Chloë Sevigny took the time to discuss her role as Shelley in the FX hit show, American Horror Story: Asylum. Shelley is one of the inmates at Briarcliff Manor committed because of nymphomania. I loved last season of American Horror Story but this season is over-the-top creepy. Chloë hints at what is in store for her character and it isn’t pretty. Don’t miss an all-new episode of American Horror Story: Asylum tonight on FX.
Press Conference Call Interview Highlights:
Q: You’ve done a lot of themes and topics that have been explored in the season of American Horror Story before in other projects, but what was it that was specifically unique about AHS that drew you to the project?
Chloë Sevigny: I guess it was having watched the first season and just being a fan of the show. I just thought it was so rich, the production design and costumes and how much detail went into it and I just thought it was wildly entertaining. I was hoping the second season would be as much so. I didn’t get to read any scripts prior to signing on, so I was kind of going in on blind faith hoping that it would be what I wanted it to be and it’s proven so.
Q: Were you able to work with Ryan [Murphy] with your character and develop “Shelley” along, or was everything kind of fed to you week by week?
Chloë Sevigny: Yes, it was more week-to-week. I mean I think that’s mostly how television works. It’s a real writer’s medium and it’s not so much collaborative. It’s not like a film, so it’s pretty much all on the page. There were some bits where I asked Ryan for more lines, so that seemed to beef it up here and there and they tried to do that for me. That was probably the extent of it.
Q: What is it that you think is about the show that makes it so awesome?
Chloë Sevigny: I think with this season, he’s exploring different things from the first. I think there’s a lot of really good … characters; how women are accused of being this, that, and the other thing. I think it’s like they’re wildly represented in the season. As a woman, as a female viewer I like that pitch.
Q: What is it like to work with James Cromwell? I don’t know what he’s doing to you, but it’s really scary.
Chloë Sevigny: Oh, it gets much scarier. He was good. I mean I was a huge fan of his. I actually saw him in a café right before we started shooting and I went up to him introduced myself and he just like, “I’m so looking forward to chopping off your legs.” Yes, he was great. I mean you know he was really into rehearsing the scenes before and really exploring it to its fullest, so that was kind of nice. Sometimes people just go in and just hit their marks and he really wanted to work everything out before. He was really … in that regard.
Q: What’s Shelley’s disposition going to be; she’s going to be pretty pissed off I’d have to imagine?
Chloë Sevigny: I think she’s pretty pissed off. I think she feels pretty helpless and I think in the beginning you kind of like not so much rooting for her. You think she’s this bad girl and then see her helping Evan’s character and … character trying to escape and you realize that she’s pretty selfless in that regard. I think after she gets in the clutches of the evil doctor, I think you’re then kind of more rooting for her and hoping that she can escape or find a way out. So I think the character goes through a lot. The audience goes through a lot with the character.
Q: Is that kind of what’s next ahead for her, trying to find a way out of this predicament, given the new disadvantage she has?
Chloë Sevigny: Oh, yes, and her disadvantage has only increased. She becomes more and more helpless. It’s very tragic, actually.
Q: You’re playing a very specific character here, an inmate in a sanitarium and then for your next role you’re playing a driven detective, and that seems like a more grounded part. I’m wondering how you shift as an actor from one role to another? Do you have to shake off “Shelley” before you play “Catherine” in Those Who Kill, or do you find moving between roles to be an easy transition?
Chloë Sevigny: I find it pretty easy. I’ve already wrapped American Horror Story a couple of months ago. I think they might have me come back for something else. I’m not sure, so I’ll have plenty of time and then of course delving into the scripts and research and … with playing “Catherine” they’ll probably be some training involved also, so just trying to immerse yourself in whatever you’re doing at the time. While we were shooting American Horror Story, I was also shooting Portlandia, so I was going from one set to the next, and I’d never really done that before. And Portlandia was so new for me because it’s all improvisation and trying to be funny and all that, so it was quite difficult when you’re shooting two at the same time. But I think having basically … is a better way to go.
Q: And is Hit and Miss done?
Chloë Sevigny: Sadly, Hit and Miss is done. Yes, when I signed on, it was only as a miniseries, so I thought it was only going be a six parter and then there was talk of maybe doing another season. I think we’re just going to keep it as the one.
Q: Could you give your take on “Shelley’s” character? She’s obviously billed as a nympho, but then there’s that question of whether she truly is addicted to it, or she just likes it more than other people. What’s your take on that?
Chloë Sevigny: I don’t know if people truly are addicted to that. There’s so much talk about it as of late. I think that she was a little wild and her husband had it within his power to commit her and I think kind of once she’s in there, she kind of goes with it to come to who she is and how she identifies herself. So I think that she probably yes really likes sex. All the reaction, I don’t know if she’s quite a real nymphomaniac.
Q: Could you talk about the challenge of acting with no legs or half legs?
Chloë Sevigny: Well, the prosthetic pieces that they put on made it impossible to straighten my legs, so I had to keep my legs bent all day and I had to be wheeled around in a wheelchair and I was feeling quite helpless. It was a strange feeling to have to need assistance to do lots of different things. And that was probably the most challenging part, feeling kind of helpless in that way.
Q: These intense scenes, can you give us some insight into the preparation you do with James Cromwell, who’s “Dr. Arden,” and if you discuss the scene ahead of time. I mean there’s such a physical acting involved, also, too, with Jessica Lange. These are not just typical scenes. There’s a lot of almost physical abuse, and if you can give us some insight into your conversations with these actors to prepare.
Chloë Sevigny: Well, yes, there’s always a stunt guy on set also, and you go through all the motions. You kind of block out the physical bits, the throwing and the pulling and tugging and if it gets too rough, because sometimes an actor can lose himself in a scene and so you’re always … I always remind them I’m supposed to sell it. Whoever is getting the brunt of it is supposed to do all the acting, do all the selling of the violence and whatnot, so there’s a lot of—especially in the scene in the office with Tim and I, there was a lot of—I think we blocked that scene for like three hours, far longer than it took us to shoot it even just getting all the action down. I mean it’s quite scary because James was so big and he was wielding this big kind of paperweight at me. He was getting really close and it was pretty frightening actually doing that scene. I was really exhausted at the end of that day, and it was quite scary while we were in it. His arms are so long I was so afraid he was actually going to knock me out. And with Jessica, I guess we did a little bit more, yes, like she was like in the first scene in the first episode and her and I and she’s shaving my head and she has those old fashioned clippers on me and I had to remind her not to push too hard. I guess that’s it. I don’t know.
Q: American Horror Story is often described as sort of a guilty pleasure. Would you feel that way about it?
Chloë Sevigny: I mean I don’t think I would classify it as that. I think that’s more like the Honey Boo Boo and that kind of crap or something. But I’d be more embarrassed …. I don’t even have a TV, so I don’t watch any of it, but no, I wouldn’t put American Horror Story in that category. I think why would you even be embarrassed or why would it be something guilty? It’s great television. There’s so much … so many great actors and you know. It has a little element of camp, sure, I’ll you that much, but I think it’s a great show. Well crafted.
Q: Could you tell us how you initially became involved in the show and perhaps about the audition process for your role of “Shelley?”
Chloë Sevigny: I actually didn’t have to audition. Thank God, because I’d never gotten the role auditioning, I’m terrible at it. No, they just called and said they had this guest spot and they had me in mind for it. Actually Ryan Murphy called me and we spoke for about an hour about the character and about the season and what he wanted to do with her. I’d never seen the show before, and I had to sign on without having read any scripts and I said I already know how to make a decision considering solely off this conversation. So they sent me the first season and I watched that and I loved it. I was hooked right away and that’s when I signed on. Then I showed up and got my first script and that’s how I found out about the character after reading about more than what we had spoken about.
Q: What would you say were some of the initial acting challenges you found stepping into the role and sort of getting into that mindset of “Shelley?”
Chloë Sevigny: I guess it’s just how far you can push it, you know, when you’re playing like a little bit of a crazy person, you want to know that someone is taking care of you and it’s not going to make you look really bad, you know. So I remember going to the director and saying I know the tone of the show is a strange tone. It’s big. It’s campy, and it is what it is and I said I just want to make sure that I’m not going too far, so you don’t have to rein me in if I start overacting, because they do really want you to push it. I don’t want to be caught ….
Q: Is it easy to shake off the intensity of those scenes?
Chloë Sevigny: Yes, a stiff drink at the end of the day really helps.
Q: Is the atmosphere pretty much maintained for every take, or is it everybody just kind of shakes it off and then dives back in again?
Chloë Sevigny: It depends on who you’re working with. I remember … was very, it was very light in between and with James, it’s been pretty intense, so I think it depends on the actor and how they work. Me being strapped onto the gurney, I think that maintains a certain something. I have my arms and my legs strapped down, so I couldn’t do a lot of movement. I had to have the art department tucking blankets around me in between each take, and my favorite PA like giving me water, feeding me water through a straw like an invalid. So it was like, yes, that was difficult, but that kind of keeps you in the scene.
Q: I understand it’s going to get worse for “Shelley.” Anything else you can tell us about that or is it all under wraps?
Chloë Sevigny: I guess it’s kind of under wraps, but yes, he transforms her into something else.
Q: Ryan Murphy said this week when you see the evolution of what “Dr. Arden” continues to do with “Shelley,” it’s pretty amazing. Can you expound on that a little? I know your hands are sort of tied, but any spoilers you can give us would be super amazing.
Chloë Sevigny: Gosh, I don’t know. Well, I don’t how much more dialog I have. There’s lots of gurgling.
Q: Will we see “Shelley” in a different medium?
Chloë Sevigny: A different medium, no, but you see her transformed into something, something not so pleasant to look at. It’s four hours of prosthetic makeup.
Q: I know you’re no stranger to these kinds of gritty and controversial roles, but was there ever a moment that Ryan and Brad presented you with an idea or a scene or a line or a moment where you were just kind of taken aback and you had to think about it for a moment, because you were just like wow, that’s intense?
Chloë Sevigny: I think when I read the third episode and I found out what happens to her and then when I went to … oh, and then what’s going to happen next and he kind of explained it to me. I was a little taken aback, I was.
Q: Like nothing you had maybe done before in your acting roles prior?
Chloë Sevigny: No, absolutely no, nothing I’ve did before and actually while we were shooting, I just laughed myself, I can’t believe I’m here doing this. How did I get in this situation … in an outrageous way.
Q: As of the first installment the asylum itself is sort of a character on the series. Can you talk about how the environment helps you get into character?
Chloë Sevigny: Yes, and the smokiness and all of that, well, in the last episode when I kind of knock out the orderly, Carl I think he’s named, we’re supposed to be in the stairwell, but they haven’t built the stairwell yet or maybe they have run out of budget for the cast, I’m not sure. But so the scene was written as like I’m on the stairs and I pull him down, so I felt like it wouldn’t have sold, like that stunt would have been much more convincing that she would have been able to knock him out, that she pulled him down and he hit the side of the tub so conveniently.
For me it was difficult. I kept arguing with them saying I don’t see how she could be such a shot to have that happen so conveniently. So the set can help working for you in that way. I was just being in there and all of the icons and everything. I don’t know, they’re … for people, but the smoke is really irritating.
Q: Are there any other past thrillers or horror films that you drew from when you were creating your role?
Chloë Sevigny: I watched Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor, there’s this one scene…one of my lines is pulled from that film, so I watched that scene over and over again … hair, the way they moved and I drew a lot from that one scene, like a three minute scene of the movie.
Q: So what has the reaction been like so far to your role from your family and your fans?
Chloë Sevigny: Well, nobody in my family is watching. I know my mom couldn’t watch it. She’s too much of a scary cat, but my friends are all loving it. Even last night I got like 100 texts saying like “oh my God, your legs!” I do have like some friends come visit me on the set and stuff and I share photos that I secretly took them on my BlackBerry and everybody is really excited about it. … it’s kind of a fun thing.
Q: This isn’t the first character that you’ve played where you kind of haven’t been sort of sexy or had love scenes in some capacity, so is that something that you’re inherently comfortable with, or do you find yourself outside of your comfort zone with some of those types of scenes?
Chloë Sevigny: Yes, I’m not comfortable doing them. I don’t think anybody ever gets comfortable doing those kinds of scenes. You know, it’s what the part called for and you just have to kind of stay grounded in it and think about her and why she’s there and what the circumstances are, why she’s … for her benefit or for the benefit of the others in the hospital to help them escape. And you know you just try and ground things and think about the reasons for why they’re happening.
Q: I was also going to ask you what’s on your TV watch list, but you said you don’t have a TV. So do you watch any online or on DVD?
Chloë Sevigny: I do, I do. I watch Netflix, so I watch a lot. I watch Downton Abbey and Breaking Bad and Madmen. I’ve been starting to watch Arrested Development, because I’ve never watched that before. I want to watch Twin Peaks; I’ve never watched that before. But I can’t figure out the Hulu and all that. I’m going to get a TV eventually. I don’t like the way the new ones look …, but I do feel bad watching all of those shows on my computer, because I know all the craft and how much … watch on such a small screen seems like an injustice and kind of not fair to all the people who put in so much time and effort into the shows.
Q: So of course we’ve seen you in harrowing movies like Kid, Boys Don’t Cry, The Brown Bunny and even Big Love had some intensity. Is American Horror Story relatively light for you by comparison?
Chloë Sevigny: Not in what happens to my character, not light in the least. I think it might be kind of one of the heaviest things that I’ve ever done as far as where she winds up.
Q: When “Lana,” “Grace,” and “Kit” last saw your character, she was still inside the asylum. Do you think those three could get curious to what happened to her?
Chloë Sevigny: You would think that they would actually, but I don’t think they are, maybe the “Lana” character I think references are made around, but yes, I think they’re all concerned really more with themselves escaping and their own fate. It’s pretty high drama for everybody, so they’re pretty stuck in their own storyline.
Q: So you don’t think anyone will be curious what happened to “Shelley”?
Chloë Sevigny: I don’t know. I mean I’d hope so. I think you’ll see actually someone who does and you’ll be more surprised at who it is looking out for her and worried about her.
Q: We know that “Shelley” was committed by her husband, but I was wondering if Ryan gave you any more back story or if you created one, is that your approach to developing your character to create a back story?
Chloë Sevigny: There’s that one little speech when she tells “Dr. Arden” how she wound up in the hospital. Is that still in the show? I think it is. I just kind of took it from there and imagined her kind of marrying her high school sweetheart and finding herself in a predicament falling out of love sooner than she expected to, or something. He really didn’t get into it with me. I had to create my own, but if that’s more of a direct answer, I guess.
Q: Is that the way you like to work? Do you like to create a back story to help you develop …?
Chloë Sevigny: It depends on the part and like with Big Love, there’s was so much back story and so many other characters that came into play that we really hadn’t charted out her past like her first husband and stuff, so there was a lot of discussion on that show much more. I had a bigger part over five seasons, though. Sometimes I find myself tripping up over my back story because things change so much along the way.
Q: If you could just share with us when you sat down and watched Season 1, I think you said it straight through in like two or three days. What was the scariest part of last season do you think?
Chloë Sevigny: For me the scariest moment was when you realized that the daughter had died. I was really taken aback … when she sees herself in the crawl space and she’s kind of rotted away, that was the most disturbing moment for me; not only because she was a young girl, but I don’t know, just because it was such a surprise.
Q: How much in advance did you know what was going to happen to “Shelley” on AHS?
Chloë Sevigny: I got the first three episodes pretty early on and then I didn’t really know what was going to happen to her until I was reading them. You get like the next episode while you’re shooting one. While you’re shooting the third, you get the fourth, so I had an idea and I wanted to know, but they would kind of give me some … to where they thought, because I think they were still working it out as we were shooting.
Q: So in other words you knew up to where your legs were going to be cut off, so you didn’t know what was going to happen next week? What was your reaction when you found that out, without spoiling?
Chloë Sevigny: Honestly I wanted to have more to do. I called my agent and I said I wish my part was bigger. That’s honestly what happened. That was my first response, but then I kind of let go of my ego and kind of accepted what was going to happen to me and try to find the joy in that and the mystery and the ….
Q: You’ve had such an amazing career, but you’ve done some really original and interesting type roles in the past. How would you say this compares to them in a way?
Chloë Sevigny: Compared to them, I’ve never done anything like this before, so I don’t know if it really compares. When you see what happens the next few weeks, it’s like it becomes a whole other thing. It was pretty new for me and that’s what made it so exciting and fun to do. I always want to try new things and … pretty cool.
Q: What was it like working with Zach Quinto?
Chloë Sevigny: Zach I didn’t get to have enough scenes with. I mean we went out to see… in the L.A., the whole cast and I, not the whole cast, but a few of us. We went out dancing, and I’m such a fan of his and what he does. I loved him in Star Trek and …. I just think he’s so brilliant and he’s so handsome and charming to be around. I wanted to have more—I don’t think we even had one scene together. We were both at the movie, yes, that’s true. I remember just watching him and … I wish I could up there with him. But when you find out what happens with his character, I think you’ll be happy that I wasn’t near him.
Q: On the A&E series you’re doing in Pittsburgh, my understanding is that if it goes to series, that they’ll shoot the series in Pittsburgh. Are you cool with that?
Chloë Sevigny: That’s my understanding as well. I don’t know. I have never been there. I’m cool for the fact … hour from New York, but yes, I’m excited to be there. I love being on location, especially in a town like that. I have some of the most fun times like working in Sarasota, Florida or Shreveport, Louisiana and things like that, so I think it will be cool to discover a new city like that.
Q: What’s it like trying to wrap your head around where your character is going to go within that story?
Chloë Sevigny: What’s it like, I don’t know, you kind of just have to take what’s on the page and try and make the most of it and fill in all the blanks. I think when you’re playing a guest spot, I think it’s a little harder than a main character—actually, it’s a lot harder, because there’s not as much to work with, so it’s harder to really fall into the character and lose yourself … not such a huge—so it’s harder to lose yourself … there.
Q: Your appearance on Louie that was kind of like a crazy just a great guest appearance. Was there anything that you found maybe kind of just kind of horrifying I guess is to kind of do that scene?
Chloë Sevigny: Not so much horror, I mean it was horrifying, I was pretty scared about having to pull off and be convincing and be funny and be everything that I wanted it to be, but he really held my hand through the whole process and took care of me and helped me work it out and how to make it. I haven’t seen that yet, so I mean, hopefully it worked or what I’ve heard, but yes, he was very helpful in that. It was pretty terrifying doing that, the … bit.
Q: What do you feel is it that attracts viewers to the series?
Chloë Sevigny: I think in general people like to be spooked out. I think horror movies have always done really well at the box office and I think it’s kind of a new thing on television. I think since Hitchcock and whatnot, there haven’t been that many scary shows, but like Walking Dead was huge and now American Horror Story, I think just people are tapping into that.
Q: You’ve played such a variety of characters over the course of your career. Is there any type of role that you would love to take on that you’ve not had a chance to portray yet?
Chloë Sevigny: I would love to do more comedic stuff. I’d like to do some sort of period I don’t know romantic comedy kind of thing, which people just don’t make anymore. Every actress always says she’d love to do something like that, so it’s pretty typical I guess, you know, like a Hepburn kind of thing, you know.
Q: I think it was really a treat for a lot of people to see Adam Levine on the show this season. I know that you’re wrapped, but just hypothetically which fellow actor or somebody out there who we would know, who do you think would make an awesome asset to the show?
Chloë Sevigny: Oh God, there’s so many actors. How do you pick just one? I’d love to see Harriet Eaton Stanton on the show. I think that he is just, he’s just such a presence always on screen, especially in Big Love and he’s so commanding. I think that he could come in and do something really, do something interesting, because he can be very creepy and very sweet at the same time.
Q: Do you ever shock yourself with the things that you said as your character?
Chloë Sevigny: Not so much the things I said, but some of the rubbing of the body in front of everybody else and all of that. I found myself like during that scene where “Kit” is fighting in the first episode, like her being turned on by the violence. Like oh my God I’m really like going for it with this part, so I guess I surprised myself in that sense, in that scene.
Q: And Jessica Lange, you said that she really shaved your head. What did you think of your new hairdo and how did you make it work for you after that?
Chloë Sevigny: She did. Well, I got to cut it since then. It’s a bit asymmetrical, a bit uneven, but it was better than going in at 4 a.m. instead of six to have them put a piece on, so I just kind of learned to live with it. I had the haircut actually when I was younger, like 20 or something, and it really worked. Now that I’m older, I found it not to be working quite so much.
Q: Could you talk about what the set is like and is it as creepy to be in as it looks on TV?
Chloë Sevigny: It is very eerie. They built it; it’s on the Paramount lot. I think that’s where Ryan shoots all of his shows, so like yes, they have all these … around and stuff and art and lab and the room that I’m in in the … also just like that’s kind of what do they call those … I’m still recovering from Halloween. But, yes it’s really creepy, especially when there was no … and everything and just the way they light, it’s very dark, so the way they light it and it’s kind of spooky, long shadows and all of that.
Q: I know you’ve said before that you were pleased to hear from a friend who worked on Season 1 that Ryan Murphy was really hands-on. Was he as hands-on as you expected in this season?
Chloë Sevigny: Was he as much, yes, he came to the set a bunch and like I think he is very much so like behind the scenes, every outfit, every hairdo, everything. We always have to send photos to Ryan and make sure he approves, or if we want to change a line a little bit, it always had to go by him. So yes, every decision kind of goes through him. If we had trouble with a scene, he would come to the set and help us block it and figure out—always make it more interesting or make it work. I don’t know how he does it, shooting three shows at the same time. That guy has more energy than anyone I know, but yes, he was really present.
Q: Did it slow down production at all to have to wait like that?
Chloë Sevigny: Not that I can recall ever, no, I think they plan it all out in advance, especially like the makeup and the wardrobe and those kind of decisions .… They give time for him to see it and approve first.
Q: When you learned you were going to play a nymphomaniac, did you do research? Other than watching movies, did you look for scientific aspects of the disease?
Chloë Sevigny: I didn’t. Actually a friend of mine had seen some documentary that he thought would be very helpful and I was going to watch it. But I was like, I was doing a play right before we started and there just wasn’t any time. I was up at Vassar and doing the kind of workshops with the play and there was not enough time, sadly. But I’d be curious to find out more about it.
Q: “Shelley” is very intense. Do you have that intensity in you? How do you get into character? Do you connect with her with that true intensity?
Chloë Sevigny: Is she intense, I don’t know? I guess it just, yes, just what’s on the page and rehearsing and finding something through working with the other actors and trying to match their intensity maybe, especially with “Dr. Arden,” James Comwell … and I just have to match that to make it easier for a dynamic.
Q: Is “Dr. Arden” going Frankenstein or something like that?
Chloë Sevigny: Yes, yes, something like that, exactly.
Q: Is “Shelley” going to become one of these creatures? Like you don’t have to tell, I know you can’t say, but like a hint?
Chloë Sevigny: She might be going in that direction.