No one could ever accuse actor Chloë Sevigny of playing it safe. From her first major role as an HIV-positive teenager in Larry Clark's KIDS to her Golden Globe Award–winning portrayal of a sister-wife on HBO's Big Love, the 36-year-old actor and fashion designer has never been one to shy away from controversy. In her latest film, Mr. Nice, Sevigny plays Judy Marks, wife of Howard Marks, a Welsh drug smuggler who was alleged to have once run 10% of the world's hashish trade. Up next, she's planning a return to television with two very different miniseries: a Lizzie Borden biopic, in which she'll play the homicidal lead, and a still-untitled project about a pre-op transsexual assassin, for which she's readying her Irish brogue.
First, however, a chat—about everything from Patti Smith and bong hits to why her brother Paul won't be DJing her first Opening Ceremony fashion show next week—from inside Manhattan's Playwright Tavern, an appropriately unexpected place to meet an Oscar nominee.
Had you known about Howard Marks before signing on to play his wife? No, but I asked my English friends, who said he was a huge counter-culture icon in the UK. He wrote a book, also called Mr Nice, that every kid over there reads. The alternative kids hero-worship him.
Have you read Judy's blog? No, I’m not really into the internet.
She says lovely things about you on it. We didn’t meet until after I finished shooting the film, but we ended up bonding in Spain. I think Bernard [Rose, the film’s director] didn’t want me to become friendly with her because he didn’t want it to color my performance. He didn’t want me to become more sympathetic to her and to her children, even though I’d read all about it from the book.
She wrote that the two of you have a lot in common, one of those things being that you’ve both had your “fair share of messing about on yachts.” What did she mean by that? She grew up in a sailing family and so did I. My dad was a big sailor and my brother Paul actually tried to sail in the Olympics. He went to the College of Charleston because of their sailing team. He used to deliver people’s yachts from Newport down to the Caribbean for money, and I’ve done that with him a few times. So that’s probably what she meant, but maybe it’s also a class thing because the English are so obsessed with that. Maybe she means we’re cut from a similar cloth.
Were you at all apprehensive about having to do a British accent? I was really scared of the accent, and I was so not confident about it. The filmmakers weren’t very specific. If they’d specified a certain type of English accent, then it would have been easier. Also, they didn’t really have a dialect coach for me to work with—they had a PA. They weren’t giving me the right training about how to move your mouth and where the right sounds are in your mouth, because it’s very technical. I did a film where I spoke mostly in French—Olivier Assayas’ Demonlover—and I learned all of that phonetically with a woman at a piano helping me find the tones. And I did a fucking smashing job.
British accents, it seems, are the easiest to botch. And the English always do American accents too flat. I don’t care who the actor is, whenever they do American, they go too flat—like Ewan McGregor. When he does American, it’s just so flat and he loses any kind of sex appeal. He loses a lot of the jazz. I'm working on a southern Irish accent at the moment for a miniseries I'm about to begin filming.
Can you tell me about it? It’s a British production for Sky Atlantic, and I’m playing a pre-op male-to-female tranny assassin. It’s very realistic. It’s being created by a lot of the people who were involved in the original Skins, so it’s going to be very edgy.
Wow. You’ve done quite a few projects with trans content: Candy Darling, Boy’s Don’t Cry… …Party Monster, If These Walls Could Talk 2. But I feel this will be my most feminine, most glamorous role to date. I hope that I have enough gay stripes that I won’t get totally attacked. It was the creators’ idea not to hire a boy to play the part, and of course as an actor you’re going to jump on that. I’m going to try to play it as beautiful and as feminine and as glamorous as I can—not like Transamerica.
When you watch yourself in Mr. Nice, are you pleased with the performance? Are you your own harshest critic? I am, yes, but Bernard made me look better than most people do. He was always bragging about that: “I make you look better than anyone else, I know your angles.”
But you’re not talking about the performance; you’re talking about, well, vanity. That’s usually where I criticize myself, depending on how I look. I mean—I am an actress. Big Love is so hard for me to watch because they made me look so bad on that show.
When you were 17, your parents forced you to go to an AA meeting. I'm curious to know if that colored your work in this film at all. I don't know... My parents found my bong. They put the bong on a table next to a note that said, “This is shit and you’re in it.” I thought it was so funny. I was kind of a screw-up in high school. I dressed really weird and was really despondent, and I did smoke a lot of pot and took different experimental drugs. I think it definitely affected my performance in high school, but I also think I might have been that way even if I wasn’t on so many drugs. I was just miserable. I had a really hard time as a teenager. It was super-fun and crazy, but I wasn’t doing the “right” things at all. When I shaved my head and pierced my nose my mom wanted to die—they kicked me out of the house.
You were such a cliché! [Laughter] It was 1991.
Which was only a few years before you starred in KIDS. Do you feel as if, even though 16 years have passed since the release of that film, people still consider you to be this New York party girl? I often think about that a lot, the fact that people still think of me as a kid, but I’m 37. I’m, like, a woman. But I still feel like people are judging me in an unfair way most of the time, like I’m still a little kid. But I don’t go out so much anymore. I’m not going to all the cool spots anymore.
You’re at things. I see you at things. Am I? [Laughter.] I guess I go out sometimes. But, regardless, I do see what you mean about getting pegged in a moment. I feel like that happens with everyone. Patti Smith is still constantly talking about the ’70s. She just came out with a book about it [Just Kids]. I’m a huge fan of her music—sometimes I think she’s a little high-horsey, everything’s a little romanticized. The book was a little precious and a little unkind toward Robert Mapplethorpe. But I love her. When they rereleased Horses, I stood in line for two hours to have my record signed, and I got one of those buttons that says, “Horses Changed My Life,” which is one of my favorite things I own—other than my Linda Manz Out of the Blue jacket.
Howard Marks used 43 different aliases during his time a drug smuggler. Have you ever had one? I’ve never, no—never even in a hotel! I remember this one director who used to check into hotels under the name Duane Reade. I have a fake name on Facebook, but it’s a nickname all of my friends call me. I’m so into Facebook, but I’m not into blogs or comments or tweets.
Have you watched the videos of Drew Droege, the comedian who impersonates you on YouTube? Yes, I have. We were thinking about doing one together.
You must. I haven’t been in LA with enough time to get it together.
When did you two first meet? There’s this company called World of Wonder Productions, and they do a lot of films and television like RuPaul’s Drag Race. They did Party Monster. Anyway, they had a big party in LA at Christmas, and we were both there.
I bet he was scared to meet you. He was terrified! He thought I was going to hate him.
Next week, you'll unveil your first runway show for Opening Ceremony. You must be so excited. I’m actually really nervous about it.
Are you going to have Paul DJ it? I hadn't even thought about it, to be honest. I need someone who does a lot of fashion shows. The problem is that DJs want to be collaborative and I just want to tell them what to play. I’m working with a young artist who makes sculptures and installations, and he’s creating some special pieces specifically for me. The PR company is worried that it’s going to stir up controversy, but I'm like, Do you know who you’re talking to?