Before she became an actress, Chloë Sevigny was Jay McInerney’s “It” girl. After sighting the young Sevigny on the streets of New York, where she repeatedly drew notice for her distinct, idiosyncratic fashion sense, the yuppie author was moved to dedicate a seven-page New Yorker spread to her, in the course of which he anointed her with said title. Whether or not she was “It,” Sevigny did enjoy a rudimentary helping of fame: at the time, she was an intern at Sassy magazine, where she had been employed after magazine writers spotted her and used her as a model for their publication. So, before her film career began, Sevigny was perhaps the country’s other most famous intern.
Born in the wealthy, conservative suburb of Darien, Connecticut in 1975, Sevigny began hanging out in New York as a teenager. After her initial recognition from Sassy and McInerney, she made her screen debut in Larry Clark’s Kids. Sevigny played one of the few sympathetic characters in the controversial 1995 film, a teen infected with AIDS by the so-called “virgin surgeon” to whom she had lost her virginity. The following year, she appeared as a bored Long Island teen in Steve Buscemi’s directorial debut, Trees Lounge, and then went on to collaborate with Kids screenwriter and then-boyfriend Harmony Korine on Gummo (1997). Her pairing with the iconoclastic Korine led one magazine to dub them as the new John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands, but the film was savaged by some critics and virtually ignored by its intended arthouse audience.
More substantial luck greeted Sevigny in her 1998 role in Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco; the film won a number of positive reviews, with praise for Sevigny’s portrayal of a thoughtful Hampshire graduate trying to make it in the publishing world. The actress’ other film that year, the little-seen Palmetto, cast her as a millionaire’s stepdaughter. Sevigny was back the following year in A Map of the World, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival; Boys Don’t Cry, in which she played the girlfriend of Brandon Teena, a real-life girl who passed as a boy; and Julien Donkey-Boy, her third collaboration with screenwriter-turned-director Korine. Sevigny’s role in Boys Don’t Cry courted particular notice and critical praise, earning Sevigny Best Supporting Actress Golden Globe and Oscar nominations.
Further notice greeted her part in American Psycho, Mary Harron’s incredibly controversial 2000 adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel of the same name. Continuing to appear in such features as Demonlover and Party Monster in 2003, Sevigny once again found herself involved in a controversial film with her role in Vincent Gallo’s The Brown Bunny. Premiering to much critical derision at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival (film critic Roger Ebert was quoted as saying it may be the worst film in the history of the festival), Sevigny shocked audiences by performing fellatio on the director/star in the film’s explicit postscript. Sevigny now stars in the tragic portion of Woody Allen’s complex tragi-comedy Melinda and Melinda, a wry, bittersweet and often sad portrait of marriage and fidelity. In good humour and relaxed, Sevigny talked to Garth Franklin in New York.
Question: Was this offered to you right off the bat or did you have to meet with Woody?
Answer: I met with him on two other films before this an actually read for him once and I didn’t get the part. I got a call from my agent saying, “Woody has a part for you. He just wants to see you again.” So I went to his space on Park [Avenue] and went in and sat me in this chair with this light and said, “I just want to have a look at you.” And that was it. He offered me the part.
Question: Was the work experience everything you thought it would be based on what you heard from other people?
Answer: I heard he didn’t say anything to you at all, you’re really left out on your own but he was really a lot more vocal. He gave us a lot more direction than I expected.
Question: Can you give us an example?
Answer: [Laughs] It was too long ago to remember exact words or anything like that. It was more if he was unhappy with something, or if he didn’t believe in something you were saying. He definitely encouraged a bit of improvisation to make the words your own.
Question: As a long time New Yorker, is doing a Woody Allen film one of those things you can check off?
Answer: I think every New York actress or actor dreams about being in a Woody Allen film. When I first started acting, I made a list of all the directors I wanted to work with and he was definitely the top. I’m very pleased in having the experience.
Question: Who’s below him on that list?
Answer: There’s many. I’ve got to work with many of them. Lars von Trier was on that list and I got to work with him. Jim Jarmusch, I’ve worked with him.
Question: What’s the difference between Lars and Woody in terms of directing style?
Answer: Lars is very personal and gets in your business and [does] a lot of chit-chatting. Woody, it was very much just a working experience; you go to work, you do your job, and you leave. Lars, a lot more joking around and teasing you and stuff. They’re very different environments. Plus, working on the two films with Lars, we were on “Dogville” and “Manderlay,” we were on this sound stage and we were all stuck on there together which added to the strangeness.
Question: Did you see this as a split between the Wasps and the Jews in terms of comedy and tragedy? Did you see your character as a wasp?
Answer: I didn’t realize that, you’re right! I definitely saw her as a waspy-sort of woman. She came from a really good family, went to an all-girls school and made friends from school. She really doesn’t have to work because family money but works as a music teacher to keep herself busy. I think it also comes out in her relationship; she’s in this very unhappy relationship yet she stays in it because of fear of what other people will think of her and disappointing her family. Seems like kind of a wasp-y trait.
Question: Is your New York apartment nearly as big as the one in the movie?
Answer: Half as big.
Question: Was Radha communicative regarding the comic elements of the movie?
Answer: Well I got to read the entire script.
Question: How were you so lucky?
Answer: I guess he liked me. They said that I could come in and read the script and decide whether or not I wanted to make the movie. So I did.
Question: Did you have a choice as to which side of the film you wanted to star in?
Answer: No, he had me in mind for the drama unfortunately.
Answer: Well I think it’s more fun to do a comedy! I mean, I love Woody’s dramas but for me, his comedies are stronger films.
Question: You’re one of the few to carry over from “Dogville” to “Manderlay.” Has the experience been different?
Answer: I felt like penance. It was real torture [laughs] because at least on “Dogville,” we had body doubles who did the real torture work, like if we were just walking around or if you were in the far background, they’d use your body double, which was a very strange experience when we went to lunch because [we would be in ] all of our outfits, and the hair, and they’d sit next to you with everybody looking exactly like everybody else. It was very strange. But on “Manderlay,” I had to do a lot of the tedious work just lying in the background, or pretending to work in the background, for hours on end. It was really an exercise in discipline.
Question: Lars just cut the donkey scene. Do you think he should have kept it?
Answer: I read that. I haven’t seen it but the donkey was very old and very ill and was going to be slaughtered anyhow. It wasn’t like he got a young one. The donkey was on his last leg but I think it would create a lot of unnecessary brew-ha-ha and one of our actors actually left because he was very upset that he was going to sacrifice the donkey for film.
Question: Nicole said she wouldn’t work with him because he was very hard. Is it that bad? Would you work with him again?
Answer: I would because his focus is mainly on the leading ladies and she was the leading lady. In “Manderlay,” I was Bryce Dallas Howard and when you’re supporting characters, you don’t get as much of the intensity of Lars. You get to do your thing in the background but still likes to get you on the go every now and then but it’s not as hard as us.
Question: Is it simply by desire or chance that you’ve resisted the mainstream Hollywood direction?
Answer: I think in the beginning of my career, it was something I was striving for. I wanted to do independent movies or do movies that were changing the face of cinema. I was an idealist, especially at that time, my boyfriend was Harmony Korine who, I don’t know if you know him, but he’s very influential as he is on me. And I didn’t go to the movies that often. I watched a lot of movies at home, a lot of old movies, so I didn’t see that many commercial films. I think I was just being young and idealist before but now that I’m older, I realize there’s movies for everybody. There’s room enough for everything and I love to go and watch “Spider-Man” or something and be wildly entertained for two hours and I’d love to be in a film like that. I just have to find that cross-over somehow. I’ve been offered parts in romantic comedies as the “friend” of the star, things like that. I didn’t think it was right for me at the time but I think I’m holding out and waiting for the right crossover project. I think it’s good to know that you don’t have to be afraid of being forgiven, although actors have done terrible movies, walked away, and have won Oscars.
Question: Hilary did that…
Answer: Yeah. I mean, look at “The Core.”
Question: You mentioned “Spider-Man.” What superhero power would you like to have?
Answer: Superpower?! Oh my God, I don’t know, there’s so many. I guess I’d like to fly. I know that’s not a very creative answer but I think everybody would like to fly.
Question: How strategic for you was this role seeing that you have just come off of “The Brown Bunny” and you can’t get any further from that movie with this role? Were you worried at all when that came out and did you try to get away from that controversy?
Answer: I’ve always been in films that were always controversial or pushing the limits of what you can or can’t say or do on film. I hope that it will take some sort of place in history. At the time, the press was just atrocious. And it’s funny because Vincent [Gallo] and I are two of the most conservative people that I know and for us to make this movie, it’s very odd.
Question: You didn’t know what was going to happen after the movie would come out?
Answer: Not at all, none.
Question: Where would you like to see that film in its place in history?
Answer: I don’t know. I think it’ll be recognized later on down the road. I think it’s a very beautiful film and it’s sad how the media put its spin on it.
Question: Is Thom Fitzgerald’s “3 Needles” coming out yet? Does he have a distributor yet?
Answer: I don’t think so. I’ve been waiting for that film to come out. It’s my favorite character to play since Lana in “Boys Don’t Cry” and I’m really proud of the performance and really excited about it and I can’t wait to see the film. I don’t know what’s going on. They put so much money into the film that they shot a whole storyline that was a quarter of the film and then axed it.
Question: So it’s “4 Needles” instead of 3?
Answer: [Laughs] That was kind of the problem, that it was four stories instead of three but Lucy Liu is in the film and Stockard Channing. It’s a great film. I play a novice working on a South African mission. It deals with the AIDS epidemic which I think is something people aren’t focusing so much on anymore and it’s good to get it back on the spotlight some more. Our film is interesting too because my portion, at least, takes place in South Africa and I think a lot of people aren’t aware of some of the things that are happening with the disease in South Africa like that men think they would be cured by having sex with a virgin and that’s something they believe in. And they don’t think of virgins like we think of virgins, like 15 year olds. They rape children so it’s very eye-opening and disturbing.
Question: Was Star Wars a big part of your life? Were you a big fan?
Answer: Star Wars? Yeah, I was Princess Leia for Halloween, probably when I was 6 or 7. I remember the photographs.
Question: The buns?
Answer: The buns and the white gown. And my brother was a stormtrooper.
Question: Your brother should have been Luke Skywalker.
Answer: Yeah but I don’t think the outfit is as cool.
Question: In “Mrs. Harris” do you have scenes with Annette Benning or Ellen Burstyn?
Answer: I have scenes with Annette Benning when she gets nasty at me. She can get nasty, it was an excellent performance but most of my scenes are with Sir Ben Kingsley. I play his nurse and young girlfriend.
Question: Was he nasty to you as well?
Answer: No. He was nothing but nice.
Question: But he does insist on calling him “Sir”…
Answer: He does which is fine.
Question: I understand you used to babysit Topher Grace. Do you feel as if you have to be a maternal figure to him?
Answer: I did. Althought it was more that he had a little sister and I think his parents – cause he’s not that much younger than me – didn’t want to leave him alone with his little sister. He has the cutest little sister. I would go over and we were also in summer theater camp together which is even more interesting, I think.
Question: How old were you?
Answer: I think elementary school. He was the tinman and I was the scarecrow in “The Wizard of Oz.” I was Eller and he was whatever his name was in “Oklahoma!” the lead. We did lots of shows.
Question: Woody uses the same cast from film to film. Would you work with him again?
Answer: I would definitely work with him again. I would love it. Maybe he will.
Question: Do you enjoy taking risks like in “Manderlay” or “The Brown Bunny”? Does that energize you?
Answer: [Lethargically] Not necessarily. [laughs] I don’t know what it is, it’s just something about the projects that appeals to me. With those two, it was that I just wanted to work with the director.
Question: Are you about to do anything?
Answer: I’m about to do a TV show for HBO, one of their new Sunday night dramas. It’s called “Big Love” and it’s about Mormon fundamentalists.
Question: Are you a Mormon fundamentalist?
Answer: I am a polygamist.
Question: Modern day or historical?
Answer: Modern day. It’s a family drama but there are three lives.
Question: How would you describe your character?
Answer: Well I’m a middle wife and I grew up in a community in a compound. My father, played by the great Harry Dean Stanton, is the prophet so I have a bit of an ego trip going on where I’m a princess and my father’s the prophet and I’m stuck in the middle of these two wives. It’s difficult, sort of like being a middle child, and overspent and bratty kind of mother. All the other wives are taking care of the kids and I’m just kind of “Eh.”
Question: Who created the show?
Answer: Tom Hanks is producing it and these two writers who I don’t think you’ve ever heard of them before. But I think it’s going to be really good. It’s going to be like “Six Feet Under.”
Question: how many episodes did you shoot for the season?
Answer: 11 or 12. I’ve just watched all of “Deadwood.” It’s so good!
Question: The mainstream Mormons don’t like the fundamentalist Mormons and they’re the fasting growing religion. So is there going to be some kind of conflict?
Answer: Backlash? The latter-day Saints, of course they try to sweep them underneath the carpet and give them such a bad name.
Question: How much research did you do?
Answer: I watched a lot of Dateline specials and things like that. Read some literature of the Jon Krakauer book “Under the Banner of Heaven” which is a fascinating read, just for the history of the Mormons and a little bit about American history. I thought it was really great. “Predator’s Prey” and “Growing up in Polygamy,” all those books.
Question: Who plays the other wives?
Answer: Jeanne Tripplehorn is the older wife, Ginnifer Goodwyn is the younger wife, and Bill Paxton is the husband.
Question: When’s that starting?
Answer: Next month. We shot the pilot already. It’s going to debut in September.
Question: How does all that research leave you feeling about polygamy and marriage?
Answer: I still believe in the institution of marriage and I would love to get married one day in a church. I know that sounds old-fashioned but the way celebrity treat marriage to me is equally disturbing.
Question: How do you mean?
Answer: Divorcing all the time. But I hope to get married sooner rather than later, and have children. I’ll take it as it comes.
Question: Where do you fall in the question of life itself? Comedy or tragedy?
Answer: I think up until the past few years, I definitely saw it as a tragedy. I was a fairly depressed teenager and an affected youth. But I’m trying to take things a little more light.
Question: You seem a little bit more relaxed now..you were very serious when you did press for “Boys Don’t Cry.”
Answer: Was I? It was a serious film. [laughs]
Question: Are you more relaxed now though?
Answer: I think so. I think I’m becoming more comfortable with myself as the years pass, which is nice, because I think I was uncomfortable in my skin for so long.