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Interview: Chloë Sevigny Talks Lean on Pete, Indie Career, and More

Sevigny discusses her early work and navigating the male-dominated world of her profession.




Interview: Chloë Sevigny Talks Lean on Pete, Indie Career, and More
Photo: A24

When she was 19, after making her screen debut in Larry Clark’s Kids, Chloë Sevigny was heralded, thanks in no small part to The New Yorker’s Jay McInerney, as the coolest girl in the world. Then, a few years and one Oscar nomination later she was being dubbed the queen of all indies. From a distance, Sevigny’s career may seem like a real rollercoaster of incarnations, but the no-nonsense actress insists—in her signature deep, low voice—on having had a very clear view of what she wanted to achieve in her professional life, and from a very early stage.

Case in point: a particular meeting with Andrew Haigh during the casting of his new film, Lean on Pete, an adaptation of the Willy Vlautin novel. Sevigny was brought in to discuss the part of Charlie Plummer’s aunt in the film, but the actress insisted, kindly of course, that the role of Bonnie, a fearless jockey who works for the horse trainer played by Steve Buscemi, might be the one best suited to her talents. And judging from her beautifully calibrated performance, it’s easy to appreciate how Sevigny took that initiative.

At least year’s Toronto International Film Festival, I sat down with Sevigny to discuss Lean on Pete, working with horses, her early indie success, and navigating the male-dominated world of her profession.

I’m fascinated that you initially came in for the part of the aunt.

Yeah, I came in to talk about that role. But when I got there, I just thought that Bonnie was the meatier, more intriguing part. And I asked Andrew Haigh if he would kindly consider having me play her. I think I connected to the story, to the characters, the script quite early on. It was a matter of instinct to me. Andrew paints portraits of people on screen. In Lean on Pete, there’s this boy on an adventure and there doesn’t need to be any consequence in it. Also this seemed like the kind of film I’d love to be in.

How has Bonnie changed from the time you received the screenplay to the final version of her that we see on screen?

She hasn’t changed much. She also doesn’t differ too much from how she’s portrayed in the book. It’s a rather small but meaningful part. Coming from a tough background, which includes drug abuse, Bonnie is very strong and well-grounded. I hope you see that on screen. In the book, all of that was developed across pages and pages of text, and we had to cut a lot of that material because it’s not her story, but the boy’s. She was expertly navigating this male-dominated field, with humor, but also both feet firmly on the ground. All those trajectories were discussed at length with Andrew and the rest of the cast, but we didn’t change her that much in the end.

How was it like to work with Charlie Plummer, who seems like he has an incredibly bright future ahead of him?

Charlie is such a sweet angel. He’s very sensitive and very talented. His mother and grandmother were with him on set and you just know that he comes from a good family. He was always very careful, conscious, responsible, and reasonable. He’s got his head firm on his shoulders and knows what he’s doing. He’s not some obnoxious child star, and he’s actually very much like the character he plays in Lean on Pete.

And how was it like to work with Steve Buscemi again after so many years?

It’s been 20 years since we did Trees Lounge, which he also directed, and it’s been a long Journey. I actually think that that experience made me a professional actress. A lot has changed, but at the same time we’re still here, still working, and doing a lot of independent stuff. We’ve also remained friends over the years. I really enjoyed that familiarity of having him around.

You’ve worked with many directors throughout your career, so I’m curious about Haigh’s particular approach and you responded to it.

Andrew isn’t very vocal. He’s rather hands-on, always present, always there on the spot. He directs instinctively and is very precise in what he wants to achieve. I think I’ve been lucky with the directors I’ve worked with over the years. I like it when they give you insight into a scene, and when they can immediately tell if you’re struggling with something and help you find a way in. Help and inspiration is what I’m usually looking for in any collaboration.

There’s a profound relationship in the film between the settings and the characters. How did it feel to be within those locations?

We shot in the exact same locations where the book takes place, in and around the Portland Meadows. They’re full of local people, horses, jockeys, and trainers in close proximity. They were all very open and enthusiastic about the film because it’s their world. They were generous with their time and their stories. Being around them helped us very early on, because to me and the rest of the cast it was all at first very foreign. We were thrown into the world of farming and horse training and needed to find our own way in.

You didn’t do any horseracing in the film, but you did have to work around horses. Was that some kind of a first for you?

Well, you know what they say, working with animals and children on set can prove to be the most challenging! And that’s funny and oddly true! [laughs] I’ve never actually ridden a horse for work. I think I did a little horseback riding when I was on holidays a long time ago. To prepare for this, which wasn’t easy, I did a lot of training. To be around a horse is challenging enough and then to tend to the animal and to race—well, that’s a completely different story. Everyone was very respectful of the horses. You know, there are stories of animals being abused on sets of films and here everyone was very careful about their wellbeing, which feels like something I should mention.

Despite the fact that you all had a team of trainers and jockeys on set, did anything unexpected happen at any point?

A lot, of course. Whenever the horses got close to the track they were immediately agitated, and the actors had to learn techniques to calm them down. We were riding retired horses mostly, but I remember overhearing talk among the trainers about wanting to put me on one horse before they decided on another one because of potential risks.

Do you ever revisit the more quintessential films you’ve stared in, like Kids, Gummo, and Julien Donkey-Boy, for nostalgia’s sake or otherwise?

I do sometimes, yes. And I also think about the roles I didn’t take, parts that were waiting for me but didn’t take because I was doing something else. I regret not working with John Waters, Todd Haynes, or Claire Denis, for example, because I have great respect for their work. But I’ve been doing so many things since then, working in television, doing some theater, and doing parts in projects that aren’t so small.

Is there something in particular that you look for in a role, and is there a part that you see yourself chasing after?

I’m reading a lot of things all the time, and there’s a lot of material to develop. I’d love to do a film about Alla Nazimova, the Russian silent film star, but I doubt people would want to see it. [laughs] I’m of course thinking about myself as an actor, but I’ve also recently done some directing. I’ve made two shorts so far, a third is on its way, and that’s my main focus right now. I’m also trying to produce, and my first feature as a producer, Craig Macneill’s Lizzy, was nominated for a Sundance Grand Jury Prize this year. I have a lot of great, challenging things going on in my life right now and I hope to be doing much more. Going back to the past doesn’t interest me anymore. Apart from that, I just want to spend some more time with my friends and family.

Are you aware that people still refer to you as queen of indie cinema?

I’ll take queen of anything. [laughs] But really, they still do? I’d think they’d already switched to someone else by now. I haven’t given it much thought over the years. Generally, such labels don’t affect my sense of self, as I was always very conscious of what I wanted to achieve in my career. I mean, there were a lot of independent films being made in the ‘90s, and it was a huge part of my professional life. You got to know a lot of people in the business then. Many of them continue to do independent cinema, while some moved into the mainstream. Now that I think of it, I just seem to be enjoying being a part of someone else’s career. I love working with directors, writers-directors, auteurs who move from one thing to the other. I love watching their progress, shifts of interests. That’s just fascinating. And I find that much more appealing than being called an icon, a queen, or the “it” girl.

Do you feel that there’s a change in the way female actresses are perceived these days? How do you see yourself in the whole discussion?

There’s a lot of enthusiasm and recognition now as far as numbers are concerned. Women finally have platforms where we can take part in the discussion and raise awareness. But still, the most important thing to deal with is that women need to be hired, get into positions of power, as department heads for instance. That’s the sort of grassroots work I want to be involved in. I’m always trying to surround myself with women, whenever possible, and to encourage others to do the same. But you know, sometimes you can also do a lot to one individual person just by talking to them, trying to understand where they’re coming from and helping them to find their own solutions. At film festivals around the world, I speak to a lot of talented young directors who are looking for ways to show their work. And I try to help them if I can, even if it’s just passing introducing them to someone. Sometimes that’s too little, but sometimes it’s just enough. I think it’s important to be part of such a community-building group devoted to helping people out.

Is Christine Vachon a part of that support group?

Sure she is, always! I’ve looked at everything Christine does with much admiration. We’ve worked together five or six times. I did my first film with her. She’s like a template of a wonderful producer, and I always feel her presence in my life and my career. She’s a true inspiration.

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