Chloë Sevigny's Roles of Responsibility
The actor, forever known as a '90s style maven, takes on a pair of challenges in 'The Girl from Plainville' and 'Russian Doll.'
Despite the fact that she’s in her late 40s, Chloë Sevigny knows some people look at her and only see her teenage self. “People really love to relive all the Kids stuff, the Sassy stuff, the New Yorker stuff,” she says. “It's something that I can't ever seem to shake. It seems to be very defining in a way. And people project all of that onto me, even though I've gone on to do countless other things.”
Not that she doesn’t embrace it. She recently posted a photo of a Supreme shirt that bears an image of her face in Harmony Korine’s experimental 1997 film Gummo on her Instagram account. “People think that I stand for something,” she adds over the phone after our Zoom connection fails, which she blames partially on Mercury retrograde, even though she's not sure she believes in it. “I've become more than just an actress. I'm an attitude, which I think is pretty great, you know?”
This April is busy for Sevigny the actress, not Sevigny the icon. In Hulu’s The Girl from Plainville, she’s dressed down as Lynn, the grieving mother of teen Conrad Roy, whose death inspired the suicide-by-texting case in which Conrad’s girlfriend, Michelle Carter, was convicted. And when Russian Doll debuts next week, you’ll see her in a completely different mode, her hair a mess of red curls as she reprises her role as the mother of Nadia, played by her best friend Natasha Lyonne. Even all these years later, Sevigny is still unpacking the trauma of being a kid, just from a different angle. “I really believe in youth, and I think so much interesting stuff comes out of that artistically,” she says.
Because they orbit the same worlds, Sevigny had met Girl from Plainville star and executive producer Elle Fanning, who plays Carter, at various fashion events, but really only knew her as an acquaintance. Sevigny remembers watching Fanning faint during a dinner for Chopard at Cannes. “It was very dramatic,” Sevigny says. “Her sister [Dakota] was there and I was very tuned into their dynamics. Because I was always like, ‘Oh, I wish I had a sister in the business.’ Well, Natasha's kind of that, but maybe better.” It was Fanning’s participation that made Sevigny, who was a last-minute addition to the cast after someone else dropped out, want to do Girl from Plainville. She soon found they were “kindred,” and wished they had more scenes together.
Sevigny had only played real people a few times prior, including her Oscar-nominated turn in Boys Don’t Cry, but she was attuned to the challenges of that task. When it came to Lynn, she watched Erin Lee Carr’s HBO documentary about the case, I Love You, Now Die, a couple of times and listened to a compilation of Lynn’s media appearances. “I think it's very important for her for people to hear Conrad's story, to learn about him as a full, real person,” she says. “Knowing that it had her blessing was just one of the first questions I actually asked the creators when we got on the phone, when I had the offer. That really helped my decision-making as far as going ahead with the project.”
For as much responsibility she felt playing Lynn, she was surprised to feel a similar pressure returning to the role of Nora in Russian Doll's second season. Sevigny and Lyonne met in 1998, introduced by the actor Michael Rapaport, with whom they were both at one point “platonic” roommates. In the first season, Nora's role was brief but pivotal, crucial to unlocking the mystery of the show and the psyche of Lyonne’s character. When Lyonne first asked Sevigny to play someone based on her mom, it was an emotional undertaking. “She has a very complicated relationship with her family, which I know a lot of the ins and outs of,” Sevigny explains. “It was very profound actually. And there were probably tears involved in the phone call.” Lyonne told me when Season 1 of Russian Doll aired that it had to be Sevigny. "Chloë's been really more like a sister in this life than just my best friend," she said. "I think that it felt like such a personal cliff to jump off of, that there was something about Chloë that, for me, represented a real safety in that decision to expose self in that way, potentially."
For reasons I can’t describe due to Netflix’s spoiler embargoes, Sevigny’s presence is expanded this season, which intensified the experience. “It was a scarier thing to do for me than even Girl from Plainville,” she says. “This is more personal. It was terrifying. I just wanted to do it justice, and her justice. And same with Lynn. I don't want to take away anything in the power of that performance, or that person and that character. I guess I thought it was going to be easier, which was why it was scarier.”
When Lyonne, who is now the showrunner of Russian Doll, and her crew were filming, Sevigny was often there, barring COVID restrictions. “I would also just kind of hang around in the East Village,” she says. “Vanja, my son, would come to the park with his sitter, and he'd come to set.” There’s a sense that the past and present run through Sevigny, which makes her an ideal candidate to play Nora in this year’s time-bending season, where the 6 train transports Nadia to 1982.
Next up, Sevigny returns to work with director Luca Guadagnino, with whom she had collaborated on HBO’s We Are Who We Are, playing another mother in his latest feature, Bones and All. It’s a brief role, but she was happy to be back in the Italian director’s world. She was just hoping to meet star Timothée Chalamet, another young actor like Fanning who she admires, an icon like she was to a whole new generation. “I’m obsessed, like the rest of the world,” she says. Alas, he wasn’t on set those days. I ask Sevigny what she thinks of this new crop of indie darlings and "it" kids, having been one herself. “Some I'm taken with and some not,” she says. “I don't know. I'm just a fangirl myself.”