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Chloë Sevigny On Scream Queens, Language Politics, And The C-Word

Talking to The Dead Don't Die star about, well, everything

Chloë Sevigny walked into a lower Manhattan hotel room at 10:30 on a rainy Monday morning wearing a long dress, an orange-red lip, and what would already be my favorite perfume, if only I were able to buy it. But, like most of the myriad things that make up Sevigny's specific, yet ineffable allure, it is not for sale; it's hers, and you're just left wishing it could be yours too.

Sevigny's career as an actress now spans almost 25 years, since her first starring role in the groundbreaking independent film Kids in 1995. In that time, she's dabbled in directing herself, having made short films like Kitty and Carmen, and built up one of the more interesting CVs in all of Hollywood. Just as long-lasting as her career is her status as It Girl, a label that feels laughably inadequate for describing a woman of her achievements, but also sort of the perfect metonym for a person who, because she is so difficult to describe, makes you feel like, well, why not just surrender all attempts and be satisfied saying she has "it"?

Anyway, now, Sevigny is back on screen with a starring role in Jim Jarmusch's latest: The Dead Don't Die, a deadpan zombie comedy co-starring Adam Driver, Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Selena Gomez, and just about everyone else who's ever worked on a Jarmusch film, ever. In it, Sevigny plays Mindy, one of a trio of cops in the small town of Centerville (it's a three-cop town); the other two are played by Driver and Murray, and they're joined in their fight against the zombies by Swinton as a Scottish mortician with a penchant for neon makeup and an aptitude for decapitating the undead. It's full of small-town ennui and existentialist dread and, you know, lots and lots of face-eating.

There is, in other words, a lot to process. It's Mindy, really, who is doing most of the processing, almost as a stand-in for the audience. When I spoke with Jarmusch after I'd talked with Sevigny, he said, "Chloë is a master of reaction; I love watching her react." And there's plenty within the film to which she could react: The earth has been fracked right off its axis, and people are being killed in the goriest ways possible, and Mindy is bearing witness to it all, without actually wanting to deal with any of it. It is, as Sevigny and I talk about, an apt representation of all the people today who just want to pretend like everything is normal in our world—nothing to see here.

But this is not Sevigny's way—and it wasn't immediately appealing to her when she got the script. She told me, "Walking into it I was a little nervous that she wasn't going to make very much of an impact. I was a little envious that Tilda got to do all the [sword-]wielding." Yet, Sevigny really made the most out of Mindy, showing the complications and the dark side to being a damsel in distress.

Below, I talk with Sevigny about being a scream queen, why she loves actresses, and the difference between the words "cunt" and "cunty."

What was your first intro to Mindy?

Jim prefaced it with: "I'm sorry that she's not a feminist fighter or heroine." I wasn't sure there was very much on the page, and then I discovered more once we were on set. In the end—I don't want to say this just because I played her—I think she's one of the more relatable characters in the film which makes her kind of stand out.

Mindy embodies what I think so many people are dealing with right now, when things are happening in the world around them, they want to pretend that those things aren't there. They avert their eyes. They don't want to see someone's, like, eaten-out stomach.

Yeah, aka my mom. She just wants to look at pretty things. [laughs]

But it's also easy to empathize with her, wanting all of that to go away, so she can just be allowed to have a crush on her co-worker [Adam Driver]. Is that how you found an entry point for her?

I think I was just thinking about her environment, that small town; what her worldview would be coming from a place that small and isolated. Adam and I came up with some back story where my brother was maybe friends with his character. We did a little talking about how we kind of knew each other growing up, maybe they played baseball together. It was a little more familiar. Then I was thinking a lot about my mom. [laughs] My poor mom is getting raked over the coals in this. [And the idea of] just wanting everything to be okay, and to see the pleasant things. How she turns to Bill [Murray] and says, "Just tell me everything is going to be okay."

That kind of desire feels emblematic of our collective mother, of older generations, very familiar. It makes sense that Mindy is a focal point of the film. Did you know that right from the start? Did Jim tell you what her journey would be?

A little bit. He said, "I wrote a part for you. We follow her throughout the whole movie. She's one of the main characters." He made some reference to the "scream queen" or "woman in distress" sort of thing. It was very much in the Jim Jarmusch tone. I knew a lot would be in the visuals. I knew a lot was really funny. I loved breaking the fourth wall with Adam and Bill talking about the film. I was like, Oh that'd be so fun to play as an actor. But I had to play really in the moment. Then I was, like, paranoid because [laughs] I felt insecure about how my performance would stand against those two doing the deadpan thing. I was, like, super dramatic about how was I going to find that balance. In that moment I'm yelling about my grandma... [laughs], to play that, to make it as real as possible, that was a little tricky. To not look like a fool and to be sympathetic and emotional.

You've been in so many films that have a far more naturalistic feeling. But, you were also in the horror movie Antibirth, that's more straight horror, a little over-the-top...

A friend of mine and Natasha [Lyonne]'s, Danny [Perez], made it. He's more of a visual artist than a filmmaker. He did this Animal Collective video. He works with a lot of musicians, it's pretty wild. Natasha was like, "I want to make this movie, and I'm going to star in it." I was like, "I got you, girl." She's one of my best friends since I was, like, 20 years old. I was like, "I'll come up to wherever the hell in Canada and support you for a few weeks if I get to hang out with you all the time."

Working with friends and people you respect is a good reason to do almost anything, and this film has such an incredible cast. How was it being on set? How was it coordinating being part of such a huge ensemble?

It was a little tense because Adam only had a certain number of days before going to Star Wars. So all the scenes with Adam, Bill, and I, it was a pretty tight schedule. Usually, you have a little bit more wiggle room. That was a little bit more stressful. There was also a lot of VFX and special effects. I don't think Jim has really dealt with that much. They didn't storyboard certain scenes. I was like, "You guys have all these effects, and you didn't storyboard the whole scene?" They were figuring it out. I was like, "You guys are wild."

So it was a little stressful because of those factors, which were weighing heavy on everyone on set. But everybody was so chill. Bill is obviously hilarious and a genius, playing music in between takes and setups. Sometimes it helped lighten the mood. Sometimes it made things even more tense and awkward. I was like, "I don't know if you're reading the room correctly at this moment, but let's do it and see where it takes us." [laughs]

Everyone was really troopers. Everyone comes and churns it out for Jim.

You've worked with so many amazing directors. Is that what you're looking for in projects—other than the random horror film with Natasha?

I think [Antibirth] keeps in line with that! Because Danny's really a filmmaker and artist that I believe in. I felt like he had original ideas. You never really know, it's always a crapshoot. Like, I did a movie called The Snowman with Tomas Alfredson who's one of my favorite directors. He made Let the Right One In and other incredible movies, and then The Snowman was a misfire. Even if you put your trust in someone like him, you just never know.

It's more about the person for me. It always has been since the beginning of my career. What they represent to me, or if they're a first-time filmmaker. The passion they have about the story like with Kimberly Peirce and Boys Don't Cry. And Danny and Antibirth. But, for the most part, I've worked with writer-directors, auteurs, and sometimes it's worked out well, and sometimes I'm like, Oh my god, I'm in the worst movie of their impeccable career.

I feel like that also extends to my television work. All the shows I've done have really strong showrunners or creators. Most of them have been ensemble pieces. I'm not that interested in finding star vehicles or carrying a film. I feel like that takes you in another direction that's more difficult to maintain. I've always kind of liked cruising along, working with good directors and not being the star, in the simplest terms.

I feel like it's worked out incredibly well for you. You have one of the most interesting and varied careers that I can think of.

Of course, we'd all like Tilda's career or, like, Michelle Williams' career. And they have a lot of opportunities that I'm, yes, sometimes envious of. There's other actresses like K-Stew, who makes great choices; and Amy Adams. They're at another level that I don't think I could ever be at. I'll just admire them while I do my own thing.

I think sometimes that's just the balance that you have to strike anyway, having the admiration for someone else's career without needing to have the envy. I'm sure there are many people that think that same thing about you. Everyone has a couple of Snowmen on their IMDB page.

Yes, we all do. That's part of why I do this "I <3 actresses" thing on my Instagram. People from Marlene Dietrich to, like, Alison Folland, who's only in a handful of independent films and I've always loved her face. Or even the little girl from Night of the Living Dead. I've always loved her. She was in one movie, and her father was a producer, and he threw her in because she was interested, and that's all she ever did, but she's like this icon just for doing that one thing. I did Oprah, who's one of the best actresses, I think—and that's just one part of everything that she does. I just think there's so much room for all different types of careers.

I love that you do that on your Instagram.

I'm trying to break down the definition in a way. Although, some people think I should say "actors," but I'm not interested in that... word politics, or is it language politics?

I think it's language politics.

Even last night, I was having a conversation at dinner with a bunch of friends. And this one friend was saying how he was, like, sharing in a meeting and he used the word "cunty," and afterward, people got really angry with him, and were like, "You can't use that word it's really offensive." And he's like, "I always thought 'cunty' was like 'fierce.'" Like "cunt" may be bad, but "cunty" is like... sorcery. [laughs]

In some ways, I think we should really stand behind words like "cunty" because that hard "cuh" is a really powerful consonant.

I was actually going to post something today about it. Are you offended?

No, not at all.

But if someone called you a "cunt," you would be?

I would be no more offended than if someone called me just a bitch, personally. If somebody was angry at me and was like, "you cunt" you know, I would have feelings about it, of course...

But the word doesn't have that much weight for you.

It really doesn't for me. I don't know if it's the time or place I'm from, but whatever it is, I can't be too bothered by the word. I'm glad we settled this debate, though.


The Dead Don't Die is in theaters tomorrow.

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