Interview: Chloë Sevigny on 'Hit & Miss'

The actress tells Gabriel Tate about fashion, the North and playing a transgender assassin

Chloë Sevigny Chloë Sevigny - shot by Rob Greig

‘I’m such a ham,’ wails Chloë Sevigny, playing to the camera like a pro while hair and make-up buzz around a little redundantly in her Soho hotel room. After all, she looks as immaculate as you’d expect for a one-time It Girl who has overseen her own line for hip New York boutique Opening Ceremony. But while she is imperturbably cool, ‘fearless’ is probably the key word that suggests itself after an hour in her company. It’s as rare to meet an actor so breezily frank about her industry as it is to see someone making such bold choices on screen.

It’s Sevigny’s fearlessness that saw her take a role in Sky Atlantic’s ‘Hit & Miss’, her first British TV series. Paul Abbott and Sean Conway’s drama cast her as Mia, an Irish pre-op transgender assassin. For most actors, this would represent a leap into the complete unknown, but it’s almost par for the course for an actress with the likes of ‘Kids’ (in which her high-school teen finds she’s HIV-positive), ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ (her trailer-trash dreamer falls for Hilary Swank’s girl passing as a boy) and ‘The Brown Bunny’ (featuring an unsimulated blowjob performed on director and ex-partner Vincent Gallo) on her CV.

Even so, she concedes that Mia is a one-off, exploding with a hearty honk of laughter. ‘How am I going to be convincing as a man? I wanted to play it with that exaggerated femininity that you see in a lot of transgender women, but the producers and creators decided it would be better if I played it more real. We didn’t want there to be any element of camp, so we tried to keep it grounded. I’m nervous about representing a community or anything like that, but I think transgender people have been really misunderstood. And it’s baby steps: look at how far we’ve come with portrayals of gay and lesbian people since “Will & Grace”.’

Sevigny was conscious of how seamlessly something like ‘Hit & Miss’ might play into her reputation for controversy: many of her most famous roles have addressed the ambiguities of sex and sexuality. ‘I do have reservations about how people might say: “Oh, here’s Chloë in another shocking piece, blah blah blah, boring boring boring.” But I hope it’ll transcend that. Mia’s so complicated: where she’s come from, her family, her sociopathic behaviour. To play someone like that and believe what they’re doing is right, when it’s so wrong, was different for me.’

Paul Abbott’s presence on credits tends to be a reassuring one, turning the lazy one-line sell (‘Shameless’, ‘Clocking Off’) into superior, layered drama. There’s certainly nothing hysterical about ‘Hit & Miss’, which is distinguished more by its muted approach than out-there melodrama or exploitation. The occasional shots of Sevigny with a prosthetic penis, she says, ‘are just to remind people that Mia’s still pre-op’.

Sevigny’s visibly relieved to be in London, gulping tea between hacking coughs, the  residue of four-and-a-half cold, wet months on location in and around Manchester. As intriguing as the idea of an NYC scenester mixing it up in Moss Side might be to a TV viewer, the novelty did not last long. ‘It was grim,’ she says ruefully. ‘I didn’t know anyone… People have a lot of opinions about Americans in the North, so I definitely felt misunderstood by the cast and the crew because I felt really serious about the project. I think everyone else was more casual and didn’t have as much invested, so maybe they misunderstood my approach to the work as stand-offish or miserable. I wasn’t, I was really enjoying myself – I was just concentrating.’

So, fearless, and a little reckless too. Her views on Manchester have already caused a stir, but the minor indiscretions just keep on coming. Did she enjoy the opportunities presented by working on a longer series, like HBO’s ‘Big Love’ (for which she won a Golden Globe as straitlaced Mormon wife Nicki)? ‘Sure, it was challenging and fun, then it got a little stale, the same old problems, over and over again.’ Was she familiar with Paul Abbott before landing the role in ‘Hit & Miss’? Guilty laughter. ‘Never! What’s he done apart from “Shameless”?’ Is she able to tweak roles as she goes along? ‘A bit, but when you work with a company like Sky or HBO, the actors don’t really have any say. It’s run by the executives. There’s so many cooks in the kitchen that the actor is like the least important person on the set. Not that I felt disrespected, but you have to work within certain confines and make it work. Most of my film work has been much more free and improvisational.’

Chloë Sevigny Chloë Sevigny - shot by Rob Greig

She is serious about the work. Mia, Sevigny acknowledges, is a huge opportunity and a major role for an actress whose career hasn’t followed the trajectory of mainstream stardom some predicted at its outset. Her off-screen profile has occasionally been more hindrance than help. It’s hard to think of anyone who could escape the sort of shadow cast by Jay McInerney’s lavish New Yorker profile, which labelled her ‘the coolest girl in the world’ just prior to her acting debut in 1995’s ‘Kids’. ‘Poor soul,’ she reflects. ‘I think he struggled to find stuff [to write about me] at the beginning. Tastemakers were interested in me because I wore crazy clothes, made weird films, hung out with weird artists… And Miramax [who produced ‘Kids’] had kept us a little quiet up till then because they wanted people to think we were still, like, on the street.’ She snorts at the memory.

Her work on the indie margins has usually been interesting and almost always idiosyncratic, with Woody Allen, Werner Herzog, Jim Jarmusch and Lars von Trier all casting her. ‘Maybe I bring some sort of weight, something grounded to a role that could be a little flighty,’ she considers. ‘I always said I’d never play “the girlfriend”, but then I did it a couple of times in a row, with “Zodiac” and “Mr Nice”. I feel like I kind of gave in. But if you play enough of those, maybe something like “Hit & Miss” comes along. I’m grateful for the work I’ve done, but it’s been difficult for me to find big roles in the States, or the kind of roles I’d like.’ Having gone out of her way to avoid the Hollywood conveyor belt, she has some lingering regrets about what this stance has denied her. ‘I’d die to do a sweeping period drama, but I’m not sure people see me like that. Or a war movie! I love that genre, even though there’s not a lot of room for women there. The only problem is, I hate handguns, they scare the shit out of me. The toughest thing in “Hit & Miss” was shooting and not flinching.’ She then delivers her most controversial statement of the day. ‘“GI Jane” – genius! Ridley Scott, Viggo Mortensen, the sweat – what’s not to love?’ My expression and non-committal mumble (‘umm’) provoke another hoot of delight.

Sevigny also has a back-up plan. She’s been careful to diversify into production work, with an HBO mini-series about notorious nineteenth-century murder suspect Lizzie Borden her current pet project. She will, of course, be playing Lizzie. Then there’s her eponymous, huge-selling streetwear range for Opening Ceremony. ‘It’s really fun and I love being so hands-on, but I’m torn about putting more merchandise out. It’s just small runs: quality, not a disposable high street brand. But I have a hard time churning more stuff out because I’m a pretty big environmentalist.’ She launches into a tirade about environmental waste on film sets that makes it easy to see why she might sometimes be hard work during filming. Although sometimes the cussedness pays dividends: ‘I turned around the set of “Big Love” – they stopped using plastic bottles.’ And there’s the rub: for all that Chloë Sevigny enjoys provoking a response, whether it’s from Mancunians, studio executives or journalists, there’s a winning balance of mischief and determination in her that, you sense, can be highly persuasive. Reckless she may be – but Sevigny’s star is still on the rise.

‘Hit & Miss’ starts on Tuesday May 22, 10pm, Sky Atlantic