Ingrid Sischy / Interview / August 1995

Some people put a lifetime's endeavor into becoming icons. Some people are chosen because who they are, what they know, and how they live their lives so specifically inflect the times that it seems iconhood is their destiny. Chloe Sevigny, the modest actress who is incredibly affecting in the movie Kids, isn't sure if she wants to be famous - but fame desperately wants her

Ingrid Sischy: Firstly, Chloe, tell me about growing up and New York City.

Chloe Sevigny: My father used to work in New York, and when I was a little girl, he'd bring me into the city about once a month and we'd go to Saks. We couldn't stay away from there. All the women in the girls' department there knew me. (laughs) That's when my infatuation with New York began.

Sischy: You lived in Darien, Connecticut, right? How did you feel about high school?

Sevigny: Aryan Darien. (laughs) I was pretty much like a loner, I guess, although I hate to use that word.

Sischy: What made you feel like you didn't belong?

Sevigny: It seemed like everyone had BMWs and Jeeps and nice cars and a lot of money, and I just thought it was really obnoxious. Maybe I wasn't fair. But I didn't want to get involved with all that.

Sischy: Was there a political consciousness in your school? Or was it all about material things?

Sevigny: It was way more material. Everyone was like way overachievers and into athletics and wanted to go to Ivy League schools. I didn't do any extracurricular activities in high school. I guess I skated a bit. My brother had been a skater. We had two ramps in our backyard. I'd sit by the ramps and watch his friends skate. That's when my infatuation with skaters began. I wasn't very good at ramps, so I used to skate freestyle.

Sischy: Did you have heroines? Heroes?

Sevigny: No.

Sischy: Books that you loved?

Sevigny: Not really.

Sischy: What would you do? Basically stay in your room?

Sevigny: It was more interesting than the boys in Darien. (laughs) Mostly I sewed. I had nothing better to do, so I made my own clothes.

Sischy: Tell me more about knowing that the sheltered life wasn't for you.

Sevigny: I would yell at my parents every night, "I can't believe you, you're bringing me up here. You guys are, like, so evil. (laughs) Let's move." I started to leave every weekend and go to Boston or up to Vermont, going all around New England. Then the VW bus I had broke down, so it was like, "Oh, I guess I'll go into the city." When I started to hang out in New York, I met a bunch of kids in Washington Square Park. It seemed like the most diverse crowd was hanging out there. I would, like, stare at all these boys, and they all thought I had a staring problem, but it was just that I had never seen so many different kinds of people in my life.

Sischy: Were your parents worried about you going into New York all the time?

Sevigny: Not at all. My father totally understood. He'd lived on St. Marks Place - in the '60s, I guess - and he loves New York as much as I do. I'd just have to call home every night, or on the weekend if I was here for the weekend.

Sischy: Did you have a dream of what you wanted to do when school was over?

Sevigny: I thought I maybe wanted to be involved in the fashion industry in some way, maybe in magazines. Between my junior and senior years in high school - the summer of '92 - I got an internship at Sassy magazine as the fashion editor's assistant, picking clothes up at stores, stamping envelopes - stuff normal interns do at magazines.

Sischy: Hadn't they done pictures of you before that?

Sevigny: Yes, they saw me in the street.

Sischy: That's happened a few times, right? With other photographers and other magazines?

Sevigny: Yes.

Sischy: So you could have been a contender in the fashion-magazine business, huh?

Sevigny: [laughs] I grew out of that stage.

Sischy: O.K., back to how you saw your future.

Sevigny: I knew I was going to leave Darien as soon as I graduated. I left the day afterward.

Sischy: You were in school when?

Sevigny: '89-'93.

Sischy: Was there an awareness of AIDS there?

Sevigny: No. Nor of homosexuality.

Sischy: When did you first hear about AIDS?

Sevigny: I think when I was a freshman in high school. I think my mother read me something in a magazine about it. But people in Darien didn't talk about it.

Sischy: Did you have sex during high school?

Sevigny: Yes. And my parents didn't know. The first time I went to a gynecologist I was already out on my own.

Sischy: I think it's hard for parents and kids to face this stuff together, but I wish they could.

Sevigny: I think everyone is afraid for everyone.

Sischy: Me, too. It's understandable. But it results in feelings of aloneness and confusion and ignorance. All that's poison, as we know. Sex is probably the most difficult subject in the world for families to deal with. And drugs aren't easy either. But look what happens when nobody deals with any of this stuff. Some of that is what Kids, the movie you're in, is all about. Boy, does it make you want to get people to talk about these things.

Sevigny: I learned about sex from Judy Blume books. I still have all the books. My mother read them, too. We read another book with a title that went something like "getting to know your body." And in high school she gave me an original copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves.

Sischy: You know, it's Interesting that in Kids, apart from one mother in one scene, there are no parents around at all. It's a very noticeable absence in the movie, and I suspect Harmony was totally purposeful in presenting things this way.

Sevigny: Yep.

Sischy: So, when you used to come to New York during high school, why did you choose Washington Square Park and not Central Park?

Sevigny: It was the Village and, you know, the most varied crowd was to be found there. The first time I saw Harmony I thought, Oh, he's Puerto Rican and he's Jewish. (laughs) I hadn't seen people who looked like him in Darien. He had a really short Caesar cut. He was homeboy-style. I thought he was cute. I had this other boyfriend at the time, but Harmony and I would still talk and hang out. I didn't get really close to him until the next year, when I was a senior in high school. We would talk every night on the phone. My phone bills would be, like, out to here. He came to my graduation in Connecticut. We were best friends by then.

Sischy: Did he talk about himself as a writer yet?

Sevigny: Not so much. When I graduated, he gave me a few poems and a couple drawings he'd made. We were on the same level, and we liked each other as people.

Sischy: Did you have a sense that he wanted to do something?

Sevigny: Yeah. I knew he was going to make movies. But it really materialized when Larry Clark approached him about writing a script. Then Harmony locked himself in his grandmother's house where he stayed, in Queens, for three weeks to write the script. He wouldn't leave. He wouldn't talk to anyone on the phone, except me at night. And he'd read a couple of the scenes he had written that day and ask, "What do you think about this? What do you think about that?"

Sischy: I would love it if you would catch us up just a little bit more with what you did before becoming a part of the movie.

Sevigny: I just sort of lived out of my bag, staying with different friends, going home maybe once a week to do my laundry, get new clothes, and then come back.

Sischy: What were you doing during the day?

Sevigny: Sleeping. Because I was going out at night to clubs and stuff.

Sischy: Which clubs?

Sevigny: Club USA and Limelight. Gross, but I was having fun. I would pretty much sleep all day, or that summer, actually, we were hanging out in Tompkins Square Park. And I'd hang out by the X-Large shop on Avenue A a lot, too. Then, on my birthday, this boy in Brooklyn Heights offered me the chance to rent a room at his place. I moved there, and I got a job at Liquid Sky (a clothing/music store and major gathering place) on Lafayette Street.

Sischy: When was this?

Sevigny: November of '93. I had been to the old store when it was still open on Broome Street. They needed someone to sew labels in all the shirts before they opened the new shop, so I did this, and then they offered me a job in sales. Then, in June, I went to San Francisco. I'd met this boy, and I was going out there to live with him. I had only known him for three days. (laughs) But we had kept in contact, and he was like, "Why don't you come out this summer?" I was there for about a month. I hate to use the buzz term, but he was the epitome of the slacker. I loved the boy a lot, but it drove me crazy. Kids was starting to happen, and Harmony was saying, "We're casting the film. Come back."

So I did. I tried out, and I got the part of the girl that kisses the other girl in the pool. Three days before shooting, they asked me if I wanted to be Jennie. I asked for a day to think about it. Then I was like, "Fuck it. I'll do it." (laughs) When I was a child, I had done theater every summer. Actually, when I was young, I had wanted to be an actress.

Sischy: Aha. So you did have an ambition to act. What made you drop it?

Sevigny: I don't even know if I ever really dropped it. I just didn't think about it much. In high school, I wasn't into the drama scene. I think the drama teacher hated me. I had dropped out halfway through the semester, because I couldn't stand the bitch. Still, in senior year, I tried out for the school play - and didn't get a part.

Sischy: I know Kids is fictitious, but did its story grab you as something that needed to be shown? Was the fact that a young girl (Jennie, the character Chloe plays) tests HIV-positive and feels totally Isolated something that made you believe the film had a real massage?

Sevigny: To be honest, I didn't even know it was going to end up with AIDS as such a big theme. The first time I read the script as a whole was when I got the role of Jennie.

Sischy: Did you knew kids who had AIDS?

Sevigny: No, I didn't really see AIDS until I went to San Francisco. It was much more visible there. You'd just see it everywhere. In New York, you don't see it in that visible way. I had a conversation about this with a friend of mine who's older, and she said, "That's not true!" She got angry with me. But for me, when I was in San Francisco, it was the first time AIDS really affected me. When I came back, I found out about people I knew who were sick, too.

Sischy: I Imagine that even though you weren't consciously focused on AIDS, you were affected in subliminal ways. For example, the equation between death and sex is not something that I grew up with, but your generation did. Surely this makes some people angry and nihilistic, some afraid, and some much more responsible to themselves and others. Now, to the film - condoms do not have a presence in it. Are they an issue in your life?

Sevigny: YES! And with most of the kids I know...

Sischy: Girls and boys?

Sevigny: Both. You know, I've known of kids who have turned to plastic bags because there wasn't anything else, which isn't the greatest protection, but they're obviously willing to try to be safe. But then, you never really know what happens, when it comes down to it.

Sischy: Were there conversations that you and Harmony had about the fact that nobody wears condoms in the film?

Sevigny: I never had that conversation. The girls who you see having sex were virgins. And clearly Telly (the boy who seduces them) thought he didn't have to wear a condom.

Sischy: The feeling that the girls were under pressure to do what the boy wanted and their fear of pregnancy were so damn heartbreaking. You know, after all the important strides of feminism, after all the struggles that have gone on, it's really painful to watch girls being basically forced to accommodate. It's like they're versions of the same old thing that's gone on for decades. I'm not going to pretend that their youngness didn't make It even harder to watch. I got angry for them. I want to ask you if you think that feminism has helped to give young girls a greater sense of confidence or authority or the right to choose than they had before.

Sevigny: No.

Sischy: Kids sure doesn't make it look like they do.

Sevigny: I think Kids will open a lot of young girls' eyes. I've heard those lines, "I really care about you," fed to me so many times. "You're the only one. I want to be with you," and this and that. And I think it's really hard for a lot of girls to say "No" if they don't want to have sex.

Sischy: Another thing that's interesting about the movie is that it has no romance. None. A number of people have said that after they saw the film, they really had a feeling that they did not want to touch another human being.

Sevigny: During the whole period of filming, I didn't want to be involved with anyone.

Sischy: Yet your real-life relationship with Harmony seems to be romantic now.

Sevigny: Yes. But we didn't get together until after the movie. We weren't speaking very much during the filming.

Sischy: We've talked some about the way boys and girls relate in the film. But we haven't discussed the way it brings up racial and sexual biases. There are the white kids who beat up on the black kid, and then there are those gay insults. Do you think kids today are cooler about people who are gay than kids were before?

Sevigny: It depends on what kids you're talking about, what sort of youth culture of today. In the skate culture it's not as accepted. But in the rave culture, everyone is really open about their sexuality and it's really accepted there. That's the one good thing about the rave culture today - you can be yourself.

Sischy: Did the film give you a sense of mission?

Sevigny: Yes. But in a general way, because Jennie doesn't really verbally express that much in the film. It's all in the feelings.

Sischy: Watching the film, it felt to me that your character had a strong sense of focus - to find the boy who's HIV-positive and having unprotected sex with all these young girls. When I saw the film I kept thinking, This is so terrible, what's happening? Why am I not crying? Why am I not reacting? And then I thought, is this the weakness of the film? Is there something inauthentic about the directing, that even though I'm seeing this thing that is so terrible, I am not reacting? Where are my emotions? But -

Sevigny: But afterward...

Sischy: Yes. it finished, the credits went up, the lights went on. And then I burst out crying.

Sevigny: That's the common reaction. Most people react to it afterward or the next day. That's the reason it seemed really powerful to me.

Sischy: It's like this thing that's bigger than itself. There are very, very few moments that ring false, or banal. Even when there's a slight sense of pushing a point. What do you think about the way drug use is depicted in the film?

Sevigny: It isn't exaggerated. The drug scene is the same as it was in the '80s, I think.

Sischy: In the movie, they're not made into a big theme, they're just sort of around - a diversion rather than an addiction thing, in this case. Heroin doesn't come up, but, out in real life, isn't heroin a big thing again?

Sevigny: It was big in the rave scene last year. It was really scary. Young kids - fifteen or sixteen years old - were doing it. I'd thought that maybe I wanted to try it, and then I saw Larry Clark's photography book, Tulsa (1971). It really affected me. I was like, Forget about heroin. I'm not going to go near it.

Sischy: When did you first see Kids in full?

Sevigny: At a screening that was done for Miramax so they could decide if they wanted to distribute it, and they definitely did. I was the only actress, or actor, who went. I was blown away. Afterward, I just had to leave and go off by myself. I didn't want to take the train home with anyone. I didn't want to get a ride in a taxi. I just wanted to be by myself and think it through.

Sischy: Tell me how you feel about the hoopla that it is causing. There are those who are saying it's a masterpiece, those who say it's a lot of fuss over nothing, and those who believe that such a look at these sides of life has no business in movie theaters.

Sevigny: I wish it weren't so controversial. I think kids should see it all across the country. It should be at Blockbuster Video where it's accessible to everyone.

Sischy: Why do you think that kids should see it?

Sevigny: 'Cause it's an important film about kids today...

Sischy: Yet there's been so much talk about the rating it would get, before it even got one. Why?

Sevigny: Because of this old idea of what kids should and shouldn't see.

Sischy: Why are they scared of kids seeing it?

Sevigny: I don't even know how they could think it would glorify drugs or sex or anything. But I figure that's why. I don't know.

Sischy: I think it's also the adults who are scared of what it shows - life. But it seems to me that it's a movie for all generations, apart from the cartoon set.

Sevigny: Yep. I don't want to have anything to do with the way politicians may exploit it. And Harmony doesn't. Larry doesn't. He wanted to see something real. Harmony wanted to see something real. He didn't want to create all this controversy.

Sischy: This idea that a few politicians have that it's their job to protect the public and they have the right to control what the public sees - what do you think about that?

Sevigny: I think it should be the person's decision, whether or not they want to see something.

Sischy: The problem is that what we're really talking about is censorship in the name of protection, but it's a pseudo protection, the kind that ends up perpetuating ignorance.

Sevigny: Earlier we talked about homosexuality and how kids deal with it. I've had experiences with girls that made it confusing to me in the beginning as to what my sexuality may be.

Sischy: Don't you think the confusion about who one is is O.K., since most of us are many things?

Sevigny: Definitely. People should always think about who they are and what they're doing. It's healthy.

Sischy: As is an openness about all that. What isn't healthy is when subjects that a lot of people go through are treated like forbidden topics. How can people's humanness be understood if there's no chance for understanding?

So, Chloe, how do you feel now that all this stuff has been happening to you in the last few years? It must feel a bit like it's been piling on top of itself. There's you being spotted by Sassy magazine as some kind of cool representative kid. There's the profile The New Yorker did on you last fall, calling you the "It Girl." And now there's Kids, which I believe is going to really throw you in the spotlight.

But I think the spotlight's been coming. There are people who say, "I want to be an actress" or "I want to be a rock singer." And then there's that other thing that happens that has to do with the shape of time and history. Forces come together, and there are certain people that seem to embody what's going on in a meta way. It's not really fate, but it does feel that, in combination with their talent, it's a synchronicity of the times. How does all this make you feel?

Sevigny: It makes me scared more than anything, but I'm so excited, too. Hopefully I'll get more acting jobs in good films. I feel really lucky that everything just happened by chance or by fate or that combination of accident and not accident that you describe. But I worry, too. I remember when I would look at Seventeen or Sassy and I'd think, All these girls, they're so beautiful. And look at me. I'm not. I don't want girls to look at me and compare themselves and have those same kinds of feelings I had. From the very beginning, I've been skeptical of all that fame stuff.

Sischy: But there seems to be an aura that it was part of the destiny around you. Am I right?

Sevigny: Ummm...

Sischy: O.K., so what else is coming up?

Sevigny: I'd like to do costume design. When Harmony directs his next script (Gummo), I'm going to do the costumes for that. When I was a girl, I had a toy chest full of big ball gowns and lots of dresses and costumes that my family had given to me and I'd play dress-up every day. That was my favorite game. I would put on outrageous outfits and act out scenarios in my room.

And I want to go to college. I want to study - history and design and film. But I haven't taken my SATs. I refused to take them in high school, and now I don't even know how to begin to think about taking them.

Sischy: It sounds to me like you've begun. Do you think the kids you went to high school with would be surprised by all the things that have happened to you?

Sevigny: No.

Sischy: Have your parents seen the movie?

Sevigny: Not yet. I'm really scared for them to see it.

Sischy: I bet they're going to be impressed.

Sevigny: Yes, but I know the rape scene will be especially difficult for my mother to watch. We're really close now. I have to go home and see her once a week or I freak out. Sometimes she'll come to see me in New York, and when she leaves I'll sob.

Sischy: Do you think your parents are proud of you?

Sevigny: I know they are. They've always been behind me, whatever I have done. They're really great parents, besides bringing me up in Darien (laughs).

Sischy: Would you like to write movies?

Sevigny: I haven't written anything since high school. I'm sort of scared to. Harmony tries to get me to write a little thing here and there, but it's hard for me.

Sischy: Would you say the two of you have influenced each other?

Sevigny: Yes. Harmony has a new way of writing films. The girl parts in Gummo are really strong girls who do whatever they want to do and just fuck what everyone else thinks. They're the best girl parts I've ever seen, besides Linda Manz's parts in Out of the Blue and Days of Heaven. She's my favorite actress. The girl parts in Kids were so-so, so I've always encouraged Harmony to work on his girl parts. In Gummo they've slowly changed. Now, he's more concerned about girl characters than ever before. And I've learned a lot from him, besides us influencing each other. He brings me around to galleries, and we talk about movies - his knowledge of movies will blow you away.

Sischy: Do you think there is something particularly American about you?

Sevigny: I think I am very American. My friend Mary and I were saying we are real American girls.