At Screaming Mimi’s, an upscale vintage emporium just south of Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, the store’s manager, Dani Cabot, held out a variety of belts: a wide band from Donna Karan, a minimalist cincher from Claude Montana and what Cabot described as a “high-drama Moschino moment.”
The actress Patina Miller considered the options, but not for long. “I think we’re high drama,” she said. She clasped the gold buckle around her waist, smoothing the fabric of a Bill Blass tiger print skirt.
Miller, 37, who broke out about a decade ago in the Broadway production of “Sister Act” and then won a Tony for her starring turn in “Pippin,” is no stranger to high drama. Or a tight fit. While promoting the second season of the Starz series “Power Book III: Raising Kanan,” which premiered on Aug. 14, she is also appearing nearly nightly as the Witch in the Broadway revival of “Into the Woods.” (In September, when she begins shooting the third season of “Raising Kanan,” she will stick with the musical through its latest extension, performing on the weekends only.)
Still, she had sneaked away on a recent weekday afternoon to comb through the racks of luxury secondhand clothing, looking for inspiration for her “Raising Kanan” character, Raquel, and for herself.
“It takes me hours to find anything,” she said, as she headed toward a rack of 1990s designer looks. “Sometimes I just like to look around at all the colors that I won’t wear.”
She wears dazzling hues in “Into the Woods,” including a purple gown, complete with cape. In “Raising Kanan,” a prequel to the original “Power” series, Raquel, the mother of the title character, favors a more muted palette, mostly lustrous blacks and blood reds meant to convey her status as an early ’90s queenpin. (As an adult, Kanan was played in previous “Power” series by Curtis Jackson, better known as 50 Cent, who is an executive producer of the franchise and whose own mother inspired Raquel.)
On this afternoon, costumed only as herself, she had arrived in a swirl of muted earth tones — brown sandals, brown-and-blue sundress, blue straw hat, gold hoops. Medium drama.
She held up a purple suit with a Muppet-y feel. “Definitely not,” she said.
Sorting through the racks, she recalled her own acid-washed ’90s styles, modeled on the girl groups of the day, Salt-N-Pepa, TLC, En Vogue. Those same looks, she noted, have become fashionable again. “I just love how the things that were popular then keep coming back around,” she said, fingering a Geoffrey Beene blazer.
Back then, in small-town South Carolina, Miller’s clothing came from Goodwill, which was what her single mother, a minister, could afford. With the money she saved on clothes, Miller’s mother paid for piano lessons and encouraged her daughter to sing in the church choir. (That encouragement helped her secure a spot at Carnegie Mellon’s theater program, which propelled her to Broadway, then onto shows like “Madam Secretary” and “Mercy Street.”)
“This is a woman who had me at 15, who didn’t have her high school education, but she found a way to nurture me and invest in me,” Miler said. “I just come from really strong women.”
Is she interested in strength and power herself? “I would be lying if I didn’t say, like, a little bit,” she said. “I want to have control of my life. I want to be as strong as I can.”
This explains, at least in part, why she has made a career of playing strong women. The Witch can hex anyone in her radius. Raquel, an iron fist in a series of sumptuous leather jackets, refers proudly to herself as “the last bitch standing.” Both want to protect their children from the world, but the world — and the children — have other plans in mind. It would be easy enough to play either as a villain, but Miller prefers other choices.
“They’re fighting for something; they’re fighting for their voice to be heard,” she said. “It’s more interesting to play the love,” she added.
She retreated to the dressing room with an armful of hangers, emerging first in that Bill Blass skirt (“Ooh, dress up!” she said), topped with a grommet-studded Gianfranco Ferré blouse. The high-drama belt shifted the outfit into overdrive, so she switched out the blouse for a more restrained Calvin Klein shirt, adorned with bugle beads. She adjusted the hem of the skirt then pulled the waist lower.
“The problem with me is my hips,” she said. Describing anything about Miller’s physique as a problem seems like a stretch. But sure.
She asked for some shoes, but the store carried few size 10 pairs, and when Cabot brought her a pair of Ferragamo flats, Miller politely dismissed them as “a little bit church girl.” (She had enough of church girl looks in the actual ’90s.) In her bare feet, Miller made a Raq-like face in the mirror, eyes slit, mouth set.
“Separately they’re both a vibe,” she said of the blouse and skirt. “And this belt, definitely a vibe.” But none of the vibes felt right for her, she decided. Next she tried a Missoni three-piece from the 1970s. “It’s not Raq,” she said as she slid on the coat. “But with my skin tone, perfect.” And yet the fit of the blouse was off. Back to the racks.
A Comme des Garçons blouse was too girlish, a white turtleneck too thick for summer. She tried on a leopard print Vivienne Westwood tunic, finished with the Donna Karan belt. It almost worked. A sea-green Halston caftan? “I’m so boring. I always go for the black,” she said. She tried on a jacket in palest pink. And then, in the men's wear section, she found a black blazer, which Cabot styled with a gold collar, which made Miller look like a dance-floor queen.
“Very, very Beyoncé,” Miller said, admiring herself in the mirror. “Totally Beyoncé on the horse. It’s a vibe, but not necessarily me.”
She has been working, she said, to find the vulnerability within the powerful characters, she plays, and to find it within herself. “Because I think softness is a great thing, too,” she said. “It’s not bad to be soft. Black girls don’t get to do that. We always have to be strong, because that’s the best way we know. But when I see hardness, strongness on the page, I’m always like, What else can we say?”
So from the rack she picked a softer item and a colorful one: a silk Karl Lagerfeld blouse in a rich shade of emerald.
“That color would be amazing on you,” Cabot said.
“Oh I know,” Miller replied.
She decided to buy the blouse and the Donna Karan belt too. But Cabot, and the store owner, Laura Wills, surprised her, offering the blouse as a gift. “Come back and see us again!” Cabot said.
“Absolutely,” Miller said as she paid for the belt.
Back in her sundress, she stepped out onto 14th Street, where her own image, as Raq, looked back at her from a bus shelter. “I’m everywhere,” she said proudly.