There's a scene in Kimberly Peirce's Boys Don't Cry, an incredible 1999 indie film about the murder of trans man Brandon Teena, in which Brandon's love interest Lana (rhymes with "manna"), who is stuck in a dead-end town and surrounded by dead-end people, asks Brandon (Hilary Swank): "This might sound really stupid, but, um, do you think there's anywhere I could make money doin' karaoke?"
Brandon replies, "Why not?" And you find yourself nodding along in agreement; suddenly, nothing makes more sense than the idea of someone making money doing karaoke, and for just a heartbeat, you start thinking about it as a career path for yourself. But you shake off that thought because you are not the one who could make a living from singing along to your karaoke song of choice (Robyn Hitchcock's "I'm Only You," FYI). You shake off that thought because you are not Lana, who stands center stage in a dimly lit bar in Falls City, Nebraska, singing "The Bluest Eyes in Texas" by Restless Heart, with heavy-lidded eyes and a loose grip on the microphone. You shake that off because you are not Chloë Sevigny, whose embodiment of Lana was instantly iconic—as is the case with pretty much everything Sevigny does.
In 1994, Jay McInerney profiled the then 19-year-old Sevigny for The New Yorker, just as she was on the cusp of becoming famous for her role in Kids; she was already famous within the ultra-cool New York City circles in which she ran. It's funny to reread that profile of Sevigny now and note all the ways in which Sevigny not only was incredibly cool—there's a great throwback to Sevigny shopping for $2 fishnet sandals in Chinatown, which would be ubiquitous on all the cool girls in NYC… but not for another three years—but also the way in which Sevigny transcended anyone else's idea of what was cool, thus redefining the very concept of cool itself, in that it instantly lost all its objectivity when it came to Sevigny. She wasn't cool because she did something, something was cool because she did it.
We're now 23 years into Sevigny's Condé-sanctioned reign as "the coolest girl in the world," and she has cemented her status as a perennial It Girl in a way that is semi-shocking when you think about it glancingly—how can anyone maintain her specific type of cultural cachet for such an extended, unbroken length of time? But that makes perfect sense once you spend any amount of time really thinking about Sevigny and the work she's done over the years. The films she's made are often designed to cause discomfort and, in doing so, wind up expanding our definitions of what exactly makes up the human experience. Her films are at once adored, often cultishly so (the aforementioned Boys Don't Cry, The Last Days of Disco), polarizing (Kids, American Psycho), or hated (notably Brown Bunny, but also Melinda and Melinda ). One thing they all have in common, though, is that they're provocative, in that they stir up and arouse a full range of emotions, making Sevigny one of the most compelling actors not only of her generation but of any generation.
As of late, Sevigny has also been stepping behind the camera, producing two short films—Kitty (based on the magically surreal Paul Bowles story) and Carmen (a beautifully shot, funny meditation on loneliness, starring comedian Carmen Lynch)—both of which I recently watched at the Nitehawk Cinema, where Sevigny was appearing for a conversation with W's Karin Nelson. (You can listen to a podcast of their convo here.) Prior to the film, my friend and I saw Sevigny standing outside the theater's downstairs bar (it's, like, a really great place to watch a movie), peering inside the dark room, clearly looking for someone to usher her inside. We were both instantly struck by her ineffable style and the way in which she could make anything look perfect, including the oversized navy sailor's jacket she'd paired with a black leather miniskirt; her cornsilk hair hung down over her shoulders, her face split into a grin when she thought for a second that we were who she was supposed to be meeting. We were both incredibly sad that this wasn't the case.
In a happy coincidence for us, though, we were seated right next to Sevigny and Nelson while watching the shorts, each of which is remarkably different from the other, but both of which make total sense within the context of Chloë. Kitty, because it shares a suburban magical realism with Sevigny's own origin story (I mean, is there anything more mystical than the way in which a teenager from suburban Connecticut managed to take over the downtown Manhattan cool kid's scene? And then, like, the world's?); Carmen,, because it reveals a side of Sevigny which is there if only we knew to look for it; namely, she's really, really funny. Which makes sense, ultimately, because what cool kid isn't?
Sevigny's humor and gorgeously goofy hiccuping giggle were on full display in her interview with Nelson. She spoke—and frequently laughed—about everything from the way in which she'll "sexualize any man; that's weird, but…" to how "aghast" she was when she rewatched Kids and realized how misogynistic it is to how Sean Penn's nickname for her is "Sticks" to the way in which Kristen Stewart is totally fearless on set, questioning directors and producers and writers; at one point, Sevigny mused, "No wonder she's a movie star. No wonder I'm not a movie star."
And maybe she's not a movie star—though there's little doubt that she could play one on-screen (I mean, did you not see what she looked like at the Academy Awards when she was nominated for Boys Don't Cry??). Instead, Sevigny is more than a merely far-distant star, glittering out of reach and range, static and seemingly unchanging in its suspended velvet dark depths. Rather, Sevigny serves as a reminder of what is possible here on earth, what happens when someone who is so resolutely herself works toward building a career based on meaningful collaborations and stimulating relationships, what happens when someone doesn't compromise their vision of what their life should be like simply because people on the internet are taking different paths. Sevigny remains the coolest girl in the world at a time when she's no longer a girl. Through all of the projects she's worked on over the last couple of decades, she's done what can seem impossible in this time of perpetual image rebirth and a need to trend-spot and follow; through it all, Sevigny has stayed true only to herself. There will only be one Chloë Sevigny. She's it.