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The “story” of Chloë Sevigny existed before her career did. A teenager who escaped the conformity of small-town Connecticut for the skateboarding subculture of Brooklyn, Sevigny legendarily lucked her way into an internship at Sassy magazine when its fashion editor spotted her on the street and was impressed with her personal style. Not long after, author Jay McInerney gave her yet another Lana Turner moment, writing a glowing seven-page article for The New Yorker in which he dubbed her both “the coolest girl in the world” and the new “It girl”—a label that’s followed her around well into her 30s.
Sevigny’s Edie Sedgwick-without-the-manic-depression image drove early interest in her career (particularly winning her roles in cult indie films like The Last Days Of Disco and those made with ex-boyfriend Harmony Korine), beginning with her Oscar-nominated breakthrough in Boys Don’t Cry. But Sevigny has spent the last decade-plus quietly building a résumé of impressive performances that have nothing whatsoever to do with “cool”—culminating in her recent, Golden Globe-winning turn as Nicki Grant, the most volatile of three polygamist wives on HBO’s Big Love. As Sevigny prepared for the release of Barry Munday—she has a small role as the bad-girl sister of Judy Greer, who’s carrying the child of a man who recently lost his testicles—The A.V. Club spoke to her about branching into comedy, why she thought this past season of Big Love was “awful,” and living with the twin stigmas of her infamous turn in Brown Bunny and that “It girl” past.
The A.V. Club: You’re known for choosing movies based on directors, but Barry Munday is from a first-time director, Chris D’Arienzo. So what attracted you to the project?
Chloë Sevigny: The script and meeting him. I have worked with a lot of first-time directors, and I tend to work with writer-directors. Kim Peirce was a first-time director on Boys Don’t Cry—and several others I can’t list right now. Just meeting with them and getting a sense of them, and getting a sense of their tastes, and what kind of films they like, and what kind of things they want to make. With Chris, he kept referencing Hal Ashby, who’s one of my favorite filmmakers of all time. Just getting a sense of how he wanted to make this film, the tone, and whatnot. So yeah, that’s why I was attracted to it.
AVC: You used to say that you always wanted to do a big comedy. Now that you’ve finally done one, do you still want to do comedy?
CS: [Laughs.] I’d like to try to attempt more. I don’t really think that my character was that comedic in this. I kind of thought she was more of the straight girl. But yeah, of course I want to try it. I want to challenge myself. And I think on Big Love, my character is often quite comedic. But I’m so comfortable there that it’s easy for me.
AVC: That’s true. You’re often very funny on Big Love.
CS: I get a lot of zingers. She’s hilarious. [Laughs.] She’s very snarky.
AVC: You aren’t classically trained. From your perspective, is there a difference between acting in drama vs. comedy?
CS: I guess for me, it’s all the same. I mean, I haven’t really done straight-up comedy. I guess [Barry Munday] was. I was very intimidated walking into this situation and watching Judy [Greer] and Patrick [Wilson]. They were so funny, and I was scared shitless, really. [Laughs.] I was afraid I wasn’t going to be able to make any sort of mark. I’m still disappointed with what I did in the film.
AVC: Why are you disappointed?
CS: I don’t know. I feel that I didn’t make enough of a presence. I could see myself shying away. Even physically, I could see myself turning in on myself—bowing my head and pulling my shoulders in.
AVC: Do you think casting directors have a problem seeing you as a comic actress?
CS: Probably. I don’t know. I think they have a lot of problems. [Laughs.] I think they don’t know what to think of me as. I know there are a lot of parts that I’ve been going out for, and they’re like, “Well, you’re not really like the every-girl, but you’re not the movie star, either.” I’m kind of falling somewhere between that.
AVC: A lot of your characters have a very subtle sexuality, but this one is really out there; you even do a striptease at one point. Was that unusual for you?
CS: No, I kind of like that stuff. I am a Scorpio, and playing the seductress appeals to me. There are a lot of women throughout film history, like Marlene Dietrich or Mae West—those are the women I was always attracted to. The bad girls. I felt like this character was a little bit of a bad girl.
AVC: This past season of Big Love has taken a lot of flak for being so over-the-top.
CS: It was awful this season, as far as I’m concerned. I’m not allowed to say that! [Gasps.] It was very telenovela. I feel like it kind of got away from itself. The whole political campaign seemed to me very farfetched. I mean, I love the show, I love my character, I love the writing, but I felt like they were really pushing it this last season. And with nine episodes, I think they were just squishing too much in. HBO only gave us nine Sundays, because they have so much other original programming—especially with The Pacific—and they only have a certain amount of Sundays per year, so we only got nine Sundays. I think that they had more story than episodes. I think that’s what happened.
AVC: It sort of became like Mormon Dynasty.
CS: [Laughs.] I know, I know. I’ve heard a lot of other things like that.
AVC: What was it like when they first laid out what they wanted to accomplish this season? What was your reaction?
CS: They don’t. We only get it episode to episode. We never know what’s going to happen in the next episode until we’re almost finished shooting the one we’re shooting at present. Me and the girls [Jeanne Tripplehorn and Ginnifer Goodwin] definitely were not very happy with where it was going—or more kind of, “We really hope it’s going to work. It seems like they’re really pushing it.” I think next season, they’re going to go back to more just the family. I think that the stuff with Ben and Lois and that stuff was really great in Mexico, but… [Laughs.]
AVC: A part of the show’s initial appeal was how it at least tried to stay grounded in some semblance of reality. Now that it’s gotten away from that, how do you keep things from turning into self-parody?
CS: I guess I just focus on it from scene to scene. Like, “Why is she behaving like this in this scene?” She’s a very particular, peculiar character, when you think of her circumstances. And this season, she was going through an adolescence that she never had, acting out, and vicariously living through her daughter, and realizing stuff she missed out on, and trying to find herself with the different looks. I think it was a very complicated season for her. And you know, the whole relationship with the daughter, and then J.J. [Laughs.] There’s always so much going on.
AVC: Like how J.J.’s trying to inject her with an incest baby?
CS: Oh God, I know. Oh, God. It’s too much. It’s too much. But I hope the fans will stick with us and tune in next year. There’s a lot of people who really love this season, surprisingly. God, I’m going to get in so much trouble. [Laughs.]
AVC: Even before this season, Nicki has seemed like a really difficult character to play, because her behavior is always being influenced by other men, and what she wants tends to fluctuate. How does that affect your motivation?
CS: I mean, there’s not much I can do. It is how it’s written, and I have to work it out and figure out why she’s doing the things she is. The creators are very articulate, and they help us a lot. If we have questions, like “Why? What’s the motivation?” they can like [Snaps her fingers.] in a second tell you, and it makes complete sense. I don’t know if you’ve watched any of their post-show interviews, but they’re really bright men, and they make it all make sense in your head. I just try to think how she would react in a particular circumstance. I think like, going to D.C., she brought the gun because she read about D.C., and she thought it was the most violent town in America—which it is, one of the most violent cities in America. [Laughs.] Her having the gun doesn’t seem that farfetched to me.
AVC: It almost sounds like what polygamist husbands do to their wives: make it all make sense.
CS: Yeah. [Laughs.]
AVC: You’ve said you spent a lot of time immersing yourself in Mormon literature to try to understand where Nicki’s coming from. Do you feel like you now have a more organic idea of who she is?
CS: I think she’s so fully realized on the page. Of course, most of the literature I read was anti-[polygamy]. There was one called Favorite Wife: Escape From Polygamy, where she writes a lot about the positives, or what she liked about polygamy. I try to draw on those more. But I’ve been playing the character for so long. [Laughs.] Before last season, I read [Carolyn Jessop’s] Escape and Favorite Wife and one other one, just trying to get back into the swing of it. To get back into that mindset, back in Utah. I also read Executioner’s Song, just get back into a “Mormon Utah” vibe. So they can be very diverse, what I read to get back into the swing of things.
AVC: In a recent NPR interview with Terry Gross, you talked about how the clothes have a lot to do with how you define the character—the braid, the posture, the buttoned-up collars. But now that Nicki is loosening up—
CS: I hate loosening up! It’s so much harder! [Laughs.] I prefer the braid. Yeah, yeah. I don’t know what’s going to happen next season with all the new outfits. I’m kind of scared. It’s just not as easy to fall into the character. With the mini-skirts and the short hair and stuff, I think it’s going to be a whole new ballgame.
AVC: After you won the Golden Globe, you were quoted as saying you hoped the show would bring attention to polygamist sects—that you thought the women in them were repressed and should be helped. Do you think that’s the ultimate message of Big Love, that polygamy is wrong?
CS: No, absolutely not. I think there are more parallels to gay rights and alternative lifestyles within Big Love—more so than “Polygamy is wrong.” I think they actually condone people who decide to live this lifestyle outside of fundamentalist sects. I wish they would bring more attention to people like the character of Rhonda.
AVC: Yeah, what happened to Rhonda?
CS: [Laughs.] Yeah, who knows? I wish there was more focus on those stories—or my daughter, and where she was coming from, and the compound. I wish there was more showing the injustice of what happens on the compound. I think they tried to do that a little bit with the “lost boys” storyline, and Bill telling about his own experiences being a lost boy. I think that they’re trying to show a little bit here and there, but I don’t know. Maybe it’s too depressing. [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you think it’s counterintuitive to that message to paint these characters—crazy megalomaniac Alby, selfish asshole Bill—as people you’re meant to sympathize with?
CS: Even with Bill? I think people are starting to question Bill’s motives.
AVC: A lot of people are, but it’s a lot like The Sopranos, where Tony Soprano seems like a loveable guy, even though he’s really an evil piece of shit.
CS: I don’t know. I guess it depends on the character in particular. Like Alby, obviously, is sympathetic because he’s homosexual, and he can’t be that. He can’t be himself on the compound.
AVC: But he’s also a terrible guy who takes that pain out on other people—like in the season finale.
CS: [Gasps.] He does? I don’t even have a TV. I haven’t seen a lot of it. [Laughs.]
AVC: Does that change your opinion of him?
CS: No. I still feel for Alby. [Laughs.]
AVC: Where do you see the whole Henrickson story ending up? Obviously you don’t know what the writers have planned.
CS: It seems like a series-ender this year, with us all standing onstage. I’ve heard there’s a lot of Internet chatter—my friend tells me so—that it was a dream. I don’t know where they’re going to go with it. I have no idea. I’m always surprised, actually.
AVC: Do you see it ending badly for them?
CS: I haven’t really thought about it so much. I could see it all collapsing. I think that’s kind of where it’s been heading. They’re always just barely holding on. So I think I could see it collapsing. I want for us to move back to the compound, because the compound is what interests me as a viewer, and as an actress, I’m more interested in what’s happening over there. I’d prefer for us to go back to the compound and [Bill] take over [as prophet], like my character wanted.
AVC: You’re more interested in that than what happens with Ben’s Christian rock band?
CS: Oh, please. [Laughs.]
AVC: Something that’s always dominated interviews with you is this struggle to get away from the whole “It girl”/“indie girl” thing. Do you feel like Big Love has finally marked that transition?
CS: I think so. I mean, it’s had so much exposure. I think more people have probably seen one episode of Big Love than all of my movies combined. So I think it’s kind of proven something for me.
AVC: Do you think the “It girl” thing has been a curse? It seems like it would be hard to keep progressing after someone dubs you “the coolest girl in the world” when you’re only a teenager.
CS: Well, I am cool. [Laughs.] But I think that the “It girl” label is for girls who don’t really do anything—as I’ve said before in every interview, and what more can I say on it? It’s just girls that are like at parties, or rich girls, or girls of the moment. I don’t want to be of the moment. I feel like I haven’t been. I feel like I’ve proved that. I’ve been around for years now. I’ve been acting since I was 19; I’m 35. It’s beyond that. I feel like the press focuses on these things over and over again. It’s so boring to me. Youth is very exciting, obviously, and dynamic, and they want to know “What was your youth like?” Terry Gross focused so much on my teen years. I was like, “Are you fucking kidding me?” How many times have I said these stories again? Is it really that interesting—those club-kid years or whatever? But I guess ’90s New York was interesting to a certain extent to a lot of people, and my publicist was like, “This is a new audience, they haven’t heard about these things. You have to talk about it again.” I’m like, “Ugh.” [Laughs.]
Yeah, I hope I’ve gotten away from the “It girl” thing. But people are always going to reference it. And I’ve done interviews myself. I’ve interviewed Deborah Harry. I’ve interviewed [Depeche Mode’s] Dave Gahan. So I’ve been on the other side. I know what it’s like. But I tried to find things that I’d never heard about before, or focus on newer work. With Deborah Harry, I was like, “You were in a play on Broadway with Andy Kaufman? Like how many people know that? What was that like for you?” Try to talk to her as an actress more, because people don’t know that much about her as an actress. I don’t know, I just feel like a lot of times, journalists can be a little lazy, and they just focus on the same things over and over again. Not to dis you or anyone in particular, but why the “It girl” thing always? What do you think is the appeal? Why do they always bring up this “It girl” business?
AVC: Because you’re in a unique situation. For one thing, there aren’t many other actresses who are victims of the whole “hipster backlash” that’s suddenly so prevalent.
CS: I feel like I’m old enough that I’m not a hipster. I was pre-hipster. I was an alternative kid. I was a skater kid. I went to hardcore shows. My older brother was a hardcore kid. I was pre-hipster. It was when they were more specifically defined youth cultures. And now, for some reason, I don’t know. I think that, just because of the time that I came to or something, maybe having to do with X-Girl and that was the beginning—the Beastie Boys apparently are the godfathers of hipster-ism, or whatever you want to say. I don’t know the terminology, because I don’t adhere to it. [Laughs.] I don’t even know. Why am I thought of as so hipster?
AVC: As you’ve said, you’ve been a part of many different trendy cultures. You’ve been at this unique nexus of cool, and maybe people see that as trend-hopping. But it’s never about being fair when you’re called a hipster. There’s usually no rhyme or reason to it. You just know a lot of “cool” people, ergo you’re a hipster.
CS: I mean, I was just living in New York City, and these were the people that surrounded it, and the interests that I’ve had. So what, there are no other actresses that are hipsters?
AVC: Surely there are, but you’ve been called the “Matron Saint of Hipsters.” If you Google “Chloë Sevigny” and “hipster,” you get something like 25,000 hits.
CS: Whoa! So, yeah. So people don’t like me because I’m a hipster. But I’m on a TV show on HBO. How hip is that? [Laughs.] I feel like it’s really commercial. Or actually, it’s not really commercial. I mean, the “hip” movies I was making in the ’90s or whatever—just because the ’90s were hipper—I don’t know, I feel like that hasn’t carried over so much. I don’t know. What was the question?
AVC: Do you feel like it’s a stigma you’ll always carry—not unlike The Brown Bunny, which obviously you’re sick of talking about too, but it’s something that will probably stay with you forever.
CS: Brown Bunny was my way of self-sabotaging my career. I know everyone wants to be really famous or do really commercial work, so I… I feel like maybe I’m a masochist.
AVC: So what keeps you coming back for more punishment?
CS: [Laughs.] Well, I have to make a living. And I love film, and I want to work with filmmakers I love—like Chris [D’Arienzo]—and do this kind of work. I feel like maybe [Brown Bunny] was just my way of separating myself from the rest. But I don’t know. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.