Meet Chloë Sevigny to talk about her new role and there’s an elephant in the room. Well, an elephant’s, er, trunk. In Hit & Miss, the new British drama created by Paul Abbott (Shameless, State of Play), the American actress plays Mia. The woman with the soft Irish Traveller accent is an assassin for a northern gangster. But that isn’t her only secret.
In the opening scenes we see a hooded Mia calmly pump four bullets into the back of a stranger on the roof of a car park. Repairing to her loft-style apartment in Manchester, Mia puts away the tools of her trade and undresses for a shower... And lo and behold if the slinky hitwoman isn’t, in fact, a hitman.
Mia is a ruthless underworld “cleaner” – but a transgender one. And, (s)he soon finds out, parent to a son fathered 11 years previously, before hormone-replacement pills started altering her shape and her reproductive capabilities.
Sitting down with Sevigny in a London hotel, it’s apparent that the onetime fashion muse and indie-cinema It Girl remains, at 37, a repository of hipster cred – not least because she is wearing one of her own fashion designs. Nonetheless I suggest to the Golden Globe winner (for HBO’s Mormon polygamy series Big Love) and Oscar nominee (for Boys Don’t Cry), that she must have a fairly strong sense of self to take on this job.
To be cast as a woman who was formerly a man and not feel in any way slighted – was it an issue for her?
“No, it wasn’t,” Sevigny replies coolly. “I do feel like I have some masculine features. I’ve seen myself on screen and thought that I do look quite masculine. So I could see why they would think of me for this part. But I wasn’t offended by it.”
Sevigny has form when it comes to playing oddball roles, having previously been cast as a butch-looking lesbian in the 2000 TV movie If These Walls Could Talk 2.
“I have, yeah, I did that job,” she smiles. “For money. I was paying my mom’s mortgage. I’ve still never seen that movie. People say it’s really good.” She shrugs. “We all gotta make a living.”
Hit & Miss shouldn’t work. After Mia finds out about the existence of her son Ryan, she also discovers that his mother
– her former girlfriend – has died from cancer. And as well as Ryan, she’s also left behind two teenagers and a six-year-old, and has named Mia as their legal guardian. Can the transgender killer become an instant mother/father to a squabbling, damaged brood living in rural penury in a cottage in West Yorkshire?
In fact, it’s compelling and, after a while, credible. It’s partly down to the tutelage of Abbott, one of our greatest contemporary dramatists. With writer Sean Conway, he’s turned in what might be the first-ever example of gritty surrealism.
And it’s partly down to Sevigny’s performance. Her heavy-lidded cool, hitherto deployed in a clutch of American independent films (The Last Days of Disco, American Psycho, Trees Lounge), brilliantly conveys the turmoil with which Mia must contend as she faces up to her new life.
Still, for all her sanguine calm today, she admits that the script did land like a bombshell. “When my agents got the offer they said, ‘We’d tell you what it’s about but we’re afraid it’ll turn you off, even if you just read the tagline.’ They told me I had to read the script because it was maybe the craziest thing they’d ever read in their lives. There was no way to describe it, so I just had to dive into it and check it out. And they were right – it was totally wild, like nothing you’ve ever seen on television.”
The last time I met Chloë Sevigny, in 2000, I interviewed her and Harmony Korine in New York. He was the young screenwriter who’d scripted Kids, Larry Clark’s influential 1995 film about druggy skaters in Manhattan. It starred Sevigny, Korine’s then-girlfriend. Moving into directing, Korine went on to cast her in his films Gummo and Julien Donkey-Boy. But 12 years ago, while Sevigny was starting to make a name for herself in Hollywood – she’d just shot Boys Don’t Cry with Hilary Swank – Korine was still in New York, and still doing drugs.
“Yeah, he’s a provocateur,” Sevigny says drily of her long-ago former boyfriend (she has also dated Jarvis Cocker and Paul Kaye, currently starring in the RSC’s hit West End staging of Matilda the Musical).
But Sevigny likes radical talents as much as she likes radical scripts. She is, much to her chagrin, still “infamous” because of The Brown Bunny. Directed by Vincent Gallo, the 2003 film showed, in eye-watering close-up, Sevigny performing a sex act on her director.
Not that she thinks it harmed her career – immediately afterwards she was cast in David Fincher’s Zodiac, Woody Allen’s Melinda and Melinda and got the call for Big Love.
Sevigny will soon have another chance to finesse her onscreen depictions of sex and sexuality – her next film is Lovelace, a biopic of the 1970s porn star-turned-feminist campaigner Linda Lovelace, in which she plays a journalist. But in the meantime she remains proud, and rightly so, of the defiantly different and boldly innovative story being told in Hit & Miss.
“It’s very lyrical, very poetic,” says this laser-sharp actress who doesn’t mince her words, or her performances. “It doesn’t lean towards camp in any way, shape or form. There’s a little heightened realism here and there. But I think people are gonna be really surprised. They’re gonna hear about this transsexual, transgender hitwoman and they’re gonna think it’s one thing – and by the end of the first episode they’ll realise this is not at all what they expected.”
Hit & Miss is showing on Sky Atlantic, Tuesdays at 10.00pm
This article was first published in the Radio Times (19-25 May)