'The coolest girl in the world'

... is how author Jay McInerney describes Chloë Sevigny, and plenty of people agree with him. But despite years as a style icon, she still says she's just trying to hide the fact she's boring underneath

Sarah Gristwood
Sunday 01 October 2000 00:00
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To say that Chloë Sevigny has a braying laugh is like saying the Millennium Dome has its critics. It's true, but it doesn't go far enough. Not nearly. The laugh features in our interview like a third party, and it is strangely reassuring. After all, sitting across the table from me is a modern fashion icon - Edie Sedgwick crossed with Twiggy - and one who has been proclaimed "the coolest girl in the world" by no less a person than New York's arbiter of "cool", the novelist Jay McInerney.

To say that Chloë Sevigny has a braying laugh is like saying the Millennium Dome has its critics. It's true, but it doesn't go far enough. Not nearly. The laugh features in our interview like a third party, and it is strangely reassuring. After all, sitting across the table from me is a modern fashion icon - Edie Sedgwick crossed with Twiggy - and one who has been proclaimed "the coolest girl in the world" by no less a person than New York's arbiter of "cool", the novelist Jay McInerney.

Preparing for this interview has involved grappling with a match set of impenetrable quotes from Sevigny and Harmony Korine, her sometime boyfriend, all-time ally, and director of her latest film, Julien Donkey-Boy. Together, the film-maker and his muse have enjoyed a playful, sarcastic, even difficult relationship with the media with their in-jokes and shrugged answers. Still, today (without Harmony), Sevigny - upfront, relaxed, looking ever so slightly bored - is in the mood to talk, perhaps because it's Korine's film she's starring in. An improvised piece about a schizophrenic (Ewen Bremner), Sevigny plays his pregnant, ballet-obsessed sister, Pearl. "Originally, Harmony started with a screenplay, but then he decided to take out all the dialogue," says Sevigny, without visible irony.

The two met in Washington Square Park when Sevigny was 18. Korine, a skateboarding refugee from Tennessee, was a year older and already obsessed with cinema. "I was pretty in love with him from the start, but he saw me as a friend first," she says. "It took a while for him to want to be in a relationship with me." They didn't become involved romantically until after the filming of Kids, written by Korine and starring Sevigny, "though people always say he wrote it for me," she adds.

In the seven years since, Sevigny and Korine have been together and apart again as often as Taylor and Burton - though since they continue to work together, and to speak of each other with great affection, the two states could be confused pretty easily. "We're always on-again, off-again," says Sevigny. "He's enriched my life in so many ways, I can't even begin to describe it." Indeed, their association was vital in turning a middle-class girl from Darien, Connecticut (the prototype blue-blood town featured in Ang Lee's The Ice Storm), into an icon of downtown credibility.

Sevigny is comfortable with her roots, admitting freely that she had a very normal, suburban childhood. Her father, who died in 1996, was an accountant who later became a painter. Her mother used to read to her from a book of etiquette. "I was very well-mannered, and my mother was very strict," says Sevigny. "But I did hang out at the Mobil station and smoke cigarettes."

It was Sevigny's father who instilled in his daughter the intuitive sense of fashion style that recently led Anna Wintour, the editor of American Vogue, to devote three pages to deciphering the actress's dress sense. "My dad would take me into New York on his commuting trips," she says. "That was my favourite thing, to get dressed up for tea at the Helmsley Palace. I was very into dress-up as a child, and I had trunks of old costumes my mother would get for me at thrift shops."

Only when Sevigny, at 17, became restless and started driving to New York to plunder the second-hand shops and hang out in Washington Square Park did her career begin, in classic rags-to-riches style. A fashion editor from Sassy magazine noticed her standing by a newsstand in Greenwich Village, wearing a pair of corduroy overalls and a Nefertiti hat, and asked her to take part in a fashion shoot. A street style story for The New Yorker magazine, then under Tina Brown's editorship, followed. "Downtown Manhattan is a pretty small scene. People in the industry thought I looked cute and started to talk about me," deadpans Sevigny.

Then came the role in Kids, the shockingly frank picture of teenage life that Korine wrote for director Larry Clark. Since then, Sevigny has worked on Korine's controversial Gummo (a brutal portrait of white-trash America), The Last Days of Disco with Kate Beckinsale, American Psycho with Christian Bale and, most recently, Boys Don't Cry with Hilary Swank, for which she was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Typically, Sevigny greeted the news of her nomination with some dismay. Apart from claiming that she's never respected the Academy Awards, she said she felt unprepared for the overwhelming attention. "All that pressure - I'm just not ready."

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In Boys Don't Cry, hailed as "a Rebel Without a Cause for these times", Sevigny originally went up for the part of Teena Brandon, a girl who lived disguised as a boy. "But Kimberley Peirce, the director, said to me 'Have you ever wanted to be a boy?', and although I've questioned issues of gender and sexuality since I was a teenager, and did some experimenting, the project meant so much to her that I couldn't lie." She wound up cast as Lana, the girl Brandon falls in love with.

"I always get the straight role - the calm next to the madness," says Sevigny, rather regretfully. "It's not like I'm searching for controversial films, but I do love tragic tales." The forthcoming A Map of the World, in which she plays a slipshod single mother accusing Sigourney Weaver of child abuse to cover up her own inadequacies, should fit the bill nicely.

Yet for all the bluster about not getting the roles she wants, the truth about Sevigny's acting is that, quite often, she "can't be bothered" to turn up for Hollywood auditions. Like Korine, who constantly tries to damp the fire of hype surrounding his talent by taking on increasingly experimental, non-commercial films (he recently attempted a movie in which he goaded men into beating him up and secretly filmed the fights), Sevigny, one feels, continually tries to yank herself back from the fringes of the A-list.

"If you want the truth, I'm kind of lazy," she says. "It's hard to resist when they're dangling huge amounts of money in front of your face - that's one of the reasons for sticking in the movie industry - but not long ago, I refused half a million dollars for a comedy, so I must be pretty strong. For three weeks, my brother wouldn't speak to me." Sevigny's brother was a commodities broker at the time, so her decision must have seemed like heresy. But he has just given up Wall Street to work as a DJ. Giving up, getting out features strongly in his sister's conversation.

"I don't like watching my films, I'm always disappointed," she says. Except by Gummo, she adds hastily. "Theatre may be better - I'd never have to see it." She's contemplating a Joe Orton play. "I'm not fishing for compliments, but I'm afraid I'll never really be great. When you look at actresses' careers, they tend to get worse, don't you think? They never really get better. If I can't be brilliant, then f*** it."

That insouciance, that ability to walk away, is fundamental to Sevigny's appeal, but it's also given her a reputation for being temperamental. Famously in 1998, she came to London to publicise The Last Days of Disco, but once she arrived, she was unwilling to discuss the piece at all. What's more, she stormed out of a party held in her honour. Once, she also declined to turn up for a shoot with the powerful fashion photographer Steven Meisel. But Sevigny seems unfazed by the thought of making herself unpopular. "If people stop hiring me, I'll go into costumes," she says.

On present form, one could argue that costume design and styling is actually Sevigny's destiny. Fashion editors sycophantically fall over themselves to praise her instinctual dress sense, which seamlessly moves from vintage Yves Saint Laurent, to beret and ruched boots, to head-to-toe thrift. Certainly, Sevigny has enough fashion experience to fuel a career change. She designed the costumes on Gummo, and on videos for both Sonic Youth and the Lemonheads. "I tell my agency, 'I'm not acting right now, why don't we find some light work doing costumes?' But they say, 'No one will take you seriously as an actress'."

Modelling, though, is one field where an actress can quite happily plough a second furrow and Sevigny is a natural, having fronted campaigns for H&M and Miu Miu, as well as starring in shoots for The Face and Purple magazines. No conventional beauty, Sevigny's allure comes from a killer figure matched with a don't-care attitude, an outsider's confidence. "I think I look very average," she shrugs. "Very, you know, plain Jane. Very all-American. So I think I try to play it off by looking like a crazy East European girl. By wearing an insane outfit, I don't think I'm so boring and normal." But talking about her style "really pisses me off. Now I feel all this pressure - like every time I leave the house, I have to be stylish. I should wear jeans and a white T-shirt for the rest of my life."

The donkey laugh splutters out again and it's almost a relief to see that she can still find something faintly funny and absurd about the media circus which surrounds her. Because the more Sevigny tries to avoid the attention, the more she refuses to fit into the conventional Hollywood mould, the hotter she becomes. Movie moguls love it when she sneers at the studio pic, just as the fashion people get a masochistic thrill from the fact that she prefers thrift shops. There is nothing more appealing than not giving a toss about your image or your industry. Cool is "a tag I'm going to have to live with", Sevigny says resignedly. "But I don't consider myself a hipster. I'm like a Connecticut nerdy girl." *

"Julien Donkey-Boy" is on general release

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