“Oh, and I particularly like that angry walk of hers that you do,” I say to Chloë Sevigny.
“Walk?” she says, italicizing.
“You know,” I say, struggling. “That special tilting attack-walk you have when she’s angry. Your face goes dark, and you sort of lower one shoulder, and you charge across the lawn at an angle.”
Fans of “Big Love”—HBO’s glibly titled but increasingly watchable series about a family of less-than-saintly, modern-day polygamists trying to make a go of it in deceptively menacing suburban Utah—know precisely the walk I’m talking about. Chloë Sevigny, however, the walk’s creator, claims not to. And so on a stretch of carpet outside a theater in Manhattan, where we are scheduled to watch a play, I find myself trying to demonstrate it for her.
Sevigny’s character on “Big Love,” Nicolette “Nicki” Grant, is a fundamentalist Mormon hothead who at least once an episode will exhale furiously through her nose, clamp her elbow to the side of her prairie dress, and frog-march herself into a shouting match with someone (typically one of her “sister wives”).
Speaking as a man who has just sat through 18 straight episodes of “Big Love” back-to-back, I can tell you that it is the angle of Nicki’s attacks that makes them so alarming. Her back is perfectly straight, but one shoulder is lowered and the whole package, as it charges, is facing at maybe a ten-degree angle to the direction of progress—the way a racehorse sometimes will while slowing down after the winning post, only angrier. And blonder. It’s kind of genius.
I do my best impression of Nicki’s angry walk—although I am hampered, I realize, by too many layers of clothing—and when I’m done, turn to Sevigny for approval. None is forthcoming. Beneath their eggcup lids, her denim-blue eyes are wounded. Those full, suspicious lips… well, they are pursed into a bow of sorrow.
“I have a crooked spine,” says Sevigny, and looks away. “And I always have had.”
“Really?” I say, obviously not aware of this imperfection.
“Yes.” She turns away. “I’m going to the ladies room.” She pauses, and says, directly, “I can’t believe you said I was lopsided.”
And off she goes.
Watching her go, I observe that there is indeed a slight asymmetry to her gait. Owing to her choice of cold-weather outfit—a sea-green knitwear beret, bulky pea coat, un-insulated black stockings, and a pair of black heels in which, just a few minutes earlier, she’d been running, because we were late—she looks, receding, like two piggybacked French schoolgirls about to try and bluff their way into an adult movie.
I’m sorry if that sounds cold, but three days have passed since that admittedly awkward moment in an otherwise enjoyable evening, and I’m here to tell you that I don’t feel even slightly bad about it. For one thing, since when was it a risky move to engage actors on the subject of their “walks?” Seriously, if most of them had their way, no one would ever talk about anything else, for Pete’s sake.
For another thing, the actor in question happens to be Chloë Sevigny, fast becoming one of my favorite actors, and Hollywood’s too. If you’re anything resembling a sophisticate or a student of culture you’ll know exactly what I mean by this statement and require no further explanation. If you’re not, and if you’ll indulge me, I shall elaborate.
From the very beginning—and this is a matter of public record—the whole point of Chloë Sevigny was that you could never quite tell where the real-Chloë stopped and the actor-Chloë began or if there even really was an actor-Chloë. The confusion began in 1995, the very instant the camera panned to her in Larry Clark’s Kids—a film that stands up, even here in the next millennium, as one of the most truly bad films ever made.
Sevigny, now 33, then was 19, a luminous waif in a tight blue T-shirt with a shower-cap of golden flapper-curls. And an army of critics promptly reached for their thesauruses to try and put her particular X-factor into words—and found that it could not be done.
If this seems like hyperbole, I’d encourage you to take a swing at it yourself. Rent Kids, or the equally dire Gummo, and see if you can put a word to what it is about Sevigny that lifts these otherwise un-viewable films to the level of merely dire. A term like natural seems an obvious choice… but then you catch yourself and wonder whether “unnatural” mightn’t be a better fit. You want to say she’s very unselfconscious in front of the camera… except that that term doesn’t quite do justice to the sheer, excruciating self-consciousness of the various damaged waifs she was always playing back then. The word real is always floating around, glowing like a panic button—but the minute you define the Chloë-thing as realness you immediately have to explain why it is you’re even bothering to watch a movie in the first place.
The closest I came, after making a patchy but meticulous study of those early films, was privacy. For some reason, it’s impossible to watch Sevigny on film and not feel that you’re intruding. The instant she glides into frame with those eyelids, and that distinct nose, you feel a throb of regret much like that of surprising someone in the bathroom. Oh sorry, you automatically apologize to the screen. I didn’t realize there was someone in here.
Different filmmakers put Sevigny’s privacy to different uses. To Harmony Korine, the obvious move was to amplify the viewer’s sense of intrusion by forcing them to watch her be victimized in one way or another. It’s subjective, really, what “happens” to her with Vincent Gallo in his Brown Bunny navel gaze.
To the more mainstream types, the actress’s uncanny ability to project a sense of privacy—a theoretically impossible feat, let’s not forget—found its most powerful expression in the role of The Girl With The Shitty Apartment. Whit Stillman—who cast Sevigny in The Last Days of Disco over the advice of his casting agents—says he was stunned by the way she “created a sympathetic character from a part that almost didn’t exist on the page”—largely, I’d argue, thanks to the scene back in Alice (Sevigny’s) sparsely furnished “railroad” apartment. I don’t remember anything actually happening in the space, or the scene. But I do recall Sevigny’s face as she looked around her own apartment and apologized for it not being fancier. The same scene crops up in 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry. Damaged waif Lana (Sevigny) finally brings thwarted cross-gender Brandon (Hilary Swank) home with her. Her home has bed sheets for curtains and an alcoholic mother on the couch. The pair stands awkwardly in the living room, Lana scowling warily at Brandon from behind a greasy butterscotch towel of hair, whereupon she, Lana, mutters the line that could, translated into Latin, serve ably as the motto for Sevigny’s entire early filmography: “Don’t look at my stupid house.”
The crucial point—the key to understanding not only that single line of dialogue, but this now-lengthy digression, and what it was that made Sevigny so great in those early films—was that Brandon was already inside her stupid house. Because she’d invited him in.
But then, in 2006, came “Big Love,” and Sevigny was suddenly very different—arguably as different as she possibly could be. Yes, Nicolette Grant was raised by a psycho (Harry Dean Stanton) in a sinister polygamist Jonestown known as “The Compound,” but she was anything but a damaged waif. In fact, Sevigny’s character spent large chunks of time in pursuit of damaged waifs, with a view to damaging them further. “Nicki” also engaged in such quintessentially un-Chloë-like behaviors as: shouting; wielding power-tools; moving freezer-units twice her size, using only a hand-cart; inspiring fear in others; and even, in what seemed like it might be an explicit refutation of the other Chloë, delivering angry, off-the-cuff lectures on the moral vileness of oral sex, in all its permutations. Oh, and “Nicki” also had a husband. This might not seem like a particularly perceptive observation, but it is, surely, an important one. In her entire pre-“Big Love” filmography, Sevigny’s characters had racked up, by my count, a grand total of zero spouses. Now, all of a sudden, she had three.
There is a term for this in acting, for those moments in an actress’s career when she deliberately throws herself into a role that bears no relation to her real-life self, willfully transforming into an entirely different person: it is called acting. And only because Sevigny seems so undeniably to be acting in “Big Love” did I think I was on safe ground offering her a compliment on Nicki’s signature one-woman stampede.
My best argument, though, is that she’s one tough customer—one who knows exactly what she’s doing, at all times, and in every single way. This may sound like an exaggeration, and it probably is one, but if so it falls squarely into the category of Exaggeration for Emphasis, which is a recognized rhetorical device. You can look it up.
For starters, despite her easygoing, almost slacker-ish demeanor, it emerges casually in the back of a cab that while “Big Love” has been on hiatus due to the writers’ strike, Sevigny has turned her talents elsewhere. While on “Big Love,” she can fix any kitchen appliance, in real life she can sew her own clothes. Case in point, her witty new clothing line, which has been raved about by trade fashionistas, despite its sportier, high-school-ish patterns and cuts having little resemblance to the fashion-as-art-projects extravaganzas she made infamous as Imitation of Christ’s muse and collaborator—or the red-carpet haute couture fare she dons at parties and premieres, invariably placing her on both best-and worst-dressed lists in tabloids like US Weekly and Star.
We are lurching down the cobblestone streets of SoHo when the subject of her couture Chloë Sevigny for Opening Ceremony—it will debut February 1 in New York and L.A., including at Barneys, to it-girl fanfare—comes up. (Later, she describes the clothes as “alterna-girl-meets-fly girl.”) Gesturing out the taxi window, I inquire with genuine interest which of Manhattan’s quirkily upscale boutiques I should plan on visiting should I want to consider her skirts, blazers, cardigans, bomber jackets, biker caps, and floral-grunge dresses.
“Um… well, it’ll be in 24 countries,” she says. “There’s England… and Denmark… and Korea… France… ”
“Oh,” I manage. “That’s exciting.”
“Yes, it’s very exciting,” she says, turning to me, and adds, possibly pointedly, “That’s why I’m doing all these stupid fucking interviews and photo shoots.”
You’re not technically supposed to say things like that, I don’t think, when you’re a celebrity being interviewed by a journalist. But coming from her it isn’t remotely offensive—or rather it’s offensive, only remotely. It’s exactly the same Intimacy Judo she uses on you when you’re sitting in a darkened theater, pushing you away and pulling you closer in the same smooth motion of honest self-exposure, getting what she wants by an act of being, rather than of doing.
And what she wants now, I get the sense, is a family. I get this sense in part because she tells me so explicitly. Her long-term boyfriend Matt McAuley, a musician in her older brother Paul’s band, isn’t ready to settle down, apparently, “so I think we may be coming up to a crossroads.”
But she also has, in person, an unmistakably maternal presence. Earlier at the theater, I was taken aback to find that our tickets had been secured by, and that we were sitting with, Natasha Lyonne, the actress. It wasn’t so much that I was star-struck—though I did love Slums of Beverly Hills—as that I didn’t realize Natasha Lyonne was still, you know, alive. She is though, it turns out.
In fact, she’s the picture of sanity and health, and I couldn’t help feeling— watching the relief with which she hurled herself into Sevigny’s nurturing embrace—whether her pal mightn’t have quite a lot to do with that. Sitting there in the darkness with the pair of them—both of whom had put on spectacles to watch the play—I felt like a kid at the theater with his mother and his older sister. At one point a character poured whiskey on his corn flakes and they both tittered and said “Ewww!” along with the rest of the audience, for all the world as if neither of them had ever been filmed performing a gnawing inhalation of Vincent Gallo’s ego-turgid, gargoyle prong, or been carted off to rehab after threatening to eat a neighbor’s dog, respectively.
Indeed, I wonder if motherliness mightn’t have been a component of Sevigny’s je ne sais quoi from the start. Her very first act, after all, in Kids, was to escort Rosario Dawson to an AIDS clinic to get tested. In American Psycho, she’s the only character to actually care about Patrick Bateman; the last we see of her, she’s leafing tearfully through the doodle-pad of carnage she’s just discovered in the drawer of his desk, less horrified than heartbroken.
I don’t know. I do proudly add my name to the honor-roll of writers unable to put into words what makes Chloë Sevigny “Chloë Sevigny.” But I’m saying that a core-level, unconditional kindness—like a mother has for her kids—has a lot to do with it. The glorious paradox being that it’s an impulse to nurture that finds its purest expression in bringing out the nurturee’s own impulse to nurture.
At dinner—just to give one final example—we were approached by a tiny waitress, maybe 18 years old, 4-and-a-half-feet tall, who clearly recognized Sevigny, and was clearly apprehensive, albeit in an excited sort of way, about asking a celebrity what she wanted to drink with her meal. Sevigny blinked at the menu bewilderedly, as if she didn’t know how to read, and eventually murmured, “Um, I think I’ll have a glass of rose champagne?” That’s “rose” with no accent—like the flower is pronounced.
“Right,” squeaked the waitress. “One Johnnie Walker Black, one rosé champagne.” At which point Sevigny covered her face with the menu, slid down into the upholstery, and could be heard quietly admonishing herself, as if to never again make such an embarrassing gaffe, “Ros-ay champagne. Ros-ay.”
I glanced at the waitress. Nerves, in an instant, had given way to compassion, agitation to a tender, big-sisterly concern. It actually looked, for a moment, as if she might reach down and pat Sevigny’s hand, just to let her know it was no big deal, that fancy menus could be confusing sometimes, that—hard as it was to believe—there was even a time when she, the waitress, used to struggle with her French pronunciation.
Instead, and wisely, the tiny waitress just floated away, on a cloud of new confidence and perhaps even with a feeling, shared earlier in the evening by this reporter, shared in Boys Don’t Cry by Hilary Swank, shared by film-goers around the world over more than a decade of Sevigny’s astonishing performances, that she had inadvertently blundered way too deep into the intimate world of Chloë Sevigny, seen something painfully personal and private, but could not now do anything to remedy the situation except to reassure this apparently bruised and defenseless soul, that in the words of Brandon Teena: “I’m not looking at your stupid house. I’m looking at you.” Photography by Marc Hom Styling by Ryan Hastings