The girl with a thorn in her side

Effortlessly cool, the defining face of US indie cinema, actress Chloe Sevigny says she now wants to have more fun, more glamour, be more 'commercially viable'. Charlotte O'Sullivan is confused
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Chloe Sevigny - in denim shorts so cropped that the pockets hang down like floppy white ears - is deep in conversation with the Indy's photographer. As she pulls clothes out of a bag, she drawls, "You guys didn't say what you wanted. I was at a loss as to what to bring." She lays out a pair of navy shorts and matching bikini top ("my Daisy Dukes"); then a crumpled white bra top ("very pretty, very feminine, very blonde"). The bra top gets the thumbs up, she stays in the shorts, and hair and make-up go to work. As the photographer begins shooting, she tells us about a club she went to on Saturday night, where, in order to get in, you had to take off your trousers (or, if you weren't wearing underpants, your top). "All these boys in their knickers ..." says Sevigny. "It was fun!"

It's the fact that most of these boys were gay that makes this a "Chloe" story. She's never had a problem with flashing flesh, but her brand of sauce is hardly aimed at Joe Schmoe (she wants this to change, but more of that later). After the furore surrounding her début in Larry Clark's 1994 teen exposé, Kids (in which various young girls get deflowered and she gets raped in the closing reel) she began collaborating with her boyfriend, Harmony Korine. In their first project, Gummo, she pops up as a white trash sex-bomb intent on perking up her nipples. Werner Herzog called the film a masterpiece. She's also appeared nude in a Sonic Youth video (alongside Macaulay Culkin), and more recently, gave Vincent Gallo a non-simulated blowjob in "poetic" road-movie Brown Bunny (the French press in Cannes loved that). Now comes Party Monster - the true story of a New York clubber, Michael Alig, who thought killing his drug dealer, Angel, was the greatest party trick of all. It reunites Sevigny with Culkin (who plays Alig). She's one of his girlfriends, and doesn't wear a single outfit that reaches to her knees. In the film's most notorious scene, the pair host an Emergency Ward party. He - attached to a drip - wears a surgical mask as a jockstrap; she's his kinky nurse.

And yet the truth is, it's not simply hardcore hipness that's made Sevigny a legend; that's come about because, as if by magic, she's a gifted actress, too. In person, as on film, she looks like a languid 18th-century fop. Or Lana Turner in a circus mirror. Or (and this only sometimes) Brian Connolly from the glam-rock band Sweet. What she adds to the androgynous weirdness is warmth, and it's that fractured glow which has made her so captivating in indie classics like Trees Lounge and julien donkey-boy (another Korine collaboration) and most spectacularly Boys Don't Cry (for which she was Oscar-nominated). The real-girl vibe also lights up Party Monster. In one scene, her character Gitsie and Michael share a bath, and blow bubbles, and pee, and laugh. Culkin, under Sevigny's spell, looks like a weary child trying to crawl back into the womb. And, for a second, we experience these flinty, frivolous junkies as utterly without "front".

Today, alas, Chloe herself is a little less relaxed. She wants to get to the Hamptons this afternoon; she needs this photoshoot to be "speedy".

The hairdresser, Ashley, is the only person she seems tickled by. They shoot the breeze, in a brutal sort of way. Sevigny admits with a guffaw that while making Party Monster she had a crush on Justin Hagan, the actor playing Freeze, aka Robert Riggs, who actually took a hammer to the drug dealer's body. "Yeah, we had this flirting thing going on. You know, you always have one crush on a film. But at the wrap party, when he was out of character ..." she sighs, "it just wasn't the same".

Ashley, it transpires, knew the real-life Riggs. "My first crush! Typical me. I fall in love with a guy and he ends up in prison for life!"

Chloe cracks up at this. This is her in style-icon mode. In 1994, before, Kids, Jay McInerney wrote seven pages about her x-appeal in the New Yorker magazine: this 19-year-old hung out with gay club kids, straight rave kids, white and black skateboarders in Washington Square; all things, to all cool people. She even likes the British, with their inferior teeth (she went out, for a while, with both Jarvis Cocker and Paul "Dennis Pennis" Kaye). No wonder British magazines like i-D and The Face love her.

They move on to Christina Aguilera's slight weight gain (Chloe: "Oh yeah, she's very juicy right now"), then bulimia (Chloe: "Hey, didn't you know a boy puker?"), before trashing model Angela Lindvall ("When she does that expression [Chloe, adopting spacey pout] I just wanna punch her in the mouth"). The photographer tells them a story about the time he had to photograph a very grumpy Jerry Hall. Sevigny's eyes narrow. "Maybe she had somewhere she needed to be."

Finally, the photographer gets what he wants and I'm left alone with Sevigny, back in her normal clothes. Almost instantly she tucks her hair behind her ears, and starts giggling (imagine a seal being thrown a fish, crossed with Lady Bracknell undergoing a violent tickle). She's still talking tough, but her manner has softened.

Sevigny claims she's tired of being indie-land's unworldly icon. Once upon a time, so rumour has it, she turned down $500,000 to make a Hollywood comedy. Recently, she auditioned for a Lancôme ad. She wants, she says, to move up a level, to become more "commercially viable".

For starters, she wants to get bigger roles (she's signed up again with Lars von Trier, for the follow-up to Dogville, and the next Woody Allen but, as she points out, as with Party Monster, these are supporting roles). And she doesn't even want to see the sorts of films critics rave about. She says that Party Monster didn't go down that well at Sundance - "they praised American Splendor [a roll of the eyes] and all that tortured stuff. I like Party Monster. I thought it was really entertaining." Renée Zellweger, she continues, is someone who has made wise choices. Like Chicago.

Is she serious? She and Harmony Korine were going to take on the world, and re-write the language of cinema. I try not to sound stricken, but why this mad rush to change?

According to Sevigny, it was Korine who changed. When she met him, she says, he was entirely "straight edge" - he didn't smoke, didn't drink coffee, showered two times a day and spent all his time writing and going to museums and "being inspired". But then he discovered drugs, "and then slowly it all, um, fell apart. He was much less productive. It just depleted him of so many things".

She notes quietly that to her the best thing about life is relationships with people, or being in love. "But if you're a drug addict it seems like that's your only real love." Addicts, she continues, generally aren't interested in sex. And surround themselves with drug buddies, who they don't even like. "And people on methadone," she says in a sing-song voice, "will forever be on methadone ..."

I ask her if she was upset about Korine's increasing dependency or whether she tried to stay laidback and she yelps, "No! I was judgmental, because he was my boyfriend and I was in love with him and he was a drug addict and it was a horrible thing to have to deal with. I mean, what do you do about it? You know, the lies, and everything else." She takes a breath. "I mean, I have friends now that I think have problems. But I don't have anybody that close to me, so it's not as dire."

Korine was never big on modesty. He once told a journalist that the more Chloe worked with other directors, the less interested in her he became. But over the years, his behaviour certainly got more eccentric. When not provoking real-life fights and filming them (a project, alas, which resulted only in massive hospital bills) he took to bad-mouthing other indie auteurs, including Larry Clark, but also Vincent Gallo - coincidentally, an ex-flame of Sevigny's. Gallo, being no slouch himself in the raving egomaniac department, bad-mouthed him back. And took a few swipes at Chloe along the way.

I mention one slur, which suggested that she was a girl "from Connecticut, without Etiquette, who when she's not drunk and posing in movies is busy out spreading Harmony Korine's herpes".

Sevigny looks abashed. "Well, he's said worse about others."

She seems to have a bit of a thing for volatile men. Does she like confrontation? "No," she squeaks. "I try to avoid it at all costs. But these men really enjoy hearing themselves speak - they have a confidence that I'm lacking." She performs another of her splutter-laughs. "I don't know - I don't know what I'm doing to myself. What's the word - not self-destructive, but when you involve yourself with people that you shouldn't ..."

The one thing she has decided is that she's never going to date a director again. "If I have a collaborative relationship with another director, it's going to be with someone who's gay!" She says, all worked up now, that directors are just too self-obsessed. "People just hero-worship directors. They're the new rock stars. It's so irritating!"

I feel I should mention here that her new boyfriend, Matt McAuley, is in a rock band, A.R.E. Weapons. The signs (vis-à-vis volatility) aren't particularly good. In response to a critical review from The Village Voice, he recently wrote an open letter to the journalist, suggesting: "If you don't like us or our shows, don't fucking come to them."

Matt, like her, wants mainstream success - as Chloe says, "Being on the cover of NME doesn't really matter. What you want is for people in Massachusets to have heard of you." It turns out, however, that the band just got dropped by their label, Rough Trade. "Actually," she muses, "they don't even have a practice studio right now."

That's the thing about this newly ambitious woman; whatever else she says, she still seems drawn to the low-key and lost.

She tells me she's a practising Catholic, for instance, a stance that may seem all of a piece with her decision to "go straight". Then she explains why, having rebelled against the church as a teen growing up in ultra-conservative suburb of Darien, Connecticut, she came back to the fold. In 1998, she starred in a play, based on a true story, called Hazelwood Jr. High. Her character was a Pentecostal killer. "I had to murder this girl every night on stage, and you know, sodomise her and light her on fire and I got really disturbed. I started like having nightmares and thinking horrible things." Somewhat ironically, given that the character she was playing was intensely religious, church came to provide "some sort of safe house".

"Also ..." she says, biting her lip, "I think because my father had passed away [he died of cancer, in 1996], it was just sort of comforting. Receiving communion makes me feel better about myself, for some reason. It makes me feel good."

I'm about to joke that she makes wafers sound like the perfect E. But don't, because I can tell from her expression how seriously she takes this. "People always say that you turn to the church in times of need, but it wasn't only that - the hurting. It was more than that." In fact, she became so devout that her Polish mother (Janine Sevigny, née Malinowski) began to fret. " She said, 'Don't become one of those crazies.' But you know to be a good Catholic is really just to be a good person. That's the core of it - to do unto others ..."

Having lost faith in Art (and Artists) - having seen the confidence trick behind so much that claims to be "cutting edge" - Sevigny's clearly looking for consolidation elsewhere. Perhaps it's her sense that time is ticking away that gives her search for fulfilment a vaguely desperate air.

The burden of being almost 29 (her birthday's in November - "a Scorpio, yeah!") is obviously weighing heavy. She talks about youth as if she were 100 years old, saying of Macaulay Culkin and (his then wife) Rachel Miner, "The two of them together seemed very much in love. When you see people like that, young people, you can't help going, 'Aahh!' " She wants to have children before her late thirties. And wants to be able to support them. "I want to own my own apartment, too." She points out her block, which lies just outside Gramercy Park. "Only residents of the square have the key to the park." Does she have a key? A twitch of irritation as she's forced to repeat herself. "No. My apartment's just outside."

The tape in my machine clicks and Sevigny says, "Oh, my god, I really should go. The friend I'm going to stay with has little kids and now I'm not going to get there till nine ..." As a last question, I ask her what she thinks she's good at. She looks panicked. "Um ... cleaning my house. I love cleaning. I'd never have a cleaner. I wouldn't trust them to do it right."

"And um ..." a huge explosion of the helpless giggles, "I think I'm a pretty good actor." Then, as if by way of explanation, "I'm trying to have more confidence in myself." But surely everyone knows she's a good actress. "No, I don't think they do. 'Cos I don't think I've had the opportunities to show that yet. Except for Boys Don't Cry. And this new film I've just done, Three Needles, where I play a novice in South Africa, trying to be a true missionary, working with all these people who have Aids. I'm really excited about that." (Does it surprise you to learn that one of her favourite Woody Allen movies is Alice, "superficial uptown girl drinks a potion and ends up working in Calcutta with Mother Teresa." Yeah, that's such an interesting story.)

Sevigny can't decide if she has a right to a life of privilege and ease; and even for an onlooker, it's hard to know which side to root for. You don't really want her to end up in Calcutta. Or chained to a boorish guru. But nor is the idea of her morphing into a Hollywood siren particularly appealing. I'm sure she could make it if she tried hard enough - there are lots of funny-looking golden girls (Zellweger herself, when you think about it, isn't a conventional cutie-pie) and Sevigny is more than talented enough to skip between genres. But it would be so spooky, to see her in a rom-com, flirting with Matthew McConaughey, say.

What you really want for Sevigny is for her to find something in between. Extraordinary-ordinary actresses are thin on the ground. Reese Witherspoon seems to have been spirited away into the plastic-fantastic realm of fame, while Sarah Polley has all but disappeared from view. Samantha Morton is probably one of the few mature youngsters still fighting her corner. We need Chloe.

The interview over Sevigny dashes off to "the little girl's room", then emerges, with a frown. "It just keeps flushing - that's such a waste of water." Another thought occurs, and she rushes over to switch off the air conditioning ("I mean we should, if no one's in the room ...") She finds a maid, tells her about the toilet, walks with me to the hotel entrance, kisses me goodbye and says, "Maybe we can meet up [pause] when I'm in London." Then, murmuring, "I am going to be sooo late," she dashes off in the direction of home.

Harmony Korine once said of Sevigny that she was a "good girl". At the time, as a summing up, it sounded a little patronising, dismissive even. I think I'm beginning to understand what he meant.

'Party Monster' is released on 26 September

Comments