Five years ago, few people would have pictured Chloë Sevigny as a prairie skirt-clad polygamist.
She came to HBO's " Big Love," which begins its final season Sunday, with a pedigree in underground fashion and indie film, having appeared in edgy movies like "Kids," "Boys Don't Cry," "American Psycho" and the infamous "Brown Bunny." The series offered Sevigny a chance to ditch her hipper-than-thou image with the role of Nicolette (Nicki) Grant, the manipulative daughter of a polygamous prophet trying to find a place for herself alongside two sister wives in the Henrickson family.
Nicki does things that make viewers gasp: She lies, she steals, she spies, and early in this final season, she even brawls with a small boy. She's always been stranded between the David Lynch-ian Juniper Creek compound and the Henricksons' wholesome suburban home.
But in this final season, as her husband Bill's political ambitions unravel, Nicki cuts off her long braid and comes into her own. She starts speaking out about the horrors perpetrated on young girls in her sect and channels her energy into making sure the same traumas don't befall the teenage daughter she once abandoned.
"I'm a bigger person now," Nicki announces to her family, "and I won't go back to being small."
Sevigny may not have been an obvious fit for the part, but "Big Love" creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer say they actually wrote it for her after seeing "Boys Don't Cry," which got her an Oscar nomination.
"Nicki has this disconnect about who she is; she's a very insecure girl, but on the surface she's this manipulative haughty liar," Scheffer says. "And in a way, Chloë tries to present herself as this ultra-chic fashionista, but when you get to know her, she's a down-to-earth, good girl."
Sitting in a Silver Lake cafe in late December, Sevigny exudes the kind of awkward grace that has drawn directors (among them Harmony Korine, Jim Jarmusch, Woody Allen, Whit Stillman and Lars von Trier) like moths to a quirky flame. She often plays passive roles, but that deadpan quality disappears in person as soon as she lets loose her delightfully goofy laugh. Sevigny keeps darting glances at a cute guy in the next booth, convinced that she saw him at a movie premiere a few days before. Later she announces disappointedly that it's not the same guy. Which is just as well, since as soon as "Big Love" wraps, she plans to return to her home in New York.
Sevigny's origin myth has her being "discovered" as a teenager in Manhattan's Washington Square Park followed by years of prestigious roles magically dropping in her lap. "I think almost every film I've gotten has been an incoming call," she admits.
But it's not as if she merely stumbled into acting: As a child, she went to theater camp in New Canaan, Conn., and did catalog modeling and commercials until her mom got tired of sitting in cattle-call auditions.
At 36, she worries that she's trapped in a ghetto of cool and will never make it in mainstream movies. Sevigny originally took on "Big Love" "because I was getting all these small parts and wanted to be able to show off a little bit." She stops herself with a snort. "Does that sound completely narcissistic?"
The other motive was financial security. She quotes rock star Dee Snider, who said recently that "being poor and famous is hell," recalling all kinds of odd jobs he did after his band Twisted Sister peaked.
"Oy," she quips, "let's hope it doesn't come to that for little Chloë."
Yet Sevigny flirts with Hollywood like a woman trying not to get hurt by a someone she likes. Even during the many years of filming "Big Love" in L.A., she rented a place on a month-to-month basis, fleeing to the East Coast as soon as filming was done.
"I really try hard not to think about how [Hollywood] thinks of me," she offers with a shrug. "I want to make movies, but it's not the most important thing in my life. If it doesn't work out, I'll figure out something else."
She says she often finds herself shrinking into the wallpaper on sets, describing her experience on her one big-budget movie to date, David Fincher's "Zodiac": "I was intimidated by the other actors and the director and by the scale. I felt like when I was playing the part. I did this thing I do at parties where I just inverted." She scrunches up her shoulders at the memory. "I have to learn how to take the confidence that I have now on 'Big Love,' where I feel so safe, and figure out how to do that when I'm working in films."
In the final season of "Big Love," Olsen says that Nicki matures enormously, "dramatized through her relationship with her daughter and her insistence that her daughter will never be like her. And anyone who's watched any movie from the 1940s — whether it's 'Stella Dallas' or 'Mildred Pierce' — knows that's a recipe for a lot of problems."
Sevigny, who got into trouble in the press last year for criticizing the show's melodramatic fourth season, says with a wheezy laugh, "Yes, this last season is all about her daughter. And I want it to be about me!"
As her days of playing Nicki come to a close, Sevigny seems determined to forge her own luck on multiple fronts. She designed a clothing collection for trendy boutique Opening Ceremony that goes on sale Saturday, plans to brainstorm "a great New York film" with pal Tara Subkoff (her collaborator on the fashion line Imitation of Christ) and is developing a TV movie project about a female historical figure.
Will Sevigny miss the high-necked prairie dresses she wore onscreen for five years? Not much, but she says she will miss her "Big Love" sister wives, Jeanne Tripplehorn and Ginnifer Goodwin.
"It was kind of us against everybody else a lot of the time, and we were so lucky to have that. You hear about other sets where the girls are ... ." She meows loudly to indicate cattiness. "But there's not much competitiveness between any of us. When I come to L.A. in the future and I'm pounding the pavement, I'm going to stay with them."