EXPRESSING YOURSELF & IDENTIFYING WITH OTHERS
Broadening our Scope with Actress, Designer, & Empathy Generator CHLOË SEVIGNY
By Tyler Malone
Film critic Roger Ebert once wrote, “The purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams, and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.”
I agree with him, but I personally don’t think it’s just film that does this. Maybe art in all of its forms is a machine that generates empathy? And therefore artists–whether writers or filmmakers, actors or designers–are themselves generators of empathy.
Chloë Sevigny has been generating empathy on screen since her electrifying debut in Larry Clark’s cult classic Kids. Whether playing a girl who falls in love with a trans-man in Boys Don’t Cry or the pregnant sister of a schizophrenic in Julien Donkey-Boy, Chloë Sevigny gets us to care about her characters by making them real to us. As Whit Stillman, her director in The Last Days of Disco, claimed, “Chloë is a natural phenomenon. You”re not directing, she”s not performing–it”s just real.”
When I spoke with her, as she geared up for a presentation of her new Opening Ceremony collection at NYFW, she said something about fashion that felt similar to Ebert’s “empathy generating” conception of film: “It’s a way of expressing yourself and identifying with other people, likeminded people, but also expanding your mind by seeing someone who might seem strange to you in how they present themselves. You can become intrigued by them, and so it helps in broadening your scope, which is important in trying to understand our differences.”
Chloë Sevigny broadens our scope in her art and design, and also with our conversation.
Tyler Malone: Let’s start with Fashion Week and your Opening Ceremony collection. Tell me a little bit about what we should expect from the collection and the presentation.
Chloë Sevigny: Well, I’m not going to do a conventional presentation because my line isn’t really conventional, on many levels. I don’t show every Fashion Week per year. I show usually like once a year. So I don’t feel like I have to follow any forms, as in the conventional forms of how you show. This year we decided to do a luncheon instead of the catwalk or any kind of presentation. We’re just going to show the collection in lookbooks. It’s going to be really intimate, with close friends, tastemakers, and people in the industry that I’ve known for years. I don’t want to tell too much about it because it’s supposed to be a surprise.
TM: That sounds nice–a nice change of pace from the craziness that usually is Fashion Week. How did you get involved with Opening Ceremony? And what is it like to work with them?
CS: Initially I was interviewed for I think Women’s Wear Daily and they asked, “How come you never do a fashion line? You’re so stylish blah blah blah…” I said that if I ever did anything I’d want to do a collaboration with somebody like Opening Ceremony. I knew of the collaborations they had been doing, and I knew they were my peers. I liked where they were coming from, and I liked their sensibility and their affordability. Humberto [Leon] read the article, so he called me up and asked, “Did you just say that or did you really want to do that?” I said, “I’ll do it if you want to do it.” So I thought I’d do just like two dresses, and then I came in with like ten ideas or more maybe. He looked at them and said, “Why don’t we just do all of these ideas?” And it just kind of grew from there.
TM: Why do you think fashion is important?
CS: It’s a way of expressing yourself and identifying with other people, like-minded people, but also expanding your mind by seeing someone who might seem strange to you in how they present themselves. You can become intrigued by them, and so it helps in broadening your scope, which is important in trying to understand our differences. So it’s a form of expression, an art form–for presenting one’s self, cloaking one’s self, adorning one’s self. It’s always interesting the things we choose to put on our bodies. That sounds all serious, but I like to have a sense of humor about it too. I think of it like a puzzle, maybe.
TM: Do you prefer being a part of the fashion industry or the film industry?
CS: I like both for different reasons. I feel a lot more at ease in fashion situations. I feel less intimidated by it. I take it less seriously, so it’s more of jovial thing for me. I try not to get too high-stressed about it because it’s not really my only bread and butter. So it’s easier to be flippant about it. And I feel like the fashion industry embraces outsiders more and celebrates differences more, whereas in Hollywood that doesn’t happen quite as much. Also, New York, London, and Paris are cities I feel more comfortable in anyway, and they’re sort of epicenters for the fashion industry, whereas in Los Angeles I feel very foreign and out of my skin. I don’t fit the cookie-cutter format as much so I can’t really own myself as much there. But film is really what I love.
TM: Just the other day Robin Williams committed suicide, and I was wondering if you have any memories or reminiscences of him? Or if you’d like to talk about what he or his career meant to you?
CS: I grew up seeing a lot of Robin Williams movies obviously, and I was really touched by his performance in Good Will Hunting. I always found him funny. But while I understand why the focus has been on him more in the last few days, I think I feel a little bit more of a loss for Lauren Bacall. I had a personal connection with her. I found her to be such an inspiration. I’ve seen so many of her pictures and read her books and read about her. I just really identified with her. I remember her talking about how people would always refer to her as Mrs. Bogart. I think that was hard for her. And that’s a very standard male-female dynamic in Hollywood, so I was always very sympathetic to her in that way.
TM: How do you choose what movies or TV shows you do? Is it mostly about the character or the story or the other people on the project (the actors, the filmmaker, etc.)?
CS: It’s a mix of those things. When I was younger, I was more interested in who else would be involved–the other actors, the director. I found in those years that I was often taking on a lot of smaller roles just because I liked who the directors were and not necessarily because I liked the stories or the characters. I’ve been trying to get away from that. Now I tend to focus more on characters, and try to hold out for meatier roles. But it also shifts back and forth, because maybe I won’t work for a while, and then a part will come along, and I’ll say, “Screw it.” So it always just depends on where I am in my life at the moment.
TM: You’ve had leading, supporting, and cameo roles on both the big and small screen. Do you prefer working in film or television? And how do the experiences differ for you?
CS: My true love is film. I love going to the movies. I love sitting in the dark in the movies as a collective with other people. The two hour format is great too because you get to dive deep into something but for a shorter amount of time. So you do it, and then you’re done, and you move on. When you do a TV series, especially if you’re a featured player, then it’s open-ended. So you keep coming back, and it poses a lot of different challenges that can make it difficult to be excited about the character and the work and even the people you’re working with, in all honesty. You’re in very intimate settings with the same people year after year, and some of these people obviously have big personalities. New directors come in every episode too–so it’s just a different set of challenges. So I would say I probably prefer the movies.
TM: Do you find that certain characters stay with you after you leave a project?
CS: I think maybe all of them do a little bit. I mean I played them. Certain films resonate with people, and so when people come up and say something about a film I’m in or a I character I portrayed, it will jog certain things in my memory–and that plays into why some things seem to linger. It happens with some characters more than others. Jennie from Kids comes back to me probably once a day. I’m constantly reminded of that character, and of how that movie affected people. A friend once said to me that if you’re a celebrity, you’re frozen in the year that you became famous. So I was joking that I’m frozen at age 19.
TM: Speaking of Kids, you were initially hired to play a smaller part but you were given the role of Jennie after things didn’t work out with the original actress hired. I wonder what you must have felt coming on set with very little experience but having such a big part. Was that shoot filled with anxiety for you? Or were you too young and too cool to feel the pressure?
CS: It wasn’t that I was too cool. I think it’s more that I was definitely less self-aware than I am now. And I think knowing that all the other parts were also being played by amateurs made it less nerve-racking too. The feeling on that set was that we were all in it together. If they looked bad, I looked bad. If they looked good, I looked good. We all felt like we were on a level playing field. It was the first film that Harmony [Korine] had made; it was the first film that Larry Clark had made. It seemed like more of an experiment in filmmaking.
My second film, Trees Lounge, that I did with Steve Buscemi, who I was a big fan of, had all these iconic New York actors in it: Carol Kane, Elizabeth Bracco, etc. I remember thinking, “Oh my God! Now I really have to act.” That’s when the terror kind of set in. They were all really great character actors, which was what I wanted to do when I was younger.
TM: You received rave reviews for your performance in Kids and even got nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, which must have been really validating since it was your first real role. Since then, you’ve been nominated for an Academy Award, and you won a Golden Globe. Do you find that the performances that you get awards or nominations for are the ones you think are the best? Or does it seem like a crap shoot over what will resonate and what wont?
CS: I think it’s more about what hits at the zeitgeist. Not even so much about the performance always. And it’s so hard to predict what that will be. I feel like Boys Don’t Cry really resonated for a lot of different reasons–it was a time when people were really first starting to talk about trans-gender issues and certain hate crimes. There was a lot of awareness about that in that moment because of Matthew Shephard. It’s really great to be in film like that–one that people can get behind–where it’s entertaining but could also cause some sort of change. I think Orange is the New Black is sort of hitting that now, in a more heightened way. They’re dealing with a lot of important issues, but also entertaining people. My best friend Natasha [Lyonne] is on that show, and I’m so excited for her. I just know how exciting it is to be in something that really resonates with people in that way, and it’s quite fulfilling.
Then with Big Love there was all the stuff happening with Warren Jeffs, and all this polygamist stuff was kind of coming out. At the time people were discovering what was happening in the middle of America, and they were sort of shocked by it. So maybe it was something to do with that? Those were my lucky breaks.
TM: Well, I don’t know about that. You do fine without any luck. And all you have to do to realize that is look at the list of filmmakers who have lined up to work with you. You’ve worked with a number of the greatest contemporary film directors–Fincher, Herzog, Jarmusch, Korine, Von Trier, Stillman, Allen, and the list goes on–but I’m curious what filmmaker that you haven’t had the chance to work with yet, would you love to be afforded that chance?
CS: I mean there’s so many. Probably my top would be the Coen Brothers. And I would also love to work with Paul Thomas Anderson, Claire Denis, and Jane Campion. Those are probably my top four, but the list really is unending.
TM: I could totally see you in a Coen Brothers movie. That should happen. Coen Brothers, if you’re out there reading, hire Chloë Sevigny.
CS: I wish. They probably think I’m too fashion.
TM: I read an interview where you were talking about The Brown Bunny being career self-sabotage and you said, “I know everyone wants to be really famous or do really commercial work, so I feel like maybe I’m a masochist.” I think that’s one thing that’s really unique about you. Even a lot of other “indie darlings”–people like Frances McDormand or John Turturro–still show up in big blockbuster films like Transformers (presumably for the paychecks). Could you ever see yourself showing up in a Transformers film or something similar?
CS: For the most part, I’m not really approached for those big studio pictures. But some of those pictures have really interesting filmmakers. Even Michael Bay is sort of interesting in what he does, with his scope. So if he were to approach me, I’m sure I would look it over carefully. But I don’t usually get offered things like that. Though that might have to do with the fact that in my career I’ve leaned towards the transgressive material.
TM: Speaking of the transgressive material and The Brown Bunny, I can imagine how old those questions get after the three millionth interview. Is there anything you’re more sick of talking about in interviews than The Brown Bunny and specifically that scene? Or what is your least favorite question to be asked in an interview?
CS: “Is there anything you regret doing?” “How do you classify your style?” Stuff like that. There’s plenty.
TM: You have a number of TV and film projects coming up. Let’s talk about some of those.
CS: I’m doing a new Netflix drama. It’s untitled right now. It’s with Ben Mendelsohn, Kyle Chandler, Cissy Spacek, Sam Shepherd, and Linda Cardellini. It’s a really great cast. I’m playing a love interest of Ben Mendelsohn, who I think is one of the best actors working today, so I’m fine with that.
TM: What can you tell me about The Cosmopolitans?
CS: That’s a pilot for Amazon. With Amazon, the viewers vote, and whichever pilots they like the best, they then make. So I’m hoping everyone watches that and enjoys it. It’s with Whit Stillman, who I made The Last Days of Disco with. It takes place in Paris.
TM: How was working with James Franco in Black Dog, Red Dog?
CS: Well, he was just kind of the overseer of Black Dog, Red Dog, so we didn’t really work together much in that. I did work with him on The Mindy Project once. He’s very impressive. I mean very nice to look at, but also amazingly talented in the comedy department. I find improvising in comedy extremely difficult. I can’t really do it. But he just came in, and at first was very quietly just reading in the corner, and then we started shooting and it was like a light switch turned on. He was incredible. The entire cast and crew were dying, rolling on the floor, ruining takes because the guy was just so fucking entertaining. No wonder he’s a true movie star. He’s just so charismatic. And I think it’s cool that he does all this other stuff. I’m not into the James Franco backlash.
TM: What other projects can you tell me about?
CS: I’m doing a book with Rizzoli. It’s coming out in the Spring. It’s a Chloë book. I feel like in this day and age, with the internet, there are so many pictures of me that are floating around that I just can’t stand. It’s so hard to reclaim one’s image. I’m not on the internet much–I don’t have an instagram or do a lot of social media–so I wanted to put something out there that was more of how I wanted to represent myself, and I just thought the best way to do that would be to make a beautiful, old-fashioned book.
Chloë Sevigny is a Golden Globe-winning actress and designer.
Written by Tyler Malone
Photography by Patrick McMullan & Co. for PatrickMcMullan.com
Design by Mina Darius & Francesca Rimi
Chloë Sevigny, MOCA’s 35th Anniversary Gala, The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, Los Angeles, CA, March 29, 2014, ©Patrick McMullan, Photography by Patrick McMullan and Co. for PatrickMcMullan.com
(L)Harmony Korine, Chloe Sevigny, Patrick McMullan Archive, Photography by Patrick McMullan for PatrickMcMullan.com
(R)Linda Evangelista, Chloe Sevigny, The FIT Couture Council Luncheon honoring ALBER ELBAZ of LANVIN, Rainbow Room, NYC, September 5, 2007, Photography by Patrick McMullan and Co. for PatrickMcMullan.com
Chloe Sevigny, Benjamin Cho, PURPLE FASHION MAGAZINE Party – Just for FUN, Beatrice Inn, NYC, September 12, 2007, Photography by Patrick McMullan and Co. for PatrickMcMullan.com
Natasha Lyonne, Chloe Sevigny, Tara Subkoff, HOUSE OF WARIS DINNER Hosted By Chloe Sevigny, Alger House, NYC, February 15, 2011, Photography by Patrick McMullan and Co. for PatrickMcMullan.com
(L)Chloe Sevigny, Chloe Sevigny for Opening Ceremony FW13, St. Mark”s Church in the Bowery, NYC, February 9, 2013, Photography by Patrick McMullan and Co. for PatrickMcMullan.com
(R)Humberto Leon, Chloe Sevigny, Carol Lim, ACNE”S Artful Bash, 21 Club, NYC, March 28, 2008, Photography by Patrick McMullan and Co. for PatrickMcMullan.com
Chloe Sevigny, Liz Goldwyn, DIOR BEAUTY hosts LIZ GOLDWYN”S “Underwater Ballet” Times Square Premiere, Times Square and Jimmy”s Corner, NYC, May 1, 2009, Photography by Patrick McMullan and Co. for PatrickMcMullan.com