Chloë Sevigny Has a Message for the People Leaving New York City During the Pandemic
The actress opens up to Marlow Stern about her new HBO series “We Are Who We Are,” premiering Sept. 14, and the state of the city she loves the most.
Chloë Sevigny is very apologetic. Her babysitter arrived late, forcing her to push our interview back 15 minutes. “She’s a 26-year-old in Bed-Stuy so, you know…” she says by way of explanation.
It is understandable, of course, given that on May 2, as the COVID-19 pandemic was claiming the lives of hundreds of New Yorkers a day, Sevigny gave birth to a baby boy in a New York City hospital—and at 45 years old, no less.
She’s gone from the short-haired “It Girl” raving the night away to the mom in Warby Parkers and designer duds pushing her stroller through the streets of Manhattan, and seems more than happy with the evolution.
“I’m not going to be doing what I was doing then, and I did it well when I did it, so it’s never going to be what it was and I’m happy we’re moving on to something else,” she tells me.
In the 25 years since her splashy debut in 1995’s Kids, Sevigny has stuck to her artistic guns, opting for auteur-driven arthouse fare like The Last Days of Disco, Boys Don’t Cry and American Psycho over films like Legally Blonde, which she famously turned down. Her latest project, the HBO series We Are Who We Are, is no exception. Helmed by Luca Guadagnino (Call Me by Your Name), the limited series centers on Fraser (Jack Dylan Grazer), a hormonal 14-year-old American boy coming of age on an Army base in Italy. Sevigny plays Sarah, the mother who, along with her partner Maggie (Alice Braga), juggles managing her son’s erratic behavior and her job as an Army colonel. And she’s excellent, her trademark naturalism blending in seamlessly with the vérité proceedings.
The Daily Beast spoke to Sevigny about the show and New York City’s new look.
I’m sure this is something you get asked a lot but how have you been passing the time during the pandemic?
So... I had a baby. After the hospital—he was born May 2nd—we quarantined for a couple weeks in our apartment and then spent some time in Connecticut with my mom, because she’s older, we didn’t want her going back and forth, and we wanted her to spend some time with the baby. So, in all honesty, we kind of went back and forth to where I grew up in Fairfield County.
How is your mom doing? She must be happy to be a grandmother to your baby.
She’s good! My brother lives there and he has two kids. In the beginning, she wasn’t really seeing them so much because we were all hyper-concerned about, you know, everything. And now that everyone’s loosened up a little, she’s better. And yes, she’s thrilled. She can probably manipulate me and my child more than my brother and his children, if you know what I mean. [Laughs] Mothers, daughters—there’s a different sort of dialogue.
Geez though, you delivered a child on May 2nd. Things were still quite bad then in New York City with COVID.
Luckily, the day before they retracted one of the rules they put into place and the father of my child and our doula lady were allowed to come, so I was able to have all the support that I wanted and needed there with me. I felt really lucky that we just skirted around that, because I know someone who had children more at the height of it when they weren’t allowed partners.
It’ll be quite the story to tell your son one day.
Yes. Born under a bad sign. I’ve seen these T-shirts online saying, “COVID Ruined My Birthday.” I need to get him one of those!
I know a lot of women in their thirties who are a bit anxious about their ability to have kids, and you had a child at 45. How smoothly did that process go?
Umm… I’ve had ups and downs with that in the past, where I had more difficulty trying [to get pregnant], and I even tried to harvest eggs and I wasn’t producing enough, so I’ve had a really rough road as far as trying and not being able to. But this was a happy accident. I think for me, one of the more difficult parts was the testing in the beginning, and if something had been wrong with him, that sort of decision-making and wrapping your head around that, because it’s more high-risk. So after the amnio, when they do all the genetic testing, that was a very tense couple of weeks waiting for all those results.
I’m so glad everything went well. And now you have a little companion to navigate this scaled-down New York City with.
It does seem like the various reports of New York City’s death are greatly exaggerated, no?
Yes. I’m west of SoHo, so I’ve seen some storefronts closing, and the outdoor restaurant scene seems to be bustling—at least to the fullest extent that it can—but I’m really concerned for all the mom-and-pop stores. The bigger places that mostly sell online, I’m like… do we need another Dunkin’ Donuts on Sixth Avenue? Maybe not? Is that bad to say?
Nah, I agree. There are all these essays and tweets about how New York City is dead and will never be the same, and I’m just like… you do know 9/11 happened here and the city recovered.
I think all those people can just leave. For me, that’s fine. I know we want the economy to keep doing well but as a tried-and-true New Yorker, I’m fine for those people to go. What’s hitting home for me the hardest is my brother owns two nightclubs, Paul’s Casablanca and Paul’s Baby Grand, and those have been closed and are his only sources of income, so hearing his anxiety around that, and having to let his employees go and his financial situation—hearing his agony around that has been hard.
I will say, I frequent all the parks—when I’m not working, one of my favorite pastimes is sitting around and people-watching in parks, and now with the baby even more so—and it’s getting pretty wild out there. Washington Square is usually pretty staid and collegiate while Tompkins is the wild park but it’s pretty wild in Washington Square right now. The people shooting up everywhere, I hate to play that up but it’s pretty prevalent.
It does seem to be an economic thing, with a lot of people out of work and struggling right now.
Yeah, it does.
You’re a fashion icon and social butterfly. Do you feel a void not being able to dress up and go to events, because that seemed to be a source of joy for you, and how have you been able to fill it?
I’ve gone to some little “events.” There have been some downtown art events in parks, and I love seeing the girls and their looks. Even the Met Ball, seeing the girls in their dresses and the garments in person is always one of my favorite parts. I’ve been slowly going out a little to the outdoor dining. Last night, we had dinner with a friend of ours and it’s only been a handful of times that I’ve done that, so I’m just dipping my toe in. I feel for the staff. Is it safe for them? I don’t know. We were just doing the delivery or the takeout because we thought that was the best way we could support. But do I miss it? Not right now, because I’m really overweight! I’m like 30 pounds more than I normally am, so trying to dress up… I saw the Venice Film Festival is happening and I can’t imagine, after just having a baby, having to leave him to go somewhere and/or bring him, and managing all that.
I am dying to go on a proper vacation although I’ve been seeing people getting pretty irresponsible on Instagram, just jetsetting and partying like we’re not in the midst of a global pandemic right now.
Yeah, I’ve heard of parties where it’s “no photos and no gramming” so nobody gets in trouble. For us, the hardest part is my boyfriend’s parents live in Australia so they haven’t been able to come to see the baby and we haven’t been able to go there. That’s rough for them.
You filmed We Are Who We Are in Italy—and during your first trimester—right?
In the north of Italy near Vicenza, and I went initially for fitting and to do some training and I was not pregnant, and I left for a month and came back and I was pregnant. The first month was all Aperol Spritzes and these crazy gin and tonics that they drink with rosemary and juniper berries in it, and when I came back, I was not smoking and not drinking. I was like… how obvious is this for everybody? I told them, “I’m trying to quit smoking and I can’t drink and not smoke.” That was the line that I used. It was hard with the costumes that got tighter, that kind of thing. It was a lonely time to go through that and not really tell people, because you don’t know what’s going to happen, and because we were all staying in different locations around the set there just wasn’t the proximity. Alice and I became quite close but we couldn’t hang out after work because we were living 45 minutes away from each other. It wasn’t conducive to that kind of hanging out, so that was tough.
It’s a fascinating relationship between you and your son in the series—a rather Oedipal one. There’s a sequence where he’s sucking blood out of your finger after you cut yourself, and when he catches a glimpse of you in the nude and trains on you a bit.
Very complicated! [Laughs] I think he’s also at that age, from boy to teen, which is a strange transition, so often she’s kind of babying him and wanting to hold on to that relationship—which I think happens? I guess I’ll find out in 12 years! But that’s how I was playing it. She can’t help but spoil him and he’s an only child—which also plays into it, as well as guilt about the father not being there. There’s a bunch of different things I was playing with.
There’s a quite jarring scene where he slaps you out of nowhere while you’re carving meat. That slap looked very real. Was it?
It was. He was pretty wild, Jack. He’s unpredictable and that’s super fun to act with, and Luca loves that sort of realism, so I’m sure he told him to slap me. There were a couple of real slaps. We didn’t do too many takes but… yeah. It was a real slap.
We Are Who We Are does do a fine job of capturing how adrift you feel as a teen. Did it conjure any Proustian flashbacks to your own teenage years?
I guess so! I grew up in a community where I felt very trapped. I was bouncing off the walls and really in search of other stimuli, so I could see a lot of that in the Fraser character. I just wanted to be in New York too! But luckily it was only 45 minutes away, so it was easier for me to access. But then we didn’t have the internet or Instagram or any of that. It was running to the magazine store and waiting for the newest issue to drop.
What’s the thing that makes you feel the most disconnected from the youth of today? For me it’s probably TikTok.
I don’t know if it’s a specific thing. Maybe there’s a paranoia where I feel that because now I’m an adult, and even going to dinner with all the kids on set, I think, “They don’t want to talk to me.” You know? I’m an adult to them!
They don’t want to talk to Chloë Sevigny? I don’t believe it.
[Laughs] I don’t think so! Or I’ll walk through Washington Square with the kid in the stroller and I’ll see the kids looking at me, and I think, “I wonder if they know I was in that movie that takes place in this park.” And one of them slams on a skateboard next to the carriage when the kid is sleeping and I think, “Damn! I wish he hadn’t done that. He just landed that trick and now the kid is going to wake up!”
That was a pretty ugly beatdown in the park in that movie. How nostalgic are you for ‘90s New York City?
You know, I lived it. I don’t know if I’m nostalgic for that. Maybe the sense of freedom there was then, and the sense of lawlessness a little bit—although I don’t necessarily want that back, but it fit my age then. I’m not going to be doing what I was doing then, and I did it well when I did it, so it’s never going to be what it was and I’m happy we’re moving on to something else.
I’m a little jealous because I’m a bit younger and missed out on things like Limelight.
I will say, I wish there was a Limelight or big nightclub, because there would be older, interesting people and then young underage people. It would run the gamut. My brother tried to do that. He had this club, The Beatrice Inn, and there would be a whole age range there of older people just chatting and then younger people bouncing off the walls. I wish there was a place where there was more of a mix. Because I’m not going to go to, like, Tao or anything. If there was still an edgy place—like a goth night—I would still go to that at 45. [Laughs] We go to The Pyramid and you almost feel like you’re at a nightclub in Ohio. But it’s very sparsely populated and not a big, booming club.
You mentioned Kids and I remember seeing that at like 13 with my friends. And it turned 25 this year. How do you feel about the film now?
At the 20-year anniversary there was a screening at BAM, and I was pretty shocked, I have to say. I was like, “Wow. This movie is crazy.” I wish there had been a stronger female element.
It’s weird, because in some ways it’s subversive and in others it’s quite conservative. Its idea of sex is pretty conservative. Although it does show you how terrible teenage boys can be.
Yeah, it really does.
And it’s the 20th anniversary of American Psycho.
Which I tried to watch the other night, and which was also really shocking—the stuff with the prostitutes. We didn’t finish it. When he’s like, “We’re not finished yet,” and then they stumble out all injured, and then they come back again. I didn’t like the violence towards women. That’s very hard for me to swallow.
That was supposed to be Leonardo DiCaprio starring instead of Christian Bale, right? That would have been a very different movie.
It was, yeah. That would have been very controversial for DiCaprio. He doesn’t ever do anything that controversial. I think he’s… a great movie star, you know? [Laughs]
There was a very funny article in The Cut the other day about Leo’s hotness in movies, and about how he’s really been fighting the hot in movies since his Romeo + Juliet and Titanic heyday.
Right. But he also turned into a man, and his face changed. He was that beautiful boy.
It’s weird that he’s never worked with a female director or a first-time director. You’d think you would want a different perspective. And many filmmakers have made one of their best films the first time out.
Yeah. For me, most certainly some of my best ones have been with first-timers. Larry [Clark], Kimberly Pierce, Harmony [Korine]. And I also tried—on several occasions. Often I’ve failed!
Yeah, you’ve helmed a few shorts so is feature directing something you want to pursue?
It is. I’m just still trying to find the right story. I felt like I had something, and then Trump was elected, so it didn’t seem like it was as relevant or right to make. I’m trying to think of something else.
As a New Yorker, I was always aware of Trump but almost as this comic-book villain—the big, fat guy in an apartment in the sky in a boxy suit.
I sat next to him and Melania at a Cirque du Soleil function where they had all these celebrities come out, so I took some friends for a fun New York night out. Melania asked my friend where she got the popcorn, and my friend pointed, and I said, “Why don’t you tell her you’ll give her the popcorn for a hundred bucks?” [Laughs] She was broke at the time.
He was almost a foil to your crew in the ‘90s. You guys were out clubbing and dressing wild and he was the tacky real-estate douchebag erecting these gold-building eyesores.
Very nouveau riche. I honestly didn’t think about him very much, in all honesty. He was like this funny New York character. A real estate mogul who you just assume is crooked.
And you supported Bernie in 2016 and 2020.
Yes. And Liz [Warren] before Bernie in ’16, when they were trying to pressure Liz to run. Run Liz Run! I went to some events when they were trying to rally her. But this last go-round I really felt for Elizabeth Warren.
It seems like they went for the “safe” choice. Are you worried about the 2020 election?
I’m super worried. I think we have to get everybody to rally behind Biden and Kamala, even if they are the safe choice. Any of the little swing voters that are left, I don’t know if they want to keep hearing all this rhetoric from the left. I have all these friends who are like, “This fascist! Yada yada yada.” Should they tone it down? They don’t think we should. It feels like you’re bombarded now from both sides and there’s no calm.
It can seem overdone at times. I try to watch Rachel Maddow now and again but it’s sort of the same thing every night—“this clown-fascist-criminal.” But what can you do, I suppose.
I prefer Chris Hayes, who goes on before her. And I like John Oliver but even he’s getting a bit heavy-handed.
I’ve followed your career since Kids and admire how you’ve stuck to your artistic guns. Not a lot of people do that.
Thank you. I’m surprised I still have a career and that I’m still getting work! [Laughs] I remember all these actresses in the ‘90s and I was so envious they were getting all this work, and now I’m like, “Thank God I’m still around and making a living at this!” What would my pivot be if I had to make a living doing something else?
I remember all the pearl-clutching over The Brown Bunny. American audiences are so weird when it comes to sex.
Unless it’s two girls—then people love it.
I was having a discussion with a friend and we were trying to think of the last sexy American movie we saw and it was really hard to come up with a recent one. It’s sad. And it feels like it’s almost gotten more conservative in Hollywood when it comes to sex.
Yeah, it’s true. Call Me by Your Name was sexy but I guess that was Italian so it doesn’t count? I’d have to think on that! I don’t even know if there’s very many romance movies. Where’s Adrian Lyne now? What movies is he making? No movies. Where’s the next one like him? Are there any indie-sexy teen things?
It seems like TV is the place for that now with shows like Euphoria and We Are Who We Are. Just to bring it back to New York City, have you considered leaving during all this?
No! I’m never leaving.