From writer/director Whit Stillman, Love & Friendship is an adaptation of young Jane Austen’s novella Lady Susan, which is set in the 1790s and follows the beautiful young widow Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale). Lady Susan has come to Churchill, the estate of her in-laws, to wait for the rumors and gossip about her dalliances to quiet down, but while she’s there, she decides to secure a husband for herself and for her daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark).
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, actress Chloe Sevigny (who plays Lady Susan’s friend and confidante Alicia Johnson) talked about reuniting with Whit Stillman and Kate Beckinsale for Love & Friendship, what she enjoys about working with both of them, why this isn’t a typical Jane Austen story, and the challenge of doing this kind of dialogue. She also talked about writing and directing a short film, called Kitty, wanting to make the leap to feature directing, what attracted her to The Snowman, and why she’s going to step away from TV for a bit.
Collider: It must be so much fun to get to do a movie like this, in these costumes.
CHLOE SEVIGNY: So much fun! I think Whit’s adaptation really heightens the material. I read the novella and loved it. It was all in letter form, and he lifted so many segments, straight from the book into the script, but the way that he wove it together with the little bits that he added, like making my character from Connecticut, making it a Whit Stillman movie, were so great.
How did this come about? Had you been trying to work together again?
SEVIGNY: We’ve been talking about it, I feel like, for years. We made The Last Days of Disco together, and I’ve seen him every few years at festivals or parties. And then, I did The Cosmopolitans with him, which was an Amazon pilot that I think is still in the works. He was talking a lot about Lady Susan. He said, “I want to make this movie. Will you be in it?” And I was like, “I’ll do anything you want me to do. Any movie, any TV show, sign me up. I’m there. I’m such a fan!” So, there I was in Dublin, playing Alicia to Kate’s Lady Susan.
What is it about Whit Stillman that makes you want to keep working with him?
SEVIGNY: Well, there’s a familiarity, obviously, after having worked with him a couple of times, and a certain trust, as far as knowing what he wants and likes and understanding what he’s going to use, having watched all of his films. I also have a respect for him, at a base level, because I like his work.
What does Kate Beckinsale add to the mix? Is it nice to already have that relationship there, so that you don’t have to hope you can find it?
SEVIGNY: Yeah, we didn’t have to establish a relationship. And she has such a handle on [Jane] Austen. She’s an Oxford grad in English lit or Russian lit, or something. She’s done so much Austen before, and she has such a command of the language and an ease with it, that she makes you feel at ease in the scenes. She’s just so good at spitting out this dialogue that you’re just like, “I’m just going to follow her lead and let her carry the scenes, and then chime in when I’m supposed to.” She just has an elegance and a charm about her, and she’s very funny and very wicked. There’s so much of that in Lady Susan, and she just naturally exudes that. She knows she’s the smartest person in the room, other than probably Whit, even though it’s a different kind of smarts.
This movie is very wordy with a lot of dialogue. Did you enjoy getting to play with that, or was it a big challenge?
SEVIGNY: It’s both. It is very challenging, but that’s what makes it fun. You have to learn it like a play, which then poses the challenge of, if you learn it in a certain rhythm, but then when you’re on set, you want to play with the rhythm, it’s hard to break that. When you have such lengthy pieces, you have to learn them in a certain way, and you don’t get to rehearse like you do with a play, where you rehearse it so much that you can then mess with it. That can be challenging, when you have big chunks of dialogue. There’s also the pressure of not dropping something and maintaining ‘cause you don’t want to break the scene and let down your fellow actors. I tried to learn all of my dialogue starting months before we went over there, and I didn’t even have the bulk of it. Poor Kate! And Whit loves dialogue, he loves communication, and he loves the nuance of that and of comedy. The comedic side really comes through in this movie. It’s so witty, so funny, so biting and so dry. He’s not interested in transition shots and people coming and going. He just wants to hear people talking, and that’s a unique perspective.
Knowing how beloved Jane Austen is, what’s it like to be a part of telling a story of hers that people aren’t necessarily familiar with, and they don’t know what to expect from these characters in this story?
SEVIGNY: There are always certain expectations, so we’re hoping to get the word out there that this isn’t the typical Austen piece. It’s very different. It almost reads like Oscar Wilde. It’s very funny, very biting, and very modern, in a way. It’s not this weepy, soft period piece. It’s really wicked, and I hope that people will get a sense of that from all of the stellar reviews we’ve been getting and go out for this wild ride. I love going to the movies, for all kinds of movies. I went to see The Huntsman because I wanted to pay at the theater to promote a movie starring three female leads, and the boy, of course. I wanted to support three ladies. Whatever faults that movie had, you could let yourself over to another time and place, and the escapism that that can give you for two hours is really fun and just pure entertainment. All movies are different, and I feel like with this, you might have to see it a couple of times to catch everything, but what you do catch is so amusing, it makes you think, and it’s so fun. I’m really proud of it.
Because these seem like very different women for their time period, how did you view this woman and her friendship with Lady Susan?
SEVIGNY: In period pieces, there’s often the one woman who’s more outspoken or not living her life in conventional terms. That’s a cliche of period pieces. There’s always the one that’s more feisty, or not as concerned with appearances or class. They’re just two women who have a friendship, and I just simplify it. My character is stuck in an unhappy marriage, and now she’s here, living in a foreign land, and she has this girlfriend who’s really gutsy and ballsy, and she enjoys living vicariously through her and wishes that she could have that kind of freedom, in a way, but also wants her to have stability. We’re like that with all of our girlfriend. We want them happy and safe, but we want them to have fun and be wild, at the same time. I just personalized it.
You wrote and directed a short film, called Kitty. How did that come about? Was that something you had been wanting to do for awhile?
SEVIGNY: It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for almost 20 years. I just had to do it and get it out of my system. I would like to make a feature, and I wanted to do something to show people my sensibility and command of story, camera and actors. I’m hoping maybe to do another short and be able to show two examples of my work to people, so that they will give me money to make a feature. I love the story of Kitty. It’s about transformation, a mother not recognizing something in her daughter, and wanting to be something that you’re not. There are just a lot of things in the story that I can relate to and that I love.
You’ve been an actress for quite some time now, so you know what the experience of being on a set it like, but how did you find the pre-production and post-production process?
SEVIGNY: Pre-production was good because I was in really good hands. I had a lot of really smart women that I had hired, from my line producer to my producers, and they were really competent and efficient. I felt like I was in very safe hands. Post-production was a little harder. We didn’t have a post-production producer. All the digital stuff, the files, and the back and forth was like having to learn a new language, and that was really hard. I had never done editing, sound design, mixing, scoring and visual effects before. All of that was brand new to me, and I had to learn it as I went along. It was a real crash course and it was really difficult.
What made you want to be a part of The Snowman and to work with director Tomas Alfredson?
SEVIGNY: He’s what attracted me to that, for sure, 100%. I love Let the Right One In. Seeing Let the Right One In is actually what made me think about Kitty again. After watching that movie, I was like, “You know what? I’m going to try to do Kitty.” The sense of magical realism and the visual effects that he had in that movie, and how organic it was, was always how I had envisioned Kitty to be. It really triggered something in me, so I have this appreciation and respect for him, not only as a filmmaker, but because of what he triggered inside of me.
What is the character that you’re playing in The Snowman?
SEVIGNY: I don’t know if I’m supposed to say, but I already have said. I play one of the victims. I’ll leave it at that.
You do a lot of film work, but you also do quite a bit of TV work, and you play characters that are really all over the map. Do you want to keep balancing the different mediums?
SEVIGNY: I just got into a cycle of doing TV for awhile. When you’re on a show, people automatically assume you’re unavailable for movies, and that’s just a fact. That just happens, and your film career suffers because of it. So, I think I’m trying to maybe step away from TV for a little while and focus on indies and other movies. I have five or six movies in the can right now. I’ve done a slew of them, and it’s been great and super fun. Having since directed my own, I feel really excited about acting again, and still working with great directors and auteurs. I just worked with this guy, Alex Ross Perry, here in New York [on a film called Golden Exits]. He’s a writer/director, and he did Listen Up Philip and Queen of Earth. I got to walk to work in Brooklyn. It was the first time I’ve ever walked to work, in my entire career, and it was awesome. I love all of the TV work that I’ve done, especially recently, with Bloodline and Portlandia. I still think that working with these very strong creators on TV shows is very similar to the kind of work that I’ve been trying to do with movies, throughout my career.
Love & Friendship opens in theaters on May 13th.