For a very long time, if someone asked who my favorite celebrity was, I wouldn’t have an answer. To me, a celebrity was an empty vessel whose personality I knew nothing about. How could I form an attachment to a vessel?
At least, that’s how I felt about celebrities until I became aware of Chloë Sevigny. Her personality on a screen felt notably authentic; not like she was Chloë Sevigny acting, but like she was actually Chloë Sevigny, the person—someone at turns skeptical, sly, and withholding, but also strongly opinionated, quick witted, and filled with zingers. She seemed like a real person who was fun, smart, and void of bullshit, and also like the kind of person who would become famous by being noticed for being herself, which, of course, is how Chloë Sevigny became famous, when a fashion magazine editor spotted her on a New York City street in the early 90s.
Suffice it to say, when I heard Nitehawk had curated “The Works: Chloe Sevigny,” a series of her films that screen there throughout April, I was stoked. And I was more stoked when I heard Sevigny would appear in person for a Q&A, following a screening of her directorial debuts (two shorts called “Kitty,” based on a short story by Paul Bowles, and commissioned by Refinery 29, and “Carmen,” commissioned by Miu Miu), and of her 1999 Oscar-nominated performance in Boys Don’t Cry. For Sevigny, I appeared in person, too.
It’s easy enough to be given a break early in your career; it’s much easier to blow it. Sevigny never did. She chose independent projects for their substance and cool, rather than to make money or to be a part of Hollywood—a place infused with a deep lack of cool, which, of course, is a place anathema to Chloë Sevigny.
In dozens of projects over more than twenty years, Sevigny has built a career on outsider favorites: Gummo, Boys Don’t Cry, The Last Days of Disco, American Psycho, the even-more controversial The Brown Bunny, and (my personal favorite) the HBO series, Big Love, in which she plays the compound-reared sister-wife, Nikki, to the family patriarch and late Bill Paxton. In each case she is a fringe and not-obviously-likable character who—due to the fact that it is Chloë Sevigny who embodies it—quietly steals the show.
Sevigny showed up looking, predictably, impeccable with now-long blond hair, a black leather skirt, a white blouse, a Navy Sailor Jacket, and sunglasses, in the gloaming, talking on her phone. I was walking toward the front entrance, which she was standing just outside of, peering in, when I spotted her. She mistook me for someone she knew, and waved. In person, Sevigny was even cooler.
Her short films were whimsical, and, per her personality, not like anything I’d seen before. In “Kitty,” a little girl named Kitty turns into a cat. Her parents are devastated, thinking she is missing; but Kitty returns to their care, unbeknownst to them, as a stray pet. In the second, Carmen, the real standup comedian Carmen Lynch is depicted on the road, doing standup. The film is shot in Portland, and it is an intimate glimpse of the loneliness of work and travel on one’s own, as a woman (Carmen Lynch wrote her own standup for this script, and it is hysterical).
“I don’t know if I can take credit for writing it,” said Sevigny after the screening, of Carmen’s material, but, she continued, “I did.” As always, Sevigny seemed to hide nothing, and was more likable for it.
Sevigny had wanted to make films for a long time—as far back as her break out role in Kids, when she was dating director Harmony Korine; but, she said, as a filmmaker and boyfriend he was intimidating, and for a very long time she lacked confidence in her own voice. It is something she continues to work toward today: “Kitty,” her first short, was a female-heavy set, and for that, Sevigny said she was grateful.
“It’s easier for me to be emotional with women, and just to have the dialog with women,” Sevigny explained. “There’s no sex involved, because I’ll sexualize any man,” she stopped, reflecting: “That’s weird,” laughing about her own comment. Still, with women, she feels “It’s just easier.”
It was both surprising and wonderful to see and understand that even people we imagine to be thoroughly and fearlessly themselves, are vulnerable, too. She described working recently on a movie with Kristen Stewart, who, though just 26, “gets in there and tears it apart and is a fighter, and scrappy, and, oh my god, this girl! No wonder she’s a movie star!” Sevigny marveled. “It was amazing to watch her, and now I’m inspired and psyched to go and do the next one, and implement that. You can be so inspired and learn on every set.”
Luckily for us, we’ll get to see a lot more of Sevigny soon. After a fairly lengthy break from an industry that, she’s had somewhat of a love-hate relationship with (as well as with some directors, whom, she says, she both “reveres and despises,” “you know, because that ego’s gotta be up there to get everyone on board.”), she’s acting again: Right now, six new projects are in the can. And, she’s working on her own next film—her first original script—with a friend of hers, Jesse Person, who appeared in “Kitty,” and who used to work at Vice. (And, incidentally, who started a literary magazine called Apology, “because he felt so bad about everything they did at Vice,” Sevigny joked.)
In part, Sevigny said her history with fashion (both as a model and as a disigner for her friends’s label, Opening Ceremony) prepared her for having the guts to make movies. “It’s what helped me transition to attempt to do “Kitty,”” said Sevigny. “Every collection is like, ‘What’s the story?’ It’s bullshit. I don’t give a shit about what this made up story is about this shirt, but it’s kind of what you have to do as a director.”
The idea for the film is still being workshopped now, she says, but is a ghost story of sorts and will involve more special effects (than her first two). “I love fantasy pictures, and wanted to do something along those lines,” said Sevigny, of her project. “Something big.”
If we know anything about Sevigny by now—despite the fact that it is a short—it is likely it will loom large in our collective minds.
See more great Sevigny films at Nitehawk throughout April; the series continues tonight, with Kids, and ends in early May with American Psycho.