Chloë Sevigny had her doubts about the haircut.
It was summer 2019, pre-pandemic, and several months before so many personal grooming routines were sacrificed for the global good. But director Luca Guadagnino was insistent.
The Oscar-nominated filmmaker had cast her as U.S. Army Colonel Sarah Wilson in the HBO limited series We Are Who We Are, his first project for television. And he wanted Sevigny to chop off her long blonde hair.
Wilson is lesbian, and the actress worried that the military-issue wedge cut might descend into cliché. It turned out Guadagnino (Call Me by Your Name, Suspiria), who's known for his distinctive visual style and subtle character cues, had a hair muse.
"My reference was the hairdo of the great American philosopher Judith Butler," he explains. "It's a specific haircut for me that speaks of Sarah as a woman who comes from an affluent family, but she has put her back to the family. She chose her military life, but she's very elevated and cultivated.
"So, the hairdo for me is less the cliché of a lesbian woman and more the embodiment of a certain allure — of being part of a certain world even if she doesn't want to belong to that world."
It wasn't just the hair. After some 80 roles over more than two decades, Sevigny found the part a departure.
"It was so challenging," she says, during her first interview since giving birth to her son, Vanja. "It was challenging physically. And to own that kind of very specific language. I thought, 'I don't know if I'm going to be able to do this!'"
And the hair?
"I did it for Luca. He was obsessed with Judith Butler," she says with a laugh, adding, "I thought it would give me an air of confidence in a way, it would just make me look a little stronger, tougher. Without the long, flowy locks, I would inhabit the part in a different way."
Guadagnino's post-genderism coming-of-age story takes place in early 2016. Sevigny, who was in her first trimester when production began, plays the incoming commander of a U.S. Army base in northern Italy.
She arrives with her wife — an Army medic named Maggie (Alice Braga, Queen of the South) — and teen son Fraser Jack Dylan Grazer, Me, Myself & I).
The central storyline of the eight-part series is the relationship between Fraser and Caitlin Poythress (newcomer Jordan Kristine Seamón), the daughter of an African-American enlisted officer and a Nigerian mother, as they grapple with identity and the stifling insularity of life on a military base.
As viewers will see when the HBO-Sky coproduction debuts September 14, Sevigny plays her part with restraint and irony, evincing a wry awareness of the stubborn prejudices among the men in her command.
(Attendees of the 2020 Cannes Film Festival, scheduled for May, were to have had the first look — We Are Who We Are was chosen as an official selection of the Directors' Fortnight; the festival was postponed due to the pandemic.)
"It's always important that the partner I choose to paint these characters be someone with a very strong intelligence and intuitiveness," says Guadagnino, whose credits on the series include showrunner, executive producer, writer and director.
"When I thought of Sarah, I thought of someone with that capacity for irony and cunning and understanding of humanity that you can see in every one of Chloë's performances."
Sevigny's oeuvre is impressively — almost improbably — eclectic. She has convincingly inhabited characters as diverse as the naïve secretary in Mary Harron's American Psycho and the avaricious sister-wife in HBO's Mormon drama Big Love.
She veers from understated character work (Boys Don't Cry, Zodiac) to high camp (Ryan Murphy's American Horror Story anthology and Afterbirth, opposite her real-life best friend Natasha Lyonne). More recently she has revealed a talent for droll comedy in a series of guest-starring roles (The Mindy Project, Portlandia, Louie).
"She always gets the character right away," says Jim Jarmusch, who has cast Sevigny in three films (Ten Minutes Older, Broken Flowers and The Dead Don't Die). "She's incredibly adaptable to ideas. And because she's so smart, she understands the range of the character that we're collaborating on."
Sevigny made her feature debut as an HIV-positive waif adrift in the downtown Manhattan skater scene in the iconic 1995 film Kids, which was written by Harmony Korine, her boyfriend at the time, and directed by Larry Clark.
Unspooling over one night in New York City, the film used nonprofessional actors and earned a scandalous NC-17 rating for its frank depictions of casual sex. It also established the 19-year-old Sevigny as the It Girl of independent film.
"I still have people stop me on the street and tell me, 'That movie had such an impact on me,' or 'That's why I moved to New York,'" she says. "It still resonates. It just has some real legs."
By the time Kids was released, she was already a fixture on the New York City youth-culture scene.
A Sassy editor had spotted Sevigny — a willowy five-foot-eight with a unique sense of style that could be described as preppy with top notes of grunge — in Washington Square Park and put her in a fashion spread. She would become Sassy's most famous intern, even receiving fan mail at the magazine.
She popularized thrift-shop chic, once wearing a little girl's shiny Cinderella Halloween costume during an interview with Jay McInerney, who was shadowing her for a 1994 New Yorker profile.
Throughout her career, she has been the face of fashion brands including Chloé, Miu Miu, Louis Vuitton, Vivienne Westwood and Lacoste, and she designed collections for Imitation of Christ and Opening Ceremony.
Last year Sevigny debuted her own fragrance, Little Flower, with Los Angeles– based perfumery Régime des Fleurs.
She remains a sought-after model for photographers (though as a teenager, she once blew off a shoot with Steven Meisel for Italian Vogue). Last year she caused a commotion on Instagram with pictures of herself from Marfa Journal featuring a cooked lobster splayed across her crotch.
A favorite of independent filmmakers, Sevigny has created a string of memorable characters — some in supporting roles with limited screen time — in such films as Whit Stillman's The Last Days of Disco, Lars von Trier's Dogville and Manderlay, David Fincher's Zodiac and Melina Matsoukas' Queen & Slim.
"She likes her life to be interesting. She likes interesting friends. Being mainstream or getting the biggest roles, it's not what she's interested in," notes Jarmusch, who has known Sevigny for more than 20 years.
"She's not against it. Her interests just don't lead her down that path. They guide her to more artistic things. And yet, she has a huge range of films she's been in. But — how should I say this? — she's not an aggressive player."
Sevigny may regret that her career has not included more of those above-the-line roles. "I've always been attracted to filmmakers," she says. "I've never gone after the part. And maybe my career has suffered because I haven't had that many larger, juicier parts to sink my teeth into, unfortunately."
In the post–#MeToo reckoning, she is often asked to reevaluate her experiences with certain male directors, especially Louis C.K. and Woody Allen.
"They were just filmmakers that I really admired. I don't know if I was tough or insensitive…." she trails off. "I don't know. It's very tricky to talk about without putting your foot in your mouth," she says with a laugh.
"I will make the blanket statement that the men for sure got away with a lot more. If they showed intense behavior, they were geniuses. And women, when they showed intensity, they were hysterical. And I think that still holds true.
"Early in my career," she continues, "I don't think that I could own where I was. I don't think I had that confidence ever. Maybe it was just my personality or maybe I was scared of these icons I was working with and how powerful they were. And I'm sure they wanted me to bring more. But I was intimidated."
She deftly steers the conversation toward a woman with whom she's collaborated. "I felt so heard — I hate to use that word — with Kimberly Peirce on Boys Don't Cry. I had a great part and I think it really translates to the screen. That is some of my greatest acting.
"On Big Love with [creators] Mark [Olsen] and Will [Scheffer], I felt like they really loved me and gave me the room to try stuff. And when I had those opportunities, I felt like I could really soar. " She laughs at her word choice.
Speaking by phone in her lower Manhattan apartment, Sevigny laughs easily, despite — or perhaps because of — the fatigue of being a new parent. "It's all new," she says. "We're charmed, of course, to no end with our baby."
But she allows that time management has been a challenge. "It will be seven o'clock and I'm like, 'What happened to the day? I haven't even bathed. I haven't bathed him.' I have always been good at managing a lot. But I don't know what happened. That aspect of my personality is gone."
She wasn't preoccupied with having a child as her 40s crept up on her. Pregnancy, she says, was a "happy accident" for her and boyfriend Sinisa Mackovic, a Serbian émigré and the director of Karma Art Gallery (on the Lower East Side and the Hamptons). But there may have been some self-justification for her heretofore childless status.
"I told my mom, 'I don't have enough patience to have a kid.' And she was like, 'Don't worry, that will come when you get one.'" ...
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This article originally appeared in its entirety in emmy magazine, Issue No. 8, 2020