The Art of Being
Driven toward auteurs, good scripts, authentic roles and the “right” ensemble casts, art-house queen and veteran ally in the fight against AIDS Chloë Sevigny stays on her non-sellout course, smashing stigma on both sides of the screen
by Sean Black
Ten minutes into our phone conversation and I accidentally drop the call on the leading queen of contemporary independent cinema. The soon-to-be breakout ingénue Chloë Sevigny delivered one of the most painfully memorable screen portrayals of rape after having just discovered her contraction of HIV in her role as “15-year-old Jennie” in Larry Clark’s provocative 1995 masterpiece Kids, written by Chloë’s now longtime friend Harmony Korine. The same Oscar-nominee for her dramatic turn as Lana Tisdel in Boys Don’t Cry (1999) and the actress who sparked humanity as Clara in Thom Fitzgerald’s 3 Needles (2005), a three-part film costarring Sandra Oh [A&U, October 2004] and Olympia Dukakis, which focused on the worldwide AIDS crisis, a cause clearly dear to Sevigny’s heart.
Seconds sluggishly morphed into long minutes as I replayed my inadvertent disconnect in my head. I had just hung up on one of the hardest-working artists in film, television, fashion and popular culture, and who had been working graciously with me through her publicist for nearly three years to make this interview happen simply because Chloë Sevigny is just that kind of human being.
Prior to our first glance, through the lens of my camera, at one of her many HIV/AIDS fundraisers back in 2015, Sevigny (Seven-nee) was in the thick of filming “Hotel,” Season 5 of the FX’s smash-hit series American Horror Story, as Dr. Alex Lowe. With numerous roles in popular television shows over the years like Big Love (2006–2011) and Portlandia (2013), along with a non-stop vitality in cinema: Trees Lounge (1996), Palmetto (1998), Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco (1998) and again his Love and Friendship (2016) both co-starring Kate Beckinsale, along with mainstream psychological draws American Psycho (2000) and Zodiac (2007), just to mention a few. Her acting career hasn’t ever waned. She’s my go-to secret weapon in the parlor game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon [A&U, August 2000].
Last year alone, Chloë co-starred in six major films, including Miguel Arteta’s adaptation of a Mike White screenplay, Beatriz at Dinner, with John Lithgow, Connie Britton and Salma Hayek, and The Snowman in dual roles opposite Michael Fassbender, with recurring guest spots in TV series Comrade Detective and Bloodline. And if that wasn’t enough, she squeezed-in two personal writing/directorial projects Kitty (writing adaptation), and Carmen for Miu Miu’s Women’s Tales series, memorializing a side-splitting true story and Sevigny’s fondness of the work of director Gus Van Sant and cinematographer Eric Alan Edwards (both for My Own Private Idaho).
“To me, Carmen was very personal. It was a story about being an artist and giving so much of yourself and then sometimes getting rewarded and sometimes not.” She elaborates, kicking off the interesting tone of our phone interview.
“There is this convenience store scene, which actually happened to me when I was working out in California. I walked into this place and there are these two squatter kids who totally objectify me and then they ask me if I could buy them some beer. This was a fucking hilarious scene.”
Laughing together, Chloë (with the umlaut) and I first connected over the phone (prior to my f*up with an asterisk), literally breaking the ice as the forecasted winter ice storm in her current home, Manhattan, had just melted icy snowflakes into drizzle, and thus confirming Chloë’s New England acclimatization and her love affair with the Big Apple. “I am a snow-girl!” she boasts sassily before we commiserate over loved ones’ recent, “brutal” nasal surgeries.
And here is the trick about interviews, for me especially. Chloë was every bit as lovely and down-to-earth as you’d hope she’d be, pulling off that genuine, girl-next-door sweetness and the high-school BFF coolness that everyone imagines. So I go off-script and pitch a question that clearly needed a more developed segue.
“What is it that you hope to be remembered for?” was my clunky first question after scrapping the one I originally penned.
“I will [only] be forty,” she scoffs jovially so I know she isn’t peeved but maybe just caught a little off-guard. “I don’t want to think about that yet,” she admits honestly.
But then takes a longish, dramatic pause. “INTEGRITY!” she bolts back in a steady and emphatic voice.
“Integrity, in [my] being.”
Then I end the call (ugh!).
Dialing back frantically, Chloë and I were quickly reconnected as my heart pounded palpably in my chest.
“Hey, I lost you,” warmly chimed in Chloë, just after the second ring. Her friendly greeting and cheery, forgiving tone set me right at ease. Her gregarious air is signature and part of why her fans love her so much when eyes meet at red-carpet venues, such as the one where we initially connected several years back, amfAR’s 2015 Los Angeles Inspiration Gala honoring Ryan Murphy.
“Chloë Sevigny is a real champion of the fight against AIDS and has consistently used her celebrity to further the cause of HIV awareness and prevention,” shares amfAR Chief Executive Officer Kevin Robert Frost when asked to comment on the star’s steadfast dedication to the cause. “She is a longtime supporter of amfAR, generously donating her time and lending her presence to many of our fundraising events over the years, and we are immensely grateful for her efforts to help us develop a cure for HIV.”
Along with her appearances for amfAR Chloë has also been the face of M•A•C’s AIDS Fund when they recruited her for its tenth anniversary as one of the five new spokespersons for its Viva Glam line, along with Missy Elliott, Christina Aguilera, Linda Evangelista, and Boy George.
Born and raised in Darien, Connecticut, Sevigny often took creative respite in nearby New York City. At just eighteen, one of these trips led her to an internship and a few modeling jobs for Sassy Magazine and x-girl, the urban clothing line created by Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, thus kickstarting Sevigny’s march to fashion fame in the mid to late nineties. It was around the same time she made the cover of Interview magazine when writer Jay McInerney in The New Yorker hailed her as the “it girl,” which has stuck like glue. Her social media is aflutter with stylish snaps and the latest hot trends.
Designing for fashion house Opening Ceremony, founded in 2002 by Carol Lim and Humberto Leon (now creatively spearheading Kenzo), Sevigny is keen on melding life-saving messaging into contemporary culture.
“I did this collaboration with Opening Ceremony where we used Robert Mapplethorpe’s images [printed] on T-shirts and all of the proceeds went to his foundation. There are so many photographers [like Mapplethorpe] who’ve brought attention to the AIDS movement. I mean, [the early days] weren’t pretty but the work is very effective and moving. We hoped to reach younger generations that aren’t as aware of the disease and didn’t grow up in the time that we did. Working with them, I wanted to highlight that period of time and have them look at the images, be struck by them and then go and do research on their pocket computers and find out who he [Mapplethorpe] was and how he died. I was hoping to open up a conversation among young people through the power of a T-shirt campaign. Opening Ceremony has also done reissues of the original ACT UP T-shirts. They’re pretty active as far as trying to raise awareness goes.”
Back during her early trips into New York City, Sevigny also spent a lot of her time watching the skateboarders who convened in the East Village’s Tompkins Square Park. It was there that she met young aspiring director Harmony Korine, which led her to being cast as the lead in Korine and Larry Clark’s collaboration Kids. [See Larry Clark this issue’s Gallery.]
About the director she shares in this time of the outing of abusive Hollywood power, “Larry Clark was very sensitive. He was really gentle with me. He was very encouraging. He set a really nice tone on set and knows how to make people feel comfortable and natural. I was really a big admirer of his work and I really believed the script and the story that we were trying to tell. I really adore Larry. I think he’s made better films since Kids. Bully is a great film, but that’s just my opinion.” Bully co-stars advocate Daniel Franzese [A&U, July 2015], a great friend of the HIV community as well.
I asked Chloë, a veteran who has worked with scads of brilliant people, to reveal things she’d like to see further improved in her industry. “I think there is stigma around the ‘indie actress’ title. People associate you with a certain type of film, and I think when you’re in that milieu it can be harder to break out of, into more mainstream roles. As an actor you want more opportunity and I think [typecasting] can limit those opportunities.”
I marvel about Chloë Sevigny’s admirable humility. “That’s why an actor like Steve Buscemi is very much identified as an indie actor, but he’s also thought of as a character actor. He gets to do the crossover into more mainstream work all the time. And I feel like actresses don’t have that crossover as much as male actors.” For me Chloë transcends not only her roles like her male counterparts but I’d argue that she may be one of the leading forces in destigmatizing the genre itself.
Her upcoming films are very mainstream, Lean On Pete and the long anticipated Lizzie, and she shares sneak peeks of both.
“Well, Lean On Pete is about a boy who has lost his family and he’s on a quest for home, whatever that means. He runs into a bunch of different characters along that journey. And my character is one of the people he comes into contact with, one of the few women portrayed in the film or the book. And she gives him some tough love. He’s of course, very attached to this horse. She leads him towards an important real-life lesson.”
The young actor, Charlie Plummer, who plays Pete, just won best newcomer at the 74th Venice International Film Festival. “He is so amazing and of course, so is the filmmaker, Andrew Haigh who made Weekend , Looking , and recently 45 Years. “Charlotte Rampling is really accomplished. [45 Years] is very moving,” says Chloë.
“I’ve always been attracted to original voices and auteurs for lack of a better word; towards writers/directors and just wanting to be a part of an ensemble more than searching or chasing specific leading roles. I think Lizzie is the first leading role I’ve ever had in my twenty-something-year career. So yeah, I guess I’ve just always been attracted to filmmakers that I believe in. I want to see them propel along with their careers and the stories that they want to tell. I’ve also had a really good run actually with first-time filmmakers, like Harmony, with Gummo, and Kimberly Peirce for Boys Don’t Cry.”
Nearing the closing of our interview, I attempt to sum up by asking how she originally came into the fight against HIV/AIDS and whether or not it was her role in Kids that drew her in, she replies. “I mean, growing up when we did, I knew people with the disease and people died from it. It was something that I witnessed and so whenever anybody asked me to get involved, I try and give as much time and energy as I can. I don’t know if I have or know what the specific genesis was, but it has always been in my consciousness.”
Asked about her staying power all these years: “Don’t do drugs!
“Jennie [Sevigny’s haunting Kids character] is totally compromised at the end [of the film] because she doesn’t have her wits about her.
“When I was growing up drugs were very prevalent and I always knew that perhaps I would like them too much, so I stayed away from them. Luckily, I grew up with a really strong family resolve and I’m not an addict, thank the Lord. I have lots of friends who are and struggle with it. I think that the stigma around addiction and mental health has to be lifted and there needs to be more programs and opportunities for people to get help in environments where they feel safe.”
Whether delivering tough love on screen or in real life, Sevigny is continuing her sharp focus. “I will be working on another short [film] soon about five women in their thirties or early forties and their relationship to their agency and how they can manifest power.”
“I’m just trying to do things that I really believe in and hopefully inspire others.”
For more information about amfAR, log on to www.amfar.org.
For more information about Chloë’s newly released film Lean On Pete, opening April 4, go to: https://a24films.com/films/lean-on-pete.
Sean Black is a Senior Editor at A&U. He photographed Karamo Brown for the February cover story.