MUSE ME NO MORE
Emily Nussbaum / Psychology Today / September - October 2003
"Every director is a conman," confides Chloe Sevigny. She leans into the tape recorder, her trademark half-smile amped to full. It's an odd comment to hear from an actress who has been-for more than a decade-a cheerleader for experimental film. But if Sevigny has insight into the allure of the manipulator, it's no surprise. After all, she's played indie muse to a series of charismatic auteurs, starting with ex-boyfriend Harmony Korine and most recently, director and controversy-magnet Vincent Gallo. In her acting roles as well, Sevigny has specialized in a kind of transcendent suckerdom. In Kids, she was seduced by a teen smoothie; in The Last Days of Disco, bedded by a Wall Street cad; in American Psycho, besotted with a serial killer. In the Oscar-winning crossover hit Boys Don't Cry, she portrayed a snake-beautiful toughie who fell in love, then discovered that her perfect boyfriend was in fact a girl.
In her latest film, Shattered Glass, Sevigny plays another mark: the sophisticated, sardonic Caitlin, best friend and colleague to notorious New Republic fabulist Stephen Glass. As Caitlin, Sevigny gets fooled again, this time by the only Svengali perhaps more dangerous than a director: a journalist.
But if she's built a career as mark and muse, at 28, Sevigny has begun to chafe against both roles - in real life and on the screen. Separated from Korine for several years, Sevigny has been doing what amounts to an aesthetic reboot, reexamining her own outsider's credo and trying to figure out what's borrowed and what's her own. "We were teenagers together," she explains. "We became who we are, and we became established in our careers together. For me especially, I always felt like 'Harmony's girlfriend.' He was the brilliant mind - which he is, the eccentric, the artist. But then it was like, 'And she's an actress.'" In the early 20th century, Sevigny points out, actresses were considered whores. "Sometimes it still feels that way," she says.
It's a familiar crossroads: how to establish a grown-up identity without disowning your past. But the task is trickier for an actress who fears being pigeonholed--and in Sevigny's case, has been criticized for some of her more outrageous roles. Now living in New York with her boyfriend, rock musician Matt McAuley of A.R.E.Weapons (his fellow band member is Chlo''s deejay brother Paul), she's slowly sorting out the question of how to shrug off the mantle of "quirky, controversial girl." It won't be easy: For one thing, her quirkiest and most controversial film to date - Vincent Gallo's The Brown Bunny - is on the verge of release.
Sevigny's career began almost by accident, when she fell into fame through the back door of hipsterdom. An artsy teenager, she'd spent her days fleeing her hometown of Darien, Connecticut (aka "Aryan Darien"), for downtown New York. In the early '90s, she club-hopped and worked as an intern at Sassy, a magazine for teen girls. In a 1994 New Yorker profile on Sevigny, Jay McInerney famously called her "The It Girl," a sticky label she's been trying to slough off for nearly a decade. In 1995, Korine and Sevigny became celebrities with the controversial teen-sex drama Kids, scripted by Korine, then still in his teens, and directed by voyeuristic photographer Larry Clark. Along the way, the actress gained a reputation for qualities brash and enviable, as well as easily mocked: She was the sloe-eyed hipster, the vintage-clad vamp, the film snob.
Yet in person, Sevigny is no intimidating fashionista. With her elegant lion's face and denim jacket and jeans, she seems alternately relaxed and rueful. As we chow down at her favorite East Village Polish diner, she talks about the changes she's going through. The biggest impact was the loss of her father, who died when she was 21. "You lose the spark," she says. "I can't celebrate things as much as I might have." In the aftermath of his death and her breakup with Korine, Sevigny moved back home to Connecticut for several years. She also went into therapy, at her mother's urging. "The first couple of weeks, I was really depressed, because you verbalize all these things that you never said before. Then it gets better, and I do think the therapist really helped me - in gaining confidence, in dealing with criticism," says Sevigny. She stopped the sessions when she moved back to New York, both because of distance and because she sensed that the therapist was turning her against her mother. "My mother was like, 'Chlo', I really think you should go!' And I was like, 'Mom, she's making me hate you!'" She giggles. "My mom was like: 'Uh, OK!'"
Part of this self-examination means taking a critical look at her own indie/edgy values. "I can't remember the last time I went to see an independent film," Sevigny confesses. "The truth is, sometimes I just want to be entertained. You know, to have fun, and... escape." When it comes to the thrall of the independent director, she sounds downright rebellious. "I'm so sick of this hero worship," she scoffs, fingers splayed on the tabletop. "People think directors are the be-all and end-all, and they have the last word on everything, and they're like rock stars." She lets out a low laugh. "I mean, I still love a lot of my directors. But maybe I've got more confidence. I'm not as easily manipulated as I used to be."
She may talk the talk, but Sevigny still comes off as distinctly self-critical. She cringed watching her comically radiant orgasm in Boys Don't Cry. "That was the worst! In the first take, I did it more natural, and the director said, 'That's very lovely, but it's not going to work like that: It has to be the most heightened, the most explosive, most volatile, most everything orgasm you've ever had.' And of course, that's what made it into the movie." She sounds both proud and dismayed. "It's hard when you're exposed in that way. But then again, I never in a million years thought that the film would become as big as it has." She giggles and rolls her eyes. "The nudity! You know, I thought that was an art-house film."
When Boys Don't Cry unexpectedly hit the Oscar jackpot, Sevigny became famous to a wider audience. Morphing into celebrity has been a bit of an adjustment. "I had my own little following - people who were just messed up kids like I was, you know what I mean? I think I was sort of sheltered." The attention isn't always positive. "People on the street will say things like, 'Oh, she's not really that pretty' or 'You're much prettier in person.' I'm like: 'Oh, is that a compliment?'"
But even with the success of Boys Don't Cry - and Sevigny's smooth supporting role in Shattered Glass - escaping the art house won't be simple. For one thing, her next experimental film has already attracted plenty of negative attention in the press. That would be The Brown Bunny, an experimental road-trip drama by Vincent Gallo - a movie panned so severely by critics at Cannes that they might as well have stormed the projectionist's booth and torched the negative. A grimly realistic narrative, The Brown Bunny features Vincent Gallo driving a motorcycle across America. In the final third, the narrative is broken by a graphic sequence: Sevigny appears as a dream vision of Gallo's character's dead girlfriend and gives the director oral sex, for real.
Sevigny is conflicted when she describes her decision to do the scene. On the one hand she praises Gallo as "tremendously fascinating" and "an eccentric, when there are so few eccentrics out there." The actress first met Gallo when she was a teenager in the New York art scene, but the two had not spoken in years. Then Gallo contacted her to pitch the role. "He explained to me that there was going to be this scene, and it was going to be very explicit and very shocking. He's very charming, and it's not that I was convinced, but - the way he speaks, it makes so much sense." The role of the angelic dream girl appealed to her as a challenge: She was someone who was "only forgiving, only loving, can't get angry, can't be judgmental." And since the director and the actress had already been intimate - although never boyfriend and girlfriend - she felt comfortable performing the explicit scene with him.
It's a choice she knows many actresses would have shunned, blurring as it does the already fuzzy line between performance and porn. "I was scared about the sex scene, and I'm still not sure," she says slowly. "Maybe it wasn't the best thing to do. But in the context of the film, it made sense. It's a really beautiful scene; it's tragic. And everyone has done that, and had it done to them." She argues that the sequence's sexual explicitness has been overstated and compares it with the infamous butter encounter in Last Tango in Paris, a scene that was also considered radical in its time. "Ten years later, it's nothing anybody even cares about."
But despite this qualified bravado, Sevigny says she's finished with roles that require that much exposure."When I was younger, I just wanted to show sex in a real way, and I was not afraid of it," she says. "It was my taste at the time; I'd see scenes where the girl would have her bra on, and that doesn't seem real to me... The Brown Bunny hasn't come out yet, so I don't know what will become of it. But for my mother, it's hard for her, and I feel bad: She wanted me to be in pretty period clothes, and that's all I've ever really wanted to be in. Sometimes I don't know how I ended up in these movies."
If she can't precisely resolve these contradictions, Sevigny can live with them. And she lights up when she describes her artistic fantasies: to design costumes for her beloved period films, to broaden her range as an actress. She'd love to switch gears, she says - to play the bombshell, the manipulator. Would she play the conman? "Ha!" she says, bursting into peals of laughter. She grins again, all the way. "Oh - I'd love it!"