Chloë Sevigny interview: 'I was insecure but I don't regret doing The Brown Bunny'

The actor talks ‘Love & Friendship’ at Cannes

Kaleem Aftab
Friday 20 May 2016 17:03 BST
Chloe Sevigny attends Kering Talks Women In Motion At The 69th Cannes Film Festival on May 18, 2016
Chloe Sevigny attends Kering Talks Women In Motion At The 69th Cannes Film Festival on May 18, 2016 (Getty Images)

Cannes is the place where Chloë Sevigny gained notoriety in 2003, when The Brown Bunny featured the actress and Vincent Gallo in an unsimulated fellatio scene. How times have changed in the intervening period; this week I met with the 41-year-old in Cannes, where Kitty, the short film that she directed, is closing the Critics’ Week section of the festival.

Given the number of guises that she’s had in her career, perhaps the move into directing was inevitable. “I love acting, but I don’t think that I’ve ever really been that fulfilled," she says. "I never feel like it’s been my own thing, obviously.”

This "obviously" seems to be a nod to the illustrious career she’s had outside of acting. Even before her movie debut in Kids in 1995, author Jay McInerney profiled her for The New Yorker, labelling her "the coolest girl in the world" after she modelled for Sassy magazine and appeared in a video by rock band Sonic Youth. She lived up to the cool moniker by appearing in edgy film roles and several seasons creating fashion lines carrying her name, for her friends at the fashion retailer Opening Ceremony. There was also an autobiographical book on her personal fashion style that came out in 2015.

Yet the early fame also meant she suffered from casting-couch problems. She vaguely mentions incidents rather than directors’ names at a public talk on filmmaking by women, recalling inappropriate comments made in auditions, such as advising her to wear more revealing clothes. She handled the situations when they arose. But I ask if, looking back, she feels she had too much fame too soon?

“It happened," she says. "I wish I had the confidence I had now. I was insecure. Everyone says, ‘what do you regret?’ And I know that they want me to say The Brown Bunny, but I won’t.”

What she does regret is all the acting jobs she let pass by. She made Demonlover with Olivier Assayas, but then said no to another of his projects. She also turned down Todd Haynes, John Waters, Claire Denis and Catherine Breillat. Why would she turn down some of the biggest filmmakers in the world? “I was too judgmental and too scared,” says Sevigny. "It was timing. I was tired. I was scared I was not a good enough actress to play the parts. I turned down one of the films because there were a lot of sexual things, and I didn’t want to do that again."

Arguably, Sevigny is still one of the coolest girls in the world. She looks fabulous in a short blue dress and matching hat – although she laughs at the suggestion that this inimitable, constantly praised style must come as an offshoot of fashion designing. “I’m not like Yves Saint Laurent or Alexander McQueen,” retorts the Massachusetts-born star.

Kitty is a 15-minute short film about a young girl who feels ignored by her mother. Seeing her mother doting on her pet cat, the girl begins to transform herself into a cat. It’s poignant and at times sad, but also in the age of Internet memes, any short film with a cat somehow seems adorable – although, at the suggestion of this, she interjects: “I don’t know if it’s so cute; I think it’s quite sad and a little strange.” I ask why she would want to make a film about a young girl who yearns for attention. “Or perhaps it’s about her mother not recognising something in her daughter,” says the director. "Her daughter having to deal with the consequences. I think it’s about a lot of things.”

She sounds like a fun director for actors to work with. She wore a floral dress on the first day of the three-day shoot and says the set was delightful. "You know why? Because I surrounded myself with delightful people, who I enjoy being with, who I already had a relationship with. That process was great. The post-production process was hard. There are just too many highs and lows. I don’t like that. I’m kind of a little even-keeled, until PMS.”

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Her own mother is Polish American and father an accountant turned interior painter. Does the maternal nature of the film say something about her own upbringing? “I think I like the mother-daughter relationship, and obviously I have a mother," she says. "There are not enough mother-daughter stories.”

She continues, “My mum is dying to see it. She will die because the teddy bears were my teddy bears, the dolls and the tea set too, a lot of things are very me."

She quit her Opening Ceremony gig to concentrate on acting again, because after five or six seasons she disliked “all the judging, being nervous. And people not responding to it".

British cinema audiences can soon enjoy her latest role, in Whit Stillman drama Love & Friendship, based on the Jane Austen novella Lady Susan. Sevigny plays Alicia Johnson, the American confidante of Kate Beckinsdale’s Lady Susan.

Initially Sevigny was displeased when the decision was made to make her character American: “I found it hard because I had studied the lines in a British accent and when I got to Dublin for the shoot [Stillman] said 'I want to make her American, I think it will be funnier and there will be a character for the American audience to grasp onto', and he was right.”

But she’s not a fan of the number of Brits playing Americans. “I think a lot of British actors do bad American accents. It’s too Elma Fuddy. They go too flat. They forget the jazz.”

When she mentions music, I tell Sevigny that when I spent time in New York in 2003, I would always see her out in clubs. She challenges me to name some. And I pull out a Smiths night in a pub that used to happen on Sundays. “Oh Sway, that closed last year,” she recalls. “People love The Smiths. Morrissey is a huge influence on me. I admire his provocation, intellect, his talent, he’s always been a hero of mine. Prince died, Bowie died; if Morrissey died, I would be crying and stuck on the ground.”

‘Love & Friendship’ is out on 27 May. ‘Kitty’ is at the Cannes Film Festival until Sunday

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