Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete follows a boy (Charlie Plummer) and a racehorse from Portland, Oregon, to the desert, the increasingly desolate landscape reflecting the boy’s loneliness and his futile quest for home.
A brutally sad story told largely through wide-open space and silence, Lean on Pete gets a bit of color from its supporting cast, including Steve Buscemi and Chloë Sevigny. Sevigny plays Bonnie, a female jockey who’s struggling against the misogyny of the racing world and the physical pain she has to endure for a living. A deviation from many of the solemn characters who populate Leon on Pete, Bonnie is joyful and kind, and her excitement and empathy offer a brief respite for both the protagonist and the audience as the film takes an even darker turn.
While snowed in in NYC, Sevigny told me that the novel of the same name that Lean on Pete is based on is actually “a lot more brutal.” “He goes into different foster homes, there is more abuse. So I actually think the film is a much lighter version, it is almost a Disneyfied version,” Sevigny laughed, with both of us agreeing that Disney wasn’t the first thing that came to mind when watching it. “I have seen the movie three times now, and I cried continuously all three times,” she admitted. “Even though I know the story and where it’s going, I’m still affected by it. I mean, I think it shows real strength in Andrew as a filmmaker and how immersive the film is and how touching it is.”
Sevigny described Bonnie as a “real salt of the earth character,” adding, “I don’t know if I’d played a character like that in a while. I just liked how grounded she was, how real she was, kind of this tough love thing she’s giving him.” Sevigny does see a lineage between Bonnie and other past roles, although she doesn’t quite understand why journalists always ask her for a “through line” to connect her characters. “There is a realness to her, perhaps,” she mused. “I think that there is strength in all of my characters. I don’t want to seem like a pushover you know, although it would be probably fun to play a pushover character.”
As you may have already guessed, given the presence of a seasoned jockey, Lean on Pete is heavy on Americana, cycling through easily recognizable scenes and motifs like the dive bar, the race track, the diner, and the soldier returning home from war. “Real Americana, real Trumpworld,” Sevigny agreed. “Also that underbelly of the racing world and what surrounds that—you know, gambling and addiction, and obviously the homeless youth. All of that, and him evading child services. In the book, they go into that even more.”
“When you’re in the Pacific Northwest, and out in those rural towns like where we shot the fairground stuff,” Sevigny continued, “at the fairgrounds, there are no extras, it’s just like that. He really captured that. There’s a real authenticity to it—the soldiers and the farmhouse, talking about their experiences in the war and playing video games. To me, it feels very real.”
For all of the movie’s efforts to situate itself out of place and time—there aren’t any pop culture or political figures referenced, and a cellphone appears just once in the entire film—the portrayal of poor, white, rural Americans can be read within a larger conversation about the onscreen representation of Trumpworld. “I could see that being a criticism of this film—that it is a whitewashed film,” Sevigny said. “But when you’re there, I mean all the female jockeys that I saw… You know, it feels like a real representation of where we are. You’re shooting all the real people. Those are the people that we saw in these communities. So I think it is a fair representation of this world.”
Part of Bonnie’s strength comes from her continued survival in an industry that’s proven itself entirely hostile. Early on in her character’s arc, Sevigny delivers a gloriously dispassionate account of the various physical injuries Bonnie has suffered as a jockey, as well as continuous sexual harassment from employers and creeps (and creepy employers). For a movie that feels so out of time, this speech is a very of-the-moment reminder of the misogyny that pervades any and all industries.
Asked about the violence that Bonnie appears to face on a daily basis, Sevigny explained that, “There is a lot more of that in the research material I did for the role. It is a world that is so male-dominated.” The woman who Bonnie was based on was “very matter-of-fact about it,” Sevigny recalled. “That’s just the world, that’s just the way she experienced it. Her mother had also been a jockey. It hardened her. She accepted it, that that was just the way it was. I think a lot of women do. Maybe not anymore!”
Sevigny linked Bonnie’s painful nonchalance to a recent episode of This American Life, “Five Women,” which tackled the sexual harassment and misconduct stories of several women who worked for the same man. “Those girls are so articulate and so self-aware. They were just like, yep, this is just what happens… It’s sad, just the conditioning. Just like with Bonnie—that’s just the norm.”
Suffice to say Sevigny, who’s been acting for over half of her life, isn’t surprised by the current wave of Me Too testimonials.
“I am not surprised by any of the allegations I’ve heard, at all, not a single one,” she emphasized. “I’m lucky that I haven’t experienced anything to such a degree that I have to speak out about it. I mean, yeah, there has been casual stuff my entire career—but that has kind of been across the board, not only at work. I’m just glad it’s all coming to the surface.”
“Time’s Up, Me Too, all that, yes,” she added, laughing. “Smash the patriarchy. Anything that gives more power to the people, I’m all for it.”
And she’s not kidding around. In a 2018 interview for Lizzie, the Lizzie Borden biopic that Sevigny starred in and produced, she described it as her vision of a “rousing, smash-the-patriarchy piece.”
So what does smashing the patriarchy mean to Chloë Sevigny? “I think it’s however you can do it in your own life,” she offered. “Putting more women in positions of power! Like my friend, Natasha Lyonne, she’s doing a show for Netflix right now with all female writers, all female producers and directors. Just trying to provide more opportunities for as many women as possible. I’ve met these young female filmmakers, and trying to connect them with female producers, and give them a foot in the door through a relationship with another woman who can mentor them, or hopefully hire them. It’s about getting women in positions of power that will really change things.” Sevigny teases that an upcoming project, her third short film, is “about a woman and her relationship to her power.”
Seizing power and affecting real change are more than just maxims for Sevigny—she’s personally tasked herself with creating the opportunities she hasn’t been offered. While Sevigny insisted that she isn’t a “careerist”—“I am more drawn to the directors than the actual parts, which is why I have mostly played small parts”—she continued, “I mean, I want bigger parts, which is part of the reason I produced the Lizzie Borden picture, because I wasn’t having the opportunity to play bigger parts. So I did that. I made the opportunity for myself. Gotta take matters into your own hands.”
“I didn’t get offered that many big parts in all honesty,” Sevigny continued. “They were usually for really tiny micro-budget films where I think that perhaps they think I would be game, or maybe I would help financially. The offers are not pouring in for the big ones. There are actresses that have been in certain films that fit certain financial… It’s all a numbers game. It is really frightening when you see all these spreadsheets. I was privy to them when I did the Lizzie Borden film. You see what money actors bring in from what country, and it’s pretty terrifying.”
Similarly, Sevigny says that she isn’t deliberately trying to move away from her style-icon image with this “salt of the earth” role—in fact, she’d love to play a “tragic glamour-girl role.”
“I don’t get offered those!” she exclaimed. “I did the series Hit & Miss in England, it’s on Netflix, where I played a transgender hitwoman. That was the most glamorous role I ever played, as far as I can recall. I would love to get like a bawdy, Mae West kind of part—sexy. That would be really fun. I don’t know if people are making those, or interested in me as that. What is the most glamorous film you’ve seen, other than a period piece? Maybe I’ll have to write my own.”
And while Sevigny has rejected her style It Girl reputation in the past, she joked that, “I’m sick of complaining about it.”
“It’s more like wanting to be recognized as an actress, not a style icon,” she says. “But I do make a good living off of my interest in fashion. It allows me to pick and choose different projects. Hopefully the films will last forever and fashion kind of falls by the wayside.”