1997 autumn
interview: Riley John-Donnel
edited by: Jeremy Lin

Perched amid aging yuppies in a Gramercy Park bar, Chloe Sevigny leans forward to sip her white wine spritzer and fiddle with a bowl of Goldfish crackers. She sits side-saddle, one leg nestled under the other. The quilted shoulders and tiny ventilation holes of her black shirt position her somewhere between retro-80s and Kubrick:s 2001. She is both innocent and awkward. She looks like Bambi in a breakdance outfit. Yet she's still the Girl of the Moment.

Chloe entered the spotlight hip first, talent later. Teenangst trips from suburban Connecticut into New York's rave scene propelled her into downtown stardom, but it was her pivotal role in Larry Clark's controversial film Kids that extablished Chloe as a bona-fide actress. She shined alongside indie-hero Steve Buscemi in Trees Lounge and recently completed filming Volker Schlondorff's Palmetto.

Her pre-film "cool" status has served her well-Chloe's performances come equipped with a visual approach unique to many young American actors. She balanced both acting and costume design duties for Gummo, the latest endeavor from Kids' screenwriter Harmony Korine.

Chloe remains reluctant to provide "the voice for her generation," and she's equally discontent to exist as a fashion statement. But this stuffy bar affords no refuge: she's the only customer wearing 80's with irony, and she's the sole representative of her generation within earshot.

*surface: Twiggy, Edie, Jean Seberg...even Jerry Hall-many journalists have drawn a parallel between you and past "it" girls. Do you see the connection?

Chloe: Maybe 'cause we are all blonde and skinny, and we are picked from certain underground worlds, sort of brought out into the mainstream-sort of picked up off the street. I don't think of myself as an "it" girl...just a real girl. I'm not really happy with the way I look. I think I look very average. Very, you know, plain jane. Very all-American. So I think I try and play it off by looking like a crazy Eastern European girl! [laughs] By wearing an insane outfit I don't look so boring and normal.

Do you feel like you were "picked from the crowd?"

I was. I remember the first time, actually. Photographer Nina Schultz came up to me. She was looking at me sitting inside a car-just staring at me. I was like, "What the fuck is that lady staring at?" ["Her long mane of blonde flowing hair," claims Schultz..] Nina asked, "Can I photograph you sometime?" And that's how everything [started], people coming up to me on the street. Including the people from Sassy magazine. Andrea Linett, she did the same thing as Nina. She saw me on the street and came up to me. Then I interned with her [at Sassy] for a summer in high school. She recommended me to Kim Gordon for a Sonic Youth video. Also, I was friends with Harmony [Korine], and we met Larry [Clark, renown photographer and director of Kids] in the park...the rest is history.

This is over what stretch of time?

Two years.

Do you ever find yourself having to play a certain role with the media? Because you have been tagged the "it" girl.

I'm actually always fighting the questions that they ask me because they always want to ask about going out to clubs and what I do at night. I don't go out at night. This one magazine had a bright idea: "Can we do a night in the life of Chloe?" And I said "Well, we can go have dinner, go to the movies, and come home."

When did your nocturnal activities switch to a more wholesome mode?

That changed right after Kids. Right after I made the film I stopped going out a lot.

Was that because of the film or because of the press?

It was because of my interests. I don't want to go out at night anymore...I grew tired of that scene. A lot of my friends stopped going out to clubs and the scene sort of changed.

In what ways?

The rave scene turned into a very sort of heroin...[she stops herself as though Bill Clinton himself had walked in the room]...there were lots of people dying. The shiny happy bubblegum kids were gone. A lot of those clubs were shut down.

How much have you aged in the last two years?

Quite a lot, because I have so many responsibilities now. But since I don't have an apartment now in New York it's like I've gone back to the time where I packed my bag of clothes for three days and roamed from house to house and just hung out on the streets all day long. It's like, "Huh. This isn't any different than four years ago!" And I love that! Just stopping on the way somewhere with my bag and doing my makeup on the street. I love that lifestyle. [laughs]

You worked at Sassy and you've seen how the press operates. Has your view of the media changed since you began to appear in it?

It has a bit. I used to read articles about actors and musicians and say, "Oh my God, I can't believe that they said that." Now I know how your words can be switched around and change the context of what you're saying. I never read an article about somebody else and take that for truth any longer. I hate to read the articles written on me, I really do. I mean I'll read them once and then sort of...[Her voice fades slightly. She rolls her eyes and bellows out a disgruntled Umph!

What is it that you don't like?

Well, like when I did my first interview ever it was for Interview magazine and the night before the interview I studied all these Godard quotes. I went in and I knew [Ingrid Sischy] was going to ask me all these social questions and ask me to speak for my generation and what not, because that's the way she is. I kept sneaking those quotes in...kept saying these, you know, great quotes. Then the article came out and not one of them made it in. It's like all my big quotes were cut from the piece.

Do you remember any now?

[laughs] No.

"Spokesperson for your generatoin." Why do you think Ingrid and other journalists want that from you?

It was triggered from Kids. Because I was a real girl off the street not some sort of "bred actress." It was a really social film where we tapped into a lot of issues, I guess. I don't really know why, though.

What do you think it is that people are trying to understand about your connection to a generation? Do you think it's partly because you dressed a certain way, because you presented a visual metaphor?

Possibly. I mean, I did dress kind of like a maniac and I still sort of do. [laughs] But I think, again, it had a lot to do with Kids. They needed somebody to focus on in the film. And Miramax and the publicity people for the film wanted the media to speak to me. I was the only character that the audience could really...feel for.

I think it's something beyond Kids. There's something...

Something about me? [smiles impishly]

Exactly. Even before Kids there was a buzz about you. I think there's something else...

The Jay McInerney thing?

Yeah. You can't escape that thing. [The thing being McInerney's 7-page socio-anthropological treatise on Chloe, the "it" girl of the times, for The New Yorker.]

I don't know what 'my generation' is. Really. All I know is that I'm not going to speak for my generation. I can only speak for myself. And I hate to generalize. I think it's impossible to do. Generally speaking.

So what is your generation? It seems there's an age-group after Generation X that there isn't a title for.

My generation?

Yeah, what is it?

I have no idea. What-the MTV generation-is that my generation? I don't even know what my generation is.

What do you think we will say 'typifies the 90s when we look back in ten years?

Grunge rock! [laughs]

Grunge music?

Grunge style in general...quick cuts, as far as commercials and television go. Television now is not like when we were kids-it's like the energy is...to much! Now it's so hard to take anything in...because you wake up and you look at magazines, watch television, go outside and see all these advertisements and images. You go to a movie...you listen to so much music. And you're just constantly bombarded. It's hard to really absorb anything like you could in the past.

It also makes it difficult to retain new ideas. Why do you think 'retro' is such a part of 90s?

Nobody has any new ideas. When you see all the great filmmakers now-they're just sort of remaking the old movies. It's time for young people. You know? I think Gummo is a new type of film that nobody has seen before. It's right now. Something's got to happen. Some big change...I can feel it. This whole independent thing-now it's sort of going in reverse. I think it's becoming so commercial that people are starting to make commercial independent films. I think Gummo could change the face of cinema! I think it is a new type of film.

In what sense?

Well, there's no sort of narrative. The structure of the film, and the subject matter...it hasn't been touched on in a while, in a realistic way, in which is in Gummo. Even Kids broke into that. And Breaking the Waves. It was shot on film, then transferred to video and then back. It's like a totally new aesthetic. A new way of thinking about film. I think it's all going to explode in the next few years. A new movement, a new wave.

Do you feel a sort of pre-millennium tension?

Not really. [laughs] I think we're just sort of bored and want to explore new territories. Like in fashion with Rei Kawakubo in Comme des Garcons: changing the shape of people's bodies and contorting things. It's just amazing. It's so fashion-forward, as opposed to people just recycling old things. But I can't afford to buy her clothes. I always end up wearing second-hand clothes. [laughs]

You've talked in previous articles about designers "ripping off" street styles...

Ripping off? I think the designers should be influenced by the street. It's the most inspiring thing for me, fashion-wise. When I'm walking down the street and I see an old woman dressed like a mad-hatter, just like a crazy person, I think: "Wow, she looks so amazing!" 23rd Street and 14th Street have the most amazing characters. Those are my favorite places to go! I look at people and I'm more inspired than looking at underground magazines like The Face or i-D. I don't really know why the [press] always focuses on fashion when talking about me. Just because I know about it?

Because they believe you're a trendsetter. Don't you feel influential in fashion?


You're never heard someone say, "that looks kind of Chloe?"

Well, I have a friend who is a fashion editor at a magazine and she styles shows for designers and stuff, and she'll say, "Oh, this collection is so Chloe!" [She lowers her head and mumbles, then laughs.] But I don't think I'm the sole influence on anyone or anything!

So is there a future fashion designer in there?

I really enjoy costume design, but not fashion design. No way! But, I really support this one group of designers in New York called Bernadette Corporation. And if I ever got to the point financially where I could sort of back someone like them, I would. They have new ideas. And they're trying to push those boundaries. They're not getting any backers because people are too afraid of what they're doing.

What about the wardrobe styling for Gummo? Do you want to talk about your inspiration for that?

My inspiration came from people like Richard Prince and Larry Clark, and movies like Streetwise and heavy metal kids of the 80s. And other films like Over The Edge. I really wanted it to look as real as possible and not, you know, fashionable. It's so hard because my mind is so rigged-this whole fashion thing. I want everybody to look kind of cool, but not so cool. It was really difficult. Plus, I had such a time limit. Some characters would come in and they'd have to be ready the next day. I'd have to have their outfit ready with no fittings whatsoever. So a lot of the costumes I'm still not really happy with.

Where did most of the costumes come from?

Most of the stuff I bought down in Nashville, where we were filming. Mostly at thrift shops. They have these huge thrift shops that were once, like, grocery stores. I cut and sewed some things. Like this one character-his name is Bunny Boy- I made his rabbit ears. Stuff like that. [laughs]

Was it hard for you to create a wardrobe for yourself?

I think my character was the hardest to dress. I was there for a few weeks beforehand and I packed away all my own clothes and I tried to dress like the character everyday. Then I chose the best outfits, or the ones that I liked the most or that Harmony liked the most or that the cinematographer [liked]- as far as colors and textures.

Was it hard to drop you ego?

I wanted...not to make myself as ugly as possible...but I didn't want to look very attractive. Which I think a lot of actresses are really afraid of- not looking attractive.

So do you feel more at home in film than in fashion?

In fashion there's too many cliques. Everybody's looking at you too much, sort of what you're wearing. It's sort of too superficial I guess.

So what do film people look at?

Your work, your acting. Convincing someone that you're a character. It's more about your face and sort of the way you look in your character. [But] I don't hang out with any other actors. I don't want to be associated with any of the other actors of my generation. That's why I'm never seen out with them. I never really go to any Hollywood parties. I've only been to two premieres in my life, one of which was my own. I'm just not interested in that.

Do you want to be both part of a subculture and still be accessible to a mass-market audience?

I want to be accessible to the public. But I don't want to do a lot of press. I don't want to work a lot on movies either. I'd rather do very select projects. People want to see you more if you're not in the public eye all the time. You're more believable as the characters you play if they don't know who you really are. "Oh that's Chloe, she goes out with this boy and she's this kind of girl." It's harder for them to imagine you as a character. So I'd rather remain underground in that sense. You know the sort of US magazine or People magazine 'Young Hollywood issue?' I'm never mentioned at all in any of the mainstream magazines. That I'm happy with. I'm not interested unless I can push films like Gummo. It's New Line, yes, but it is a small film and will probably only be playing art house theaters. I'm going to do as much as I can. I want as many young people to see it as possible.

Have you seen anyone else make the transition from the underground with integrity?

Crispin Glover. I love Crispin Glover, he's so amazing. I love the fact that in [The People vs.Larry Flint, he did the lazy eye. I'm very good at that, keeping on eye [partially] shut for a long period of time. I was like, damn it, I wish I could have done that in a character before him! And I love that he does his own films and books and music. Whenever he's cast in a film, it automatically becomes sort of a Crispin Glover film. I think it would be hard for him to play in a really commercial film.

You seem almost protective of subcultures.

Which subculture? I mean, there are so many. I've sort of tapped into each of these scenes, sort of hung out with the skate scene and the indie rock scene and the fashion scene. I've sort of visited all of them. But I don't categorize myself as being in one of them.

What is the main difference between indie and commercial films?

Experimentation. People can take bigger risks in indie cinema. When you're doing a big Hollywood production, there's so many people involved, so many directors and producers, that you have to stay in between these lines and you don't have as much of a creative [say].

Palmetto represents a new aspect to your career. Why did you decide to do the film?

Well, when I was cast for the film, the director, Volker Schlondorff, was known for making fairly obscure films and for being a great filmmaker. He came to me. I was the first person cast in the film. There was no way I could turn down that role. And he said, "Who do you think should play the part of Harry?" So, I gave my ideas on who I thought should be cast. And I wasn't really aware at the time I was hired for it that it was going to turn into such a commercial thing, with Elizabeth Shue and Woody Harrelson. And then Gina Gershon was hired also- halfway through shooting. So [the Hollywood hype] sort of happened after I was already involved with the project. You know, I think Woody is a great actor and I think he brought a really good element to the film. But he also changed the film a lot. He had a lot of say about his character and the lines. The film is a completely different film today than the script I read.

So what about the final product?

I haven't seen the film yet, so I really can't say. I didn't go to any dailies; I don't believe in going to the dailies. Because I'm afraid that if I see myself up on the screen- if it's during the shoot- I could change the way I'm acting or the way I'm presenting myself...so I haven't seen anything.

So what's your gut instinct?

I'm scared. [laughs] I just have to trust in the director. He is an auteur and I expected him to be in charge of everything, and in the end he sort of let everybody do their own thing- and that really scared me. Because I really want to work for people who have their own vision. And by the looks of his films I believed that was how he worked. I just sort of have to let go and just say, "You know, I did the best I could. My performance was the best I could do." That's it. You sort of have to let go at a certain point.

So how do you judge your acting?

I usually only convince myself that I'm someone else in one or two scenes. That's how I can tell. Like in Kids there's only one scene where I really convinced myself that I was somebody else. Trees Lounge, there was like, maybe one or two. Gummo there were three scenes that I really convinced myself. It's hard to have any perspective when you're there everyday. You're hanging on every line, you know exactly what's going to happen. Palmetto is a thriller, a time story. It sort of leaves you guessing, "Who did this? Why is that being done?" So when I watch the film, I know the storyline. I know what's going to happen. So it's not for me to judge the film. Like Scream, since I read the script, I knew what was going to happen the whole time. So for me to watch the film, it's so boring.

Did you audition to be in that movie?

I did audition. I know when I'm going into an audition whether or not I'm going to even be considered. After I read the script and I know about the character and the project itself and whoever else is going to be involved...and I know when I go in whether or not I'm going to have a chance for it. Because I know how much I'm going to give. I just auditioned for Whit Stillman. He made Metoropolitan and Barcelona. And when I went in I knew that I was going to get the part. I knew that I could be this character and that I was really going to give a good audition. And I did. It's my next film. [Production] starts next week. It's called The Last Days of Disco. It takes place in 1980. It's about these rich Harvard graduate girls and boys. Very Ivy League. Very Connecticut. Very blue-blood- very preppy. And they go out to Studio 54 and they hang out with these drug guys. My character works at Doubleday and she's very sort of asexual and intellectual and she's sort of socially retarded. The boys always think she's kind of annoying and irritating- so I think that's going to be a lot of fun. Especially coming from that world. Everybody always says, "Oh, Chloe's so white trash, she's so urban." Where, in actuality, I'm from Darien, Connecticut! I just can't wait. I just had a costume fitting today. Oh my God! You don't realize, these outfits are soooo outrageous. Holy shit! People are just going to be blown away.

Is there a character you really want to play?

No character, but I really want to be in a period film. I've always wanted to be in a period film. Those are some of my favorite films to watch. Victorian, or 20s. I'd love to be a flapper. That's really what I [dream of doing] in the future.

What are your other dreams or little fantasies?

I don't have a fantasy land, actually. I mean, I have a fantasy land of where I would like to be. I'd like it if all the older people would just die off...everybody with these old ideas would just die off...I'm ready. I'm waiting...

For the young people to take over?

Young people...take over! I'm ready for the youth to take over the land. But it is also kind of sad when you go to Japan and you see these kids fighting tradition so hard. They want tradition to die so hardly. In a way I'm a real traditionalist. I like manners, and I like people who conduct themselves in a mannerly fashion. And I like gentlemen. I like mystery and romance...You know, there's a big brick house from 1850 on my road in my hometown. It's this old beautiful sort of gothic mansion. There's like ten bedrooms. It's huge. I'd love to buy it one day. It's like two million dollars or something. All my friends, who are sort of struggling to make it right now- including an old friend from Connecticut, I'm the godmother of her child- could come and live with me. I know it sounds old-fashioned. * Actually, I can't think of anything more futuristic. It's weird, but when I was younger, Little House on the Prairie was like the ideal world for me. Living in colonial times was all I wanted to do. I would sleep with a white cap on my head at night and little bitty brown boots and cowboy print dresses. I wanted to be sent back in time...running in the fields of Massachusetts or something. I've really never been much of a futurist.

Strange that the Girl of the Moment would prefer to be elsewhere.