Oh, gawd. Not another profile of Chloe Sevigny. She’s a cooler-than-thou fashionista who also plays supporting roles in indie movies — the It Girl to end all It Girls. We get it.
That was my reaction when someone suggested an article about Sevigny, whose latest film, ‘Lizzie,’ a lesbian-tinged take on Lizzie Borden and the infamous axe murders, arrives in UAE theatres on March 14. Hadn’t the same Chloe Sevigny story been rewritten for 23 years, ever since she arrived on the scene with ‘Kids’ and swept into Fashion Week? There was nothing new to say.
I was wrong.
Sevigny, it turns out, has begun a relatively radical career turn. Tired of being defined more by her off-screen aura than by her acting — hello, she was nominated for an Oscar and won a Golden Globe — Sevigny produced ‘Lizzie’ so that she could, for the first time in her 50-film career, play the lead part. Set in 1892, the movie finds a rage-filled Sevigny, 43, romancing Kristen Stewart’s Irish housemaid and literally smashing the patriarchy (in the face, with an axe).
Sevigny has also spent the last two years training as a filmmaker. Her directorial debut, ‘Kitty,’ a short film about a girl who turns into a cat, made a splash at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. A second short, ‘Carmen,’ an eerie portrait of a lonely middle-aged comedian on tour, arrived last year. Over the summer, Sevigny finished filming a complex third short, ‘White Echo,’ which looks at five women in their 30s and whether they believe in their own power. And she made a special appearance in the critically acclaimed Netflix series ‘Russian Doll’.
I have to work harder because of the annoying It Girl thing. It gets in the way of recognising my acting.
“Now I’m ready to direct a feature,” Sevigny said. “I know. I’m sure. It’s where I hope I’m headed.”
When we met up, Sevigny’s proposed rendezvous point was not a hipster hangout in Brooklyn, her home in recent years, or a favourite vintage store in Alphabet City, a neighbourhood where she used to crash with druggie friends. She asked to do the interview at her new West Village apartment, which is still an uninhabitable construction zone, sawdust and all.
“I’ve never lived west of Third Avenue, and it feels very adult,” she said with a giddy smile, as we sat on buckets of plaster and drank iced tea from a bougie shop down the block.
Sevigny has worked with auteur directors like David Fincher, Whit Stillman, Andrew Haigh, Jim Jarmusch and Lars von Trier. Her television resume is vaster than most people likely realise: ‘Bloodline’ on Netflix, ‘American Horror Story’ on FX, ‘Portlandia’ on IFC, ‘Comrade Detective’ on Amazon. She won a Golden Globe in 2010 for her acting on ‘Big Love,’ the HBO series about a polygamist and his wives. Sevigny said she is close to signing a deal to star in another major series.
Rather, the question about Sevigny involves us: Will we ever allow her to be known first as an actress and second as a downtown personality — the epitome of cool, as Jay McInerney christened her in The New Yorker in 1994. Once media narratives are created, it is nearly impossible to rewrite them. Just look at America’s Sweetheart, aka Jennifer Aniston, still supposedly pining away for Brad Pitt and a baby on a tabloid cover near you.
“Everyone is made up of different colours, and sometimes I do feel like I only get to be one,” Sevigny said.
She sighed and stared out the window in silence.
“It sounds so pretentious,” she said after a long time. “But I have to work harder because of the annoying It Girl thing. It gets in the way of recognising my acting. I’d rather be cool than a bunch of other things, I guess.”
She offered a tight smile, which seemed to serve as an edict: Let’s change the subject.
‘Lizzie’ has been in the works for more than a decade, ever since Sevigny started to obsessively research the Borden murders with a friend, Bryce Kass, who wrote the screenplay. They visited Fall River, Massachusetts, where Borden’s father and stepmother were killed with an axe (“40 whacks,” per the macabre nursery rhyme, which exaggerated wildly) in a home that is now a bed-and-breakfast. They spent the night and visited Lizzie Borden’s grave.
Sevigny decided to produce the project. “I’d never gotten to carry anything, and so I decided, for the first time, to take the producing plunge,” she said. “It was hard because I had no idea what I was doing. I used to have a weird removal from the business side of film. I’d retreat to, ‘It’s an art!’”
The Borden murders have captivated people for 126 years largely because they were never solved. Lizzie Borden, a seemingly proper spinster from a wealthy family, was the primary suspect, but an all-male jury acquitted her. Sevigny was equally fascinated by the circumstances that might have led Borden to commit such gruesome crimes — domination by a hyper-controlling father, the general repressiveness of society.
“Lizzie is this feminist American outlaw, sort of a pioneer for the idea of female autonomy,” Sevigny said. “Even today, I think a lot of women find themselves in circumstances where they’re under a man’s control — husband, father, boss — and are desperate to change those circumstances.”
‘Lizzie’ is not quite aimed at the multiplex masses. It is a highbrow horror film backed by Roadside Attractions, which is known for distributing gems like ‘Manchester by the Sea’ and ‘Winter’s Bone.’
“I love that ‘Lizzie’ doesn’t pander in a horror movie way,” said Howard Cohen, one of Roadside’s founders. “It goes back to the story and is supported by research.” He added, “There is nothing precious about Chloë’s performance — nothing mannered, no weird Locust Valley lockjaw — and yet she makes a very strong woman believable for the period.”
Yet ‘Lizzie’ also seems to represent an effort by Sevigny to push into more populist territory.
“I have been very calculated in my career, and now I’m kicking myself for some of those decisions — the things I didn’t do,” Sevigny said. “I used to be afraid to do anything that might be seen as frivolous or silly. Big, commercial, whatever. When I was younger, I guess I was snobby.” She continued, “I’ve got to have more fun with acting. I’ve always been so stressed and nervous about getting it right.”
Don’t miss it
‘Lizzie’ releases in the UAE on March 14.