Chloe Sevigny’s laugh is deep and honking, like a seal drunk on punch. Once I’ve heard it, I’m slightly preoccupied with the thought of hearing it again. First laugh: at the image of the “right man” eventually falling into her lap, “Like: ‘Whoops!’” Second laugh: the thought of asking sex advice from her mother, Janine. Third: remembering Jay McInerney following her round Manhattan like a smell, researching the seven-page New Yorker profile of Sevigny, then 19, where he wrote that she was “the coolest girl in the world,” the phrase that was, in turn, to follow her round for the rest of her life.
Now 35, she was 20 when she first acted on screen, playing a 14-year-old with AIDS in Larry Clark’s controversial 1995 film Kids. She was lovely in it, luminous and wide-eyed, already a face on the New York “scene,” a model who’d appeared in videos for Sonic Youth and the Lemonheads since moving at 18 from the suburbs of Connecticut, a place called Darien. “Aryan Darien,” Sevigny likes to call it, where everyone was white, where it was frowned upon to sell a house to Jews, and where nothing ever happened. When she goes home to see her mother (her father died of cancer in 1996), she says it makes her melancholy. “There are so many memories there for me,” she explains, her voice, like her laugh, deep and odd.
“So many memories. I know every rock, every tree. I always feel ... despondent when I arrive, like the place has an aura of sadness.” As a child though, she found the blandness and safety “freeing,” if a little dull. She spent her long light evenings sewing her own clothes, integrating herself slowly into her skateboarding brother’s gang of friends. It was through these skaters that she met Harmony Korine, who wrote the script for Clark’s film and, when filming wrapped, became her boyfriend, later casting her in his directorial debut Gummo. The acting roles came slowly after that, but she still made her choices carefully, receiving an Oscar nomination in 1999 for her supporting role as Lana Tisdel in Boys Don’t Cry, the true story of Teena Brandon — Hilary Swank played the Nebraskan girl who lived as a boy, falling in love with Tisdel before being exposed and finally murdered. Again Sevigny shone, the director concentrating whole scenes on the movement of her hooded eyes.
She could have gone Hollywood then. She could have gone romcom, happy endings, sides of buses, but instead, after a handful of critically acclaimed roles in left field, “difficult” films including American Psycho and Lars von Trier’s Dogville, she agreed to perform unsimulated oral sex on co-star and director Vincent Gallo in 2003’s The Brown Bunny. The film was panned, loudly, with Sevigny’s scene the punchline to many critics’ jokes. The New York Times, however, asked readers to “give the woman credit ... She says her lines with feeling and puts her iconoclasm right out there where everyone can see it. She may be nuts,” wrote Manohla Dargis, “but she’s also unforgettable.” Her agents saw things differently, and after The Brown Bunny’s release at the Cannes Film Festival dropped her as a client.
It was reported that Gallo and Sevigny had a complicated relationship, with him admitting that he’s been “obsessed” by her since she was a pre-teen. Today they no longer speak, but Sevigny is careful to stress that she regrets nothing. “He’s a fascinating man,” she says slowly, “but we haven’t spoken for a while. Not that that’s unusual — actors rarely stay in touch with directors after they’ve filmed together. We go back to real life.”
Like Korine before him, Gallo hung whole stories on Sevigny’s star. How does she feel about being a muse? “I love that title,” she giggles. “Muse. Mu-se.” She repeats the word, drawing it out like bubble gum. “It’s a great thing, for someone to feel that they can draw inspiration from you. And I don’t think it’s necessarily a man ‘taking’ from a woman. It can go both ways, both can stimulate, excite.” It’s something she has some experience of, finding inspiration in others. After a career of inclusions in magazines’ best-dressed lists, her high-waisted shorts and pulled-up socks appearing next to other celebrities’ careful gowns, she began collaborating with the brand Opening Ceremony to design her own collection in 2008. “They’re very selfish, really,” she says of her designs. “They’re basically things I want to wear, inspired by hours spent sitting in Thompson Square Park [in New York’s East Village] and watching the kids go by.” Today’s look is staunchly 1980s, with a vintage Calvin Klein T-shirt, rolled-up Levi’s and reissued Dr Martens boots. In LA to shoot the fifth series of Big Love, HBO’s drama about a polygamous Mormon family, Sevigny snorts as she recalls co-star Jeanne Tripplehorn’s reaction to her outfit of the day before. “I was wearing my basic late-80s look, and she yelled out, loud: ‘You’re blowing my mind.’ Which is cool, because I always like to dress to entertain.” To entertain? “Yeah, you know, wear something unusual to distract from my face. Oldest trick in the book.”
She’s certainly not pretty. Her jaw’s too heavy, her brow too wide. Instead she’s handsome, and disarmingly sexy. The summer she was 16 she shaved her head; she still seems confident playing with the idea of beauty. “I have the insecurities of any actress, I suppose of any woman. Even the most beautiful ones feel unhappy ... Look at Bardot: she was suicidal,” she says. “But I like to play with the camera. I like to ham it up.” She tells a story about sitting in a doctor’s waiting room with a friend recently and flicking through a pile of glossy magazines. “And there were all these girls we know on the cover of Marie Claire, on the cover of Vogue, and my friend said: ‘Aw, don’t worry, hon — you’ll be on there one day!’ And I laughed and laughed.
“I mean, these are not the magazines of my life. I’m like Vice, or Purple Fashion. I know who I am by now. And I am my own brand.” She already, she says, knew “who she was” by the time the New Yorker decided to profile her as the US’ “it girl” in 1992. How did the publicity affect her life? “To be honest? Not at all. In retrospect, people seem to find more in it, more enjoyment, more cuteness. On set the crew were handing a copy of the thing round the other day, but it barely registered with me at the time. I got two things from it — a lifetime subscription to the magazine, and a rubber Helmut Lang dress.” This week the New Yorker profiled Tavi, the 14-year-old fashion blogger beloved of Karl Lagerfeld, John Galliano and Comme des Garcons’ Rei Kawakubo. “A prodigy,” writes Lizzie Widdicombe. “Magazine editors envy her touch.” Does Sevigny see any similarities between the two teenagers? “When I was young I shunned the spotlight. I wasn’t self-conscious; I didn’t read magazines, just looked at them, you know? Tavi’s proactive. She’s putting herself out there; things haven’t just happened for her. It was very odd having Jay McInerney following me round. It embarrassed me! In the clubs it weirded everyone out! And it was kind of awkward him asking my friends questions about me. I mean, none of them spoke in sound bites. Not yet, anyway.” How would her friends describe her? “Emotionally generous, maternal, caring, solid, practical. And because I’m those things, I attract eccentrics. Plus, my mum’s advice is never to whine to my friends, so they never see the other side of me. I save all my problems for my mother.”
Her new film is the biopic of the British cannabis smuggler Howard Marks, Mr Nice. Sevigny plays Judy, his long-suffering wife. “I, well, we wanted it to come across as a love story and show how this man’s actions affected his family. It’s scary playing a real person,” she admits. “Judy and I met at the end of shooting, which was a shame, because I think I could’ve made the character stronger if we’d talked earlier.” In the past, Sevigny’s had to apologize to directors after her honesty, and habit of undermining her talent, has veered promotional interviews off-message. I see something like this coming when her voice dips and she begins to talk about her dissatisfaction with the British accent she adopted for the film, admittedly one that careers loosely on screen from Southern belle to English west country farmer.
“It was passable in rehearsal,” she begins, “but you know, I was playing opposite Rhys Ifans, who’s very Welsh, and lots of it was improvised, and we had to do most scenes in one take, and ...” I don’t urge her on.
She’s currently in cinemas as the fiancee of a murderer in Werner Herzog and David Lynch’s black comedy My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, and has just finished filming a thriller called The Wait, where she plays a girl preparing a party for the return of her dead mother. This sounds like a far better fit for Sevigny than Mr Nice, where the simplicity of her character leads to her appearing vaguely disconnected at times, softly focused. The Wait, directed by her friend M Blash, “revived my love of filmmaking. I got a bit disillusioned with acting for a while,” she says. “A bit tired of being told how to feel.” She’s currently developing a script with HBO about an American cult figure. “A woman,” she says. “But that’s all I can say. You’ll love it, hon. Every woman will, I promise.” She lists the women who have inspired her throughout her life — the ones she had pictures of on her bedroom wall. “Women like Kim Gordon and Courtney Love, Sinead O’Connor, Sissy Spacek and Mia Farrow. Women with an ‘off-thing’ going on.” Are you a woman with an off-thing going on, I ask. “Most certainly,” she says, laughing, “most certainly.”
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