“It will be a certain relief to every right-minded man or woman who has followed the case to learn that the jury at New Bedford has not only acquitted Miss Lizzie Borden of the atrocious crime…but has done so with a promptness that was very significant.” So read the New York Times on the verdict of the trial of the (nineteenth) century: Lizzie Andrew Borden cleared of the gruesome murder of her father and stepmother via 29 (not 40) whacks with an axe.
As it turned out, the jurors (all men) of Fall River, Massachusetts found the prospect of Borden’s whacks, well, wack. They couldn’t stomach that a 33-year-old “maiden” of her wealth and clout was capable of such a deed, let alone of pulling it off with nary a sign of scuffle.
But that was 1893. In 2018, another New England born icon—Chloë Sevigny—is less concerned with whether Lizzie did it than with why she might have had no other choice. In Lizzie—directed by Craig William Macneill, and co-produced by the actress—historic accuracy is traded for reckless, if often ravishing, revisionism: Lizzie and her housemaid, Bridget Sullivan (played by Kristen Stewart with equal parts diffidence and achy longing), fall in love, pay for it, and plot revenge against the patriarchal powers that be.
If Lizzie can feel strained in pace and plotting (its score relentlessly announcing thematic gravity), the heat between Sevigny and Stewart makes for a combustible climax. For an actor once known as the New Yorker’s “coolest girl in the world,” Sevigny shows a vulnerability—and palpable rage—onscreen that exposes the perpetual It Girl as bracingly human. In conversation Sevigny comes across as the opposite of detached—her answers seasoned with an easy, throaty laugh.
VICE spoke with Sevigny over the phone about the film, which opens nationwide Friday, September 14. The following has been condensed and edited for clarity.
VICE: What were the challenges of taking on a role as legendary as Lizzie Borden—someone whose image has been caricatured and sensationalized for over a century?
Chloë Sevigny: Yes, she was mythic, enigmatic, and mysterious. These are all words applied to Lizzie Borden, and to me throughout my career—mostly by journalists. Having delved into the myth, the legend, via books, via going to stay at her house, going to the courthouse, going to her gravesite, I just became very empathetic towards her. How misunderstood she was, how choked she was, how she was such a victim of her times.
Learning about her work with children and her love of animals, I thought, “This poor woman was really misunderstood and tortured.” I thought she would be a really complex character to play, and at the end all actors just want some complexity.
It would be so much easier to make her a sociopath. And obviously your film does not do that, which is that much more challenging for audiences.
I hope so. We intentionally wanted you to like her, and then there would be this turn. Because we’re really seeing her through Bridget’s eyes most of the time, and Lizzie’s fighting for herself but also fighting for Bridget, who represents the nameless, the faceless. But then Bridget’s like, “Who are you?” We all have people in our lives who we think we know, and it’s shocking and not shocking to realize we actually don’t. We intentionally wanted to manipulate the audience in the same kind of way.
Aside from visiting her home, which is now a bed and breakfast, what other steps you took to get into the role? I know you’ve been working on the project a long time.
I have been working on the project a long time, but that's often confusing. The property was owned by a certain studio for a while, and I was just waiting for them to decide whether or not to do it. So it’s not like we were actively working on it every single day. But I have been actively thinking about it for some time. Of course I read all the court transcripts. There are countless books, and I’ve read the majority of them. Spending time in Massachusetts, thinking about her, and attending séances—all kinds of crazy shit [laughs].
It’s a fascinating period in history. A lot of people don’t know that this was a time that so many women were entering the public sphere, but there was also a great fear about giving women freedom—even affluent women like Lizzie.
Yes, but a lot of that was happening outside of Lizzie’s Fall River neighborhood, which was very conservative. Her community was very Calvinist, and very behind the times. But the turn of the century is a period I’ve always been really fascinated with—especially in New England, the miser Dad, all the tropes.
You called Lizzie a victim of her times, but one thing about her character that stood out—and, really, all the characters you’ve played over the years—is that even though she endures so much, ultimately she doesn’t come across as a victim. I think that also about Chelsea in Bloodline or even Lana in Boys Don’t Cry.
That’s interesting. I don’t know. Maybe it’s my physical presence. I don’t have a fragile female face, something that people can project that onto. So many complicated things go into how audiences interpret the emotions of an actor in a certain way.
Maybe you’re just not conspicuously sad-looking…
[Laughs] Yeah, I don’t know if I’ve ever played a real, straight-up tragic character. Even the secretary I play in American Psycho, Jean—her situation is sad but she’s also a kind of a moral compass.
Exactly. Even when a character could be tragic, when you play her she doesn’t seem tragic.
Thank you! [laughs] I’m pretty critical of the movie Kids and the lack of female presence in [that] movie. I sometimes wish that my character had more of a feminist stance in some way. But girls still come up to me and saying that character reminds me of them.
Speaking of strength, so many are commenting on the nude scene in the film, but to me, what’s just as striking is how willful and physically capable Lizzie comes across. It would take a lot of effort to whack someone to death!
We only took two takes, and we tried to show her striking the same amount of blows that they claim she struck—for historical accuracy, even though we took so many liberties everywhere else [laughs]. To me, that scene isn’t even really about her being naked, it’s about the power struggle. The men of her time didn’t think she could even be capable of this. We wanted it to be brutal for men to watch. I wanted audiences to be confronted with a woman fully naked—me!—totally going for it. It’s very cathartic for her, stripped of her social constraints, corsets and all that.
I wanted there to be a lot of force, but I am also not that physically strong. I mean, I do Pilates! [laughs] But that’s also why I think she has to keep hacking though. The one blow wouldn’t do enough. She becomes possessed and something takes over, and it becomes robotic. There’s the adrenaline, and then the fear. The feeling that “I’ve started this, so now I have to finish it.” There’s a lot going on in that scene. When she realizes that Bridget can’t take care of the second murder, something just snaps inside. To me, it’s more believable when Lizzie kills her Dad, because it’s more detached, inevitable.
Early in the film Lizzie says to Bridget, “Men don’t have to know things. Women do.” There’s so much packed into that statement. Do you feel that still applies today, and if so, how?
Yeah, especially now, I think. To me, it feels modern, and a lot of Lizzie’s issues are still relevant. I think that she was smart and could have been independent, but none of those qualities were valued by her family or by her community. She had nowhere to turn. She was trapped, very much so. And I think a lot of women out there still feel trapped, and have limited choices.
Your film Love & Friendship by Whit Stillman has a humorous take on what women of the past were willing to do for financial security. Lizzie exposes the very dark flipside.
Yes. But the world is still set up this way. People are finally recognizing that the world is set up to see women as secondary or less than, and Lizzie just refused to be stepped on. To me, Lizzie is a classic American outlaw fighting against the oppressor. I mean of course we don’t want to condone everything she did—but what she represents, challenging the patriarchy and the status quo? I’m all for it.
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