Chloë Sevigny is all over the place, and yet she feels like she’s nowhere. We meet on a cold March morning at boutique studio A24’s offices in midtown Manhattan to discuss her role in the upcoming drama Lean on Pete (she plays a horse rider named Bonnie, who provides wayward youth Charlie Plummer with some grit and guidance), but she’s got plenty going on. After bouncing around festivals for a year and change, her performance in the Brooklyn-set dramedy Golden Exits made it to theaters in February; she portrayed serial murderer Lizzie Borden in a biopic currently awaiting release, as is the indie drama The Adventures of Wolfboy; and then there’s the full-time job of being Chloë Sevigny, of being seen and making tastes and generally keeping New York alive.
She tells me she doesn’t feel particularly close to the heart of things, however, not in Hollywood and not in the slice of the Apple she’s made her own. She is, technically, unemployed. As she gets settled, we briefly commiserate the shuttering of a beloved St. Marks Place watering hole, and she makes a wistful remark about missing the days when she could post up at the corner of a dive bar without it being a whole thing. Once infamously described as “the coolest girl in the world,” Sevigny confesses that these days, she’s just making sure everyone still remembers she’s around. That shouldn’t be too difficult.
People see you as being very identified with New York and the city life, but your character in Lean on Pete is a real country girl. How’d you make that change?
I was really nervous that they cast both Steve [Buscemi] and I. We’re both two city folk. Like, maybe if they had picked one or the other, I dunno, but you’ve got two of the most New York actors playing rural! But I’ve been around. I’ve been all around Portland, I did Portlandia and shot a short film of mine there. Going to the track and seeing the people who hang around — from the old-timers betting to the jockeys — you’re immediately immersed in this world. I spent a lot of time training with the horses, speaking with real jockeys, people who work around the track, reading the novel, getting pages and pages from the author Willy [Vlautin] about the real people the characters were based on. I got their biographies, their stories. It was easy to let yourself disappear into the space.
Were there any details from those biographies that informed your performance in a specific way?
[Director] Andrew [Haigh]’s main note was that Bonnie is salt-of-the-earth, tough-love, no sentimentality between us. A little tenderness, but not sentimentality. When I read the story of the real Bonnie — all the abuse she suffered, how young she was when she had to grow up, her relationship with her mother, drug abuse, men — you can see how a person becomes no-nonsense. That’s just the way it is. To a little extent, our version of the movie is the Disneyfied version. The novel is very dark. Not that the movie isn’t bleak, but man, that book.
People like Bonnie, who have lived a lot of life, tend to talk about their past in a remote way. In the film, she talks to Charley with a sort of distant wisdom. I quite never understood that, how “going through shit” becomes “having gone through shit.”
When she talks about her history as a jockey, and she’s explaining all the times she fell and her mom said, “you can still get up,” that’s just her story. I imagine she’s told it a million times, and that’s how you get perspective. When it all becomes a story you can tell.
The structure of Lean on Pete is unusual; characters appear and then get phased out of the narrative without returning. During production, are you thinking about the film as a single, whole object or was the focus constrained to your own scenes?
I take it scene by scene, and what’s happening in each moment. Because so much of it is Charley’s journey, I did think about my role in terms of how she’s influencing him. It’s his movie. What does she represent in his world, was the big question I wanted to answer. I also stayed aware of the fact that Bonnie’s one of very few women in Charley’s life. I didn’t want to come in and be all mothering, that’s not Bonnie’s place.
I’ve never been on a horse, and it looks quite painful. Does it hurt as bad as it looks?
Yes, but only emotionally. The horses can really read your feelings, your nerves, your confidence. That transparency is painful. I hadn’t been around horses too much in my life, either, and they’ve got these beautiful expressive eyes that can sense if you’re uneasy. They can read you like a book and it’s terrifying. You cannot fake it with a horse.
You recently appeared in the motion picture The Snowman, a matter of great interest to me. In interviews, some of the people involved have hinted that there is a big gap between what the production team put together and what ended up in theaters. Could you offer us any insight?
[Whispering.] I haven’t seen it.
Really? It’s wild.
I was doing a play when it came out! I was really in the zone with rehearsals, it came and went, and I just couldn’t get it together to go out to the cinema. I love Tomas, and I think he’s a great filmmaker. He was so generous on set with his actors that I wrote him a long letter after we wrapped. He was so open to working through the lines, very open to differing interpretations, trying things, very collaborative. Kind of a weird genius. But yeah, I’ve heard there was some strife with the studio. It was not an inexpensive movie. Maybe they took it away and then gave it back to Tomas? So many movies have stories like that. I know that when we spoke about it, Tomas had a very clear vision of what he wanted the movie to say about violence and masculinity and purity. He was clear.
You’re also in Golden Exits, which recently entered theaters after a very delayed journey to the public, too. When you were working on your own directorial debut, did you have to deal with …
Oh, yeah, that’s right! That’s a short, though. I thought you meant, like, a feature.
A short still counts as directing! But was that your first time inside the frustrations of getting a movie made, sold, and seen?
Yeah, I took a lot of meetings with producers, and heard a lot of times that it was too broad, too expensive, too big, too this, too that. “Your first thing should be smaller, you’re never gonna get the money.” There’s a lot of discouragement, which was very frustrating. And then I met one woman who said, “I love this. I love you. I can see you doing this. Let’s get it done.” I was like, “Great, you’re hired!” I had worked on a film before with a producer named Lizzie Nastro, we had a great relationship on set, so I brought her on too. She was in good with Refinery, and they were starting this platform for female directors that would give us breathing room, no notes, no product placement. We could do whatever we want, hold it for whichever festival. That much was just the absolute dream.
My second one was with [fashion label] Miu Miu, and they were the same way. I had to use their clothes, but apart from that, total freedom. I tried to dress everyone to look like they were wearing costumes, and not clothes. For a fashion film, it’s just about the most anti-fashion film you’ve ever seen.
Speaking of art versus commerce — looking over your filmography, it’s clear that you put a lot of consideration into how you choose your work. Is it getting more difficult to root out the roles that can be personally meaningful? You always hear about the film industry shrinking.
Well, I don’t have a job right now! [Big, gasping laugh that gradually turns into mock hyperventilation.] Yeah, there’s less money going around, magazines really feel that. This is the first time in a couple years that I don’t really know what’s happening. I’m gonna do another short, that’s all together, but beyond that …
Is that frightening, or liberating?
Right now, it’s frightening. I keep going back to “The Demon Seesaw” — you read that essay? — it’s great, very comforting. But yes, I feel a little nervous. Feels like I have head out to L.A. soon, pound the pavement, knock on some doors, tell people I’m still around. I feel like I’m present! I loved Golden Exits, I can’t say that I loved my performance, but I feel like I got to do something that I wasn’t able to do in a while. So hopefully between that and this short, people will remember I’m still here, pluggin’ away. Fightin’ the good fight. [Chuckles.]
That’s strange to hear, considering that you’re still held in a pretty high regard by a lot of my peers, who have seen you as an icon of “cool” since our high-school years. Is that a strange feeling, to be thought of as cool? I reread the old New Yorker essay this morning, and if someone had written that about me when I was a teenager, I think I would’ve had a nervous breakdown.
At the time, my world was much smaller, this was pre-internet. The only people who really cited that piece were the British press, because they’ve always got to be on the cutting edge. Honestly? I think more people know about it than have actually read it. But I know what you mean. I dunno, it didn’t affect me so much at the time.
I guess that’s part of the essence of being cool, not caring what other people think about you.
I look at people like Jim Jarmusch and Kim Gordon, who have always been able to maintain their selves, and that fascinated me as a teenager. They were emblematic of everything cool, all that was pure and great in the world. They still do.
Is there anyone younger than you that you think about in that esteem?
I’m really into Kristen Stewart, who was just in Lizzie with me, the Lizzie Borden movie. I don’t know if you’ve ever met her, but she has something that not many people have. She’s exceptional — very gifted, very thoughtful, very passionate. She is real about her work, and uncompromising as an actress. She’s a wild creature.
She recently did Personal Shopper with Olivier Assayas, who directed you a while back in Demonlover, a movie I just saw for the first time. I really dug it — do you have any notable memories from your time working on that film?
I remember learning my entire role in French, because originally the lead actress was going to be someone French, but then they cast Connie Nielsen because the other actress backed out, and all my preparation went right out the window. That was kind of annoying, but I learned some French, so that’s fun.
But then we shot in Chihuahua, Mexico, on 9/11. This is actually a pretty messed-up story: My mom called, I had just woken up in the hotel in Mexico, and she wanted to talk me through what was happening. My brother worked downtown at the time, but he wasn’t there that day, thank god. I was really rattled, and then that same day they made us shoot in helicopters. Everyone working was French, and they figured that they had rented the copters, what went down in New York was a long ways away, so why not get it done? Then I was stuck in Mexico City for a week, because there were no flights back to New York. It was during that week that they took the photo of me that went on my badge at Cannes, and every time I looked at it, I would see myself making the most miserable face of my life and remember that day. I wish I could find this photo and share this with the world. I look so tragic!
This interview has been edited and condensed.