Chloë Se­vi­gny’s sin­gu­lar style

The Weekend Australian - Magazine - - CONTENTS - By Emma Brockes

Chloë Se­vi­gny walks into the bar of a ho­tel in down­town New York like a dis­creet but still ­con­quer­ing hero: leather jacket, red lip­stick, round John Len­non-style sun­glasses and a laugh that draws the eyes of the room. She re­cently moved back to Manhattan from a ­far-flung neigh­bour­hood of Brook­lyn, where she had gone in search of a qui­eter life. For decades, the ac­tor en­joyed the buzz of be­ing a well-known ­fig­ure, un­til sud­denly, in her early 40s, she didn’t. “It didn’t work out,” she says, drily. Brook­lyn was too quiet, too far away; not Se­vi­gny’s style at all. Now she is back, greet­ing peo­ple she knows every few paces, a some­what re­luc­tant queen of the scene.

It’s been 24 years since Se­vi­gny was anointed “the coolest girl in the world” by Jay McIn­er­ney in his New Yorker pro­file, a piece that now reads like a mid­dle-aged man’s slightly dod­dery en­gage­ment with youth cul­ture, and for whose pur­poses any mod­ish 19-year-old woman may have served. ­Se­vi­gny has never been “cool” in the tra­di­tional sense, be­ing nei­ther de­tached nor aloof.

Her style these days errs on the side of men’s braces and baggy shirts, land­ing some­where be­tween A Clock­work Or­ange and Amish coun­try. She is also forth­right, in­tel­li­gent, chatty, un­guarded – she got into trou­ble re­cently for bad-mouthing one of her own screen projects (a biopic of Lizzie Bor­den, an Amer­i­can who was the main sus­pect in the 1892 axe mur­ders of her fa­ther and step­mother) – and, above all, opin­ion­ated: over the course of our in­ter­view, Se­vi­gny ex­presses sad­ness over her fam­ily’s sup­port for Trump, movie stars who hog all the best TV roles, and why she turned down an of­fer to chip into #MeToo. “I hope they’re not going to read this,” she says of her fam­ily.

Oh, and con­sci­en­tious. Se­vi­gny de­cides which roles to ac­cept largely based on whether she ap­proves of the peo­ple of­fer­ing them. In the case of An­drew Haigh, the Bri­tish di­rec­tor best known for the HBO se­ries Looking, who has just di­rected Se­vi­gny in the movie Lean on Pete, it was a no-brainer. “I wanted to be part of the cal­i­bre of movie An­drew puts out,” she says, “know­ing how he likes to sit with char­ac­ters and that he has a sen­si­tiv­ity and a beauty to his films.” Al­though, she adds, smil­ing, “even with the great­est di­rec­tor in the world you never know – it’s al­ways a risk”.

Lean on Pete, which is based on the novel of the same name by Willy Vlautin, tells the story of ­Charley, a 15-year-old boy who falls through the cracks af­ter his fa­ther’s death, takes up with a bunch of small-stakes horse rac­ers and flees across the coun­try af­ter steal­ing a horse. Se­vi­gny plays Bon­nie, one of the jock­eys – a tough, weath­er­beaten fig­ure full of hid­den dam­age and prag­matic charm. It’s rem­i­nis­cent of her role in Boys Don’t Cry, the 1999 movie for which Se­vi­gny was nom­i­nated for a best sup­port­ing ac­tress Os­car: mea­sured, deep, finely bal­anced be­tween know­ing and sub­tly eva­sive.

The film was shot in Ore­gon and, says Se­vi­gny, she has to think harder these days about com­mit­ting to months of film­ing away. “I was doing a show on Netflix in south­ern Florida called Blood­line – that com­mute wasn’t as bad; same time zone. But as my mother is get­ting older and my brother has just had an­other child, so I have two neph­ews, and my life and my friends are here, it is harder. If it’s an iso­lated thing it’s eas­ier to ac­cept, but sign­ing on to a se­ries for five or six sea­sons some­where far from home, I think I would be more ret­i­cent.”

Se­vi­gny lives alone in New York and her fam­ily are an hour away in the Con­necti­cut town where she grew up. One of the ad­van­tages of get­ting older, she says, is un­der­stand­ing that the best way to en­sure good work for her­self is to take on a greater role in cu­rat­ing it. She is start­ing to di­rect short films: Kitty, from 2016, based on a short story about a girl who turns into a cat, and more

re­cently Car­men, about a 40-some­thing standup co­me­dian. “Cre­at­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties helps to ease anx­i­ety and focus your­self on keep­ing busy with other things – to get some con­trol, to be a pure ex­pres­sion of your own.”

With Lean on Pete, I was shocked to dis­cover Se­vi­gny, 43, had first been con­sid­ered for the role of Charley’s aunt, who is in the film for about three min­utes, and only won the larger role af­ter lob­by­ing hard. It says some­thing re­gret­table about the film busi­ness that Se­vi­gny isn’t a big­ger star, though she is at pains to point out she is doing fine: she has the movie about Lizzie Bor­den, in which she co-stars with Kris­ten ­Ste­wart, com­ing up later in the year and more projects lined up be­yond that. “I’m not al­lowed to talk about my fi­nances,” she says, smil­ing rue­fully, “be­cause I am very priv­i­leged.”

Still, while the boom in TV promised to be a gold rush for good ac­tors, it hasn’t re­ally turned out that way. Se­vi­gny is a vet­eran of the small screen af­ter ap­pear­ing in five sea­sons of the HBO show Big Love; since then the TV land­scape has be­come much more crowded. “It feels like there’s been a big in­dus­try shift, es­pe­cially in the film in­dus­try, so that now all the big movie stars are doing TV.”

Reese Wither­spoon? “Yeah.” She rolls her eyes. “It’s now more com­pet­i­tive than ever. Like, Amy Adams is doing an HBO se­ries; the big movie stars who would nor­mally just stick to the big movies are now in TV. There is some­thing to be said for doing a long-term thing that is in­ter­est­ing to ex­plore a char­ac­ter. And I guess if you’re a movie star of that cal­i­bre, you’re used to be­ing on sets for six months at a time. They’re not doing indies, which are 30 days and you’re out.”

The down­side to com­mit­ting to a multi-sea­son TV show can be ex­pressed with a sin­gle word, says Se­vi­gny, one that strikes fear into an ac­tor’s heart: “Un­avail­able.” She says: “If you’re out of the film hus­tle, then you’re ‘un­avail­able’ and you might miss an op­por­tu­nity there. Ac­tors hate be­ing ­un­avail­able. Be­ing in a play is re­ally hard be­cause then you’re un­avail­able. It’s ter­ri­fy­ing be­ing un­avail­able, un­less you’re on a great pro­ject.”

Does get­ting older take some of this anx­i­ety away? “I feel more re­laxed,” she says. “I feel con­fi­dent in the fact that I’ll al­ways be work­ing, whether it’s get­ting the parts I nec­es­sar­ily want or” – she laughs apolo­get­i­cally – “feel that I de­serve, al­though de­serve is a strange word to use. I know some­thing will come along and I’m also pur­su­ing di­rect­ing. I’m shooting an­other short film. I’m going to Cannes to be on the jury dur­ing crit­ics’ week.”

In hon­our of which, she or­ders the fruit and yo­ghurt: “Try­ing to keep it trim, girl. I have to fit into some sam­ple-size dresses,” she says, and ­de­liv­ers one of the hoot­ing laughs that, how­ever much she jokes about slim­ming down for Cannes, give a sense of Se­vi­gny as some­one who won’t di­min­ish her­self to meet in­dus­try de­mands.

How is she finding her 40s? Se­vi­gny stops ­laugh­ing. “I don’t mind it. Some of the physical changes are a lit­tle frus­trat­ing.” Like what? She lifts a hand vaguely to her neck. “I feel like… tex­ture. Like, cer­tain ar­eas. It’s the dé­col­letage. Those sorts of things are dis­con­cert­ing. We need more women like Frances McDor­mand and Tilda Swin­ton. Just the way they present them­selves and don’t bend. Frances with no make-up and hair just loose; why can’t more women do that? I love see­ing He­len Mir­ren, too; I think He­len is such a nat­u­ral beauty. And she still does the clas­si­cal dress-up, but she has her own hair and her face looks nat­u­ral. See­ing her next to Jane Fonda at the Os­cars and Jane had like… not nat­u­ral hair.” She laughs. “But Jane can do what­ever she wants. Jane is the ul­ti­mate. All women should do what­ever they want, ob­vi­ously.” Last year, Ro­nan Far­row, who first re­vealed some of the Har­vey We­in­stein sex­ual as­sault al­le­ga­tions in The New Yorker, ap­proached Se­vi­gny and asked if she’d be in­ter­viewed by him about her ex­pe­ri­ences of Hol­ly­wood. She turned him down. “I didn’t re­ally have any­thing to say to him,” she says. “I’ve had ex­pe­ri­ences that are kind of com­mon, ver­bal ex­pe­ri­ences, or in­nu­en­dos. But I didn’t feel they of­fended me to such a de­gree that I wanted to name the names. I think they’re com­monly known as ass­holes any­way. Do you know what I mean? I felt it would draw at­ten­tion to my­self, in a way. Which I know is the wrong thing to say, be­cause we have to be vo­cal for peo­ple who don’t have a voice…”

She trails off, then starts again. “For some­one to say, ‘What are you doing af­ter?’ dur­ing a cast­ing ses­sion is not so un­heard of. Yeah, it shouldn’t be done and lots of girls might feel vul­ner­a­ble and not know what to do in that sit­u­a­tion. For me it was like, ‘Re­ally?’” She laughs. “I do feel like what ­Har­vey We­in­stein did com­pared to Al Franken [the for­mer Min­nesota sen­a­tor] – there has to be some de­lin­eation. In­stead, they’re all grouped to­gether.”

Was she just nat­u­rally buoy­ant enough to push back against ca­sual propo­si­tions? “I think maybe grow­ing up around some men in my life who were a lit­tle chau­vin­is­tic helped; I don’t know. I can’t even re­mem­ber now who said it to me, but a fe­male cast­ing di­rec­tor said, in a room full of ­peo­ple: ‘You have to make the men want to f..k you and the women want to be you.’”

Ew. “Yeah. I wish I could re­mem­ber who she

was. Not that I want to call her out, but I feel like that was more dam­ag­ing in a way. To think to my­self, ‘That’s re­ally what I have to be?’ And then try­ing to fig­ure out how to be that. This was from a cast­ing per­son who was like, ‘This is how you’re going to get the jobs’, and then that per­me­at­ing through how I thought about my­self, and the com­mod­ity I was. That was more dam­ag­ing than the guy ask­ing me, ‘What are you doing af­ter?’ or say­ing, ‘You should take your clothes off more’. Shocker.”

It makes sense that Se­vi­gny, while sen­si­tive to all the nu­ances sur­round­ing #MeToo, held back when ap­proached by Far­row; to be in a room with her is to be re­minded that Se­vi­gny, while friendly and charm­ing, is a non-con­form­ist who makes up her own mind, think­ing long and hard be­fore she an­swers some ques­tions and dou­bling back to qual­ify them once she has. She is po­lit­i­cally at odds with her fam­ily, a sit­u­a­tion she finds de­press­ing. Se­vi­gny grew up in Darien, Con­necti­cut – an af­flu­ent, con­ser­va­tive place – but af­ter mov­ing to New York at 19 and fall­ing in with a fash­ion­able art crowd, rapidly moved away from the opin­ions she’d grown up around. Her fam­ily watch right-wing news chan­nels, she says, “which I try to zone out when­ever I go home. It’s a los­ing bat­tle. They’re at an age when

there’s been a big in­dus­try shift – now all the big movie stars are doing TV

now it’s just the sad un­der­cur­rent of ten­sion, and me hav­ing to block it out or ig­nore.” Are they the kind of Repub­li­cans with whom she can at least unite against Trump? “Un­for­tu­nately not. I think they have fallen prey to his anti-es­tab­lish­ment rhetoric and they feel rad­i­calised in a way. I don’t know where all their Catholic val­ues went.” Se­vi­gny shrugs. “There’s some­thing about him they find com­fort in, be­cause they were so anti-PC; so I think they’re like, ‘Oh, fi­nally, some­one’s be­ing hon­est.’”

Se­vi­gny some­times wishes she could be more ef­fec­tive po­lit­i­cally; she’s a big fan of Su­san ­Saran­don and she ad­mires Rosario Dawson, “who I know from the Kids days [Larry Clark’s 1995 film] and who’s very vo­cal. You see her in an ­in­ter­view and she’s throw­ing out num­bers and ref­er­ences to this bill and that bill. If I had that ar­tillery, I feel like I’d be more em­pow­ered. But I don’t know if my brain works that way.”

If her strengths lie else­where, they are perhaps rarer and more valu­able for that. Af­ter the in­ter­view, Se­vi­gny is going up­town to meet a di­rec­tor of pho­tog­ra­phy who worked on Bey­oncé’s Lemon­ade, whom she hopes to per­suade to work on a short film she’s writ­ing. What’s it about? She smiles. “A woman and the re­la­tion­ship to her power.”

Opin­ion­ated: Chloë Se­vi­gny

Roles: from top, with Hi­lary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry; with Harry Dean Stan­ton in Big Love; in Blood­line; in Lean on Pete with Char­lie Plum­mer

Bud­dies: with Rosario Dawson in Kids

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