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Chloë Sevigny: who’s that girl?

It’s 1996, and Chloë Sevigny is the girl of the moment – an unaffected actress who put in an amazingly affective performance in Kids. In a world obsessed by the fake plastic tits in fake plastic films, she couldn’t have come at a better time

Taken from May 1996 issue of Dazed:

The first thing you notice about 20 year-old Chloë is her eyes. Where most people divert their gaze after a split second of contact, Chloë holds her stare. It is a brief invitation to look behind her eyes, where a refracted sensibility lies, establishing her natural physical presence before she has even said a word. This subtle character trait shows Chloë's modest, unblinking amazement at being courted for fame after only one film and at the same time suggests a momentary lack of inhibition, an instinctual desire to just take life as it comes.

Kids is a tightly scripted story of a day in the life of a loosely connected group of New York skate kids. They get stoned to kill the boredom, see sex as competition and skate for a sense of achievement. They live like most other inner city kids in an environment without consequences. In the city's concrete streets, responsibility is rejected in favour of personal freedom, adults aren't around and moral codes become as twisted as the reason the film's main protagonist Telly only fucks virgins; so he can have unprotected sex and not catch AIDS.

The first time we see Chloë's character Jennie is during an all-girl chat with her friends as they colourfully describe multifarious, often hilarious sexual experiences. We discover that 14 year-old Jennie has only had one sexual encounter. The girls are portrayed as a more tight knit group than the boys; they get stoned to fit in, gossip to kill the boredom and generally acquiesce with the boys' aggressive sexual advances. It's ironic that Jennie is the one who, after accompanying her far more promiscuous friend to an AIDS clinic for a test, is confirmed as HIV positive. The rest of Kids is seen through a series of flash backs, following Jennie's search for the boy responsible, the self-described “virgin surgeon”, Telly.

Chloë was brought up in Darian. “Aryan” Darian, as it is known, is a small town in Connecticut, a suburb of New York, about an hour and a half's drive from Manhattan. Her parents had chosen Darian for the sake of her and her older brother Paul, and it's something Chloë has never been able to understand. “It's a really white bread, blue blood town. It's pretty gross.” She went to the local high school, where she insists she had very few friends. She used to sneak to New York at the weekends and so moved there permanently; escaping the small town mentality of Darian, to hang out with the skate kids in Washington Square Park and party at clubs like Nasa. She'd live with friends or, occasionally, she'd go to raves and stay there all night, “because I didn't have anywhere to go. I'd just stay until the next day and keep going.”

Chloë worked over a summer as an intern at Sassy magazine. Daisy Von Furth, who styled the Sonic Youth video for “Sugar Kane”, had heard about Chloe's natural style and oddly seductive good looks and cast her in the video. This led to Chloë modeling at the New York launch of Kim Gordon and Von Furth's X-Girl fashion label. The Lemonheads followed suit, featuring Chloe in their video for “Big Gay Heart”.

She also appeared in her first fashion shoot for New York's Paper magazine, while a clothes and techno record shop – a pit-stop hangout for club kids, or “New York Rave Central” as she puts it. At the height of grunge and at the time of the rave culture explosion, it was as if Chloë had been adopted as an accidental ambassador for underground New York youth culture.

Larry Clark, a 53 year-old veteran photographer with a worldwide reputation for documenting his own youth in books such as Tulsa and Teenage Lust first met Harmony Korine and Chloë in 1992. He was sporting a mohican and a Leica, photographing the skaters in the park. Korine told Clark about a short script he had written. It was the story of a boy who is taken by his estranged alcoholic father on his 13th birthday to visit a prostitute for his first sexual experience. It wasn't until a year later that Clark, remembering Korine's script talked him through a brief outline for the idea of Kids. The then 19 year-old Korine finished the script in three weeks. Clark enlisted the help of executive producer Gus Van Sant and Kids was eventually shot in the summer of 1994.

Larry Clark's realist, documentary style direction, the use of real kids instead of actors, the beautiful hand-held cinematography by My Own Private Idaho's Eric Edwards and Korine's natural gift for dialogue makes Kids engaging, forceful, purposefully direct and as powerful as a kick in the head. The last line of the script sums up the film when Telly's bestfriend Casper says, “Jesus Christ, what happened?”

Korine had been a friend of Chloë's since high school. Initially, when the role of Jennie was cast, a professional actress had been hired, but she stood out against the backdrop of the skate kids with no acting training. It was then that Clark and Korine asked Chloë. She was the natural one: after all, the role had mostly been written with Chloë in mind. There's a poignant scene in Kids when Chloë is riding in the back of a taxi. As she looks out of the window, her reflection in the rear-view mirror frames her eyes. She doesn't say anything; instead her eyes do the talking, filling up the screen. She realises that she's doomed, that she's going to die.

It's a moving moment; a testimony to Chloë's understated but engrossing performance in the film. Most actor’s wilt without the necessary dialogue and action to keep their characters fuelled, but Chloë is able to glide effortlessly across huge emotional landscapes without saying a word. Since Kids, Chloë has worked with Steve Buscemi on this year's Trees Lounge. Buscemi wrote, directed and also stars in this semi-autobiographical story about where he might be, had he not become an actor. It is set in Buscemi's hometown of Long Island, predominantly in and around the Trees Lounge bar. Chloë plays Debbie, a 17 year-old with a crush on ex-mechanic turned ice-cream van driver Buscemi. The film also features performances from Elizabeth Bracco (Mystery Train), Eszter Balint (Stranger Than Paradise), Debi Mazar and a brief appearance by Samuel L. Jackson. Buscemi recounts his first impression of Chloë from the auditions, before he had seen her in Kids: “I could tell that she was nervous and a little bit shy and I just know that feeling so well from when I started out. A lot of the other actresses I saw for that role just seemed to be so at ease with the process of auditioning, but Chloë had something that was very real about her.”

“After reading Harmony (Korine)’s scripts it's so hard for me to enjoy other scripts, because it all seems like shit. He's a total bastard though” – Chloë Sevigny

After seeing her in Kids, Buscemi knew she was right for the part. He describes the methodology of her performance during the filming of Trees Lounge: “There was something very real in her approach, and it throws you off initially, because you're so used to having actors going for the result. I think she has a lot of talent and is the type of actress that can do anything. She’s also the kind of actress who delivers once the cameras are rolling. I could tell that she needed the realism of being on the set, of being in the moment." 

Chloë has received dozens of scripts and offers for more films, but only one opportunity has really excited her since Trees Lounge; the chance to work with French director Leos Carax, who made one of her favourite recent films, Les Amants du Pont Neuf (1991). Chloë displays a rare integrity and idealism at the choices and compromises she's willing to make, avoiding obviously commercial films that could bring her more money and wider recognition for films that she believes in; films that she would like to go and see. Most recently Chloë has been preoccupied with the recent death of her father, who was a major influence and love in her life. She now lives with her mother at home in Connecticut and, when she's in New York, with Korine, her boyfriend since they finished filming Kids

The documentary’s visual style and the 24 hours in the life narrative make it easy for people to assume that you're just being yourself and that you're very similar to Jennie. What are the similarities?

Chloë Sevigny: I'm still pretty reserved and I can't voice my opinions. If I don't like something it can be really hard for me to get up the nerve to say we have to stop. Jennie's the same, she's just going through the motions.

So do you want to be a bit tougher with people?

Chloë Sevigny: I'd love to. (laughs) I always say, ‘OK I'm going to be more punk now’. 

Do you admire people who are?

Chloë Sevigny: Yeah, I do. But I don't want to be too abrasive.

It must have been very helpful to have spent so much time with Harmony and Larry, talking about the role and working that closely with them. It always shows through in films when actors have a strong relationship with the director or writer. Is that something you want to continue?

Chloë Sevigny: Yeah, like after reading Harmony's scripts it's so hard for me to enjoy other scripts, because it all seems like shit. He's a total bastard though. (laughs)

What was that?

Chloë Sevigny: He's a bastard, but he's a brilliant writer.

When I saw Kids, it gave me hope that there were people who weren't just buying into the commerciality of film and pretending, with an independent budget, to try and make a blockbuster. It gave me a sense of hope for the term ‘Independent Cinema’ in the US.

Chloë Sevigny: And it was ironic that it was Miramax, because a lot of people were blaming Miramax for killing independent film because they brought it to the mainstream.

What other films have you seen recently that you've liked?

Chloë Sevigny: (Long pause. Starts laughing) I don't really like any films! I saw Dead Man Walking (1995), that was good. Sean Penn is one of my favourite actors.

I like Susan Sarandon. I find her oddly sexy in an older woman way.

Chloë Sevigny: I find her husband (Tim Robbins) oddly sexy myself. (laughs)

Why do you laugh so much?

Chloë Sevigny: (laughing) I don't know! (laughing) That’s a silly question.

No, I think it's a really important part of you, and what you're about…

Chloë Sevigny: …I guess so. I never really thought about it…

…that you've got a sense of humour.

Chloë Sevigny: Yeah, I hope so.

‘Hope’ in the sense that it isn't lost amongst all the madness?

Chloë Sevigny: Yeah. (pause) Sometimes I think it might be a nervous laugh too. That's not good.

It's always good to laugh, even if it's out of nervousness.

Chloë Sevigny: Yeah.

Do you wish you were older?

Chloë Sevigny: No, I wish I was younger.

Do you feel older?

Chloë Sevigny: No, I feel my age. But now that Harmony and I live together, I'm tiling the floor and doing all these domestic things which makes me feel a little too old.

“I was more into downers; never heroin or cocaine. I've never snorted any drugs. I'm pretty proud of myself for that” – Chloë Sevigny

Have you ever been to London?

Chloë Sevigny: After we did Kids, I spent all the money I made on this trip to London and Paris. I lived with an old boyfriend of mine, Misha, who was at Chelsea College of Art. While he was at school, I would just go to see different sights. And then at night we'd just hang out at his flat. He didn't really know that many people, ‘cause he had just moved, so we didn't really hang out.

You must have gone out at least once.

Chloë Sevigny: Last time I was in London I went out with my friend Sophie and we went to a few clubs and did a little dancing. (laughs)

Are you a good dancer?

Chloë Sevigny: I'm sort of like the person that doesn't move her feet, but just sways from side to side.

Did you ever go through a period when you were strung out on drugs; going out a lot at night and sleeping during the day?

Chloë Sevigny: When I first moved to New York, the first year I used to go out every night before I had an apartment.

Was there a big ecstasy culture with the kids you were hanging out with in the park?

Chloë Sevigny: I wasn't so big into ecstasy.

And you were up all night?

Chloë Sevigny: I guess I was, (laughing) but then I was more into downers; never heroin or cocaine. I've never snorted any drugs. I'm pretty proud of myself for that. (pauses)

Are the skaters still hanging out in Washington Square Park.

Chloë Sevigny: No, they don't hang out there anymore. (laughing) They hang out at Astra place; The Cube it's called. They couldn't skate in the park anymore, the cops were hassling them all the time, so they hang out at The Cube, plus it's closer to the East Village, where they all live.

Tell me about the last dream you had.

Chloë Sevigny: My father passed away, in February. He came to me in my dream.

I'm really sorry to hear that. Was it sudden?

Chloë Sevigny: He had cancer. We expected him to be out of the hospital, but he didn't.

I'm sorry.

Chloë Sevigny: It's OK, I'm fine.

Let's talk about Kids. I expected Jennie to go ballistic when she found out she was HIV positive; to start punching the telephone box...

Chloë Sevigny: You mean when she's in the clinic?

No, when she goes to phone her mother and she can't speak to her...

Chloë Sevigny: But who really knows how someone would react? How would you react?

I don't know; that’s what I'm interested in.

Chloë Sevigny: You never really know. It's like how people deal with death. Nothing's right or wrong; it's personal.

“Yeah, ‘fuck you’ to the British Parliament. I heard they denounced (Kids) on the floor after the screening at the London Film Festival” – Chloë Sevigny

Do you know anyone who's died of AIDS?

Chloë Sevigny: My friend is in bed really sick right now. I knew one boy who got it and committed suicide. He never got into the slow death of it.

Have you ever thought of committing suicide?

Chloë Sevigny: I did once.

Was it serious?

Chloë Sevigny: It was pretty serious. There was this one girl in school who everyone picked on, and one day we were at a football game in the town, and my friends and I didn't want to hang out with her. We were supposed to give her a ride home, but we ditched her at the high school. I was only like nine or ten at the time. I came home, and her mother called and asked where she was and I started feeling really guilty about everything and tried to strangle myself with a jumper, but it didn't really work.

Are you bored with people coming up to you and talking about Kids?

Chloë Sevigny: In film when people stop you in the street, it's really only applause. Seymour Cassell once said that to me.

Who’s he?

Chloë Sevigny: He worked on most of Cassavetes' films, and I worked with him on Trees Lounge. He said, 'If people recognise you, you can't be mean to them because it's your only applause', and it's true.

Do you feel that people's attitudes to you have changed?

Chloë Sevigny: People I was close to, like friends, and more so with acquaintances.

In a bad way?

Chloë Sevigny: Definitely.

Do you find they put up barriers that you have to break down?

Chloë Sevigny: Yeah, it's not fair at all. Like I just spoke to a friend of mine on the telephone and I was oh, you know, ‘When you come back to New York, let's go out for lunch’ and he was like, ‘Oh I don't do lunch yet, I'm still just 19 and hanging out, and you're a big movie star’, or whatever, you know. It's not like that at all. That's frustrating.

Do you think you have a responsibility in terms of the roles you choose to do?

Chloë Sevigny: Sometimes, but sometimes a film is just enjoyment. This is part of the problem with Kids and the press on Kids. Everyone was just, ‘Is this really true to reality?’ Why not just take it as a film? It was beautifully shot and hardly anyone ever says anything about that. I think it's a really funny film too. (laughing)

I've read quotes where you've said that before, and Larry saying he thinks the film's really ‘comic’. I think that's getting too close to something. If something is as powerful as Kids, after seeing it a few times and coming over the shock, one of the natural reactions maybe to laugh.

Chloë Sevigny: It's difficult to be objective.

Did you ever talk to Harmony or Larry about what there action to the film might be like?

Chloë Sevigny: We didn't think it was going to cause as much controversy. At least Harmony and I didn't.

Have you found yourself personally affected by the controversy surrounding the film? Do you want to say anything about the censorship to anyone, like maybe even a ‘fuck you’ to the politicians?

Chloë Sevigny: Yeah, ‘fuck you’ to the British Parliament. I heard they denounced it on the floor after the screening at the London Film Festival. When Harmony and I were going over to London to do the Miu Miu shoot, Miramax were really afraid because there was picketing I guess, or something, even though no-one I knew heard anything about that, and they were worried that something would happen to us. They wanted us to go with, like, Demi Moore and Bruce Willis' security guards and we were like, ‘what?’ (laughing her head off) and the film had only played once in London. I got into a huge argument with them about it, and they were like, ‘You've got to go with these people, you’ve got to go on all these different flights so they don’t know when you're coming in’, and I said, ‘This is so fucking ridiculous’.

What did you think when you first saw Kids?

Chloë Sevigny: I was pretty shocked.

Shocked for what reasons?

Chloë Sevigny: It is just seeing yourself onscreen for the first time.


Chloë Sevigny: I still can't watch my scenes. There's only one scene in the film that I can watch, that I like of myself. That's the elevator scene, the only scene that I thought I was any good in.

Do you remember when you lost your virginity? How old were you?

Chloë Sevigny: I was 15. (long pause)

In Darian?


Was it something you were forced into?

Chloë Sevigny: No, it was really special. It was with my first boyfriend, who I was with for two and a half years or so. So I was sure that he was the one I wanted to be with. It was a good thing. But then I also think that maybe I was too young. I really think you should wait.

How old was he?

Chloë Sevigny: He was 18.

Have you ever fallen in love?

Chloë Sevigny: I don't want to get in trouble. (laughs softly)

Are you still searching for what love means to you?

Chloë Sevigny: ‘Specially since my father has died. Because he was the greatest man I'd ever known; not that any love with a spouse can be like what you have with your father, but just to have someone like him, someone to have children with, a husband that is as great as my father. I don't think I'll ever find someone as great as that.

“I just kept looking at Kim (Gordon); she's such a strong female figure and I thought that if I looked at her, she would be like some sort of supernatural support or something” – Chloë Sevigny

Do you get on with your older brother Paul?

Chloë Sevigny: We get on now. When I was really young I idolised him. He was really skate punk.

Did you steal all his records?

Chloë Sevigny: No, he was into hardcore, and I still have never gotten into that. I was more into what his girlfriend was like. I wanted to be new wave, like she was. (laughs) When I was young, in junior high, she had blue hair and Doc Marten boots and I thought she was really cool.

Did you ever have a nickname when you were at school?

Chloë Sevigny: Never. (laughs)

That's a lie. Everyone has had a nick name. Yours must have been too dreadful to repeat.

Chloë Sevigny: It is. My older brother and his friends used to call me something that wasn't very pleasant.

I promise I won't print it if you tell me.

Chloë Sevigny: OK. (pause)

Go on then.

Chloë Sevigny: My brother used to call me Schmo. Schmobrain, all the time. Then all his friends started calling me that.

So am I allowed to print it?

Chloë Sevigny: Yeah, you can. But that's the only nickname I've ever had, though.

How long was the shoot for Kids?

Chloë Sevigny: A month.

How did you meet Larry?

Chloë Sevigny: Harmony had called me and said, ‘I've met this photographer, he's asked me to write a script, I'm taking him out to Nasa tonight’, which was this rave club; and then I met him.

It was interesting the way it happened that it wasn't about his status or his work, because none of you really saw that until later. It was about the trust he had from you for being a cool person.

Chloë Sevigny: We all really liked him. It didn't feel at all weird that he was around.

What's the best advice he gave you?

Chloë Sevigny: He really didn't give me a lot of direction at all. He just let it go.

“I don't really have any heroes. I think more of my friends as my heroes. Some of my girlfriends are really strong women who I really admire” – Chloë Sevigny

Did you disagree with anything to do with Jennie's character?

Chloë Sevigny: I really thought that she should have had more dialogue, and should have been able to express how she was feeling.

You were initially supposed to do another role, as one of the girls in the swimming pool. How did that come about, especially as Harmony said that he'd always written the part of Jennie with you in mind?

Chloë Sevigny: They thought I was too old for it. They thought it should be someone younger. I guess they just overlooked me.

How could they overlook you?

Chloë Sevigny: I know! (laughing) But that's what they said. They had hired a professional actress, but she stood out against all the other kids, of course.

Tell me about Trees Lounge. That must have been a very different acting experience to Kids.

Chloë Sevigny: It was the first time I was working with real actors, so I was really paranoid, thinking, ‘Am I going to be able to compete?’

And how did you think you did? Are you confident about the result?

Chloë Sevigny: Yeah. But then I think back on certain scenes, where something happened, and I could have improvised and I didn't, and I think, ‘Oh, why didn't I do that?’ We'll see. But this character's like the complete opposite to Jennie.

What kind of music do you like?

Chloë Sevigny: At the moment I'm really into prog rock stuff like Can, and I've just got the Pretty In Pink soundtrack, 'cause I had it on vinyl when it came out, that was like my whole introduction to the new wave.

Do you and Harmony have similar musical tastes, or do you fight over who puts the CDs on?

Chloë Sevigny: We're pretty similar, but there's some stuff I don't feel comfortable playing in the house 'cause he'll make fun of it. Any of the riot girl stuff.

You know Kim Gordon, don't you? How did you meet her?

Chloë Sevigny: I was in a Sonic Youth video once, 'Sugar Kane', and I had to walk naked through a showroom, and I was so nervous, of course, being naked and having to walk through all these people and I just kept looking at Kim; she's such a strong female figure and I thought that if I looked at her, she would be like some sort of supernatural support or something. (laughs)

Divine inspiration.

Chloë Sevigny: Right.

Have you ever met any of your heroes?

Chloë Sevigny: I don't really have any heroes. I think more of my friends as my heroes. Some of my girlfriends are really strong women who I really admire.

Are they older than you?

Chloë Sevigny: Uh huh.

Is that because you're interested in learning more?

Chloë Sevigny: I guess so. But lately I've really wanted to hang out with young kids again. In Connecticut especially, because the only kids around are these kids in high school. The other day I saw a boy reading a magazine in a magazine stand and I really wanted to go up to him, and wanted to approach him somehow, and I just couldn't.

When did you start going out with Harmony?

Chloë Sevigny: Since after Kids finished shooting.

But you'd known him for a long time?

Chloë Sevigny: Yeah, since high school.

Did you always fancy him?

Chloë Sevigny: Sometimes I did, sometimes I didn't.

So who asked who?

Chloë Sevigny: (laughs) I think we'd kissed once before. I can't even remember how it all happened. I think I started staying at his house a lot.

What did you mean about him being a bastard?

Chloë Sevigny: He doesn't like anything, and he's really mean a lot.

You mean he's got a different outlook to yours; like he's more cynical?

Chloë Sevigny: Yup. Exactly. He's making me jaded. (laughs loudly) I'll have to break up with him I guess. (laughing)

I'm not saying anything. 

After our interview, Chloë takes me to her apartment to meet Harmony. As she opens the door, Harmony, realising he has an uninvited guest, tries to hide. The smell of weed hangs freshly in the air. She pulls him out of the other room to meet me and we sit on the bed. He talks excitedly about his love of directors such as Fassbinder and Cassavetes and especially the British director Alan Clarke. Chloë picks up from him: “Clarke's my favourite director. Road is my favourite film.” Harmony points to Clarke's work as a stylistic reference for Kids. He's angry because there's no sense of authenticity or originality in films anymore. He's driven by an idealism that is rarely given the chance to surface in the overly commercial film industry, but perhaps through the uncompromising triangle of Korine, Clark and Van Sant, we may see more of the same. Ken Park has just been given the green light by Miramax, so Larry Clark will again be directing a Korine script. This time it's about all the adults, the ones we didn't see in Kids.

Korine is also now directing his own script, Gummo. It hasn't started shooting yet, but initial preparations and casting are underway. For this film, Chloë will be turning her hand to styling, choosing and arranging the costumes, as well as appearing in a small role. “It's about these boys in Ohio, where the biggest earthquake in US history hit. And they basically sit under bridges and sniff glue all day, and it's sort of their lives in the aftermath of the tornado. I get breast cancer. (laughs) I always have to have a disease if ever I'm in a Harmony film”, she explains enthusiastically, and laughs, and laughs, and laughs.

In cover image Chloë wears black top by Fab 208, skirt from Blackout II, animal belt by Hellfire, shoes by Candies. Hair Linda Daniele for Louise Vicari; makeup Christine Hoffman at Kramer and Kramer

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