You probably want me to talk about Chloë Sevigny’s hair, and I could. How when I meet the actress it’s been cut into a short crop, and sitting opposite her at a table is sharply nostalgic: like staring at the girl who, by the age of 20, was called the new Edie Sedgwick in the New Yorker, opened Miu Miu SS96 in a blue velour tracksuit and slides, and, in a Rankin-shot cover story, prompted this magazine to ask “Who’s that girl?” But enough profiles of the actress have begun with the hyperbole of the decade which remade Chloe Stevens Sevigny from Darien, Connecticut into Chloë, icon. When you read those 90s-era pieces now, you get the sense of a generation bundling up all their anxieties about what was round the corner, and precariously balancing them on to one preternaturally cool teenage girl’s shoulders. “She has always been a performance artist in a sense,” says her friend and mentor Kim Gordon today, “because she could do anything.”
But the hair is firmly of this moment, not that one.
“It was Luca’s wish, so I did it,” says Sevigny, mock-wistfully. The man with the scissors is director Luca Guadagnino, for whom the actress has come to Italy to film a new television series, We Are Who We Are. “I’ll see how I feel when I’m back in New York. I was thinking before I start to go grey it would be really nice to grow my real colour out again, just to see... virgin hair!” I suggest that, as you get older, hair becomes a kind of protection, almost talismanic in a way. “Yes, that’s what I’ve been saying to my friends: no more hiding. Especially on the dance floor, I like having it in my face”. Sevigny shakes imagined tousles and emits a signature low chuckle.
“I’ve had short hair before, so it’s fine. When I was younger and had pink and white hair I used to have kids making fun of me on the train,” she recalls. “Wearing things that were confrontational to an extent, (there’s a way) people treat you because of that, so you have to learn to defend yourself and your choices.”
A New York It girl who didn’t always live in New York, Sevigny has always been a shy girl with conviction: a trait we normally lose after our teenage years, but which, in a woman, is immensely powerful. Her pop-culture birthing deserves its own Hollywood star somewhere in Washington Square Park: first spotted by an editor at Sassy and asked to model for the magazine, she fell into Larry Clark’s sphere via her relationship with skate kid-turned-screenwriter Harmony Korine. Originally cast in a much smaller role in Kids (1995), her heart-stopping performance as HIV-positive Jennie was the still point of that film’s culture-altering chaos.
Critical acclaim led to a series of iconoclastic moments: bleach-browed in Gummo (1997); subway-dancing in The Last Days of Disco (1998); near-wordless in Party Monster (2003); tender and urgent and strawberry-blonde in Boys Don’t Cry (1999), for which she received an Oscar nomination. But for any Chloë Sevigny megafan – the kind who always remembers the accent – her present iteration is her best, with a self-assurance that we can only strive to emulate. Today, Sevigny could command legions, with a public persona that is deliciously imperious. The cat that always gets the cream. But the undeniable through-line, from Kids to her current era, is her sixth sense for images that brighten and stick, well before their meaning solidifies into place.
Today, Sevigny is wearing a lace black shawl, a polo shirt and athletic shorts that look like a pair she wore at Cannes; in this setting, somewhere outside of Venice, it’s Babushka Fashion meets 1980s Italian football. In her “very geriatric hotel”, the actress is instantly conspiratorial. “When you go to dinner it’s like The Twilight Zone – one old woman after the next,” she whispers. “Or elder, I should say. Rows and rows, each of them alone. And then they bring your room number... Ciao!” she exclaims as a smiley man brings us teas and ice cubes. “It’s one of the cute Italian boys...”
Though the sleepy town Sevigny is evidently going a little stir-crazy in has shades of Call Me By Your Name about it, We Are Who We Are feels like a genuine departure for director-du-jour Guadagnino. Set on a US military base in Italy, the series is a coming-of-age tale following two American teenagers, Fraser (Jack Dylan Grazer from It) and Caitlin (newcomer Jordan Kristine Seamón), who live there with their parents. Sevigny plays Fraser’s mum, a newly appointed colonel married to another woman (Alice Braga). “The story felt very timely,” says Sevigny. “(The) kids questioning their sexuality, and me being an out, married woman in the military in a position of power – those dynamics. (It’s set) after the repeal of ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’, but right before Trump got elected, so there’s all of that at play too.”
For Sevigny, already a fan of Guadagnino’s intimate worlds, the project was an opportunity to experience some of the magic for herself. “I really fell hook, line and sinker for Call Me By Your Name,” she says. “And of course this has similar elements: young people’s sexuality, Italy... But I liked that juxtaposition of his taste and aesthetic on the army base, and how that would play out. (Where) would the finery of his other films be? Because military bases are not exactly aesthetically pleasing environments!” A slice of contemporary America in Europe, the picturesque setting will offer a unique backdrop for the idea of all-American values – in an era where said ‘values’ are increasingly politicised – to be explored in stark relief. “There is a lot of that,” says Sevigny, citing the conflicts between parents in the show, as in so many coming-of-age tales, as the essential foil to the adolescents. “My neighbour is played by Kid Cudi, and he’s more conservative. My son befriends his daughter, and he doesn’t like us.”
“I really fell hook, line and sinker for Call Me By Your Name, and We Are Who We Are has similar elements... (It’s about) kids questioning their sexuality, and me being an out, married woman in the military” – Chloë Sevigny
A couple of months before we meet up, Sevigny gave an interview to Vanity Fair during Cannes in which she described experiencing a “mini-meltdown” a few years ago, after taking on a slew of TV projects. Years before the Monterey Five were on small screens, Sevigny led the way for thinking actress’s television, with roles in Big Love, American Horror Story and, more recently, Bloodline. It feels surprising, after this admission, that she’s embarking on another high-profile TV project that will take her out of cinematic action through to November. But WAWWA feels different. “It feels more like a long film,” says Sevigny. “(We) get to read everything prior because they had all of the scripts. When I did (those shows), I just read the pilots, so you don’t really know where things are going to go. It felt like the right director, the right story, the right amount of time. And I’ve never played anyone like that.”
If you want an expression of Sevigny’s sensibility – and her ambition – at this point in her life, look no further than Lizzie, the actress’s take on the life of 19th-century axe-murder suspect Lizzie Borden from last year. (Side note: though Rachel Weisz is the straight LGBTQ+ ambassador for the internet-at-large after The Favourite and Disobedience, Sevigny may yet overtake her.) “It was very dramatic,” she sighs. “Everybody was like, ‘It seems so timely,’ (but) I feel like if it had come out (the way) I initially wanted, it would have been more of a punk gesture. It would have been more radical.” Originally envisaged as a series for HBO scripted by Sevigny’s friend Bryce Kass, the show was scrapped when Lifetime made its own mini-series, The Lizzie Borden Chronicles, with Christina Ricci. When the pair cut down their script into a feature film, the first director pulled out and Craig William Macneill stepped in. The result stars Sevigny as Borden, alongside Kirsten Stewart as her maid and lover who assists in the murders. If you haven’t seen it, you should: an off-kilter portrayal of cruelly compromised human connection, it boasts one of Sevigny’s most deeply layered performances to date.
A year on, and Sevigny is frank about her disappointment with the final cut. “It kind of goes back to that (feeling) of having no control over a project,” she says. “I really wanted to make this a commercial film. Lizzie Borden (would easily find an) audience, what with American Horror Story, all those kids. I always identified her as an outcast. It was unfortunate that (Craig) turned it into this measured and restrained film. I wanted it to be frenetic.”
“I mean, what do you do?” the actress continues. “Do you just stop? That’s just the nature of it. You could work with the best director and the best script, and there’s no guarantee. You just have to keep trying and keep working, or else you get scared of failing and you don’t do anything. Find another job, maybe... Diversify, which is what I’m doing.”
Having worked with extreme visionaries like Korine, Lars von Trier (Dogville, Manderlay) and Vincent Gallo (infamously, The Brown Bunny), attracting auteurs has never been a problem for Sevigny, but there does seem to have been a shift in her recent collaborations in exactly that sense – their diversity. Call it getting older and becoming a different kind of actress – one who no longer plays the ingenue – or call it a testament to an industry finally allowing women to grow up on screens. Either way, Sevigny’s second on screen coming-of-age is a joy to watch. Right now, you can see her in true-crime drama The Act, or stream Russian Doll on Netflix, where she played the troubled mother of best friend Natasha Lyonne’s character, a “very profound” experience. In August, she released her own perfume, Little Flower, and later this year she takes a small but pivotal role in Queen & Slim. Directed by Melina Matsoukas and co-written by Lena Waithe, it’s a Bonnie and Clyde for 2019 starring Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith. “She’s been an icon to me since Boys Don’t Cry,” says Waithe of casting Sevigny in the film. “We knew she could humanise this character instantly. And she did.”
This summer, Sevigny appeared on the big screen as scaredy-cat Officer Mindy in Jim Jarmusch’s deadpan zombie-comedy The Dead Don’t Die. The film was her second collaboration with the director, alongside a cast including Tilda Swinton, Iggy Pop and pop star Selena Gomez. Sevigny worries that her character paled next to Bill Murray and Adam Driver’s buddy-cop pair, but Jarmusch disagrees, calling her a “master of reactions” – for him, what real acting is all about. “She is really, really amazing – even during the editing sometimes I would end up just watching whole scenes, watching Chloë’s reactions to everything.”
For Jarmusch, it’s Sevigny’s all-or-nothing approach to acting that makes her feel so hardcore. “I think she is hardcore in that she is dedicated, you know?” says the director. “It’s kind of like when Johnny Rotten said, “We mean it, man!” Chloë means it! It means something to her. Without being mainstream, without being completely outside... she’s her own thing.”
On the Croisette for the film’s Cannes premiere in May, the pale pink accents of Sevigny’s vintage Mugler perfectly matched co-star Selena Gomez’s dress, and the duo both wore ostrich-feathered minis at the New York premiere a few weeks later (Marc Jacobs and Celine respectively). I couldn’t help but wonder if the new friends were texting beforehand for synchronicity? “NO! It was a disaster,” laughs Sevigny, adding that she even texted Swinton’s stylist beforehand to prevent a clash, but didn’t even think Gomez was going to be there. “How did that happen not once, but twice? Shocking! She’s also 25 years my junior, and it’s always fun to stand next to someone 25 years younger than you! But we had a great time on set; she could not be sweeter.”
The anecdote speaks to Sevigny’s appealing straightforwardness, her sometimes-disarming candour on the intersection of her work with issues of finance, branding and getting older. It’s a frankness so far removed from her celebrity peers’ messages of Goop-endorsed positivity, it feels almost radical. Yes, she regrets turning down myriad roles in the 90s, from auteur figures such as John Waters and Claire Denis. Yes, she watches herself on screen, but perhaps not doing so is a privilege afforded only to consistently working megastars. And, no, she doesn’t always like what she sees. “When I went to see The Act, I went home and I was miserable for a week,” she admits. “I hated the way I looked, I hated my performance, and I was so unhappy. (Watching yourself) can mess with your head for a long period.”
“All three shorts (“Kitty”, “Carmen” and “White Echo”) have a bit of that (same sense) of (girls) wanting to be something else. Or wanting to be recognised for something that they are not being recognised for” – Chloë Sevigny
It’s this strong sense of self which has attracted fashion’s most independently minded designers, including Simone Rocha. “I love Simone as a woman and as a designer,” says Sevigny, who struck up a friendship with the designer after falling for her “twisted fairytale” pearled stockings. When she walked for Rocha’s AW19 show with Lily Cole, Kirsten Owen and Tess McMillan, her presence sent a pronounced ripple through the audience (“I hope so!” she quips). “I think it’s so great the way that (Simone) cast that show and had women of different ages. She’s consistently celebrated older women and their beauty through the seasons, which I really admire.” For Rocha, Sevigny is “both nostalgic and current, funny and cool”, with the same “strong sense of femininity” that informs her designs. (What’s more, the actress was down to share a pie in the Guinea Grill pub after the show, an important attribute.)
The spirit of a kind of feminism that doesn’t need to shout, so palpable at Rocha’s show, is something that reverberates throughout Sevigny’s recent work, nowhere more so than in her directorial efforts. Thus far, Sevigny has directed three shorts: “Kitty” (2016), the tale of a young girl who turns into a cat, and “Carmen” (2017), with comedian Carmen Lynch, were collaborations with Miu Miu’s Women’s Tales series, while the third, “White Echo”, premiered in competition at Cannes this May. All three feel like exercises in empathy: if Lizzie’s protagonist resorts to violence to free herself from the patriarchal constraints of her situation, the women in Sevigny’s shorts are seeking similar escapes, by different means. “All three shorts have a bit of that (same sense) of (girls) wanting to be something else,” says Sevigny. “Or wanting to be recognised for something that they are not being recognised for.”
“White Echo” centres on a woman celebrating her birthday with friends by renting a house upstate on Airbnb, a spooky environment which, abetted by a game of ouija, seems to bring out mystical powers in Carla, played by Kate Lyn Sheil. The gang are all inspired by friends of Sevigny’s, mixing and matching their different characteristics – the interest mingled with scepticism of Aurel, played by Alison Sudol, is apparently most like her. Something that strikes me, in person, is how much “White Echo” is a statement of serious filmmaking intent for Sevigny. She wants to know, not so much if I liked the film, but if I understood it in the same way she wants it to be understood. “Did you think it was funny or scary?” she asks, confessing her fears that some people may find it comical. At the end of the short, Carla comes face-to-face with a ghostly presence that has been shadowing her, and the viewer, the entire time. “It’s her – her own fears and desires. I love Kate’s face. Very fragile and otherworldly.”
“It’s funny, when I brought (the film) to Cannes, I wanted to show that I could handle a certain amount of actors and story so I could eventually make a feature,” Sevigny continues of the project. “I wanted it to feel like a snippet of a film when you change the channels, and you watch part of a movie. I was so terrified, (thinking), ‘It’s so American, they’re going to hate it,’ or, ‘It’s too conventional.’ And then I got there, and the straightforwardness and conventional (elements) were really (its) strength, especially next to the other, more poetic films. It made me appreciate things that I was insecure about.”
In terms of a feature, Sevigny isn’t quite there yet; there have been “some books” she has been interested in, but every time she enquires, the rights have already been taken. When it comes to adapting period texts, it seems she can take some cues from her collaborator Whit Stillman, in whose era-specific worlds she has been a glamorously regular habitué (The Last Days of Disco, The Cosmopolitans, Love & Friendship). There’s a timelessness to Sevigny that seems to be on the director’s wavelength, and her sometimes sophisticated, old-timey way of speaking – using words like ‘blue-chip’ and ‘milieu’ to describe projects – is endearing. Was she offended when Stillman made her play the only American in his Jane Austen adaptation Love & Friendship? “I was more like, ‘Is (my English accent) that bad?!’ I was afraid that I was just crap. He thought it would be a way for (Americans) to access the movie, an opportunity for all these great jokes about sending me back to Connecticut... And I was like, ‘Five people from Connecticut will find that funny.’” (“Chloë is brilliant at accents,” Stillman later assures me. “The danger in the Disco shoot was that she started picking up Kate Beckinsale’s... but ‘Connecticut’ turned out to be a very effective punchline.”)
One thread linking Sevigny’s projects is the idea of power: where we source it, as women, and how we use it. I’m interested: after a period of feeling powerless in her career, when did the shift happen? She simply fell in love with her craft again, through a degree of effort – seeking other women out, and their performances in time, who could guide her back. “That’s why I did the ‘I love actresses’ series on my account,” she says, describing her quietly cultish series of Instagram posts. “(The thinking behind that) was really to do with me not respecting what I was doing. Trying to find love (for it) again – that was the genesis. Actresses... the choices they made, the way they look.” A self-pronounced weirdo, it feels like Sevigny has an affinity with actresses from the decade she was born into – New Hollywood women like Shelley Duvall and Karen Black, whose unconventionality altered the game. “With the (actresses) that I choose, I do,” she agrees. “(Whether it’s) Kristen Stewart or Anna Magnani, I try to celebrate them.” How do her Instagram drafts look right now? “I have some on hold,” she admits, “people love (it), so there is pressure!” In some ways, the series feels like an image companion to You Must Remember This, Karina Longworth’s podcast series on Hollywood’s wild and woolly history. Unsurprisingly, it’s one of Sevigny’s favourites: “I like the Manson one, and the Dead Blondes series. Karina’s great, I think she’s working on something with Natasha (Lyonne).”
While she uses the platform in interesting ways, Sevigny in fact held out from using Instagram until 2015. Why, she deadpans, would she take selfies when she is lucky enough to be surrounded by people who take a lot of pictures, and want to take hers? Call it a symptom of being one of pop culture’s most furiously-imaged actresses. As Ty Burr writes in his 2013 meditation on movie stardom Gods Like Us, the 90s was the decade of the gossip magazine boom, with a revitalised “interest in the triangulation of women, fame and personal style” thanks to titles such as Entertainment Weekly, People and Us Weekly. It’s also the decade in which Sevigny came of age. “I remember being like, ‘As soon as I make it into a tabloid, I’m quitting acting!’” says the actress. “And then it became such a thing in the 00s – Us Weekly, for example, really likes to lay into me. I somehow became a person they always made fun of. For that kind of milieu, with my style, I have kind of become the one to criticise.”
Sevigny’s 2015 self-titled Rizzoli book was her most concerted effort to take ownership of that narrative once again. Bound in pale pink gingham and covered with a 1995 Wolfgang Tillmans image of a sequin-leotard clad Chloë posing with an electric guitar (whether she can play it is insignificant), the book is a definitive visual autobiography. Inside, you’ll find all the printed ephemera of Sevigny’s manoeuvres in culture to date: the poster-plastered walls of her teenage bedroom in Darien, acid-green Liquid Sky flyers, the Elvis-painted denim jacket from Out of the Blue that she bought off Linda Manz when they filmed Gummo. Not massively given to nostalgia herself, Sevigny says it’s her mum whose hoarding tendencies brought the book to life. “She has every single photo of me that has ever been anywhere in my entire life,” she says, sounding somewhat aghast. “Boxes and boxes, it’s insane.”
“When I was doing the book and having to Google certain things, and then seeing other things, it was a pretty painful experience,” the actress recalls. “I have a boyfriend now, which is nice, but when you’re single and you think of people seeing all those terrible photos and outfits... And I feel more vulnerable around someone I know personally seeing or judging me through those. That was a part of why I made a book – this is how I see myself and this is how I want to be seen. It was a way of reclaiming that in the age of the internet.”
The way a generation of young girls online hold her aloft and proliferate her image, from Japanese fanzines to Tumblr pages, is something Sevigny is clearly still on the edge of comprehending. Not that she shies away from the fandom – she says she will sometimes follow some of the girls back, especially “if there’s something on their page that strikes (me)”. That said, she is wary of the way in which Instagram likes manifest themselves as a form of power, an illusion we all subscribe to. And how millennials accumulate them. “I think the sexual (elements) are terrifying. When I look at the old photos that people like Mark (Borthwick) took of me when I was (young), I was never arching my back and sticking out my ass. I would be a little provocative, but not like that. I’m not even sure if I just didn’t know what was considered sexy, (or) maybe I was just self-aware. It’s a little terrifying.” This might be the only time in our conversation she sounds genuinely nostalgic.
Sevigny recently posted a Polaroid on Instagram of her directing “White Echo”, taken by actress Hailey Gates. It’s nighttime, and it looks hot. Dressed in denim shorts and a red bikini top, with scraped-back hair, she raises her arms and addresses a group of women. This is Sevigny overseeing the wild dance sequence of her film, many months before she knew it would premiere at the world’s most prestigious film festival.
“I have some more of me rolling around on the ground and stuff,” says Sevigny of the scene’s inspiration, in which the group dance together in the dead of night. “On my 40th birthday I went to Mexico with eight of my girlfriends and we had a topless dance party, just the girls in a casita. We were drunk, obviously. We ran to the beach and I jumped into the water naked; there was a full moon. They were screaming, ‘You can’t swim, you’re druuuunk!’” she cackles. “I often have these girls-only dinner parties or hangouts that will inevitably turn into dance parties. There is a freedom that comes with that – (that’s what) I wanted to capture in the film.”
It’s particularly hard not to think of Chloë Sevigny in terms of a series of iconic images. This is a fashion magazine, after all, a space that she has thrived in, and, in some instances, has thrived because of her. But, as Sevigny gestures in front of her all-female cast, completely in control, it feels like her Rizzoli book should be revised to include it on the very last page – or maybe the first.
Hair Shiori Takahashi at Streeters using Wella Professionals, make-up Thomas de Kluyver at Art Partner using Gucci Beauty, nails Sylvie Macmillan using Chanel La Crème Main and Chanel La Base, photography assistants Gwen Trannoy, Jordan Lee, Alex Tracey, styling assistants Ogun Gortan, Met Kilinc, hair assistant Adam Garland, make-up assistants Lauren Reynolds, Abigail Nourse, production Image Partnership, special thanks Lizzie Ridout, Ryann Foulke, Nuala Armstrong-Walsh, Kim Waiyin Li