Chloë Sevigny Talks ‘Crying Uncontrollably’ While Making ‘The Girl From Plainville’ and Her Aspirations for a ‘Spielberg-esque’ Directing Career
When Chloë Sevigny was first approached about playing a role in Hulu’s limited series “The Girl From Plainville,” she Googled the real-life case behind it — how the relationship between Michelle Carter and Coco Roy resulted in Roy’s death by suicide in 2014 — to jog her memory, and found herself jarred instead when she came upon a photo of Carter.
“I remember seeing her in magazines, and immediately thinking she was guilty, and being, like, ‘What a bitch,’” Sevigny said with a laugh. “So like, wow: I’m really complicit in seeing this beautiful blonde girl and thinking that just because she’s beautiful and blonde, she’s a demon.”
On the series, Sevigny plays Lynn Roy, the bereft mother of Coco Roy (Colton Ryan). She came to the project late, but was attracted to it in part because of Fanning, who plays Carter. “Huge fan of her choices,” Sevigny said. “She’s really smart, and has great taste.”
The show examines Coco and Michelle’s relationship, and how Coco’s death led to Carter being convicted of manslaughter, after voluminous texts between the two teenagers led Massachusetts law enforcement to prosecute her for her involvement in Roy’s suicide. Showrunners Liz Hannah and Patrick Macmanus, working from Jesse Barron’s 2017 Esquire story of the same name, have made “The Girl From Plainville” into a nuanced examination of mental illness — both Coco’s and Michelle’s — as well as a parental nightmare about how digital communication can be a black box. As Lynn, who is confused and devastated about why Coco would kill himself, Sevigny is both heartbroken and enduring — in his review, Variety’s chief television critic Daniel D’Addario called her performance “exceptional.”
Throughout her career — which began onscreen with the 1995 provocation “Kids” — Sevigny has played an astonishing range of characters, from her Oscar-nominated performance as Lana Tisdale in 1999’s “Boys Don’t Cry” to the frazzled, hilarious sister-wife Nicki on HBO’s “Big Love,” for which she won a Golden Globe in 2010. Of late, Sevigny co-starred in Luca Guadagnino’s HBO limited series, “We Are Who We Are,” has directed three shorts with the aim of soon turning to a feature film; and in May 2020, during the early days of the pandemic, she had a baby, about whom she spoke frequently during an interview with Variety.
For “The Girl From Plainville,” Sevigny watched Erin Lee Carr’s two-part HBO documentary “I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter,” in which Lynn Roy was interviewed extensively. “I was really struck by Lynn,” she said. “Her soul was on display on these interviews.” Sevigny read the scripts, and decided she wanted to be involved in “The Girl From Plainville” — no small decision, given that leaving for the August 2021 start of production in Savannah, Ga. would be “my first time working away from my son, leaving him at home,” she said.
But seeing Lynn Roy’s story in Carr’s documentary had moved her. “I was like, if I could capture something of that, and bring that to the audience, and for all those people out there in pain — struggling with their own decisions, struggling with loss,” Sevigny stopped as she got choked up. “I’m gonna get emotional. But I wanted to try and do that — to serve her, to serve her son.”
In an interview, Sevigny talked about embodying Lynn, working with Ryan and why she feels like “The Girl From Plainville” is the closest she’s come to her work in “Boys Don’t Cry.”
(SPOILER ALERT: There are light spoilers below for “Talking Is Healing,” the show’s sixth episode, which premieres on Hulu the night of April 18, during which Carter’s trial begins.)
What kinds of things did you get from “I Love You, Now Die” about what Lynn Roy looks like and acts like that you brought to the part?
We tried to mimic not only stuff that was in the documentary, but any photos that we could source of her exiting and entering the courthouse. We got the same sunglasses, same hair, similar makeup style, similar necklaces. But of course, that’s always when she’s in front of the camera.
I think the creators wanted to do a little bit of a class divide. Which I was not quite so sure of, because I feel like it’s such a fine line, especially in Massachusetts. We just wanted to seem as realistic as possible. And then I worked with a voice coach — she doesn’t have that thick of a Massachusetts accent. But, like, one word per sentence, you can really hear it.
What were the conversations with the creators about what they wanted versus what you did?
I think we were pretty much on the same page. There were a few, like, shoe choices where they wanted her in rhinestones. I was like, “She doesn’t put forth rhinestones to me.” Do you know what I mean? Like, I’m not sure we’re interpreting her in the same way. I don’t see her as doing this kind of more trashy kind of footwear.
But other than that, I just was so thankful that they are the kind of showrunners they are, because they really allowed the performance that I was able to give. I feel like certain shows I’ve been on, and certain creators, want a certain kind of performance. And this felt to me more like where I lived in “We Are Who We Are” or on “Bloodline,” where you can really find the soul of a character. I’ve just been wanting to be more internal. Maybe not your usual taboo, tabloid-fare acting, if that makes sense.
She’s been a fairly public person, Lynn Roy. Did you have any urge to reach out to her?
I mean, I did — and I didn’t. It’s such a tricky thing, you know? I felt like she’d given so much of herself in interviews, and all the time she spent with Jesse Barron and talking to our creators. And I wasn’t doing an impersonation, I was just trying to capture a quality and do justice to her and to her son’s story, and bring a soulfulness there and an emotional quality that hopefully people would connect with. I guess I felt like maybe if I spoke to her, the pressure of it would be more — it would hurt my performance more than help.
This sixth episode is the start of the trial, and the story has jumped ahead to 2017. Since Lynn has been living with this loss for a few years now, what is she thinking about Michelle Carter?
She’s really taking her in. She’s met the girl once before at the funeral, and then at the baseball game. And then all the stuff is revealed about her relationship with her son that she had no idea about. So I think she’s kind of like curious, and obviously furious. Like who is this person? And, I can’t believe she had this access to my son, and I had no idea.
There’s a scene between Lynn and Coco’s grandmother, when Lynn says she wants to go on “48 Hours” to tell the world who he was, and the grandmother says “you just can’t know” about what’s going on with someone.
That was a real turning point for Lynn in forgiving herself. She’s like, “You couldn’t have known. Nobody ever knows. You have to forgive yourself” — is really the intention of it. It’s a real turning point in her grieving process.
Lynn decides finally to watch one of the videos Coco made about his depression, and breaks down. I was curious about the logistics of that scene, because you’re looking at a computer. How was that filmed?
Colton had filmed the that stuff really early on, I think maybe one of his first days with Lisa Cholodenko directing. They had the wherewithal, thank God, of playing the video that Colton had done of playing Coco, which I think was pretty much verbatim from the real videos. It was just, like, floodgates.
I remember walking off set and crying uncontrollably. Whatever you were thinking about, then when you walk away, it all just kind of comes out at once. In one big purge. Just thinking about Lynn watching it, it was wasn’t hard to access that for me. How could you not get emotional?
Were you nervous about summoning the emotion for that scene on the day?
No, I wasn’t. The whole shoot was emotional. I wasn’t scared about having to access it; I was always scared of having to go home and then try and figure a way out of it. You know?
How did you find your way out of it on a daily basis?
I watched “Enlightened.”
The best show.
Which apparently, I never watched before? I didn’t know how! We had just finished watching “The White Lotus” before I went down there. So I was, like, obsessed with “White Lotus,” and I was like, “How have I never watched ‘Enlightened?’” And I love listening to podcasts. At night going to bed, just like “This American Life” or “You Must Remember This.” Hearing other people’s stories always gets me out of my own.
What was your working relationship like with Colton Ryan? How did you create that mother-son dynamic?
We just chatted a lot; we hung out a lot. He’s just this bright sunshine. I went to a Knicks game with him the other night. I did a Q&A at Barnes and Noble last week with an author, and he came to that. He’s just a good egg. He’s a good boy. And he was down there with his girlfriend and their dogs. He’s a music theater kid; he’s a very deep soul. I just connected with him as an individual, and had so much respect for him. And through the performances, it made it even easier.
Did you find it different playing a parent now that you’re a parent?
Yeah. 100%, yeah. And I always thought I played a great mom!
Just working away from him: What is that going to mean going forward? How am I going to navigate my career? How am I going to stay true to myself as an artist — not to be too, you know… — but like be OK with leaving him to do that. Is that selfish? When is the right time to do that? I reached out to a lot of women I know: Maya Rudolph, Amy Poehler, Dolly Wells and Emily Mortimer — a lot of girls I know who have children and work in the business. Like, how do you navigate it? Even Amanda, my publicist, or my friends in fashion — like, how are you away so much from your kids?
What was the best advice you got?
“Well, at this age they won’t remember!”
We were going through, also, all the IATSE stuff, and I was hearing this term “production widow.” I remember working on “Big Love,” and Jeanne [Tripplehorn] being away from her kid and Bill [Paxton] being away from his kids, but them both saying, “We can’t ever complain about it, or even ask for special treatment, because think of the crew.” All these guys are here so much more. They aren’t making the same sort of money, they’re away from their families. Guys, girls, both — hair and makeup people: There was a woman doing my makeup, and she had to leave her kids with some woman that she had hired last minute. So it was thinking a lot about that, in solidarity with the crew members, and figuring out how do we make this easier on everyone?
We’re approaching 30 years of you being in the entertainment business, with the anniversary of “Kids” coming up in a few years. Your IMDb page is incredibly full, and you’ve played all kinds of varied roles.
I mean, I would like to get credit for how varied my roles are. And I think that this spring is a real example of that, with “Russian Doll” and “Girl From Plainville” and how very different these characters are. We all as actors just want more opportunities for growth, and to try new things and work with people we admire, or who we find to be great storytellers. I’ve always been attracted to these singular voices — you know, strong creator types, director types. And I just hope to remain on that trajectory, and not ever having to, like, work in more of a by committee atmosphere.
When you look back over your past roles, which ones do you find yourself thinking about the most?
I don’t really sit around thinking about my career? But I do think about how great it was to have the opportunity to be on “Big Love,” and work with these genius writers, and all these incredible talents. In the beginning, they had a certain idea about me, and I was the more of the dramatic of the sister wives. And then they were, like, “Oh, Chloë is funny!” And toward the end, I was getting all the jokes. And just being a part of a family like that, and being able to grow within that — the writing grows, the characters grow, the storylines grow. And how fulfilling that was as an actress. So I’d like to have that kind of opportunity again — to do something really longform.
Also, “Boys Don’t Cry” was so fulfilling. That was, I think, probably my biggest role and my greatest role. And also working with Kimberly Peirce — she was a first-time filmmaker. That story meant so much to her as a filmmaker and storyteller, and to all the cast members. And means so much to so many kids still. Even though you couldn’t tell that story the same way now, I feel like people still appreciate what we were doing at the time when we did it.
The world has changed so much since “Boys Don’t Cry” came out. Has that affected how you think about your experience on the movie?
No, my experience was very — I feel like I keep using the word “profound”? It was very deep. We were all so deeply in it. And we were, like, in the middle of Texas, all staying together in this weird hotel. And we were so committed to the material. I felt like “Girl From Plainville” was the closest I’ve come to that feeling again.
Oh, that’s interesting — why?
Maybe because it’s true? And because of the complications of young people navigating whatever they’re going through — traversing young adulthood, and being misunderstood and not finding the right avenues for help and acceptance.
You’ve started directing. Do you want to direct a feature?
I have, like, Sydney Pollack-type aspirations — Spielberg-esque — to make really resonant films. I love magical realism. I have pretty lofty aspirations. I’m working a script right now that a friend of mine wrote, and hopefully we’ll get some financing and figure it out.
That sure is a 24-hour a day job.
I’ve made three shorts. And I found those extremely gratifying creatively. I love problem solving; I love talking to actors; I love talking to every crew member, getting them enthusiastic about we’re doing and explaining what the scenes mean to me — what the film means to me.
It’s much easier for me to go out and talk about them and promote when it’s not somebody else’s overall project.
This interview has been edited and condensed.