When Chloe Sevigny played a young, upwardly mobile New Yorker in Whit Stillman’s 1998 dramedy “The Last Days of Disco,” she was primarily known for “Kids.” It was a bit of a gearshift, but it helped establish her as one of the most exciting young actors working. With “Love & Friendship,” she returns to the world of Whit, who this time adapts one of his clearest inspirations: Jane Austen. Based on the author’s “Lady Susan,” an epistolary novella from her teenage years, it reunites Sevigny with “Disco”’s Kate Beckinsale, who plays a 30-something widow scheming for a new husband. Sevigny plays Alicia, her similarly savvy best friend.
Given the film you’d done before “The Last Days of Disco,” how did you convince Stillman you’d be good for the more buttoned-up Charlotte?
I think I may have lied and said I went to prep school, to seem more WASPy, thinking he would like that. I probably said, “Oh, I just came from the train from Connecticut.” I made all of that up. And somehow he cast me. I love that movie. A Halloween or two ago I remember coming out of a party at my brother’s club. And a girl was dressed as me in “Last Days of Disco.” She had my top and my hairdo and my trousers. I took a picture with her.
It’s good you get cited for that and not only “Kids.”
I still have that T-shirt, the one with the blue ringer. They had a 20-year anniversary screening at BAM. I thought, “Maybe I should wear that T-shirt.” Then I thought it would freak people out. Too weird. [Laughs] But I think I should bust it out at some point.
How is a 20-year-old T-shirt not in tatters?
It’s been in a box in a temperature-controlled storage unit in Connecticut.
Looking at “Kids” and the Sonic Youth video you were in, it’s a good reminder that New York is no longer remotely that cool. The Village is all drunk NYU kids.
Yeah. Where are the weirdos? That’s what I always say. I was wearing some crazy outfit downtown, in a restaurant. My boyfriend said, “That couple’s looking at you like you’re nuts.” I was like, “Good, someone’s got to be nuts in this town.” It’s so boring now. It’s all so staid. I hope I can bring a little freakiness down here, for crying out loud.
Back to Stillman: His films really stood out amongst the indies in the ’90s. Had you been a fan before “Disco”?
I was a fan of “Metropolitan,” not so much “Barcelona.” I thought “Metropolitan” was so interesting. I was like, “No one else has this voice right now.” Of course, it was the time of indies, they were in vogue then. I still thought he had a very different voice, it was a very different world.
A lot of indies tend towards naturalistic dialogue, but his is very written.
His dialogue is very heightened, and he’s very specific about tone and intonation. It can be a little difficult working for Whit. You feel like you’re under a microscope. You want to perform well for him, but sometimes it’s like, “Oh my god, it’s like an IQ test.”
You never had classical training in acting, yet in “Disco” you have this ability to make his flowery dialogue sound very naturalistic.
I think half the time I didn’t know what I was doing. [Laughs] I was winging it. A lot of my friends will still say, “You’re really interesting in that because you’re playing the more innocent Chloe.” Usually I’m more tough, because I’m insecure and I put up this front. I don’t think I’ve done [innocent] in a lot of movies, so it makes that really special.
Even though Stillman is doing Jane Austen, “Love & Friendship” continues this his habit of having real sympathy for people who are wealthy or aristocratic in some way. They’re often worrying about money, just like all of us.
They’re just putting on that facade. I feel like people have this conception — that if someone’s wearing a blazer they think, “Oh my god, he’s rich.” Maybe he’s not. Maybe he’s just pretending he is to get further ahead. All of Whit’s characters are fighters and survivors and trying to navigate and hoodwink, a little bit, people in the world. They’re posing as something they aren’t to get ahead, to survive. It’s a throughline in all his movies, including [“Love & Friendship”].
The characters played by you and Kate Beckinsale know how to get what they want. Usually strong women like that are punished, though movies do seem to be evolving, slowly, to include more characters like that — though not so much in blockbusters.
I went to see “The Huntsman” the other day and I was like, “I wish this movie had been better for these ladies.” I really do. I wanted to support it. I love Charlize [Theron], I love Jessica [Chastain], I love Emily [Blunt]. I wanted them to have a better movie. If this movie doesn’t perform, it’s a problem [for other female-driven movies]. They had endless resources — why couldn’t they have given these girls a better movie?