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It’s nice to be an artist, but she’s ready to be a star

Special to The Times

One of the ironies about Chloe Sevigny, who has a reputation for being a clotheshorse, trendsetter and transgressive downtown person -- to the exclusion of her eight-year acting career -- is that she doesn’t try nearly as hard to be any of these things as some women known only for their acting.

Today Sevigny is dressed unobtrusively in jeans and a vest. The only feature that stands out is her sunglasses, which are of the sort worn by fashionistas indoors and out. She takes them off, revealing blue eyes.

“Yeah, I’m some sort of downtown-style girl,” says Sevigny, settling into an East Village cafe. “ ‘Oh, she’s the fashion girl.’ People see my fashion pictures more than they see my independent films because they don’t get distributed very widely. I used to get really angered by it, but I think my work stands for itself. There’s nothing wrong with being a fashion icon. With Marlene Dietrich and Audrey Hepburn, even Anjelica Huston, there’s a great tradition of that. So I’m trying to embrace that now.” Sevigny is embracing another thing she once held at arm’s length: commerciality. She candidly admits she wants to be a star.

With a couple of exceptions, notably “Boys Don’t Cry,” she’s labored in films nobody has seen.

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“I’d like to have the opportunities to get the parts that I want,” she says. “You have to be a big star to get that, like in a Nicole Kidman or Julianne Moore sort of way.”

She’s certainly been working. She plays a club kid in Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s “Party Monster,” about a New York club impresario who committed murder; a Machiavellian secretary in Olivier Assayas’ newly released “Demonlover,” about corporate intrigue, pornography and the Internet; and a hard-edged reporter in Billy Ray’s coming “Shattered Glass,” about a reporter who was caught fabricating stories.

The directors of these films believe that Sevigny’s ambitions are realistic and that it’s only a matter of time.

“She’s sort of a 21st century movie star,” Barbato says. “Whether it’s the part she’s playing or what she’s wearing on the red carpet, she’s a little bit ahead of her contemporaries.”

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“I think Chloe is one of the greatest screen presences in cinema,” Assayas says. “There are actresses who pop out, and she really has it.”

“Chloe is ready for her close-up,” Ray says.

Why these qualities haven’t been appreciated by Hollywood has to do not only with Sevigny’s image but with the choices she has made and continues to make -- though she’s trying to change that.

“I was pretty young when things started happening,” she says. “And I was a real idealist and a real cinephile and kind of a snob about the kind of work that I wanted to do. I wasn’t as open to more commercial work when I was younger. I’m more conscious of a career path than I was when I first started out.”

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A famed sense of style

Sevigny, who is now 27, started out with Larry Clark’s “Kids” (1995), playing a teenager who loses her virginity to a boy who infects her with HIV. She had already made waves in New York, however, because of her sense of style, which was immortalized by a Jay McInerney piece in “The New Yorker.” She was the girl from tony Darien, Conn., who shaved her head in high school, lived in Brooklyn Heights after graduation and became a club kid during the ‘90s, which made her perfect for “Party Monster.”

Barbato says they discussed how her character would act under the influence of such drugs as coke, “K” (ketamine) and Rohypnol -- though he insists, laughing, that their knowledge of these effects was “strictly observational.”

She followed up “Kids” with a series of below-the-radar films, including “Gummo” (1997) and “The Last Days of Disco” (1998), before emerging again in “Boys Don’t Cry” (1999). Here she played Lana, the small-town girl everyone wants who falls in love with a girl passing as a boy. This portrayal of a tough but tender girl in deep denial earned her an Oscar nomination, but it didn’t earn her more high-profile work. She subsequently appeared in “A Map of the World” (1999), “American Psycho” (2000) and “If These Walls Could Talk 2" (2000, for HBO).

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According to Barbato, Sevigny’s performance in “Boys” demonstrates the key to her appeal, on screen and off. People respond to the vulnerability beneath the glossy exterior, although in life that can sometimes take a while.

“I think lots of people find her intimidating,” Barbato says. “She’s a total glamazon. She’s the girl next door in couture, the Connecticut Couture Club. On her way to a family dinner, she showed up to do ADR [dialog looping] decked out in autumnal furs.”

“Chloe can be very intimidating,” Ray says. “It’s one of the things I had to get over as a first-time director. It’s like she’s staring through you when you first meet her. It comes from insecurity. Hers.” When apprised of Ray’s nervousness, Sevigny responds, “Yeah, sometimes people can be intimidated by me. I don’t know. Maybe because I’m quiet. Maybe he just respects my acting.”

Here she laughs.

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Ray certainly has been praising her to the skies. He says he needed, and found, an actress who could convey the idea that her character was the smartest person in the room without having to say anything. The character is a composite of women who worked at the New Republic, notably reporter Hanna Rosin. Sevigny says they spoke on the phone and dined together, but otherwise she did little research because her role is defined more by her relationship with the other characters than by her job.

Giving her all to the role

However, when the role requires it, Sevigny has demonstrated that she’ll do whatever it takes to make her character believable. Her part in “Demonlover” is a French-speaking American -- a part Assayas rewrote so that he could cast her, something he’s never done before for any actress. Since he couldn’t eliminate all the French from the part, which was originally intended for a French actress, he had to trust that Sevigny, who, despite her name, doesn’t speak the language, could learn to do so plausibly. And she did.

Sevigny has a couple of more films in the can, though they probably won’t advance her cause. One is Lars Von Trier’s “Dogville,” out next year. The other is Vincent Gallo’s notorious “The Brown Bunny,” distribution uncertain, which was booed at its premiere at Cannes. It’s about a man (Gallo) crossing the country alone, clearly haunted by something. Eventually he meets up with his estranged girlfriend (Sevigny) in a hotel room, where she performs fellatio on him. It is not simulated.

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“Had I known her I would have tried to talk her out of it,” Ray says. “I would have asked her to honor her talent.”

“He’s very conservative,” Sevigny says of Ray. “He should see the film before making such statements.”

Ray insists that he has, at least some of it. At any rate, Sevigny is not apologizing for appearing in the film and seems more put out with some of the things Gallo has been saying in the press, although she did laugh after a Toronto Film Festival screening when he recalled a conversation they had about the role. Specifically, the fellatio scene.

“I said, ‘There’s a difficult scene,’ ” Gallo said before a packed theater, with Sevigny standing behind him (in a stunning white beaded dress). “She said, ‘I used to not like to do that, but I really like it now.”

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Perhaps one key to Sevigny’s thinking is her assessment of Jennifer Connelly’s career, which in some ways parallels hers. Connelly did indie films for years before finally receiving attention for her work in “Requiem for a Dream,” which, as Sevigny decribes it, features “some really far-out sexual acts. She was putting herself out on the line, and then she got ‘A Beautiful Mind’ and then ‘Hulk,’ and now she’s made in the shade.”

Sevigny’s next effort will be Woody Allen’s untitled new film, which is just starting. Although she’s constrained from describing what it’s about, she does say, “I play a nice Connecticut girl.” She laughs, appreciating the irony, and then says with sincerity, “It’s a great thing.”


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