The House That Chloë Built

The Actor-Director on Her Life On Screen and Behind the Camera

  • Interview: Sanja Grozdanic
    Imagery: Brigitte Lacombe

There is a mythology that surrounds Chloë Sevigny: a young girl from Darien, Connecticut, population about 20,000, moves to New York City while it is still the centre of the universe, and with the fearlessness of an outsider and the precociousness of youth, the city becomes her. There’s her brilliant career, her fabled style, and her well-documented lovers. Chloë, the ultimate cool girl, who found herself in all the right movies, at all the right parties, with all the right boyfriends. The empire is in decline now. There can’t be another Chloë. There isn’t a Tunnel to learn from the club kids. The skaters have long since left Washington Square Park, where you’d have found her at 19—and besides, even the skaters have been commodified. In the post-Giuliani New York, matcha lattes are all over Manhattan. People are more hungry than they are curious, and this is an important distinction.

This popular interpretation obscures the work that goes into the career Sevigny created. To imagine it was handed to her is cute, in the same way that it is cute to imagine that talent is simply something that you are born with. Those innocent first steps toward expression may be inherent, but they demand suffering and a radical kind of self-acceptance. Kitty, Chloë’s first foray into directing, explores this notion through a young suburban girl who is truly unlike her parents and surroundings. Based on the short story of same name by Paul Bowles, there is solitude and sadness to Kitty’s metamorphosis, but she sees it through regardless. The pursuit of freedom and individuality is sacred, and talent demands more than simply desire and vision—it is something you make daily sacrifices for, as Chloë shows us in the short she recently directed for Miu Miu, Carmen. Carmen shows us the repetition in a creative life, the loneliness that sits beside the ambition. Carmen Lynch, the film’s namesake, is a comedian that trades in that brave and brutal kind of humor whose lasting notes are all empathy. Many artists claim not to work very hard. It's part of the illusion of genius; you’re born with it, you don’t cultivate it. Chloë’s portrait is a study of that which makes the performer, the love and the labor, and an ode to both. 

From Last Days of Disco and Boys Don’t Cry, Chloë was never merely an actor for hire. The bodies she chose to inhabit are an indication of that which compels her. In an early appearance on Letterman, she talks about watching My Own Private Idaho after an art teacher she admired told her she was too young for it. Au contraire—she watched it repeatedly. I tell her that this is my generation’s relationship to her work. Gummo wasn’t a film we could find at the local Blockbuster. It was shared between friends; it became a reference point. “I felt like I really wanted to take a direction, and have a point of view with the work that I did, to make it bigger than just being an actress,” she tells me. During our conversation, she displays a warmth and generosity rare for an artist of her stature. No crack-ups. The same laugh. Still making movies about the outsiders and the outliers. She could have had it easier, made more money. But that which you choose to chase will define you. 

Sanja Grozdanic: The first films that you were in were such defining films for my generation, and you a defining figure. In a male dominated culture—at such a young age—you seemed to have so much agency. Can you tell me how you made your early film choices?

Chloë Sevigny: Well, mostly they were films that were offered to me, and now there’s a lot of films that I passed on that I regret. I remember reading a Herzog quote saying it’s not about one film, it’s about the house that you’re building with all the films that you’re in. It’s this career that’s going to mean something, as a whole. I felt like I really wanted to take a direction, and have a point of view with the work that I did, to make it bigger than just being an actress. It was easy in that day, because in the 90s there were so many people doing edgy, expressive work. From Gummo to American Psycho, there was just a lot of opportunities for that. Now I feel that people are less prone to do things that are risky, like that kind of work.

Gummo was one of those films that we re-watched, traded…

That was me with the Jim Jarmusch films when I was in high school. We would sit around and watch them, and old David Lynch tapes, over and over.

I read countless profiles of you and so many of them began by citing your style. Does the style icon trope get tiring? I often think of how your work ethic doesn’t get mentioned as much, despite how many films you’ve been in.

I think it’s probably because the circulation of some of those magazines is so much greater than any of the movies that I’ve ever been in. I feel like I’ve never been in any mainstream movies. I feel like maybe people know me more because of my style than have seen my work, even though I feel like I’ve done countless films, and good films. You know, it all gets tiring, from the cool thing to the work thing to the Connecticut thing to the style thing… doing press in general. Especially when you’re doing a slew of it, which is generally when you’re promoting something you find important and you want people to write about so people can discover it. I especially feel that with Carmen and Kitty and my work now as a director. I mean, I do think if I was a man, obviously, it wouldn’t be the style thing. I would be more like “a character actor” and I don’t think anyone has ever really referred to me as that. I feel like I play very varied parts, very often, and I’m more of that. Nobody has ever said that, and I’m curious why. Even recently from American Horror Story to what I was doing on Bloodline couldn’t be any more different.

“I do think if I was a man, obviously, it wouldn’t be the style thing. I would be more like 'a character actor' and I don’t think anyone has ever really referred to me as that.”

What drew you to Carmen Lynch?

I’ve seen her countless times. I knew that I wanted to steer the comedy in that direction, to the provocative stuff that she does, and the stuff that deals with women’s issues. I knew that’s who I wanted to speak to, because I don’t see enough work these days that speaks to me, as a woman, in the way that I want to be spoken to. I really wanted to challenge people, and also humor them, and make them cry, and all the rest.

It felt like Kitty was about growing up—realising your place or self and the suffering associated with it—and Carmen was kind of a study of the sacrifices you then make. Would that be a fair interpretation?

Yeah, I like that interpretation. I feel like there was so much more to explore in Carmen. Short films are so difficult. I wanted to keep it on the shorter side, because when they get to 12 or 13 minutes they drag on a little. I wanted to work on the repetition of being a comedian, or an actor, or an artist, or a musician.

What role did club culture have on you growing up? There’s a mythology around that time and the way a club could be a radical space.

Recently on my Instagram I shouted out this boy, this club kid called Walt Paper. I watched Glory Daze on Netflix about Michael Alig and it re-opened that whole world, it was a real memory trip. I just feel like all those characters and people that were expressing themselves in extreme ways were so different from what I knew, growing up in a small town. It was really inspiring. It felt much more dangerous back then, to be out and flamboyant, and it took bravery for these kids to be out and acting the way that they were, and the creativity that was involved. Luckily I was never into drugs, because I feel that was the downfall for so many people involved in the scene. I just liked to go out and observe everyone. I was in that movie, Party Monster, which was one of my favourite things about New York because he captures it so well—the weird hierarchy that was in the scene, different levels of people bubbling. It was a great time in New York. It was wild.

What about skate culture? There’s a sense of community and camaraderie in skate culture that you seem to share, which seems to be quite rare in Hollywood.

Skate culture to me was always such a boys’ club. I never really felt part of it. I did when I was younger in the suburbs, there it was more of a way to find your kindred spirits, but in the city it became something different to me. It always attracted weirdos and whatever, but there is a side to the skate scene that I’m disgusted by, a machismo side. I guess I was more of a skate Betty; they listened to the music that I listened to and there was common ground, a common interest. 

“It’s just more intimacy than one should normally have with so many people on any given day.”

Can you tell me about your book projects? I especially love your zine because of the name, and the stickers on your boyfriends faces. Though I understand that this was done for practical purposes, it has this effect of shifting the gaze—like these are Chloe’s boyfriends, not vice-versa. Can you talk us through your motivation?

Aaron Fabian from Innen Zines, that boy does a whole series—he’s done them with Richard Prince, Rita Ackermann, he has an amazing list of artists—and he asked me to do one. I had just finished doing my book for Rizzoli and I tried not to make it about boys—other than Harmony, because that’s already so public. I was then compiling stuff for the zine, and I wanted it to be a concise expression. So, I decided to make a zine of all the men I loved in my life, including my father and my brother, alongside funny blurbs from the New York Post about me, some that are true, some that aren’t. One of the blurbs is titled “No Time For Love,” and it’s about my brother. He was talking to the New York Post saying how my relationships were suffering because of my work, and so, the zine is encapsulating that.

I read recently that women comprise only 7% of directors in America, based on the top 250 films, or 13% of the top 700. There’s been a lot of talk about the gender pay gap, and this is something more on the popular dialogue. As someone doing the crossover, what’s the situation like?

The numbers don’t lie. I have not had as many opportunities to work with female directors. I have in a lot of shorts, in other kind of capacities, trying to help out friends. I will say that I would consider a work by a female director, like a script if one is sent to me, more seriously than I would a man’s, just as far as wanting to come on board.

I find it’s really striking in television, because you have so many directors back to back to back, and it’s hardly ever female directors. I just think it’s all about getting more women in positions of power, and hiring women as producers. In my film I felt like it was easier for me to relate, and to be myself, and if I was emotional they would understand it and wouldn’t think it’s a bad thing. Having other women around me was really important. 

What’s it like spending a large amount of time in a nomadic state on film?

It depends on the project. I did this Lizzie Borden movie in Savannah for a month, and I was in it almost every single day, and by the end of the shoot it was more that I didn’t want the camera on me anymore. I wanted my privacy, I wanted to be me. I remember doing Big Love and by the end of six months I’d be going fucking insane. There were seasons where I was being accused of having an affair and everyone in the family hated me and you’re having, all day long, this dialogue thrown at you. Even though you know it’s dialogue, you have to be open emotionally, feeling it and responding, and it is really draining. I’ve worked with actors who on set just shut down, and they’re very quiet, they don’t socialize. I think they’re protecting themselves so when they have to work they have more energy to expel. Then there’s the other people, who are always super jovial and making everyone laugh. Being on set there are so many personalities you have to navigate—not that everybody at work doesn’t—but there’s an intimacy involved, and people are touching you, from hair, to makeup, to wardrobe, the director, the other actors... it’s just more intimacy than one should normally have with so many people on any given day.

There’s a particular dynamic to films like A Woman Under the Influence where Cassavetes had his incredible wife Gena Rowlands in the lead. So, I wanted to ask about the process of working with people you’ve loved.

It’s been a while. It was a different age. On Lizzie I worked with a friend, he wrote it for me. I hired him and we used to be roommates, and we were kind of roommates again on set. I found it almost difficult, because we were too close. There was an intimacy that allowed behavior that wouldn’t necessarily happen if we weren’t such close friends. Then also, I did another film with a friend who is a cinematographer, and I felt like he was really looking at me. That was very beneficial; he’s really looking at me and he knows me, so I have to be in the moment of what I’m doing, and I want him to believe. It was almost like I wanted to impress him because of our shared history.

I read that you go to mass every week, and always go home for the holidays. What role does ritual have in your life?

I don’t so much any more; I did when I was younger. I grew up in a very safe household, and I think the idea of structure and ritual can make one feel safe. We’re all creatures of habit and there’s comfort in that, especially when you’re on the road a lot, in and out of home a lot. When I’m away in a weird town by myself, I go into mass, just for the repetition of words and smells that I’ve heard my whole life. 

  • Interview: Sanja Grozdanic
    Imagery: Brigitte Lacombe
    Video courtesy of Miu Miu