It took less than a minute for Chloë Sevigny to cut through the formalities that placed us in the same room at the same time last month, and get real. Having noticed her bluntness in interviews over the years, and especially in my prep for my chat with her at the A24 office in Manhattan, I thought maybe she’d have a strong stance on the kind of junket interviews that created the occasion for our meeting. Junket days will find her performing the unenviable, unrelenting task of fielding a litany of questions from a revolving door of journalists for hours at a time. “It’s weird ’cause I don’t have that heavy a presence in the film,” she said, referring to Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete, for which she was doing press. “It’s a lot of answer for.”
Indeed, Sevigny plays a supporting character in a movie that is largely focused on a teen boy’s journey across the American West with the horse he loves. Sevigny is Bonnie, a jockey on a small-scale horse-racing circuit and makeshift mentor to the young boy, Charley (Charlie Plummer), whose quest is as much for comfort as it is identity. Sevigny appears in only the first half or so of the film, but nonetheless reassured me that she’s “wholeheartedly invested” in getting people to see this movie she called “so beautiful and emotional.”
It’s indeed a remarkable film, as is Sevigny a remarkable actor, who almost 25 years into her career is able to do a lot with a little and make it look effortless. In person, I found her instantly endearing. She doesn’t laugh so much as guffaw. She engages completely with no palpable need to steer the conversation. She prides herself on being honest, and from what I could tell, she should. But she’s also Chloë, and every once in a while she’ll say something that is so Chloë—an offhandedly sophisticated reminder that while she can comfortably walk amongst us plebes, she can just as easily float into worlds above our reach. When I asked her about her experience with horses prior to filming Lean On Pete, she told me, “I’d ridden one Icelandic pony in Sweden.” Of course she has.
Sevigny and I discussed more of her interactions with horses, the whiteness of film, fame, her experiences as a director, her upcoming Lizzie Borden biopic, and more. An edited and condensed transcript of our chat is below.
JEZEBEL: What got you involved in Lean on Pete?
CHLOE SEVIGNY: My agent. [Laughs] One of those really exciting stories. I don’t know, the word “offer” is sometimes weird to throw around. I think they were interested in me as the aunt, to play Margy, and my agent fought for the Bonnie part. I don’t think they had seen me as that and she convinced them. I got on the phone with Andrew and we spoke at length about the themes of the movie, the character, and I guess he somehow became open to the idea.
Did you have any experience with horses before this?
I’d ridden one Icelandic pony in Sweden. That was probably the hardest thing about making this movie: I was supposed to be on the horse a lot more than I actually was in the end. I had to do a lot of training and horses can read you. You can’t fake it with a horse. I was like, “I’ll just mimic what the people around me are doing, I’ll just be an actress.” They can tell—their bullshit radar is [strong]. They’re huge creatures and to get over that fear of being around an animal of that size took a while. I spent a lot of time watching different documentaries Andrew [Haigh] had recommended, and just being with these different trainers, women, and [observing] how they touched the horses, how they talked to the horses, trying to mimic that as a way to find comfort around the animals.
The scene where Bonnie discusses the creepiness she’s experienced from men in the horse-racing world struck me as being very modern. I don’t know if we would have seen that in a movie released even a few years ago.
It’s a very male-dominated industry, and the character Bonnie is based on a real person. Willy [Vlautin], the author of the book, gave me like 20 pages of background on her, basically her biography. The abuse, the fondling, the touching [was] constant through her whole career as a jockey. It’s just part of that environment. She’s tough, she’s built a shell around her because she loves horses, she loves riding, that’s her life. What’s she going to do, go back to the Red Lobster, as she says? They also get addicted to that. She’s probably on and off drugs, at least the real character was. There’s so much darkness in that world and I feel like our version of the book or of the world is almost a Disney version. Anything around gambling and then drugs and then everything else that goes on in that world, there’s a darkness, especially the lowest rung of the horse racing industry.
Did you talk to her or anybody else that’s directly involved?
Her mother and her on the phone. And then a bunch of other jockeys. Some girls that were riding the other horses, because we used all real racing horses so we had to use real jockeys riding them. I spoke at length to different women and guys about their stories, their accidents, their addictions, betting on their own races. It’s a lifestyle.
You felt the darkness that was there?
Oh yeah. As soon as you walk in at Portland Downs, it permeates. [Hesitates] I don’t want to make it seem like it’s all dark.
Do you usually research roles so extensively?
If it’s available. It depends on the part. I did The Snowman last year, so I read the book. I did Golden Exits with Alex Ross Perry, and I was like, “This white privilege lady in Park Slope? Yeah, I know that!” There’s not that much research that needs to be done on that one.
He’s so smart.
So smart. We talked about race.
It’s a whitewash. So is this movie.
You think about that?
I do. I’m very aware of that now. At one of the Golden Exits [screenings], someone I was with confronted him about that. He was like, “Have you ever been to Park Slope?” And then you’re like…what’s he gonna do? Fill in all the minor characters? When I watch a movie, it’s so transparent when they’re casting in that situation. I’m not saying they shouldn’t. It’s also like, this is that world… There’s too many white people, period.
But what does there being too many white people mean for you? What can you do about that from where you are? Not accept roles?
There’s the inclusion rider situation that Frances [McDormand] brought up [at the Oscars]. Now I’m starting to make my own films as a director and thinking about casting in a different way. Encouraging that, maybe. I don’t have power over casting in any project except the ones I’ve directed myself. We all have to take a certain responsibility but I haven’t really had that much power ever. I need to seek out more power. It’s the only way to invoke change, right? To be in a position of power.
I recently reread Jay McInerny’s 1994 profile of you and one of his main points is that Chloë is unknowable. In the nearly 25 years since, you’ve been consistently frank and outspoken—more so than most other actors—in your interviews. I wonder if that was at all a reaction to being potentially pigeonholed at the start of your career.
I don’t know, I think I always appreciated more honesty in interviews and in humans in general. I feel like there’s so much pressure in the industry to pretend like everything’s hunky dory and everyone got along and you don’t want to offend anybody. It’s not like I want to offend people for amusement, but it’s…it’s just hard for me to lie.
What’s off limits?
I try not to talk about my relationships, ’cause I feel like bringing people in that aren’t public figures is unfair. My family, to a certain extent.
You were really forthcoming with The Huffington Post about how [the upcoming Lizzie Borden biopic which premiered at Sundance], Lizzie, fell short of your expectations.
It was unfortunate after a long day of a press junket that I was so inelegant. But I love the movie. Kristen [Stewart] and me, there’s so much about this movie I love. I’m so glad we got to tell it. I think it’s a beautiful portrayal and it looks so beautiful and the story’s compelling and so resonant.
Do you think of it as feminist?
I do. It’s a little confusing around trying to figure out…I don’t have to promote the movie yet, but I am thinking ahead of how I justify that. It’s so complicated. You can’t say anything right now without getting dragged. Poor Jennifer Lawrence with the Versace dress. What the hell. The liberals are going to attack you, the right’s gonna. It’s like, anything. Everyone’s just clickbait.
But you don’t pay attention to the attacks right?
My publicist does. And then I get a talking-to: “Remember to weigh your words today.”
In 2016, you talked about casting harassment you experienced—did you ever consider naming names?
No. No. Ronan [Farrow] tried to get me to. And that Ronan’s a charmer. If he couldn’t, nobody could. I knew he was going to do an exposé piece and he asked me to come in and I knew if I was in front of him on camera, I was gonna. But no.
What holds you back?
What does hold me back? I don’t know if it was that offensive of an experience for me that it’s worth disruption. It wasn’t like they touched me in some way. I’ve even had it with women. A female casting director said one of the worst things to me that I’ve ever heard: “You have to make the men want to fuck you and the women want to be you.” That’s disgusting. I feel like if someone had crossed a line that was really like, for me, this person should be called out, if something happened that I felt was really [extreme], then I would say something.
When you were asked about working with Terry Richardson and Lars van Trier, you said you were done with writer-directors. Andrew Haigh is a writer-director.
I know. So is Alex Ross Perry. I know, the auteurs. I’m still attracted to the auteurs.
Do you think being famous as young as you were and essentially growing up in public affected your development at all?
I’m still really sensitive to it and figuring out how to navigate it. I still feel really surprised when people double take or will walk down the street, turn around, and come back. I feel like it’s such an intrusion but then, I am a public person. And then I’ll get really sad and go inside myself, like, “Oh, they think I look ugly.” It’s usually this darkness that’s permeating it. I’ve said this before, and I keep trying and it works but I can’t maintain it, but smiling makes it so much better. Then they’re taken aback and they run away. It has something to do with living in New York and the proximity to so many people. On the train, it’s awkward. There are certain moments where you’re just like, “Ugh.” Or certain days where it seems to happen a lot, and you’re like, “I just want this anonymity.” That’s why I moved to Park Slope. Like, enough of of this already. But it was too far away. I’ve moved back [laughs]. But I really wanted that again. Not that I’m so famous. I don’t want to sound like an asshole. But then you meet people and they have preconceived ideas about you and who you are. If you’re trying to date, people have these ideas and that’s sometimes problematic.
Do you ever wish you could trade it for a more anonymous life path?
No. I’m really proud of the work that I’ve done and how I’ve maintained. Maybe becoming a director will be a little more anonymous. And now there’s this whole new generation coming in. They don’t know who I am. So it’s like everything could shift.
Your career longevity is actually amazing.
I’m trying. If you know anyone who needs a 43-year-old white, blonde lady, let me know. I’m available.