Chloë Sevigny on Defying Stereotypes in Luca Guadagnino’s ‘We Are Who We Are’ and Her New Role as a Parent

Chloë Sevigny is an artist who follows her instincts. Defying any pressures to take on roles because of fads or franchises, what matters to her is inspiration. Key to the selection process is who is directing. This is what led Sevigny to immediately accept one of the co-star roles in HBO’s new limited series, “We Are Who We Are.” Directed by renowned Italian auteur Luca Guadagnino, this sun-kissed, ethereal drama is an ode to modern youth. Sevigny plays Sarah, the newly appointed commander of a U.S. base in Chioggia, Italy, where she moves with her wife Maggie (Alice Braga) and their teenage son, Fraser (Jack Dylan Grazer). Shot with the same kind of meditative elegance Guadagnino displayed in his acclaimed “Call Me by Your Name,” the series primarily takes Fraser’s point of view as, with manic energy, he explores life on the base, entering its confined circle of fellow army brats living the Gen-Z moment, while getting close to neighbor Caitlin (Jordan Kristine Seamón). 

For Sevigny, Sarah is the latest in a long list of roles defying stereotypes and gender norms, going back to her film debut in 1995’s “Kids,” and her breakthrough role in 1999’s “Boys Don’t Cry.” The strong and sophisticated lesbian mother Sarah, whose relationship with her son Fraser is both loving and dysfunctional, also demonstrates Sevigny’s ever growing maturity as a great actor. It also just happens to be a major role delivered just as Sevigny herself welcomes motherhood. In May she gave birth to son Vanja, with boyfriend Siniša Mackovic. Safe at home with Vanja, contemplating a world now altered by the Covid-19 pandemic, Sevigny spoke to Entertainment Voice about “We Are Who We Are,” what its characters represent, and her own, continuing quest for new creative experiences.

“We Who We Are” is a unique series. It’s broad and also has these very personal dimensions to it. What specifically drew you to this role?

Working with Luca Guadagnino. I’m such a huge fan of his work. I think “Call Me by Your Name” was one of my favorite films of the last few years. The intimacy within that film, the sexiness (laughs), the romance with the locations, with the faces of the actors, you know, the respect to the characters, with the characters and what they were going through. I felt there was a lot of sensitivity in the film. I liked his other films as well but that one really stood out to me as a game changer. 

I was also attracted to the character, obviously, the whole dynamic with her and her career, the military aspect of playing a character that has that sort of command, and then she has this relationship with the wife and that dynamic, the possible cheating. Then the son and that dynamic and how wild that is. It felt like even though the part is quite small it was very full, there was a lot to explore within those scenes.

So, it was a chance to work with Luca, who is one of the more acclaimed directors in the world. But when it came to shaping the character, and giving the character form, where did you draw inspiration from to hone this personality?

Well, I spent a lot of time talking to the military adviser and talking about chain of command dynamics. He’s had a long military career, and talking to him about different stories that he’s heard, or people that he’s known, and different families, and a woman like me — if he has known any women like my character, how did they get there, what are they striving for. I feel like I drew a lot from the information that he was giving me.

Working with Luca, there’s an expectation with this kind of filmmaker. Then when you’re both on set the actor-director relationship really starts. What was that like?

There was a lot of mutual admiration, thank heavens. I love being directed, I’m one of those actors that just sort of wants more. So any insight or direction that he was giving me, I would just run with it. He wants, or he wanted, everything very naturalistic. We didn’t do a lot of takes. He would keep the camera and all the crew very quiet. He wanted there to be an ease always with everyone, and realism, which we were all striving for. I think I really excel in that environment. When you’re asked to “play the stakes,” and this heightened sort of thing, I always feel like I flail or fail miserably (laughs). 

Well if you have “failed” we haven’t seen it on film, as since “Boys Don’t Cry” you really have done a great range of projects from so many different genres. Some of the films you’ve done lately have been gems like “Lean on Pete” and “Queen & Slim.” When you choose a script, what’s the most important element that you look for?

Usually I’m looking at the directors. When it’s a first time director like “Queen & Slim” — well Lena Waithe wrote that script and that script was so tight and even if I’d had one line I would’ve done it. I thought that was an important movie that needed to be made now for many obvious reasons. But yeah, mostly I’m thinking about the director and their work or their vision. If it’s a first time director I’m talking to them about what they want to say and what’s important to them. Also, giving people opportunities, I guess.

Every filmmaker is different, what’s one key lesson you think you’ve taken from working with such a wide gamut?

I don’t know if there is one thing. Preparedness I would say, although Luca would come with zero preparation. He had no shot lists, no idea. He would just show up and just wing it (laughs). 

Well you know what they’ve all done though? They’ve all surrounded themselves with producers and department heads that are collaborators. They treat their actors more like collaborators. I would take that away.

The mother-son relationship in the show is not your typical stereotype of the “TV family.” Share with us about working with Jack and the rest of the cast, and what the vibe on set was like.

There was all this ease. Me and Alice got along very well from the get-go, we felt very like-minded. Jack had a lot of energy, was very much into trying stuff, he was very surprising on set as an actor. He brought so much energy and enthusiasm to the set. It was fun to be around his energy. Him and Luca really kind of like dictated. There were a lot of kids working on the show who were first timers, and Jack’s level of professionalism really rubbed off on the others, and that was great to watch. Everyone was eager, but in the best sense of the word. Because often teens can be, let’s be honest, they can drag their feet a little (laughs). But there was none of that on this. Everyone was rip-roaring and ready to go and ready to do their best. We were all far from home and were there for a really long time. There were aspects that were difficult for a lot of us. Being away from home, being away from school. But we were all very present. I was very impressed.

The show has that signature, intimate touch of Luca, but a lot of its themes are broad and relevant. There’s so much in there about identity and fitting in and family. 

I feel lucky that we have a show coming out that feels very “right now.” These kids are questioning their sexuality and their gender. I hope some kids might see it and identify and feel less alone. There’s always that. 

In addition to having worked with so many great directors, you yourself have made some short films. Have you considered doing a full-length feature film?

I have. I’ve been getting sent scripts from my agency and reading what’s out there. A lot of the great stuff is getting scooped up by the more accomplished directors (laughs). I’m also trying to come up with an original idea and reading a lot, watching a lot, trying to figure out what that is, what’s important to be said, what’s irrelevant now. I feel like I had ideas in the past then Trump was elected, so those ideas don’t seem so revelatory anymore.

And, of course, with the way the year has gone because of Covid, it’s given artists that extra time to ponder and put ideas together. Even if you can’t shoot, you can sit down and write.

You can if you don’t have a four month-old baby and no help. I just got a friend of a friend’s daughter to help, because this week I’ve got all this press, and I was trying to do press while holding the baby. I don’t know if you have children or not, but you wonder, “where are these people going home to?” I can’t afford to have someone staying here with me. They go off to the train and live their lives and I can’t have them tested every day. What kind of bubble do they create? I don’t know.

How has parenthood influenced the craft and the way you approach it? 

I’m thinking more along the lines of, am I gonna wanna go to Italy for like 5 months if this opportunity were to arise again? It’s more like proximity to work and locations which will kind of be the big shift. I think a lot of [actors] with young kids stop working because they don’t want to be away from home when they act, they want to provide the child with some consistency. Maybe you travel a lot but when they start school then you kind of stay put. I don’t know. It would be great to find something that shoots in New York City. A secure contract at HBO. “Hello!” 

That would be the dream. As a parent and/or as an actor, you look for that kind of security.

Well I did “Big Love” and that shot in L.A. for five years and I’m a tried and true New Yorker. I had to, every six months, pack it up and go to L.A. and shoot. And it was a great character and a great show, but a lot of my relationships suffered because of that. I was away from my family and missed a lot of things. That just goes along with being in this business. I’ve been around so many other actors and crew members missing certain milestones with their children and then hearing from the children of people in the business, and how that affects them. It’s not like it’s the only line of work where people go away but there is a certain amount of sacrifice. I feel like there’s so much privilege in this I can’t say that, I’ll sound like an asshole (laughs).

What roles do you have coming up?

I’m supposed to shoot “Russian Doll” season 2, hopefully when people start shooting again we’ll shoot that. And, I mean, there was talk of doing [“We Are Who We Are”] again if the numbers are good.

Another season?

Kind of, yeah. And, I’ve been talking about directing something for a friend of mine’s theater group. They’re doing a lot of online content. So I’m exploring that. He’s actually coming over this afternoon to talk about that. We’re all trying to shift and figure that out.

Who is one director you haven’t worked with that you would jump at the chance to work with right now?

Did you see “Atlantics”? I loved, I loved that movie. [Director Mati Diop and I have] been DM’ing. She just did one of the Miu Miu women’s shorts and they were in Venice and we’ve been DM’ing and saying how it would be great to meet each other one day. Just as far as new filmmakers I would love to work with her. That movie was a masterpiece. 

We Are Who We Are” premieres Sept. 14 and airs Mondays at 10 p.m. ET on HBO.