Chloë Sevigny and Natasha Lyonne first met in "someone's backyard." They were filming different movies in Toronto, circa 1999. Seventeen years later, the longtime friends returned to Sundance this week with their fourth film together. Written and directed by Danny Perez, "Antibirth" is about a foolhardy stoner named Lou (Lyonne) who seeks answers after a drug she doesn't remember taking mysteriously makes her pregnant. Sevigny plays her best pal Sadie in the trippy sci-fi mind warp. The Huffington Post sat down with the trio at Sundance, where Lyonne and Sevigny's "Party Monster" premiered in 2003, to discuss their history together, women in pop culture, "American Horror Story" and more.
Chloë, I was at the premiere for your other movie, "Love & Friendship," a few nights ago. It seemed to play very well. How was your reunion with Whit Stillman and Kate Beckinsale? It's been almost two decades since "The Last Days of Disco."
Sevigny: I think it played really well. I think people wanted to laugh, but they also didn’t want to miss the dialogue. It was really fun. Whit’s a really complex, interesting man. He’s very demanding on the set. It’s funny because you go and you work with someone for the second time, and you think, “Oh, I know all their quirks. I’m coming prepared and I’m not going to let it rattle me.” But Whit still totally shook me to the core.
Is it because he’s a perfectionist?
Sevigny: Oh, yes. Every day there’s a different actor who he decides he’s going to put through the ringer. So everybody gets their turn.
Lyonne: But the movie’s excellent, though. That’s the bottom line. And they do say that if the movie is a blast and a half and everybody’s having a great time and really great friends, that your movie is probably a piece of shit. But if your movie is up against the elements and you’re going to war and you really have to work hard and you’re having a lot of complicated feelings, then you might just have a good movie on your hands. It sort of sounds like that.
You can’t cast any actress in these "Antibirth" parts. Why were they written for Chloë and Natasha?
Perez: First and foremost, I was a fan. Before I even knew them, I was a fan. I consider myself a movie lover and and a lover of media, as far as TV and music goes. So with Natsha, even before I went to film school, I was like, “That girl’s dope.” She was always the one I had my eye on.
Was there a project of hers that first grabbed you?
Perez: I think “Slums of Beverly Hills” was such an animate, colorful world that she occupied. The chemistry with Kevin Corrigan is so great and it was a very unique character. Then also just being a visually minded person, not even through the lens of the male gaze, I just find her very pleasing to look at. Even in photographs, she fits into my world in a nice way.
Sevigny: And you guys worked together before. You did that thing together.
Perez: We did a music video and I thought she was amazing in it. Chloë did some amazing wardrobe on her.
Sevigny: That was accidental, but OK.
For this movie?
Lyonne and Perez: No, no, no.
Sevigny: Well, yes, for this movie too.
Lyonne: Well, that’s true, actually.
Sevigny: I wore a lot of my own clothes. We both did.
Lyonne: We had a wonderful costume guy, but Chloë and Danny are so specific with their aesthetic. Certainly Chloë is an aesthetic genius. “Duh,” you would say. Everybody knows this.
That is your reputation.
[Sevigny rolls her eyes.]
How much of the visuals are written into the script?
Perez: I would say kind of a lot. It comes from my background primarily as a visual artist. Not to say that I’m a window dresser or a very superficial filmmaker in that regard, but that is always the construct I like to put things in: a visual world. Something I wanted to do was achieve a certain duality as far as the sets and costumes -- they're very stylized. But the performances and the language are a little more grounded, a little more gritty. With a movie like this, you’d almost think Natasha would be like, “Oh, my God! This is ca-raaaaaa-zy!” And Chloë would be like, “Girl! You can’t!” But you have to take it down a couple more notches so the scenes are almost dazed and confused.
Did you always know it would be women at the center?
Perez: Oh, hell yeah.
Perez: Well, because women are more interesting than men. I don’t want to make another movie about a 30-year-old white guy chasing a girl around Washington Square Park. I don’t want to do that.
Lyonne: That was a great example. It’s true. They always end up under the arch.
Perez: I think even in this day and age, having a main female character, let alone a crass one or an antihero, in and of itself, is a subversive act. And I’m not saying that to toot my own horn, like, “Oh, I’m so cool because I cast a female lead.” It fucking sucks that there aren’t more female main characters, so this movie definitely pushes that touch of subversion pretty far, in terms of the graphic nature and the things that she does. I think there are a lot of political aspects of this movie and I wanted to fucking put it out there in an entertaining, surreal format.
Lyonne: I do think this movie, what’s interesting about it is, in terms of references, what I would think about for Lou is pretty much all male references. There was a lot of Denzel Washington at the end of “Training Day,” a lot of Ratso Rizzo, like studying Dustin Hoffman, a lot of thinking about Sam Peckinpah guys, even “The Wild Bunch,” like them all sitting in that weird hot tub together laughing maniacally. We are finally getting into a time when people are finally realizing women are pretty happening as a species. It’s a bit of a delayed reaction, but there you have it. That said, I think Lou is a pretty testosterone-driven female lead, which is pretty fun.
It inverts “Rosemary’s Baby," in terms of a woman confused by her pregnancy. This time, she's not helpless and dependent on a husband to find out what's going on to her own body. She's independent with a female buddy.
Sevigny: I kind of wanted to base my character on, you know “Hairspray”? The best friend. What’s her name? I’ll have to look it up again. Polly or Peggy or something? She was always kind of a ding-dong.
Lyonne: Yeah. Even Divine’s gal pals in “Female Trouble” are like that.
Perez: There’s a certain irreverence, even sloppiness, to those John Waters movies that I like. You get the sense that the sound guy is also the guy in the background of that one shot, and everybody’s having fun. You have these scenes with Natasha and Chloë dancing to Suicide where we’re going for this playful sassiness, kind of thumbing your nose at the culture. I think there’s a looseness to that, as opposed to a polished movie with long dolly moves where everyone is hitting their marks. I think there’s kind of a reckless abandon, if you will.
Did you just look up the "Hairspray" character?
Sevigny, who was just googling something on her phone: Penny! I kept saying Polly. Penny Pingleton. Remember? I was like, “I want to play a character like Penny!”
Perez: But there’s that really dark scene where she gets hit by a cattle prod because she has a black boyfriend. Remember that scene?
Lyonne: Now I’m really thinking about “Rosemary’s Baby” and how messed up and outdated it is, and how unlike this movie it is. I’ve been saying in witty asides that "Antibirth" is like Joe Pesci instead of Mia Farrow. Mia Farrow is sort of like a helpless victim, kind of like a waif who’s walking around and her husband has answers but she has none. She’s fascinating to me because it’s such a legendary, incredible movie. But that's something that we really discussed -- that shift that happens where Lou goes from being a wasteoid to someone who’s like, “I’m not going to be a victim in this situation.” It’s basically the idea that it’s one thing for me to abuse myself; it’s another thing for people to think they have a right to abuse me. Culturally, in terms of the free world and on a feminist trip or whatever, in general, it is free will. You wouldn’t imagine that Joe Pesci would be, like, standing there in a little frilly pastel dress, kind of blindly walking around. Joe Pesci would be like, “Where the fuck are those Satanists? Get me to fucking Satan! I’m going to talk to Lucifer and we are going to fucking figure out this pregnancy.” And I think that’s really what it means. It’s in the vein, and automatically that becomes a wild fucking idea.
Is it ever not going to be a wild fucking idea?
Lyonne: From the inside out, I will say it feels like things are really shifting, and that’s really good news. However, at the same time, when you look at the numbers, it’s staggering. It’s shocking that it has not changed racially or for the female filmmaker or actor. The numbers are probably very different than the experience. Chloë just directed her first short film. I produced this movie. Clea DuVall, who is the director for another film I’m here for, “Intervention,” just made her first movie. It's Jamie Babbit on “Fresno” and Tamara Jenkins and Jenji Kohan, obviously -- a lot of major women in my personal career. And yet, when you look at the numbers, it’s just devastating.
Do you feel like you’ve worked with enough women, Chloë?
Sevigny: I think I’ve worked with some great directors.
Kimberly Pierce on "Boys Don't Cry," of course.
Sevigny: Kimberly Pierce, and Mary Harron on “American Psycho.” I worked with two great female directors on this series I did in England called “Hit and Mess.” But no, there’s always a lack. I’ve done many TV shows now for years, and we’re lucky if we have one female director per season.
Perez: I’m not trying to take Natasha and Chloë, like, “OK, now we’re going to dress you down like you’re 22 years old and have you talk like you’re fucking high schoolers.” Now, the inverse, which I love, is that in the ‘80s and ‘70s, you have these "Porky's" movies where you have 40-year-old men playing teenagers, like, “Hey, Samantha, let’s go skinny-dipping!” This guy is fucking 40 years old! I think that’s just hilarious.
Lyonne: You really see so many threads of this kind of wasteland communities happening across America that are really pretty depressing in their hopelessness. These are people in their 30s and 40s who still haven't been able to eke out a life for themselves, and how dark that is. These characters are more in that world, rather than just like, "Hey, I’m a wasted teenager going through a phase." It’s more about the hopelessness and the depression of America in modern society.
Perez: It’s fine to be a wasteoid when you’re 20, 25. When you’re 35, it’s little more endemic of other things going on.
Chloë, this season of “American Horror Story” also explored pregnancies gone awry, with The Countess' vampire children. Not to mention the escalating bizarreness of the visuals.
Sevigny: I know. That’s “American Horror Story.” Is there any way to make sense of it? Is anyone going to rationalize it?
I wouldn’t dare. But I do wonder if seeing the end results of "Hotel" and “Antibirth" are similar experiences. Do they surprise you? Ryan Murphy has a reputation.
Sevigny: Well, in all honesty, I haven’t seen “American Horror Story.” I went to the premiere and I watched the pilot, but, you know, I think it’s like candy. It’s like pop. People love the visuals. He’s kind of forward enough but not too forward, where people can embrace it in the middle of the country. But he is pushing it, and the music was wild and great. We had all this Bauhaus and these gothic references. I think people love that show. It’s the same with Natasha’s show, “Orange Is the New Black” -- somehow it just hits with people. I think it’s great escapism, but I also had my own kind of existential crisis with the violence and the serial-killer storyline.
Can you say more about that?
Sevigny: No. [Laughs]
Lyonne: Well, it is interesting. I mean, Chloë was saying the other day that right now she’s obsessed with “The West Wing.” But it’s worth noting that there are these sort of eras of different kinds of escapism for society, and traditionally it’s been more in the vein of the procedural. And for some reason now, these weirdo, idiosyncratic things -- sure, there may be pop, polished versions, but they really are very dark and absurdist thematically, and people seem to be, I think, bored and played out. We get it, “C.S.I.” We get it, you’re a lawyer. And now people want the deranged world of “American Horror Story,” or the brutal reality and absurdism of female prison. It’s interesting that those are things that have hit such a cord on such a mainstream level. I think it speaks to a boredom in our culture with assembly-line propaganda.
Perez: Speaking to exactly what Chloë said, I think a lot of Middle America can get down with a show with “American Horror Story,” where a guy gets impaled with a screwdriver dildo. It’s pretty extreme stuff. So when you’re trying to get movies financed like this one, you often come across, “That’s not commercial, there’s no market for that, there’s no audience for that.” We’re all like, “What are you telling me? All of my friends watch this stuff and we all think it’s awesome.” It can be frustrating when you have people who try to break it down to categories like that, but the reality is that people are bored.
Are you done with “American Horror Story” after this season?
Sevigny: I don’t know, they haven’t asked me back. I don’t even know if they’re on to the next one year. I think they’re going through “American Crime Story” right now.
Lyonne: But you would go back.
Would you, after feeling the way you do about "Hotel"?
Sevigny: Oh, I love “Hotel.” I think it was great. It was so much fun to be on. I love the cast. Of course, I was in the second season, “Asylum,” and I think this whole formula that he’s developed where he’s using the same cast and casting them as different characters is awesome and fascinating and kind of groundbreaking. It’s almost like [Rainer Werner] Fassbinder in a way. There’s this history in cinema of directors using the same actors over and overs again and having a troupe.
Sevigny: I love that idea. I think he is a really interesting man, fascinating, has a lot to contribute. TV’s so hard because you sign on to something without even reading a single script. It’s a giant leap of faith. And I think, with “American Horror Story,” it’s such a huge ensemble that really my biggest problem with the show was that I wanted more to do. I wanted a bigger part. That’s always my complaint on that. Also the tone is so weird. For me, I don’t know if I’m the right kind of actress. You know what I mean? Some actresses are very good at that. For me, I always want to underplay it.
Everything is very big. Look at Sarah Paulson’s character.
Sevigny: Yes. Finding the tone is a scary place for me, which is exciting and fun. I hope he invites me back.
So your existential breakdown wasn’t enough to draw you away form the show?
Sevigny: No, no, no, no. Of course not. I’m sure if I was watching the show I wouldn’t feel the same way as when you’re reading it. I actually was home one night and I watched a bit of it because I had to do an interview the next day, and it was this super violent, crazy scene and then they cut to, like, a Snickers commercial. “’American Horror Story’! Brought to you by Snickers!” There’s a pumpkin carved out, and I’m like, when people are watching this at home and that happens, it totally take you out. It’s a whole other experience.
"Antibirth" can’t be an easy movie to find distribution for. Are you guys used to showing up at Sundance and not knowing where your movie is going to go?
Lyonne: It’s pretty exciting to sort of figure out where this movie is going to land. What’s great about making such a singular thing is it ends up finding its appropriate home -- the place that knows it’s special and weird and one-of-a-kind. One of my favorite things about Chloë in particular is, I love that Chloë’s not, like, best friends with everyone. It makes me feel like she loves me. I’m the one she loves unconditionally. You know what I mean? The loyalty is there for me. I’m the one she thinks is cool enough to fucking spend her life with, and that makes me feel really, really special. As someone who doesn’t have a ton of family and that kind of thing, it really gives me a lot of strength. I will tell you this: I’ve definitely made my fair share of bizarre movies. I've seen enough movies and been around long enough to say that I do feel like we’re going to still be hearing from this movie, maybe even more than in the next year -- more, in a weird way, in like 20 years from now, as a sort of bizarro cult classic.
Perez: No! I want to hear that now. I can’t wait 20 years!
Lyonne: I will say that this movie is built for that. I look forward to the Chloë Sevigny retrospective at the Film Forum when we’re like 70 years old. I want to be her plus-one and it’s fucking “Boys Don’t Cry” and “Kids” and “My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?” and “Gummo.” I mean, there’s going to be so many of them, and then this weird one in there, “Antibirth.” I think this movie is going to be OK in the big picture.
There’s so much affection for you at this table right now.
Lyonne (to Sevigny): We love you!
Sevigny: Good, I’m so tired that I’m going to fall over.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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