AMERICAN HORROR STORY: Asylum is the newest installment of its second season and this season Chloe Sevigny joins the cast. Ms. Sevigny plays ‘Shelley,’ one of the inmates at Briarcliff Manor committed because of nymphomania.
Known for her unique role choices, Sevigny can be seen in such films as AMERICAN PSYCHO (2000), PARTY MONSTER (2003) and her role as Nicolette Grant in HBO’s series BIG LOVE receiving a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress.
Recently I had the opportunity to talk with her about the incredibly creepy role she’s taken on in AMERICAN HORROR STORY: ASYLUM and what she thinks of this season’s storyline.
Hello Chloe, thanks for talking with us today?
Thank you for your time too!
What was it that was specifically unique about AHS that drew you to the project?
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.
Working with writer Ryan Murphy, was your character ‘Shelly’ already developed or did that happen week by week?
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.
For the viewer what do you think the payoff is? What do you think makes the show so amazing?
I think with this season, he’s exploring different things from the first like you said before. 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.
Can you speak on working with the incredible James Cromwell? He is very scary!
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.
What is ‘Shelly’s’ reaction to her recent body part loss?
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.
What lies ahead next for her?
She becomes more and more helpless. It’s very tragic, actually
‘Shelly’ is a specific character here, an inmate in a sanitarium yet the next role you’re playing a driven detective ‘Catherine’ in THOSE WHO KILL. How do you shift from one role to another?
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.
What is your take on the ‘Shelley’ character? She’s presented as a nympho. What’s your take on 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.
Can you talk about the challenges of playing the character with no legs?
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.
How do you think it affects the storyline?
He’s this doctor who likes doing experiments on people. I don’t know how much you know about him or what he does with other patients, but I think he wants to make it so she can’t run away. I guess it’s not even what he does, and it only gets worse for ‘Shelley.’
How do you prepare with James Cromwell? Your character takes a lot of abuse.
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.
You also get physical with Jessica Lange’s character.
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.
AMERICAN HORROR STORY has become something of a guilty pleasure for viewers. How do you see it?
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.
How did you audition for the role of ‘Shelly’?
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.
So what were some of the initial challenges of playing ‘Shelly’?
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.
Is it hard to shake off the tough scenes at the day’s end?
It depends on whom 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.
The show is different from last season, how do you think everyone is handling that?
I don’t know how much I can say because they might be somewhere else. They may be revealed later in the season as something else. I’m not sure. I don’t know what I can say, sorry.
Will we see ‘Shelly’ transform?
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.
Has there been a line in the script where you just thought ‘wow, this is getting intense!’?
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.
Can you talk about what helps you get into character?
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.
Has your family commented on your role in AMERICAN HORROR STORY?
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.
Do you go outside your comfort zone with some of these scenes?
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.
When you do have time to watch television, what do you watch?
I watch Downtown 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.
Your character ‘Shelly’ was committed to the asylum by her husband, do you have any more background than that?
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.
Do you like to create a back-story for your character?
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.
How far in advance do you know what ‘Shelly’ is doing?
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.
You also share the show with Zachary Quinto, can you talk about that?
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. 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.
You also had a role on the FX show LOUIE?
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.
What do you think attracts viewers to AMERICAN HORROR STORY?
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.
Are you shocked by some of the things you say or do?
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.
Is it true Jessica Lange really shaved your head and how’s that working for you?
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.
What do you think of the AHS set?
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 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.
Is Ryan Murphy a real hands-on creator?
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.
Did you do research in playing a nymphomaniac?
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.
‘Shelly’ is very intense.
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 Cromwell … and I just have to match that to make it easier for a dynamic.
As the character Shelly, Chloe is very intense on screen bringing fans along for a ride that is going to be equally intense and somewhat shocking! That’s what fans love about AMERICAN HORROR STORY and the episodes coming up will be griping and shocking! AMERICAN HORROR STORY has a new episode every Wednesday at 10:00 p.m. on FX!