We catch up with the cult actress to discuss fantasy, significant childhood memories and her directorial debut, Kitty
Chloë Sevigny’s cult career has balanced carefully on that delicate tightrope between arthouse and the mainstream. She made her name with Harmony Korine in Kids, worked with Vincent Gallo in The Brown Bunny and took a starring role as Lana Tisdel in the stunning, critically acclaimed Boys Don’t Cry. The overarching impression of the 42-year-old is that she’s never done anything that she didn’t want to do, never compromised for cash, never taken a job because it seemed like it would enhance her reputation or afford her bigger opportunities in Hollywood. This understated reluctance to chase fame has left her integrity intact and vindicated the New Yorker’s 1994 assertion that she was the “coolest girl in the world” – all before she’d even appeared in a film.
Now, she’s swapped her customary role in front of the camera for one behind it with the release of her directorial debut Kitty, a mesmeric rumination on transformation, identity and the potential consequences of getting what you wished for. Based on a short story of the same name by Paul Bowles, which Sevigny became taken with way back when she was filming Kids, the film follows a young girl desperate to be noticed, desperate to be played with, desperate to be a cat. Eventually it happens for her, but the change leaves her isolated and unable to communicate with her family. Here, we talk to Sevigny about cats (a lot), her first foray into directing, and playing make-believe as a child.
When you were a kid did you ever imagine being a cat?
Chloë Sevigny: I didn’t imagine ever wanting to be an animal or another sex, but I definitely wanted to live in another time, a simpler time. I always played that I was a native in the woods. I had a little bush and I made a fort underneath, and that was my favourite place to hang out. It was more about that escapism through costume and fantasy, and then I became an actress, so it all made sense in the end.
Did you do that from an early age? Dressing up?
Chloë Sevigny: A very early age, yeah. I had a whole chest with different clothes and I would play different characters, and just be someone else in a big fantasy world.
Do you feel like you still have that childlike passion for acting and directing?
Chloë Sevigny: I feel like, with directing, I do. I mean, I’ve just turned 42. I’m really excited about directing, telling stories which are emotional that you can really connect with and people can be moved by. The acting thing is really complicated. I don’t know. Sometimes I love it and sometimes I hate it. I’m still kind of grappling with it.
“Growing up, I loved movies like Dark Crystal and Labyrinth for their fantasy, and I would love to do something on those lines” – Chloë Sevigny
How was it directing your first film?
Chloë Sevigny: It was pretty daunting, but I was dead-set on doing it. It was something I had to accomplish, something I’d been talking about for so long and I finally had the wherewithal to do – the strength of conviction was really satisfying. It was very hard to get people to come on board to help with the money because with short films there are no monetary gains. A lot of people read the script and were like, ‘Oh my God, this project is too big, it’s too daunting’. I got a lot of the classic Hollywood door being slammed in my face.
Do you plan to move into directing a feature film? Is that the end-game?
Chloë Sevigny: That’s the masterplan, yeah. The reason why I did Kitty – and why Kitty was as ambitious as it was – was to have a calling-card to show people the kind of things that I wanna do, the scope, and the delicacy and gentleness. Growing up, I loved movies like Dark Crystal and Labyrinth for their fantasy, and I would love to do something on those lines. Kitty on a bigger scale! It’s supposed to be classic fairytale-ish.
What is it that drew you artistically to doing something with cats at the centre?
Chloë Sevigny: There’s something extremely mystical about cats. Growing up I had two cats, my family had them before I was born so they were already part of the household, both girls. When I was really young I thought all cats were girls and all dogs were boys. I had this very feminine, feline energy from cats. I’ve definitely come across some cats where I believed other people that I knew were possibly reincarnated in these cats.
There’s something really overwhelming and loving about cats, and also something kind of spooky. There’s something all-knowing – they’re kind of reserved yet they’re warm. A lot of my friends call me ‘Chloë-Cat’ because they think I have a lot of the characteristics of cats. I grew up with cats that were indoor and outdoor cats, so they were especially independent and they would be hunting and bringing us back little rabbits, birds and whatnot. But the story is more than cats, it’s about transformation in a relationship between the mum and the daughter, it’s about fall and redemption.
Is it also about people miscommunicating?
Chloë Sevigny: I think it’s about that also, yeah, I think it is. I was hoping there was some type of resolve at the end – at least she’s not a little girl any more. In the story the mum goes away to an institution, then she comes home and finds the cat.
Who did you want to get involved for the project – the cats you used are amazing actors, right?
Chloë Sevigny: Before I wrote the film I knew I wanted to use Mira Billotte from White Magic and also Bryan DeGraw from Gang Gang Dance for the soundtrack, who really helped elevate it. When I was writing I didn’t realise there was so little dialogue, so when I got to the editing room I was like, ‘Oh my God! I wish there was more communication.’ Then I was like, ‘I’m trying to tell this emotional story from the point of view of a cat!.’ They can’t express the way an actor would, but those cats really brought it.
Every time they were on screen it was hard to ignore how they were owning it...
Chloë Sevigny: Originally I wanted Persian cats because they automatically really look despondent. But they could only find me white Persians and I didn’t want them to be too fluffy and cute, so I went for silver tabbies – they’re so beautiful and the patterns on those cats were incredible.
Do you have any really defining early memories of cats?
Chloë Sevigny: I do. Our last cat was called Augussie (short for Augustus Fly-By-Night), she was a Maine Coon cat. She was real wild, she was a huntress, and also the runt so she was kind of damaged and skittish. She was my dad’s cat, and when my dad passed she passed, which you can only imagine is the heaviest thing in the world. But she was ill, she had a hyperactive thyroid so she couldn’t gain weight. And my mom, she was travelling a lot, so I had to go home, take care of her and give her medicine. I walked in one day and was like, ‘Gussie! Gussie! Gussie!’ and she’d gone deaf and I thought she was dead, which was just one of the most traumatic experiences.
And then actually when I was younger we had other cats called Tortoiseshell and Bumble, and Bumble died. I came home from school and we used to carry her to the vet in this wicker basket, and I saw my brother with the basket in the driveway knowing that they had to take her to be put down. I collapsed in the driveway. I was a teenager, (but) I was carried up into the house like a baby. I remember those very significant moments of my life.
Watch Kitty here