Chloë Sevigny is an actress/writer/director/fashion designer who has been a staple of the American independent cinema since the mid 1990s, with her notable performances including those in Kids (1995), Gummo (1997), Boys Don’t Cry (1999), The Brown Bunny (2004), Zodiac (2007), and Love & Friendship (2016), among innumerable others. In The Dead Don’t Die (2019), the latest film by Jim Jarmusch, Sevigny plays Officer Minerva “Minny” Morrison, a small town cop facing down a zombie apocalypse alongside fellow officers played by Adam Driver and Bill Murray. Sevigny appeared at the Brattle Theatre following a preview screening of the film, and we spoke the next morning at the Kimpton Nine Zero Hotel—at the start of the transcript, we’re talking about the Brattle.
CS: I’d never been there! And then all these cute kids showed up…
I was wondering about that while doing my research. I saw you say you made a lot of weekend trips to Boston in your teenage years [when Sevigny was living in Darian, Connecticut], and I was curious if that included places like the Brattle or the Coolidge. But now I take it that you weren’t so much coming up for movies.
No, it was more like the Middle East. More shows, less movies.
I really connected with your performance in The Dead Don’t Die, for a reason that you articulated in another recent interview—you’re the one “playing the stakes,” as you said. There’s a lot of trauma and violence in the background of this movie…
You know who else is playing the stakes? Caleb [Landry Jones, who plays the counter guy at a horror shop].
He is to an extent. It’s true you’re not the only actor playing the drama of the story. But you’re paired with the characters played by Bill Murray and Adam Driver in most of your scenes, meaning you’re surrounded by personifications of this movie’s flippancy. Which makes the dramatic nature of your work stand out even further. Was that element of the performance in any way coming from your reaction to the material itself?
No—that element is a mystery to me. How that even works out is a total mystery to me. And the tenderness which came out of it was kind of surprising to me. I was thinking about my mother, and how she is like I just want to be happy, you know what I mean? There’s a lot of people who don’t face the reality of situations and just want people to tell them everything’s going to be okay. People who find comfort in … avoidance.
That’s how you felt about your character?
Maybe—that she was that kind of person. When she’s like, But the energy companies have been saying… and they’re like, Really?, and she’s like, No?!
She watches the news?
Yeah, and she believes what people are saying. I think there’s a large portion of people who do.
Another way you stand apart from the larger cast of this movie is that most of the other performers are deliberately giving very slow line readings. There’s a scene with Murray and Driver’s characters, their first scene in the car, where it’s like they place a pause in between every individual word.
They’re doing the ’musch thing. I am doing less of the ’musch thing.
Can we talk about that? What’s that like?
Yeah, I was afraid … I felt like he had really written to their strengths, or just to them, because he knows them so well. And with my character, I felt like, Who is he writing for here? I was a little nervous about that. And I didn’t feel like my character fell in line with his tone as much. I was afraid that I would look like I was in a different movie. And when I watched it I was pleasantly surprised that it works. I was standing behind these two guys, both like 6’4”, both doing their ’musch schtick, and I was thinking, Oh my God, am I just going to be in a different movie? I was really nervous about that, honestly.
For me the performance really brought the film together. Because in a lot of ways this movie really depressed me—sometimes for reasons I expect were intended, sometimes for reasons I’m not sure about—and it was the parts of the film that focus on your character and performance which complicated that reaction for me, and added to it. We’d get to a moment like the one where Driver’s character leans out the window of a car with a really smooth gesture to cut somebody’s head off with a machete, and it would look really cool, and people around me in the theater would laugh, and then it cuts to a close-up of you with a look of total agony—and I’d be thinking, I’m right there with her!
It felt very heavy to me while we were there, when we were driving around. I had to play those stakes—you have to make it real, or you’re going to look ridiculous. Watching the extras, I felt like [Mindy] probably knew all of those people. I was tore up, as they say! I felt very emotional shooting it, especially at the end when she has her bug-out in the car. I was trying to play it dramatically, and not look ridiculous, next to those two playing it dry. And that’s a hard balance.
Let’s talk about crafting that balance, getting back to the language…
I had to commit. I had to commit to whatever my line was, whatever was there for me, and trust in Jim that he was going to take care of me, and not make me look like a fool. I would try a little bit bigger, and then I would pull back—we’d maybe get like three takes [per setup], so there wasn’t a lot of room to find the right… you know?
So in terms of how they’re performing their dialogue vs. how you’re performing your dialogue… Was there a rehearsal period where you were able to find that rhythm, or was it more a case where you show up on set and had to immediately adjust for it?
Well, just reading it you know that’s what they’re going to do. … And I think there also might have been a little something between those two guys, you know? I don’t want to say they’re both kind of, I don’t know, I should probably…
You can say it!
Are they out-slowing each other?
So we’re talking about the actors then, not the characters—yes, I do think so.
Like who’s going to steal this scene. And then I’m in the background, slowly doing it myself.
Playing your character! And playing a real human being. This is part of the reason the movie depressed me. It generally seems to really dislike [its] people.
Well, I think zombie movies can’t help but seem kind of anti-people, since as soon as you have zombies you almost always have some kind of surface critique with them, these people are brainless which you can see because they’re mumbling for Wi-Fi, that kind of thing. The movie being a combination of that with, say, other elements like Tilda Swinton doing schtick with a samurai sword, left me feeling really empty. Because there’s so few characters with human depth. And that’s why I’m so curious about how you crafted that dynamic.
I think it’s just how [Minny] was written. And I think because I went in thinking she was underwritten, maybe I was bringing my own stuff to it? I don’t know. That’s kind of a mystery to me, how that happens—I wasn’t really conscious of it, to be honest. I was conscious of the fact—or like I said before, I was paranoid—I would literally cry after shooting thinking that I’m not even going to be on the screen.
If we’re talking about the way the character is often depicted passively, it seems worth noting that you do have the flattest introduction a film could possibly give to a primary character—what is it, you’re seen in profile drinking coffee in a small portion of a master shot? You’re very deliberately in the background. So was it about finding times where you could come into the forefront?
I guess so. When I had my singles, I felt like, Here I can try some stuff. When I was between [Driver and Murray], it was more difficult. Yeah, I don’t know. When I had the scene with Tilda, I felt she is playing a real character. I felt like they all had real characters and like I didn’t really have [a] character—but I’m going to have to confront her, and be as present as she is, and in a different way. I remember that moment.
On a semi-related subject I wanted to ask how you felt about the setting of this movie. When you’re looking at “Centerville”, what does it remind you of, and how did you reflect on it?
I wasn’t really reflecting on it, it just seemed like the stage. It was easier to make this story contained. I was like, what kind of town only has three police officers? It was more just the Jim Jarmusch-world, you know?
For me, hearing you talk about the nature of your character… and combine that with this movie taking place in a small-town where at least one character is conspicuously wearing a MAGA-esque baseball cap… I couldn’t help but wonder if these details were all connected under some kind of socially-minded subtext. But you just think it’s Jarmusch-land?
I think it’s Jarmusch-land, and I think it’s a way to have all the characters know each other, to have it very contained. Having a group that can commune with each other. We were shooting in this town, Fleischmanns, which is an orthodox community that has been—I don’t want to say forgotten, but—all the municipal buildings had been taken over by the church, so the infrastructure is kind of falling apart there. It was an interesting community to descend on with our zombie picture, as you can imagine. But there were a lot of people there in the community who were like huge Jim Jarmusch fans and were super excited and would come and watch every day.
So for you this wasn’t really a movie you were thinking about in terms of the present day? It was something more artificial, and outside time?
Yeah, and I think that’s why he shot [certain scenes] day-for-night. Not only for budget, and so we didn’t have to shoot at night, but to have more artificiality.
On a different note, I’ve recently seen two of the three short films you’ve written and directed [the third just premiered at Cannes]. You’ve spoken with great insight over the years about performing for writer/directors in a general sense. Reading interviews with you from different periods I found it so interesting—and of course totally understandable—how your feelings on it seem to pivot back and forth with time. Now that you’ve been in that role yourself, not just once but a few times, what are your thoughts on that dynamic?
Well the pomposity around it is very hard for me to deal with. I don’t want to name names, because it will be really ugly, but I sometimes have a hard time even listening to people talk about their work. Just because of the ego. And I need to figure out how to find the love again. Other directors I love hearing them talk about their work, the way they talk about their work. But I struggle with that. I have to try and find the love for film again. Sometimes I lose that, and I’m not even really that interested in watching movies—and that is terrifying to me.
The television wave I’ve been riding also colors that. Now having done it [write/direct] myself… I think Franco said it really well, that the more he does his own stuff, the easier he finds it to give himself over to others. That’s been true for me as well. Even doing the Rizzoli book, with images of myself: Just having that out there in the world—this is me, this is how I want to be represented, this is a true expression of myself—makes it easier to then have photos taken of me, or whatever it is.
Looking through your credits I was almost surprised to find you’d worked as a costume designer just the one time, on Gummo. Obviously you’ve worked as a fashion designer regularly in the years since. Was there any reason you didn’t pursue it more within the movies?
Someone asked me years ago to maybe do this sci-fi film with them, and I don’t know why but it never came to fruition. Nobody really asked me again. And the acting thing took over. I love costume design, and I wouldn’t be opposed to doing it again, but I’m more interested in directing.
Any thoughts on Minny’s costume?
No… it’s not so flattering, but that’s okay. I don’t really have so many thoughts on it. Except when I walked away I was like this is really unflattering on my behind. But that’s okay. I don’t have to be sexy all the time.
I regret that before this interview I wasn’t able to see the two films you’ve made with the writer/director M. Blash, Lying (2006) and The Wait (2013). He’s also credited on both of your short films that I saw. Given that, he seems like a fairly significant artistic collaborator for you—what is your work together like?
M is a good friend of mine. I actually think my performance in Lying is probably one of the best performances in my career. In the same way I thought I was really good in Alex Ross Perry’s Golden Exits (2018)—I feel like [those performances] were very quiet, and very internal. Those boys allow me to do that. I think that I have a comfort around those boys where a confidence comes out. Where I think with Jim I get intimidated by the situation. Or I remember with Fincher—I mean obviously everybody does, but—in that environment I got really intimidated, and really frightened. Then I see my performances change, and I’m not as comfortable. I was saying last night that I hate improv—I would hate to try and improv between Bill and Adam. But on M’s movie, I was very comfortable doing improv, because… I don’t know. I just know he really loves me. And even if Jim loves me, I know he doesn’t love me in the way that M loves me. He’s actually my friend, day in and day out.
Alex and M both give me really great notes, I think I thank them on all of my shorts. I always send the films to them and they come back with very specific notes, with timing, at 8 minutes and 56 seconds this happens, and you should think about this, and what does this mean? M is a very close dear friend of mine. We actually even talked about having a baby together. He’s gay. That kind of friend.
Alex was my clerk at Kim’s [Video]. Alex and [cinematographer] Sean Price Williams. All of my friends were broke, still are, and so they’d all be under my name at Kim’s. So I’d come in and they’d be like you know Spencer—Spencer Sweeney, the painter—you know Spencer still has that TV Party thing out. And I’d be like fuck, really? But I always had a crush on Sean Price Williams. And so I’d kind of measure out where the line was, so that he would help me. I think he’s a great DP, the work he’s doing now…
He might be the most exciting film photographer, right?
I went to the set [of Perry’s 2019 film Her Smell], before they were shooting, just to see, and hang out with those guys.
Related to all this—M. Blash, Alex Ross Perry, Sean Price Williams—is a question I wanted to ask. You’ve been involved with the American independent cinema now for a significant percentage of the amount of time that an American independent cinema has existed.
Alex likes to say that he thinks The Brown Bunny was the last true American independent film.
What does that make Golden Exits?! Or Listen Up Philip (2014)?
I know! … He’s very self-deprecating.
The question would be how do you feel about the scale of American independent cinema now? I don’t want to talk about it in terms of better or worse, nor in terms of a “scene”, because those are false concepts to begin with I think. But I also think we can talk about the scale of it, how that’s changed, and how you feel about that as someone who’s been performing in these kinds of movies for a long period of time.
That Alex can make a feature for about the same amount I made a short film on is, you know, admirable. That he does them on a shoestring—and that these kids are so impassioned that they can somehow figure it out. But it seems to me that like they all say there’s no in-between now, like there was in the 90s. Now it’s either micro-budget or $10 million [plus]. But that doesn’t really affect me so much. Maybe it affects the trailers—I don’t need a trailer. I don’t want to be in the trailer. Who wants to be in the trailer? Why waste all that money on those trailers? That’s frustrating.
I read that you’ve been listening to the podcast “You Must Remember This” lately, which I adore.
I do, yeah. I love Karina [Longworth], and I loved her book too [Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’ Hollywood].
The podcast as you know often deals with specific periods in the lives of film-industry professionals via multi-episode miniseries. Hypothetically speaking let’s say there was someday to be such a miniseries on a period in the career of Chloë Sevigny…
…what period of your career would you like it to be about?
My god… I guess it would have to be the 90s.
Aren’t you tired of talking about the 90s?
Yes, I’m so… I could not care less.
For the sake of this hypothetical, you have the power! You can pick anything.
I just feel like [the 90s] were when a lot of movies that were important came out one after the other, Kids, Gummo, Boys Don’t Cry, all that. But just to the present day, I don’t know! Maybe my career will kick up now.
Transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.
THE DEAD DON’T DIE. RATED R. NOW PLAYING AT VARIOUS BOSTON-AREA THEATERS.