Rebecca Dayan has already lived many lives. The French-born polymath has worked as a model, a design assistant at Sonia Rykiel, an artist (her mesmeric watercolours have been displayed at New York City’s Catherine Ahnell Gallery) and an actor, with roles in Limitless (2011), H. (2014) and Novitiate (2017). Who better, then, to play the multitalented Elsa Peretti—the Italian model who became one of the most influential jewellery designers of the 20th century with her work for Tiffany & Co — in the new Ryan Murphy-produced and Daniel Minahan-directed miniseries Halston?
The supremely stylish five-part drama moves at breakneck speed, chronicling the life and career of Roy Halston Frowick (Ewan McGregor), the legendary American designer who came to prominence after creating a pillbox hat for Jacqueline Kennedy, was the toast of New York City in the 1970s and eventually faced a hostile takeover that saw him lose control of his empire.
Almost always by his side is Peretti (Dayan), his friend and muse who’d glide down runways in his era-defining dresses and stand patiently in his studio as he draped, cut and pinned fabric on her body and she offered suggestions on styling. In subsequent episodes, we see her transforming into an artist in her own right, gathering inspiration from flea markets that she uses to craft jewellery that is modelled with Halston’s clothes. She also designs the teardrop-shaped bottle for Halston’s first fragrance and signs a deal with Tiffany & Co that sees her star rise just as his begins to fall.
As the show lands on Netflix, we spoke to Dayan about her pilgrimages to Halston’s old haunts, partying on a Covid-secure Studio 54 set and turning producer for a cause she cares deeply about.
Elsa Peretti is such an icon in fashion. Was playing her an intimidating prospect?
Yes, in some sense. I knew her for her work, but I didn’t know about her life. It was fascinating to dive in. I think she deserves her own show [laughs]. It’s incredible what she’s been through and what she had to sacrifice. It was the early 1960s—she left her family and decided she was going to be a model, and then a designer. With Halston, it was my manager and my agents who sent me to audition. I did a callback with the director, Daniel Minahan, and a couple of weeks later, I got the part. Dan’s been working on this project for 25 years, so he had a clear idea of what he wanted, but was open to suggestions. He also had archives of magazines, books, interviews and videos.
How did you perfect Peretti’s distinctive voice and that innate elegance she had?
Her voice was way deeper than mine, but I have a raspy voice so that was good. For the accent, I worked with a friend of Dan’s who’s Italian. I also have a friend here in New York, the designer Prisca Vera [Franchetti], who’s from Rome. I’d secretly record our conversations [laughs] because she gets shy if I ask her, ‘Can you say this in an Italian accent?’ I have all sorts of conversations recorded and that helped with the accent. Then, in terms of the physicality, the clothes helped.
The costumes and jewellery in the show are spectacular. Which were your favourite looks?
Jeriana [San Juan, the costume designer] is incredible. I wish I could’ve kept all of the costumes! There are two that I really love. One is this custom-made suit. It fitted perfectly and underneath I wore an open shirt and a mesh bra. That [bra] was an original piece. It was delicate and we were careful. There’s also that dress in that peachy-champagne colour that I wear to Liza Minnelli’s wedding.
Peretti and Halston were so close. How did you and Ewan McGregor bond before filming?
When we started filming, before Covid in February 2020, Dan got us all to spend time together. We went for lunch at Bergdorf Goodman [where Halston once worked] and then went to all of the real locations, including the [Halston Madison Avenue] store, which is now a Max Mara. I cooked dinner for everyone and we got to know each other. Then, we kept in touch during the pandemic break. Because we all wanted to make it work in this difficult time, it created a bond between us. Ewan is so dedicated. He got a sewing machine and decided to make himself trousers!
Peretti’s arc in Halston, from being an outspoken and resourceful model to her immense success at Tiffany & Co, shows that she was always more than a muse. Was that important to you?
Yes! And the series also shows how Halston really believed in Elsa, pushed her to design and to push herself. Some have said that had Halston been straight, she would have been his great love. Their relationship was intense and competitive and, at the same time, they needed each other’s attention and validation. I think it’s great that our show shows her as this equal creative force.
After the pandemic production break, filming for Halston resumed last autumn. What was it like returning to set for these big ensemble scenes under such different circumstances?
We were so happy to be going back and knowing we would got me through those months. There was a lot of adapting to do because it was a different way of working and all the Covid protocols were new. It’s especially strange because the show is set in this time period [the 1970s and 1980s] which was so free and loose. All of a sudden, everyone looks like a doctor on set [laughs]. The Studio 54 scenes were great. We were all scared because we hadn’t been to a party in forever, but for the seven minutes between ‘action’ and ‘cut’ you really got to feel like you were in a club.
Did you get a chance to meet Peretti before her death in March this year?
Unfortunately not. I was really sad when I heard. I don’t know, maybe she would’ve hated me and hated the show, but I wish I could’ve met her. There was no way I would have had that opportunity before [filming] and I was hoping that maybe once the show was out I could have. I learned that she died in her sleep and was in the place she loved [her home in Spain], so I felt more peaceful about it. She’s such an incredible role model. We talk about ‘girl bosses’ and she was one of the first. She knew her worth, didn’t compromise and created something new. I feel like younger generations don’t really know who she is, so hopefully with this show, she’ll be recognised again.
Beyond acting, you’ve co-founded the non-profit Mother Lover, which seeks to raise awareness of the maternal health crisis in the US, and produced the documentary Born Free on the same topic. What drew you to this subject?
I’m not a mother. I watched The Business of Being Born  completely by accident, which is weird because normally it’s a documentary women watch when they’re pregnant. I saw two home births and became obsessed [laughs]. Then my friend Paula Goldstein had a child. She came to me and was like, ‘I want to make this documentary.’ I had no idea that the US had a rising maternal mortality rate. I came on board and we spoke to so many people. We wanted to amplify these stories via Mother Lover—bring people together, give them a platform and hopefully help to change things at a national level. I’m hoping we can find a home for Born Free very soon.
Where have you spent this past year and how else have you filled your time?
I was in New York pretty much throughout the pandemic. I went to Europe to see my family in the summer and then came back for filming, which we did until Christmas. It’s been a strange year, but at least we had this project to work on. That’s the other thing—I wish I could’ve met Elsa and told her that she kept me sane through this crazy time. I have her to thank for that.
Halston is on Netflix from 14 May 2021