“Lizzie is a character I’ve always wanted to play,” said Chloë Sevigny of Lizzie Borden, the troubled Massachusetts socialite notorious for ax-murdering her father and stepmother in 1892—and whom Sevigny portrays in her new biopic Lizzie, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this past weekend. “She was a gothic heroine and a gothic icon. I think so many misfits are drawn to her because of that.”
For her first starring role in an American movie, the actress, designer, and perennial cool girl developed the script after being introduced to the deeply flawed historical character by an artist friend in 2010. Even though the story takes place in the Victorian era, many of Lizzie’s themes are still applicable today: patriarchy, sexism, and LGBT discrimination (Kristen Stewart co-stars as the Bordens’s live-in maid and Lizzie’s forbidden lover, with an impressive Irish accent).
While in Park City, Utah for the festival, Sevigny caught up with InStyle to discuss her passion project, working with Stewart, and Victorian style.
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This is a complicated role. What attracted you to it? True crime has always fascinated me, and this is a story of a woman who possibly killed her parents, and why she did that—she was driven to this extreme act of violence to obtain freedom. She was just so captivating. Even looking at her pictures, she seemed so there ... but not there.
When did you first learn about Lizzie Borden? I have vague recollections of hearing about her as a child, and the rhyme, of course, but I didn’t know that much about her. Then my friend, Lily Ludlow, showed up at my house as her for Halloween and I started doing research. I found out about the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast in Fall River, Mass., and went and stayed there. After spending one night there I thought, “This is a story I want to tell.” The oppression that women felt at that time and the lack of options seemed like it would be a lot to explore.
It’s interesting how a lot of the social stigmas from the late 1800s sadly still ring true, like those against unmarried women in their 30s. All of a sudden everything seems very timely because of the discussion that’s happening post-Trump[’s election]. The world is evolving and changing and we’re moving with it. Now it feels like the right time for this movie to come out. You never know why things like that happen.
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There’s also a scene where Kristen Stewart’s character is sexually harassed by her employer. As someone who started out so young in Hollywood, is that something you’ve ever experienced on a job? I haven’t, luckily. I don’t know if it’s my strength of character or who I am, but I was somehow spared. I’ve definitely had men say stuff off the cuff, like, “I never knew you had a body,” or, I’ve been in a casting where a director said, “You should show your body more.” Things like that are just uncalled for. I think that’s very casual sexism that we all deal with at work all the time.
What was it like working with Kristen? She was amazing. I was so impressed with her, and almost jealous, in a way. No wonder she has the career that she has because she’s so bright and she brings so much and she works so hard and she’s so prepared and she has so many ideas in the moment and she’s questioning everything. She came in as this force and shook everybody up. I wish I had that wherewithal when I was her age, or even now.
I saw on Instagram that you two hit the local bars in Savannah where you were filming. Oh yeah, oh, we had fun. [Laughs] We had to. There was a lot of bonding.
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Those who are familiar with the story know how the movie ends, but the final scene was still pretty shocking. What made you decide to do the murder scene nude? I’ve been nude onscreen before in some of my earlier movies, then I shied away from it for a while—not that I became prudish, but I preferred not to show myself. But this movie really called for it. I just wanted it to be this really carnal, cathartic moment where she sheds all the social constraints and gets to really go wild.
Fashion plays a big part in the film, from the sexual tension when Bridget (Stewart) buttons Lizzie’s dress to Lizzie stripping naked to keep her garments clean. What was it like wearing such restrictive Victorian clothing? It was fun for me. I’ve always wanted to do a period piece. I have a large collection of Victorian-era dresses myself, and we used some of the pieces in the film. I love a mutton sleeve; I love what it does to a waist. I love the extreme shapes and the length—there’s something about the swoosh, there’s elegance to it.
Jay McInerney once famously dubbed you the “coolest girl in the world.” Do you feel pressure to be cool, even in your 40s? Not so much on the day-to-day, but the red carpet is really still hard for me. I’ve always struggled with it. You have to fit into a sample size, which is a struggle on its own, as you could imagine. And I never feel like I know how to do that whole dressed-up thing. It doesn’t feel easy and casual to me. Then, with this hideous digital world that we live in and how unflattering the photos are—the cameras are too close so your head is really big and your feet are really small, and there’s this horrible LED overhead lighting. It’s not flattering to anybody, even if you’re a young, beautiful child. So before you even walk out there, you’re in this horrible headspace just thinking about it. And then with Instagram, you’re seeing [the photos] all the time and try to delete them to recover some sense of confidence. It’s a weird cycle of abuse to have to deal with it. I’m feeling a little more confident about it, but it’s still a challenge for me.
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Do you still try to maintain some level of mystery on social media? Yes. I often think, “Should I not do it anymore?” But, in the age of the Internet, I’d rather have something that I can claim as my own, that people can always go to and say, “This is her. This is how she wants to be seen.” Because you can’t have any control over your image on the Internet; it’s just too vast. I’m not live-streaming what I’m doing and saying, “Should I wear that or wear this?” I’m not saying that’s not the way to do it, but I’m also a 43-year-old woman, so I’m doing it in my own way.
You recently made your directorial debut with a short film, Kitty. Is that something you plan to do more of? I’m doing another short in April, about five women in their 30s grappling with their power and what that means to them. I want to hire as many women as I can in positions of power in my films and work with female producers and department heads. I feel fired up.