Great interview (and photoshoot!) with Chloë Sevigny about movies, directors, New York and the changing times in the newest, May 14th issue of Guardian Weekend. Check it out on the Guardian website or under the cut.
Chloë Sevigny: ‘I now have total disdain for directors’
by Xan Brooks
In the 90s she was dubbed ‘the coolest girl in the world’. Now happily reunited with Whit Stillman, she looks back at her rollercoaster career
One warm April weekend, Chloë Sevigny arranges a boot sale in the heart of Manhattan’s East Village. She empties her wardrobe, batches up her belongings and operates the cash register on the corner of Avenue C. Vintage clothes, hats and shoes: they all have to go. The actor is embarking on a spot of spring-cleaning, shedding some of the baggage from her own wild years. In so doing, she is maybe shedding a piece of New York history as well.
In the early 1990s, the grungy East Village was Sevigny’s natural habitat, her happy hunting ground. She first came here as a callow Catholic teenager and was adopted by the freaks, geeks and skaters who haunted the neighbourhood around Tompkins Square Park. These streets defined her and she, in turn, defined them. She was the ingénue turned model turned indie mainstay; “the coolest girl in the world”, according to Jay McInerney, who trailed her around town for a 1994 New Yorker profile. Since then, the district and its muse appear to have outgrown each other.
“The East Village, it’s lost,” Sevigny says with a snort. “Have you seen Astor Place? Starbucks, Citibank, Kmart, and that’s about it. Some of the streets are still holding out – you can still find a few of the old mom-and-pop stores. The avenues? Forget it. They’re gone for good.” She is only 41, but speaks like an old-timer, casting her eyes back to a sepia-toned era.
The boot sale has been busy, which means Sevigny has been stuck on the till. She arrives 15 minutes late at the wood-panelled hotel lobby, where an open fire blazes in the grate and wedding guests gather for formal photographs by the hearth.
We find a quiet spot in the corner and Sevigny whips off her sunglasses, smooths down her print dress and dips instantly into conspiratorial conversation. She is talking about the sale, her friends, her new base in Brooklyn, just across the East river. She is hard not to warm to, jumping from topic to topic. Her voice is as low and hardboiled as that of a film noir femme fatale, but her freewheeling air is pure 1930s screwball.
I’m guessing she moved out because the new-look Manhattan was not to her taste, but Sevigny says this was not quite the case. “I got out, in all honesty, because of rats. After Hurricane Sandy, my street was overrun and I couldn’t handle it. The 10th Street Association are going to hate me for saying that. But yes, the rats are all over the East Village, they’re in Tompkins Square. And I lived on the ground floor with the garden, and I could hear them scratching outside the window and I just couldn’t cope.” Abruptly, she frowns. “I read they were going to put some sterilisation, some form of birth control, in the poison to manage the population. So they can’t reproduce.”
But if they eat the poison, they’re dead: they can’t reproduce anyway. “They can, though,” she insists. “They can, because they reproduce at such a crazy rate. They’re always screwing. They screw when they’re dying. It’s shocking to me.”
So the rat eats the poison and then has a brief window of opportunity before the strychnine kicks in?
“Hey,” she barks, “I’m not a scientist.”
In her new film, Love & Friendship, Sevigny plays an American expat living in the home counties in the late 18th century. Mrs Alicia Johnson is the heroine’s confidante, forever in fear of being sent back to Connecticut by her husband, played by Stephen Fry. The movie is based on an unfinished Jane Austen novella, Lady Susan, and reunites Sevigny with co-star Kate Beckinsale and writer-director Whit Stillman, both of whom she worked with on The Last Days Of Disco back in 1998. In true Stillman style, Love & Friendship is a weightless and witty affair, pitting hapless, stuffed-shirted gentlemen against wily, capricious women as it skips between stately homes. Sevigny, for her part, was delighted to do it. “Not many people are knocking on my door to do period,” she says ruefully. “Not many people are knocking generally.” Her tone is drily self-deprecating, and I suspect she’s not being entirely serious.
Sevigny adores Stillman, and the two have kept in touch down the years. But on this occasion he did annoy her, in that her role was originally that of an Englishwoman and she worked hard on the accent, only to find the script being renosed at the very last minute. “He said, ‘Oh no, I think it will be funnier this way’ and I said, ‘But people are going to think I couldn’t do the accent.’ But he was very interested in that whole expat thing.” She pulls a face. “He’s the director. He’s the writer. I’m only the actor, so what do I know?”
I call Stillman later for an explanation and he insists Sevigny’s accent was fine, fit for purpose; it is simply that if an actor is known as coming from one country, the audience is constantly listening for false notes. So he retailored the part. “In the novel, the character is scared of being exiled to an English country village. Whereas here it’s Connecticut, which is an in-joke between us, because we both have Connecticut heritage. Mine is ancient, hers is more recent.”
Connecticut, Stillman adds, may be the key to the Sevigny mystique. “She comes from a place called Darien, which is the prettiest town in the world and incredibly affluent. But the thing to realise is that her father was the local art teacher, which meant her family were like the poor bohemians in this extremely prosperous neighbourhood. And she continues to carry all of that with her. These days, she’s seen as this cool New York hipster, but at heart she’s a nice Connecticut girl.”
Sevigny’s father died in 1996, but her mother still lives in Darien. The actor visits regularly, although she doesn’t much like it; again, the place is not what it was. “Change freaks me out,” she says. “The town used to be really charming. Now it’s the whole post McMansion thing, and everybody cuts down the trees because they don’t want to deal with the leaves. And they floodlight everything, and knock down the colonial homes, and put up these big, ugly, boxy-looking things that are very on trend.” She sighs once again, like an aged pioneer. “Everything used to be wilder and more romantic.”
She was the good girl at school: acted in class productions; went to theatre camp every year. Then she began smoking dope and mislaid her sense of direction. “I didn’t want to do anything. I just wanted to smoke pot. But I think it’s best to get that out of your system as a teenager. I’ve known a lot of people who did it later and it kind of destroyed them. They weren’t much use after that.”
Even so, Sevigny finds herself wishing her parents had been stricter; they let her get away with murder. She recalls that she used to drive her Volkswagen camper up to rural Vermont for days on end (sometimes with friends, occasionally solo) and sleep every night at the side of the road. Only the other week, she was marvelling to her mother about how her dad had allowed it. But apparently he would shrug and say, “There’s more good in the world than bad.” She accepts, on balance, that this is probably true.
She began spending weekends in Manhattan, crash-landing at Grand Central station like Dorothy arriving in Oz. At 17, she was plucked off the street to become an intern (and occasional model) at Sassy magazine, now 20 years in the grave. A gangly gamine with full, heavy features, America’s sweetheart as painted by Modigliani, it was small wonder the city’s stylists all fell for Sevigny. She went on to appear in promos for Sonic Youth and the Lemonheads, and was working at the Liquid Sky boutique on Lafayette Street when her first film, Kids, was unleashed in 1995.
Directed by Larry Clark and scripted by Sevigny’s then boyfriend, Harmony Korine, Kids cast her as 15-year-old Jennie, who contracts HIV from a one-night stand. At once unflinching and excitable, revelling in the antics of its non-professional performers, Kids caused an uproar and found itself slapped with a prohibitive NC-17 rating. The New York Times critic Janet Maslin called it “a wake-up call to the modern world”.
All of which must have made for a heady experience, though it seems Sevigny had already lived the Kids and largely flushed it from her system. “Oh, I don’t know,” she says. “I feel I was more shy back then. I have a friend, Rita Ackermann, who’s an artist, and we were friends almost pre-Kids. And we were out the other night, and she was talking about me at that time and how I was never the one doing drugs. I would just be sitting quietly, watching it all going on. Back to being the good girl at school.”
In the wake of Kids, Sevigny’s acting career took off. I loved her as the neighbourhood nymphet who beguiles Steve Buscemi in 1996’s Trees Lounge, and as the sombre young graduate drawn to the glitterball in The Last Days Of Disco. (“What’s sensational about Chloë is that she is always natural in the moment,” Stillman tells me. “She does this wonderful, expressive thing with her eyes. She’s always perfect in comedy. She’s always great in drama.”)
When Sevigny was Oscar-nominated for her turn in the 1999 indie drama Boys Don’t Cry, as the girl with whom Hilary Swank falls in love, it looked as though mainstream stardom might be hers for the taking. Sevigny scoffs when I say this; she doesn’t think anything is “there for the taking”. But the fact remains that she turned down the sidekick role taken by Selma Blair in Legally Blonde (“which might have made me some money”) and a raft of similar offers. “A few little things like that, more comedic, and it probably wouldn’t have hurt to have done them.” She wrinkles her nose. “But I was very purist back then.”
I wonder, though, how much control she exerted, particularly in those early days. Her attraction to controversial projects, aka her purist sensibility, has led her down some wild rabbit holes. Sevigny has modelled for the US photographer Terry Richardson (dressed as him, kissing him); she has worked with Larry Clark and Lars von Trier (on Dogville and Manderlay). All of these men have, in their time, been accused of exploiting their (invariably youthful, female) subjects.
“I don’t know if I’d call them exploiters,” Sevigny says carefully. “What I would say is that the most damaging thing about working with so-called auteurs is that I now have a total disdain for directors.” She grimaces. “And it’s very strong, very deep. It’s made me not enjoy acting so much any more. Writer-directors, in particular, are really hard to work with. And for so many years, that’s who I worked with.”
In 2003, she took a supporting role in The Brown Bunny, which bowed out at the Cannes film festival to a torrent of catcalls. Notoriously, the script called on her to perform oral sex on Vincent Gallo, the film’s star, writer and director (and, reputedly, a former lover). Sevigny has said she has no regrets about making the film, but the fallout was intense and she was caught in the crossfire. I’ve read that her US agency, William Morris, couldn’t drop her quickly enough.
This, Sevigny says, is not true at all. What happened was that her original representative left to become a manager and she didn’t hit it off with the agent who stepped in. “I mean, I really liked this new guy, but he treated me like a kid sister, and his tastes were different from mine, and we couldn’t find a dialogue. So I left,” she says flatly. “I mean, I left them. They didn’t fire me.”
So there were no genuine repercussions, just a lot of manufactured media hysteria? “Yeah,” Sevigny says. “I think Vincent is very good at whipping up hysteria. He enjoys all that, but it was not so much fun for me. Not fun when it was happening and still not so fun now. Really not.”
In any case, she claims her career did just fine in the wake of The Brown Bunny. She landed interesting roles where she could, and if some sneaked past her, well, that’s the nature of the business. Despite her aversion to writer-directors, she says she would like to work with Von Trier again. She wanted to play the Uma Thurman role in Nymphomaniac: the wronged wife turned shrill, avenging angel. “I mean, I love Uma, she’s epic and I’m so glad she got that part. But yeah, I would have liked it for myself.”
These days, Sevigny generally prefers working in television. TV is more of a writer’s or producer’s medium; it clips the wings of a director and prevents them from behaving like tinpot dictators. In recent years, she has cropped up in the Netflix thriller Bloodline, played a lustful inmate in American Horror Story and won a Golden Globe for her role as a Mormon wife in Big Love. The latter finally earned her some money, too.
“That’s the other problem with indie movies: you’re not banking big bucks. So I lived cheque to cheque until Big Love came along. I keep all the stubs in the dresser up at my mom’s house.”
Sevigny jokes that the American indie movie industry has fallen on hard times; she remembers a point when she could barely move for new scripts. But the evidence suggests her own work rate is picking up. She was recently in Norway, shooting an adaptation of Snowman, a Jo Nesbø crime novel, with the Swedish film-maker Tomas Alfredson, who made Let The Right One In. She’s about to make a film with director Alex Ross Perry, the man behind 2014’s Listen Up Philip. And on top of that she’s directed a film, her first, which will be unveiled at Cannes next week.
Kitty, Sevigny explains, is a mere six minutes long, drawn from a Paul Bowles short story and spinning the tale of a small girl who turns into a cat. I ask if she wrote the script, and she snorts with embarrassment; she can hardly claim credit. “Well, y’know,” she splutters, “I just, like, copied the story out on to the page.”
There was a time when Sevigny risked becoming tabloid fodder, but she has learned to keep her private life under wraps. She has dated Jarvis Cocker, Jason Segel, noise-rocker Matt McAuley and is currently linked to Ricky Saiz, a director of music promos. At some point she wants children, and she’d like to make some more decent movies. “Now I have a comfortable home that’s all paid for, it gives me some freedom. I figure I can do what I want.”
When Sevigny first landed in New York, she thought she would probably wind up working in fashion. Clothes were her first love and, after the first flush of fame, she was able to juggle the acting day job with a designing gig for the fashion brand Opening Ceremony. “It was play,” she explains with a shrug. “It was dressing up. I was playing parts, putting on hats. So it was more a way of adorning myself. To make myself feel more interesting than I was.” She’s no longer sure she wants to pursue this: she has qualms about the fashion industry. “It’s just producing more stuff, and that’s always been a hard thing for me to accept. The one thing the world doesn’t need.”
Back in the hotel lobby, the fire has burned itself out and the wedding party moved on. We step out on to the bright, busy street, and Sevigny lowers her voice. “Watch out for the rats,” she says. Her boot sale, it transpires, goes on until seven that evening and she’s wanted back at the till. She explains that most of the clothes on the stall have seen better days. Associated with a particular time and place in her life, they have a slight sentimental value, but not much more.
“It’s stuff I’ve had for years and don’t wear any more,” she says. “And I quite like the thought of it finding a new home somewhere else.” Whichever side of the camera, whichever side of the river, I like the thought that Sevigny has, too.
‘Love & Friendship’ is released on 27 May.
© The Guardian 2016