was trying to get a job, even though I wasn't particularly happy in fashion. And I wound up meeting with this like little boutique ad agency and trying to network for fashion connections. And the president of that agency was like, you know, your skills in branding and graphic design'll probably cross over. Why don't you intern here, we'll pay you —which was never happening in fashion — and, you know, let's just see what happens. So I worked there sort of as like content coordinator, junior art director slash admin stuff. It was a really tiny agency. The first commercial they did when I was working there and I pretty much was just a wardrobe assistant.
And then that little production company decided to keep me on as a stylist for them. So anytime they had jobs come through, which was a handful of times a year, they would ask me to come on. And then about three years in, I was kind of like, OK, I have to pick a lane. Am I going to stick with advertising or focus on film? And once someone from that little production company was starting to work on real big union jobs, and I met with him and he got me in touch with a group that's within that costume and wardrobe styling community. And he was like, here, let me get you in touch with the girl, send out your resume and you can probably work in this world. And so I worked as a PA.
Eleni: OK, what is a PA? Is that a production assistant? Like what does that mean?
Stevie: Production assistant. And I worked on a very tiny little indie movie, which was an amazing experience, just a great crew of people. And I had my hands in everything. And then the next PA job I had was on "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel," which was like a totally different experience, going from a teeny tiny little show to this massive major, huge budget production.
And I learned so much. There was so much that I did not know about that world. And from there I PA'd for a year and a half or two years. And I worked on "Maisel," "The Americans." I worked on "Quantico." I pretty much tried to make sure to work on a period show, a cop show, a contemporary show. And once you sort of get all those skills and you get a mentor, you can be ready to move up to the next level.
Eleni: So you mentioned "Marvelous Mrs. Maisel." I had not seen it, and I watched a lot of episodes this week for research and yeah, I absolutely loved it. I love vintage fashion. So that was like super exciting to me. And like the costumes are wonderful and I mean, the show is wonderful. It's won dozens of awards, like the Golden Globes. It won an Emmy.
Stevie: Yeah. It's a very brilliant group of people. I mean, that was my first real show business job, like for-real-for-real, you know. I would do these little non-union commercials and then this non-union movie. And so for that to be like, my first show coming out of the gate was really intense and, you know, you're working with the best of the best, and that was just such an advantage.
And I worked on the first season as a PA, which is just like the bottom person. But I would bring in all the jewelry every morning to background and get it all set up and watch the designer go through every person. And it was such a great learning experience. And now I'm going to go back for the last season as a wardrobe person, after trying so many other shows. And so I'm excited to go back for the last season and kind of bookend it. That'll be very fun.
Eleni: Yeah. So exciting. I never bumped into any filming in New York City, but the one thing I've bumped into, I know — the one thing I actually walked by while they were filming was "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel," and there was all these really like beautiful racks. I was like, oh my God, look at all these dresses. Amazing.
Well, it sounds like being a PA is a really important career step in the film and television industry. Can you explain what you did as a PA or what you got out of?
Stevie: I specifically was always a production assistant in the costume design department, which was great, cause you are just learning everything about your field. But sometimes you can work as a PA in other departments as well, which I think is equally as great of a learning experience for anybody. But yeah, being a production assistant, you are running errands, making the drop-offs. A lot of times, you'll be just driving the designer to set, back to the shop, doing all that stuff.
You know, it's kind of tough, but it can also be a really valuable experience, because you're hearing all the conversations that are happening among the bosses of these departments. And that's how I viewed it and kind of what got me through that time, because it's not always easy being the bottom. And it's a really important part of the process too. Because you're running all the errands, you're seeing how it's all going on — seeing all the different vendors and other departments within the production. Even though you have to go drop off this thing for props or whatever, you meet the props people, you talk to them, see what their job's about.
There are many different types of PAs you can be within the costume department. You can be a returns PA, the designer's PA. And it can mean anything from paperwork to driving the designer around, picking up the fabric, meeting the vendors. So it's tough, but it is very valuable. As long as you have a good thought process on the whole thing.
Eleni: So you mentioned that a lot of people start their careers out as PAs and move up from there. How did you get from, you know, the bottom of the food chain up to where you are now?
Stevie: And at that time, I was still sort of focusing on trying to do design. And so within that world, the ladder you kind of climb typically as you go from PA to a coordinator where you're in charge of the budget and just like managing everything of the day-to-day, making everything that needs to happen, happen for the designers. And then from there you work up to a shopper and then assistant costume designer and designer. So I worked as a coordinator on "The Report," which was a film that's available on Amazon. It went to Sundance, which was really fun. Then I went and worked on "Blindspot." And after that, at that point, I realized it was a better fit for me to move on to the wardrobe side, as opposed to the design side. So I started working in wardrobe and I made that transition. And yeah, I've been doing that ever since.
Eleni: How did you figure out which would be the best fit for you?
Stevie: There were a few choices why I chose to go the wardrobe route, as opposed to the design route. Design is really challenging and really intense. And, um, you know, wardrobe is — it's a lot easier to get into a groove. But really the main thing is it's a lot easier for people to have a family when you work in wardrobe. And that's something that I would like for myself. And it's just a lot easier to create job-share situations or work part-time as a wardrobe person versus design. Like when you were on a job, you were there, you were there for the three months, the 12 months, whatever it is. And it is intense and taking time off is very, very hard. And for me and my personal life, that was what really dictated that change and choice for me.
Eleni: I would love for you to explain really, really simply what a day to day would look like for you in the costume department.
Stevie: Yeah, the biggest thing first is the design versus the wardrobe. I would say design — they are in charge of like creating the look that goes on the body. So they pick the fabric or they pick the look, everything. And then wardrobe is in charge of the clothes, getting the clothes prepared to go on the body, getting them on the body, maintaining continuity on screen as it's happening, setting, maintaining whatever the designer wants. And then getting the clothes off the body, the clothes cleaned and turned around and ready, and either set aside to be put away or to go back again the next day.
Eleni: And what do you mean by continuity?
Stevie: So for continuity, that would be making sure that the jacket is zipped up all the way or unzipped or just any of that. So when you work on set as a wardrobe person, that's like the whole big part of your job. As soon as like a first take goes, you have got to maintain whatever the look is. If the tie is crooked or not crooked, you know, all of these things are so important, then that's a huge part of that job.
Eleni: All the little details.
Stevie: Yeah. And so in wardrobe, you can work on set or in the shop. And so my current job, I'm just working in the shop right now. And so that's just keeping the shop clean, keeping it all restocked, turning around any costumes that come back, doing all of that stuff. But when you work on set, which is what I had been doing over the summer on "Gossip Girl," it's sort of exciting because you can be on out there, but then it's a lot of hurry up and wait.
So working on set, it's really long hours. You typically start very early at the beginning of the week and it gets pushed to very late at the end of the week, gets very physical loading into new places and everything. So depending on if you're working on set or working in the shop, they both, I think, have their pros and cons. Working on set is a little more exciting and interesting, but it's also tough.
Eleni: You said that you learn a lot on the show. I would love to hear what you learnt in relation to your career, but also about yourself and your differences.
Stevie: It's just an entire world that you've never known because it was so secretive. And so once you get into it, I was able to learn sort of the hierarchy within design and wardrobe with the ladders you climb within each department, because costume design and costume wardrobe, they work in tandem. And really, design is the high ranking, but they are two departments as one. And just learning all the responsibilities of the designers and the assistant costume designers and the shoppers and the coordinator, like just all of that stuff and how the shop worked. It was just my first real big show.
And yeah, it honestly, you never stop learning really at the end of the day, which is another great, I think, token that comes from learning differences is — especially for me with my like working memory problems, I'm always kind of having to potentially relearn stuff. If I ever lose it for a year or two, I really kind of — it's gone. And I have to go back and reteach myself stuff. And so for me, something just has to always be sort of reinforced. And when I was in school, through a lot of trial and error, we kind of realized flashcards were the best thing for me and learning something and just being repetitive about it. So pretty much what's great about a show is it's always a little new for everyone. And it's just really easy for me to ask for clarification. I have no shame about saying, "I need you to explain this to me, please." Sometimes I have to ask a few times. I just say, like "I learn differently and I just need to hear it again. Sorry if it's annoying, but if you want it done right, this is how it has to happen." I never say, "Oh, I had extended time all through college" or any of this stuff. I just say "My mind's a little different. Explain it to me again." And that's it.
Another thing that I've learned is when you write stuff down, it's another added piece of remembering something. So whenever we have tasks and even from fashion school too, there was just so much work. So checklists just became my best friend — writing something down just for that repetitiveness and to look back on it. Yeah. That's pretty much the tools that work for me.
So much of these learning differences were just really challenging growing up and being educated and going all the way through to college. And I had to do a lot of extra work in order to really understand what I was learning and doing. And I'm going to have to do that when I go back for this last season of "Maisel." I'm going to have to pretty much take myself to school again and go all the way back through the '60s, the '60s fashion, the costume, all of those pieces, because I haven't worked in that world in a long time, and that's not even the world I started in. We were in 1958 when we started that show. And now it's just a completely different period. Challenging because you wish you could just remember everything, but at the end of the day, you can't, and really everyone is digging their teeth in so much more into these worlds that it's a lot of work for everyone. So you're not really alone. And everyone's always learning these different tidbits of these different periods. But I just know that anytime I'm going to go into a world that's pretty much not contemporary, I have to take myself to school a little bit and go back through all of that stuff.
Eleni: That makes me appreciate the show so much more too. It's like all those little details. So obviously television is a pretty sexy field to a lot of people. Do you have any advice for people who want to break in, or do you have any cautionary tale?
Stevie: A huge thing in being successful in the world of film and television is hard work. And that is something that has come so much from being someone who learns differently. You have to work so hard and find other options and opportunities of how to learn and what's going to work and what won't. And there's so much adversity in that. And it creates a lot of thick skin, I think, which is something you really, really need in that business. It gets really intense, because there's a lot of stuff happening and it's a lot of money being put on to put the shows on. It's like a very high-pressure environment. So, you know, just doing the best that you can do, keeping your cool and that's sort of it. Just such a hard work ethic and that's really what's gonna get you so far in the business of film and television, no matter what focus you're in. But for me, it was just always through clothing. Because I'd focused on fashion design and merchandising, I knew how to build clothes. I knew the garment district. I knew all of these things of how to make all of that stuff come to life. So it was something I always dreamed of and then just the opportunity presented itself and I took it.
Eleni: That's so exciting. It's like it was a dream, but you didn't think you could make it happen. So you tried to do something else and by trying the other thing you ended up in the thing you actually really wanted.
Stevie: That's actually what happened.
Eleni: That's cool. What are your thoughts about how other people with thinking and learning differences can find a career or job they love?
Stevie: It was really funny when I graduated college and felt so lost, because I had just been in this very intensive program that I was so unhappy in and it didn't feel like the right fit. And I think you just keep putting one foot in front of the other, doing the best you can, and taking the opportunities that feel right. And that opportunity that I took at the ad agency felt like the right thing to do. And then it wound up leading me to my dream job, which is just crazy to think of.
But I think you just do what you can, just surround yourself with good people, which I know is not easy, but it is possible. It happens out there. And yeah, I think just sort of go on this journey. Because so many people I know in this business did not go to school for this. The wardrobe world, especially, it's a lot easier. You can go to school for this and know all about like the fabrics and the history and everything. But so many people come from styling or didn't go to school at all.
Eleni: Yeah. It's not always a linear path. You mentioned role models a couple of times, and that's something that we talk about a lot at Understood, you know, the importance of having role models. Particularly other people that have thinking and learning differences, but also in the way that you're talking about in your career. I don't know if you have more to say around what role your role models played or how that helped, what you learnt?
Stevie: Yeah, I think it really helped growing up and following this world of entertainment, just seeing stars sort of come forward or be honest with learning differences was always really helpful. And then the people that I've worked with who have been my role models, they haven't necessarily learned differently, but the whole environment is very ripe for adversity. And so just seeing people overcome the adversity and some of the really tough hurdles that there are to jump to move up in the world, and just hearing everyone's different stories was just really helpful. And knowing you're not alone in this struggle of the climb or whatever you're doing and finding allies, friends, role models within that space is huge. And I was very fortunate to kind of find those people along the way, which was great.
Eleni: Thanks so much for sharing your stories.
Stevie: You so much for having me. It was such a pleasure to be here and let the people know that just because you think differently, it's really an asset at the end of the day, and you can do anything.
Eleni: I love it.
Stevie: The tools in the toolbox.
Eleni: This has been "How'd You Get THAT Job?!," a part of the Understood Podcast Network. You can listen and subscribe to "How'd You Get THAT Job?!" on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like what you heard today, tell someone about it. "How'd You Get THAT Job?!" is for you. So we want to make sure you're getting what you need. Go to u.org/thatjob to share your thoughts and to find resources from every episode. That's the letter U, as in Understood, dot O R G, slash that job.
Do you have a learning difference and a job you're passionate about? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you'd like to tell us how you got THAT job, we'd love to hear from you. As a nonprofit and social impact organization, Understood relies on the help of listeners like you to create podcasts like this one, to reach and support more people in more places. We have an ambitious mission to shape the world for difference, and we welcome you to join us in achieving our goals. Learn more at understood.org/mission. "How'd You Get THAT Job?!" was created by Andrew Lee and is produced by Gretchen Vierstra and Justin D. Wright, who also wrote our theme song. Laura Key is our editorial director at Understood. Scott Cocchiere is our creative director. Seth Melnick and Briana Berry are our production directors. Thanks again for listening.
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