Plenty Of 'Big Love' For HBO Star Chloe Sevigny Actress Chloe Sevigny is known for her fashion sense, but she doesn't mind wearing a prairie dress for her Golden Globe-winning role as a wife in a polygamous family on HBO's Big Love. Sevigny explains how she prepared to play second wife Nicki Grant — and remembers her other film roles.
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Plenty Of 'Big Love' For HBO Star Chloe Sevigny

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Plenty Of 'Big Love' For HBO Star Chloe Sevigny

Plenty Of 'Big Love' For HBO Star Chloe Sevigny

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TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The season finale of the HBO series "Big Love" is this Sunday. My guest, Chloe Sevigny, won a Golden Globe in January for her performance in the series.

Ms. CHLOE SEVIGNY (Actress): To everyone at Playtone and everyone at HBO, thank you. To Will and Mark, our creators, I can't even imagine what inspired you to cast me as a Mormon fundamentalist polygamist. I remain eternally confused and forever grateful. Thank you.

GROSS: Casting Sevigny was an inspired, but definitely a surprising choice for the role of a polygamist in a prairie dress who's cut off from much of the world. Until "Big Love," she was best known for her roles in "Kids," about skateboarders, and "Boys Don't Cry," in which she falls in love with a person who's transgendered.

In "Big Love," Sevigny plays Nikki, one of three wives in a polygamist family. Nikki grew up on a compound whose polygamist members consider themselves the true Mormons, even though the group is and never was affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Mormons abandoned polygamy over 100 years ago.

Nikki's father was considered the prophet of the compound. Not long after he was murdered, Nikki's mother was assigned to marry the man - or as they would put it, to be sealed to the man - who was Nikki's first husband, the man Nikki was forced to marry when she was about 14. In this scene, Nikki's daughter from that marriage, Cara Lynn, is visiting Nikki's mother at the compound when Nikki calls, outraged about the impending marriage. Nikki's mother is played by Mary Kay Place.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Big Love")

Ms. SEVIGNY: (As Nicolette Grant) How are things going?

Ms. MARY KAY PLACE (Actress): (As Adaleen Grant) We're having a fabulous time getting to know one another, and I've just been assigned my new marital bedroom.

Ms. SEVIGNY: (As Nikki) I asked you: Please do not discuss that with me.

Ms. PLACE: Fine. I'm just saying my new room adjoins Cara Lynn's. We share a toilet, just like sisters.

Ms. SEVIGNY: (As Nikki) Look, you are not sisters.

Ms. PLACE: (As Adaleen) I know that. We're painting fluffy clouds, and I've sewn us matching outfits.

Ms. SEVIGNY: (As Nikki) Please don't wear matching outfits.

Ms. PLACE: (As Adaleen) Well, she needs something. She's taken a bit to dressing like a whore. And after my sealing, I will be one of her mothers.

Ms. SEVIGNY: (As Nikki) Oh, no you won't. I am her mother. You are my mother. You are her grandmother. Don't push me.

Ms. PLACE: (As Adaleen) You need to find peace with my pending remarriage. I want your blessing.

Ms. SEVIGNY: (As Nikki) Mama, just please have her back on Sunday.

(Soundbite of beep, phone hanging up)

GROSS: Chloe Sevigny, welcome to FRESH AIR. I really enjoy your performance on "Big Love" so much. It must be so odd to play a character like Nikki because, you know, she lives - she grew up in the compound. She lives in a world where you share your husband with other wives. She has, like, two other women she shares her husband with. What did you have to do to feel like you could possibly comprehend her? Did you spend any time on a fundamentalist compound? Did you go to Utah? Like, what did you do?

Ms. SEVIGNY: I wish I'd had that sort of opportunity, but no. I read as much literature as I could find, from "Under the Banner of Heaven" to "Escape" by Carolyn Jessop to "Growing Up in Polygamy," and there's so much many titles that go on and on and on, just trying to wrap my head around that world and where these people are coming from and their beliefs.

I tried to read the Book of Mormon, which I didn't get very far into. But I just wanted to approach the character with respect for her and her beliefs. And so I tried to do as much research on my own as I could, but most of that was through different television expose shows and/or, you know, literature, magazine articles, et cetera.

GROSS: So many of your previous roles were, you know, like "Last Days of Disco" or "Party Monster," which is about, like, the alternative club world. And, you know, "Kids" which is about skateboarders. I mean, the scenes that you were part of in the movies are so absolutely contrary to everything that the characters in "Big Love" stand for.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SEVIGNY: I know. And I think that all of my performances in those films -because I'm more intimidated by the big screen, I often keep my performances much smaller and much more natural and subtle. And, of course, on "Big Love," it's so big, and the stakes are always really high and there's always so much going on that I can't imagine what they saw in earlier performances that they would think oh, Chloe can really - she's got - she can run with this. Do you know what I mean?

GROSS: Well, it's so funny. Like, you're known, among other things, as an icon of fashion, of always being, like, a step ahead of what the fashion industry's doing and putting together your own very unusual outfits from thrift stores. And on "Big Love," you are stuck in one of those, like, prairie dresses most of the time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SEVIGNY: I know. It's funny, because it's kind of - was always a fantasy of mine. Growing up, my favorite program was "Little House on the Prairie." So I always wanted to wear this look. When I was a child, I wouldn't let my mom put me in anything but calico dresses, and now, what do you know? Every day, I'm in a calico dress, practically. So it's kind of funny.

GROSS: That's very funny.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: It's funny that you wanted to wear it as a kid, too.

Ms. SEVIGNY: I did. I even slept in one of those white, cotton nightcaps. I was obsessed with "Little House on the Prairie."

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So describe how it feels to be in one of those prairie dresses and how it helps you with the role when you're wearing it.

Ms. SEVIGNY: Well, the look is so particular, especially the hairdo. And every time I'm sitting in the makeup trailer and, you know, we begin the poof, it just - the character takes over. And the clothes are very modest, but also very fitted. So it gives me a certain posture and a certain attitude, I think, just because I stand up taller, and, you know, I have this height in my hair. So I feel like I'm even - I am taller, you know, with the hair and whatnot, and it just gives me, I don't know, a certain sass.

GROSS: Now recently on the show, when you rescued your oldest daughter, who is, I think like 14, from being sealed, married, to a man decades older than her, you kind of - you had to find her first, because you knew she was being married off, but you had to find where she was. And describe what you were wearing, which is totally out of character. You've never dressed like this in "Big Love."

Ms. SEVIGNY: Well, I show up at La Esperanza Hotel, where they're performing several sealings on several different young women, and I'm having to run around through different rooms to find her. And I have on a very, very short skirt -crotch-grazing, practically - super-high heels, which I was, like, should I pretend that I don't know how to walk in heels? Because I don't think Nikki would.

So we had to, like, do a couple practice runs with me kind of wobbling, but kind of not, because I can actually run faster in heels than flats. And I had a big, like, side ponytail on the side of my head, and lots of makeup, eye makeup, lipstick, and a very revealing top. And I think it was just, like, Nikki's rebel moment. She wanted to show up and upstage everybody and just be like the rebellious teen that she never got to be.

GROSS: Do you have a favorite storyline from "Big Love"?

Ms. SEVIGNY: A favorite storyline? I haven't really been watching this season, because I don't - ironically, I don't have a television.

GROSS: You don't have a television?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SEVIGNY: No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: How come you don't have a television?

Ms. SEVIGNY: I - well, I was in this long-term relationship, and we watched a lot of TV, and I love TV and I totally get sucked in. And we broke up and he moved out, and I was like, you know what? I'm going to get rid of the TV or else I'm never going to leave the house. I have to hit the streets, get out there, ring them bells, like Liza Minnelli says. So I got rid of the TV.

GROSS: Wow.

Ms. SEVIGNY: I really miss it, too, because I really like "American Idol."

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Chloe Sevigny, and she's one of the stars of the HBO series "Big Love."

Let's talk about some of your movies. Let's start with the first, "Kids," which was made in 1995. And this is about a group of, I don't know, teenager -teenage, I guess, skateboarders whose lives revolve around, like getting high and having sex. And the boys in this have absolutely no regard for the girls they have sex with.

And you're - you start off, you've been a virgin, and you have sex with the main character, Telly, and you get AIDS from him, and you spend part of the movie just trying to track him down.

So at the time you were - or just before making this movie, you were hanging out with a lot of skateboarders. How was that connected to getting cast in the film?

Ms. SEVIGNY: Well, Harmony Korine, the boy who wrote the film, hung out with the all the skaters, too. We were, like, just a bunch of kids that hung out in Washington Square Park. And one day, Harmony met the director, Larry Clark, and Larry was shooting pictures of the skaters with a Leica camera. And Harmony said, oh, is that a Leica? And they started a conversation, and Larry said, you know, I'm really interested in making a film about the skate culture and about teens in America today, especially in New York City and sort of this culture.

And Harmony said, well, as it so happens, I'm, like, you know, at NYU right now studying film, and I'm a writer. So they got together and, you know, hashed out this kind of storyline or outline, which was more or less Larry's, and Harmony just kind of filled it in. And most of the characters in the film were played by themselves.

So they were written for the people that played them. Like, Harold was Harold, Hamilton was Hamilton. You know, most of the characters - I think mainly Telly and Casper were kind of more fictional.

GROSS: In the period that you made "Kids" and before that, you were known also for your street fashion. You were - you had done some modeling. You were in some magazines. How did clothing, fashion become important to you?

Ms. SEVIGNY: I guess it was just always a way of expressing myself. I was never very good at drawing. I couldn't play any instruments, and it was just a way to be creative and outrageous. And, you know, I lived in a community - it was a very small community where everybody dressed the same, and I guess I just wanted to be different.

And so I pored over old Vogues that, you know, they had in the library at our high school and going to the thrift store and sewing them on my sewing machine and just coming up with, you know, crazy outfits. And it was just - it was also a way of identifying with other kids that were into weird stuff like I was.

GROSS: Now, you shaved your head when you were in high school.

Ms. SEVIGNY: I did, I did, between junior and senior year. Yup.

GROSS: Were you horrified at the shape of your head? I mean, like, some people shave their head, and there's all these, like, bumps they didn't know they had and ridges and things like that.

Ms. SEVIGNY: No, it's so funny, too, because before that, I had hair, like, down to my waist - really long, blonde hair, and it was always in my face. And when I shaved my head, my mother was so thrilled. I thought she was going to freak out, and she loved it more than anybody else. She was like: I can finally see your face, Chloe.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SEVIGNY: She loved it. She was crazy for it. It's hilarious. I just, I always felt like I just was so identified by this hair, this long, long, long hair. And then I actually went and sold it to a Broadway wigmaker - didn't get very much, unfortunately.

GROSS: Wow.

Ms. SEVIGNY: But I remember walking into this, like, little sweatshop studio they had, and these women were sewing these wigs with, you know, strand by strand - because it was virgin hair. It was blonde, and it had never been dyed. So it was, like, it was kind of rare to find that. And yeah, I sold it, a bag of hair.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: How much did you get?

Ms. SEVIGNY: I don't think very - I think maybe like $150. Not very much. But then, you know, to a 17-year-old kid in '92 or whenever that was, it seemed like a lot to me.

GROSS: My guest is actress Chloe Sevigny. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Chloe Sevigny, and she stars in the HBO series "Big Love." Now, you were in two films about the club scene. There's "Last Days of Disco," and then there's a film that takes place a few years after that, "Party Monster." And the film centers around Michael Alig -this is based on a true story - who created this, like, alternative club scene and ended up just getting, like, so addled by drugs that he killed somebody and has since been in prison.

So were you familiar with this scene? Did you know the people in this scene when you made the movie?

Ms. SEVIGNY: I did. I knew almost all the people in the scene. I did not know the girl that I played, Gitsie, even though my character wasn't fully her. She was kind of more, kind of a mix of a few different people.

But I knew Michael. I knew Freeze. I knew James St. James. I knew all of them. I was intimidated by most of them, but some of them that aren't featured in the film were my close friends, like Walt Paper and some of the other big club kids.

And as a young person, you know, coming to the city from Connecticut and going to these big clubs and seeing these outrageous characters and these costumes that were so creative and so mindboggling, I was really inspired by the scene and just the wildness of it.

But yeah, Michael - Michael was always a little intimidating to me. And I was more a part of the rave scene, and he was the club scene. I think the old club guard was kind of threatened by the ravers, because they were taking over the scene, you know. It was ridiculous.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: What was the difference between the rave scene and the club scene?

Ms. SEVIGNY: The rave scene was a lot younger, and the fashion was very different. It was kind of the '90s grunge look that was made famous in, like, fashion magazines like The Face and I.D. and kind of heroin chic, and I was kind of going for that.

GROSS: When you say heroin chic, you knew a lot of people who were actually addicted to heroin.

Ms. SEVIGNY: I did, sadly, and I lost a lot of friends over the years. And the drugs, they were a really big part of the scene, and luckily for me, I was never good at taking drugs. Like, I was always really frightened, frightened by them and what I saw. But I got very close to a lot of people who used, and I think just being around it was enough. You know, I could kind of see them and see how it was affecting them and be, like, this is, you know, too much. I can't - I wouldn't be able to handle that.

But, you know, it ruined a lot of people's lives and ruined the rave scene for sure in New York, 100 percent, because in the beginning, there wasn't a lot of heroin. It was other things like acid and ecstasy and, you know, young-people things. And then it got very dark towards the end.

GROSS: Wasn't it hard, in some ways, to be really close to people who were high all the time or addicted to cocaine or heroin or whatever? Because they're operating in, like, a different dimension when they're that high than you would be if you weren't.

Ms. SEVIGNY: They were. But I think I also had this thing of, like, of the caretaker, of looking after them a little bit. So I always had a more maternal instinct.

GROSS: Did you feel like that was part of who you were in that scene, you were the maternal person and the person who could stay straight and sane and take care of the people who weren't?

Ms. SEVIGNY: I think I was, yeah, and especially, like - God, I can't even remember the name of this one drug that would take, but they would go in a K-hole. I can't remember what it's called. And then people were totally, just, they could not function.

And I remember, I would always be the one that wasn't participating. And kids, they were crazy back then with the drugs. I remember, like, when River Phoenix died, this group of kids I knew got together and rented a bunch of his films and decided to, like, use the drugs that he used, that he had OD'ed on. I mean, these kids were crazy.

GROSS: Now, from what I read, you grew up Roman Catholic, in a pretty strict Roman Catholic home. So...

Ms. SEVIGNY: I wouldn't say we were so strict, but my mother's parents were Polish. So she grew up in a very strict Catholic environment. So she was a little looser on us. But we had to go to mass every Sunday and, you know, CCD and all of that.

GROSS: So how much guilt did you feel during your early days...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...when you going - when you were doing a lot of things that the church would not approve of?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SEVIGNY: I dont know. I think that I was always a good person. I mean, I always kind of - even though I was kind of living a little, I don't know, crazy, I felt like I was still a good person and not really hurting anybody else. So I didn't feel that much guilt.

GROSS: Were you still going to church then?

Ms. SEVIGNY: I wasn't. I actually started going to mass again. I did a play off-Broadway called "Hazelwood Junior High," which was a true crime story about these girls that murdered one of their friends. And the character that I played was a Satanist, and she was very dark, and every night on stage, we had to murder this little girl.

And I had, you know, a book on the true story, and there were these crime scene photos. And I just started getting very disturbed by, you know, the material and performing this, you know, on stage every night. So I started going to mass again and - just for some sort of quiet, and you know, whatever I wanted to take from mass and communion.

GROSS: Kind of an antidote to what you had to do on stage?

Ms. SEVIGNY: I think so. Yeah.

GROSS: Before you made your first movie, before you made "Kids," Jay McInerney, the writer, wrote an article about you in the New Yorker and about how you were the downtown girl of the moment and always a beat ahead of the fashion industry, how people followed you. What was the impact of that article on your life?

Ms. SEVIGNY: Well, my mother got a life subscription to the New Yorker, she was thrilled about.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SEVIGNY: And I got a red rubber Helmut Lang dress that I really wanted. He promised me if I did the article, he'd buy me this Helmut Lang dress.

GROSS: Wait a minute. What are the journalistic ethics of that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SEVIGNY: I know. I mean, I don't really know what the repercussions were, I mean, other than the label it-girl kind of sticking and still being there for me, which I always had a problem with. But I don't really feel like it changed things that much.

You know, I was on this course that I was on, and I was attracted to, you know, people that were doing stuff. And I was doing videos and being in photo shoots, you know, whether they were published or not, you know, just to be around people that I thought were creative and that were creating something and doing something with their lives, and that was always a very attractive attribute to me. So it felt like I was on this path regardless of whether that article had come out.

GROSS: Now, I read that you had childhood scoliosis, which is curvature of the spine. Was it treated when you were young?

Ms. SEVIGNY: It was never treated. I can't remember why. I feel like we went to a specialist upstate, and they said, well, you can get a brace, but it was very expensive. And I think for some reason, it never happened, and they gave me all these certain exercises.

They said, you know, that the curvature wasn't strong enough to have to have the operation, which I know a few girls that have a metal rod in their back. But to me, now, it's like - I still - every time I see myself on film, I see it. That's all I see. And I - and even in photographs, I'm just - to me, it's like - my ex-boyfriend used to say when I'd get really drunk, I'd come home and cry and be, like, I'm so crooked. It's my one thing that, yeah, that I still have a hard time with.

But I've been doing a lot of yoga, which has been helping. It makes me feel like it's straightened me out a little bit, but yeah, on "Big Love," I see it all the time, especially with those outfits, because they're so form-fitting. I see myself walking, and I'm like...

(Soundbite of squeaking sound)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SEVIGNY: I have one hip, and not one...

GROSS: I don't see that.

Ms. SEVIGNY: Well, good. Well, you're probably not looking, either. It's funny, because Ellen Burstyn, she was playing Jeanne Tripplehorn's mother on the show. And she came in, and I walked up to her, and the first thing she said to me: Oh, you have scoliosis. She's a very perceptive woman.

GROSS: Huh. Have you ever had formal acting training?

Ms. SEVIGNY: No. I remember after "Kids," I was kind of thinking about it, and I was talking to different people I knew in the industry and different filmmakers, and - don't, don't, don't mess with your natural talents. You know, they always say that kind of thing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SEVIGNY: But I've read some books like Uta Hagen's "Respect for Acting" and things like that, where I've learned a few tricks, but I have never studied with anyone. I don't know. It's something that I think about, though. I'm not sure if it would make me more self-conscious. Like I - you know, there are some actors on the show who studied, you know, at Julliard and whatnot, and their methods are very different from my own. And sometimes I get frustrated with certain performers and their methods, and they get - they're obsessed with props or this or that. They always have to have something they're doing, and you know, I'm always like my main acting philosophy is don't act, react. So I try and keep it simple.

GROSS: Thank you so much for talking with us.

Ms. SEVIGNY: Thank you.

GROSS: Chloe Sevigny is one of the stars of the HBO series "Big Love." The season finale is Sunday. You'll find a link to the full text of Jay McInerney's 1994 New Yorker profile of Sevigny on our Web site, freshair.npr.org, where you'll also find clips from "Big Love."

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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