Rebecca Dayan Immerses Herself in Elsa Peretti’s World

To prepare for her role as the iconic jewelry designer in the Netflix series Halston, the actress spent over a year researching her life and process.

Photographed by Kat Irlin

Rebecca Dayan traces her hand across a glass case containing Elsa Peretti’s greatest hits at Tiffany & Co.’s flagship store in New York City. The actress pauses and bends over the brightly lit display to get a closer look at the pieces that cemented the jewelry designer’s legacy and have become some of the brand's bestsellers: delicate Diamonds by the Yard necklaces, a sculptural Bone Cuff in 18 karat gold, the classic Open Heart pendant. “When you wear her jewelry, you can feel how tactile everything is,” Dayan says, tucking her short brown bob, hidden under a baseball cap, behind her ears while she continues scanning the case. “There is an organic aspect to her way of making.”

Dayan would know. To prepare to play Peretti in the upcoming Netflix limited series Halston, she spent the past year and a half soaking in every aspect of the Italian designer’s life—studying her history as an artisan, wearing her jewelry and the fanciful designs that Roy Halston Frowick, to whom she was a muse and good friend, made for her. Peretti famously began modeling for Halston during his early days as a designer, then used her own craftsmanship skills to design the off-kilter bottle for Halston’s first perfume. By 1971, she was designing bijoux for Halston; Tiffany & Co. took notice shortly thereafter, bringing her on as an in-house designer three years later. Peretti’s journey in jewelry-making is a central storyline in the Halston biopic, which traces the rise and fall of the designer and his Factory-esque band of misfit artists, models, and fashion folk. In fact, Peretti’s first line in the show is a cheeky nod to a life spent at the workbench—Halston, played by Ewan McGregor, is in his studio with Dayan-as-Peretti and the fashion illustrator Joe Eula (David Pittu), surveying a dress that he finds boring. “What if we added a bit of chunky jewelry?” Peretti asks.

Examining Peretti’s jewelry at Tiffany with Dayan is like plunging headlong into a vault of stories from the show’s set. The actress picks up a sterling silver scorpion necklace, recalling the way it unclasps in two pieces, which initially led the show’s costume designer Jeriana San Juan to believe she’d broken it. The cuff can be resized once it’s “warmer,” Dayan says, which she discovered while filming in New York City (“You can tighten it a teeny bit, but you have to wait,” she adds). A mesh necklace reminds the 36-year-old of the scene in which she and Halston are creating Liza Minnelli’s bright yellow wedding suit. And a gold bra made of delicate 18-karat gold mesh, which Peretti herself styled underneath a white collared shirt with a string of Diamonds by the Yard when she designed it in the 1970s, was Dayan's favorite thing to wear of all.

The actress, who was born in a South of France town called Saint-Paul de Vence before moving to Nice at 14, then Paris at 17, has much in common with Peretti. They share backgrounds in design, fashion, and art (Dayan went to art school and was “always making things,” including mud sculptures and beaded jewelry, as a child). They both exude the cool, frosted chicness of European women. And as Dayan spent more time researching Peretti’s life, she found even more similarities. Despite never meeting Peretti in person (the designer passed away a month after Halston began filming), Dayan explored archival material to get to know her—reading interviews, watching documentaries, and picking up details from her costars, who were also doing their fair share of studying.

“There were all these weird little connections,” she says. “I’d go to [Halston director] Daniel Minahan’s house, and he had all these books and magazines from that time. There’s this photo of [Peretti] and Salvador Dalí together, which was taken in a Spanish town called Cadaques, where Dalí had a house—my parents also have a house there. Elsa studied glassblowing, and I grew up going on field trips to a historic glassblowing town called Biot in France. Obviously, I learned a lot about her process, but I think the process of an artist was already something that I understand.”

Dayan’s parents, and her mother in particular, were the first to introduce her to acting and filmmaking. At 14 years old, she and her mom watched the 1985 Martin Scorsese movie After Hours—in the early aughts, that’s what teenage Dayan thought New York City would look like. Although a trip to Manhattan two years later would prove to her that things had changed a bit, she still was taken with the city and moved to the United States to pursue modeling and acting. Now, lower Manhattan is her home—just minutes from Halston’s atelier, mirrored Midtown office, and posh apartment, all of which are portrayed in lavish form on the Netflix show.

The cast and crew began filming in February of 2020, but were shut down due to Covid on March 12 (Liza Minnelli's birthday, Dayan notes). The actress and her costars spent the next six months doing table reads over Zoom, having dinners at Minahan’s house, and visiting the real-life locations featured in Halston to keep the fire alive. They returned to rehearsals at the end of September, and resumed filming in the midst of the pandemic’s second wave.

“It was really crazy, getting tested three to four times a week, wearing a mask and a shield, eating alone in your trailer, not being really able to hang out after,” Dayan recalls. “At first, they were really freaked out, so they were handling talent as if we were made of glass. As soon as they called ‘cut,’ they would remove us from set. And on top of that, you’re walking around with all this stuff on you all the time, and it’s hard to connect and get into the performance—you're so separate. It got a little smoother after a while, but at first it was like, Whoa, this is such a weird way of filming.”

“It's especially weird when you're filming something that takes place in the time period like the Seventies, where everything is loose and everybody is free,” she adds. “But it bonded the cast in a way that we might not have under other circumstances. The complicity between the five of us was essential. And when we stopped filming, I really missed them. It’s not that often that you work with people and create that bond. That was definitely a highlight in all of that—not only did we make a great show, but I gained some friends."

The connections between the Halston crew are palpable in the show—especially in the final scene between Peretti and Halston, which takes place at Studio 54. But for all the drama and excitement the plotline holds, the costumes are equally—if not more—thrilling. During filming, Dayan wore a combination of original Halston pieces, clothing remade by costume designer San Juan, and vintage outfits from the period. That royal blue, tie-dyed caftan she wore in Halston’s first show was a reconstruction, but the cashmere dress and cardigan she donned during her arrival at the French airport to attend the Battle of Versailles was the real thing.

The jewelry, however, remains a quietly dominant feature in Halston: Once you spy a cuff here or a string of diamonds there, Peretti’s indelible mark has been made. That’s just what happens with the gold mesh bra—Dayan’s favorite Peretti piece—which she spies out of the corner of her eye, on her way out of Tiffany. “Wait, that’s it, there it is!” she cries, getting so close to the case her nose almost touches it. “It’s so delicate, and it doesn’t just look pretty. There’s something a little bit more to those pieces, I think.” As we walk out the door, she says, laughing, “When I say Elsa got me through 2020, I mean it.”