Chloë Sevigny likes to laugh a lot when she does interviews. That’s because this talented, Golden Globe-winning actress is refreshingly self-deprecating and honest when she is asked questions about herself. It helps to have a sense of humor in her line of work, since she often tackles roles that are about serious (and sometimes very depressing) subjects. Now that she has her completed her five-year run as Nicki Grant (one of three wives of a Utah polygamist) in the TV series “Big Love” (the series finale was in March 2011), Sevigny is ready to move on to other projects.
In the biopic “Mr. Nice,” Sevigny plays Judy Marks, the second wife of notorious drug trafficker Howard Marks (played by Rhys Ifans), who became one of Great Britain’s biggest drug smugglers during the 1970s and part of the 1980s. Howard spent several years in and out of prison (Judy was also incarcerated a few years), and he has since become a noted writer and public speaker. His memoir “Mr. Nice” (named after one of the aliases he used when he was a drug lord) is the basis of the film, which was written and directed by Bernard Rose. I recently sat down with Sevigny at the Playwright Celtic Pub in midtown Manhattan, where she opened up about what intimidated her the most about doing the movie; what she thought about the series finale of “Big Love”; and the daring role that she is taking on for an upcoming miniseries.
How closely did you portray the Judy Marks character in “Mr. Nice” to how Judy Marks was in real life at that time?
The character in the beginning [of “Mr. Nice”] was an amalgamation of a couple of different women in his life. That often happens in biopics. We all know how hard it is to condense someone’s life into two hours.
Did you read Judy Marks’ autobiography “Mr. Nice and Mrs. Marks” as part of your research?
Of course I read that. I would be a real lazy actress if I didn’t read my character’s bio. [She laughs.] Yes, I try to be professional and approach all my work [that way]. If you’re given something like this, of course you’re going to read it. It’s the best research you could have. Of course, she sways her story and direction as most people do, but it was invaluable as research.
Was there anything in particular that you found in fascinating about Judy Marks’ memoir?
I feel like she distanced herself from the criminal activity, where [in reality] she really was a big part of it. I think she did get caught up in the lifestyle and really enjoyed it: the money and the clothes. I think she downplayed a lot of her criminal activity out of guilt or who knows what, because she endangered her own children’s well being and lives.
What attracted you to the role of Judy Marks? What did you like about her?
I was more attracted to Rhys [Ifans]. Not attracted as in I wanted to get in the sack with him, but I was attracted as an actor and human. I’ve met him a few times. We have the same manager in Hollywood. And I was just always charmed by him, and I think he’s so talented as an actor. I felt that with biopics, he would transcend and bring so much to the [Howard Marks] character.
He was friends with the real person, the real Howard Marks. And I just knew that he would elevate it to another level. And so he was what really attracted me at first to the project.
Then [I had] a meeting with the film’s director, Bernard Rose. We had a meeting one day at the Chateau [Marmont] in Hollywood. And he brought all these images and sequences he had already edited on the computer. I don’t know if you’ve ever encountered him, but he has so much energy. He’s so excited … You just can’t help but get swept up in his enthusiasm.
Rhys Ifans has a rock-star vibe about him, don’t you think?
Oh yeah. Rhys has a good vibe. He’s really cool. He’s super-mellow. He’s definitely very professional and obviously he’s a brilliant actor. He’s nice to be around.
You always want to work with people that you feel like are good people. And so often, you run across people that aren’t. I could tell that he had a really good soul and is a good person.
Did you get to meet the real Howard Marks and Judy Marks?
I did. Howard came to the set a few times with some of his children. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to meet Judy until the very end. I think it was one of our last days of shooting in Spain and she came with her son.
Bernard didn’t want me to meet her, and I had to respect the director’s wishes. Now I wish, in retrospect, I had been able met to meet her sooner, because I felt like it would’ve given me more ideas to play with and to humanize her even more than to just playing the suffering wife, which is always slightly humiliating.
There have been several movies — including “Scarface” and “Blow” — that are about the outlaw life of a drug smuggler. For people who are fans of those films, how you would describe “Nr. Nice” to them?
I feel like it’s a friendlier version of those, because it’s about marijuana, so it doesn’t seem quite as violent and destructive. I don’t find anything wrong with marijuana. I don’t smoke it, but if you want to, go ahead. I feel like it’s more carefree than those.
There is the whole hustling and the whole explaining of how you do it and the kind of funny drug lords and what not, but [“Mr. Nice”] is more silly; it’s more carefree — like they’re kind of bumbling in a field in Ireland, trying to figure out how to get these packages. It’s not as intense. It’s a softer, kinder version of the clichéd drug movies. I feel like it’s a movie about love and marijuana.
Did you have someone on the “Mr. Nice” set to supply the marijuana or hashish?
I can’t smoke pot because I get paranoid, but I feel like some other cast and crew members were partaking. That part of the world is more [about] hashish than the ganja.
So you didn’t do any Method acting?
[She laughs.] I couldn’t smoke and work. I couldn’t even drink and work. There’s too much stamina necessary.
What do you think about the debate to legalize marijuana?
I try not to get political as an actress. I don’t get involved in those types of issues, but I’m all for everybody else talking about it.
Howard dealt mainly with marijuana and hashish and not other drugs. Did you talk to him abut why he made the choice to specialize in those kinds of drugs?
I think at that time that that was his market. It was a huge drug. I think he was against harder drugs. I know he talks about it a lot in the book. I can’t really remember what his exact reason was but he was very anti-cocaine, anti-heroin. I think he just loved hashish. He had a huge market in the U.K.; he was the main supplier, and he was pro-marijuana.
“Mr. Nice” looks like it was filmed in that time period in which the story takes place. Were you surprised when you saw it all edited together with the real-life footage?
Actually, when Bernard and I first met one of the reasons I was so excited about the film was that he showed all of the old footage and how he was going to incorporate the two and his different ideas of how he was going to shoot it. He is a real auteur. I had seen his other movies. I knew he has a great taste and he has a real eye, and had so many great ideas.
He said, “I’m going to do the beginning in black and white, and then move into the different film qualities that were present at that time.” I’m just glad he had so many great ideas. I wasn’t surprised.
I was happily surprised at how good looked, I guess, but I also kind of knew it was going to look good. I could feel it while we were [filming] it. He was always operating the camera, and he was just right there the whole time and really wanted to keep everything natural in the lighting.
He has great taste. He made me look better than anyone else has in a long time so I was pleased. [She laughs.] He said “high and to the left” is my best angle.
One of the most emotional parts of the movie is when Judy talks to Howard in prison about what happened to their kids while Judy and Marks were incarcerated. Do you know how their children are now and how their lives were affected by what their parents did?
I think it was different for different children. Some have fared better than others, but they all seem pretty OK. One of the daughters is now a lawyer — or a barrister, as they call them in England. And she was on set, and she played [a lawyer] in the court scene [in “Mr. Nice”].
I think they now have some perspective. And I’m sure it was jarring and scarring to go through all that and to lose [their] father for however many years and all the rest. It had to have a real emotional toll on them, but their father is an icon, which has a lot of baggage. They try to deal with it the best they can. Their mom and dad love them all so much.
What was it like to film those courtroom scenes?
They were emotional because we knew the toll that it took on the children, especially because they were there. It was kind of weird. Yeah, it was very emotional, those scenes. Of course, way [Bernard Rose] shot it was as [Howard Marks] as the martyr, it was kind of pulling at your heartstrings.
Did you read any of the magazine articles that Howard wrote after he was released from prison?
I didn’t, because I tried to focus on their lives [before] he got out of jail, because that’s what the film focuses on. I know he’s become this icon, [after] being in jail and with his book. And now he tours and gives lectures and does shows of some sort and writes for all these different magazines and has become a real “legalize marijuana” advocate. But I think by that time, [Howard and Judy Marks’] relationship had totally deteriorated, and his fame was a part of it. I tried to focus more on the positive stuff and the stuff that happened prior to [him getting out of prison].
Howard has a line in the film when everything is going well for him, and he says something like, “I have this. I have that. And I couldn’t be more bored.” Do you think he’s bored with his life now?
I don’t want to speak for him because I don’t know him that well. I only met him twice. Rhys and [Howard] are very close. [Howard Marks] seemed like a super-mellow dude. I mean, he was stoned. I don’t know. [She laughs.]
He seemed really happy with his place in the world. His kids are excited about him and his story, and he’s trying to do something good with it, with everything that’s happened to him. He seemed pretty content. He and the kids seem to get along. Judy and [Howard getting along], not so much.
How was it doing an British accent for your role in “Mr. Nice”?
That was the scariest part. They didn’t have a real coach work with me. It’s so technical that I would have been more confident had had a real speech or dialect coach. I was working with the ADs [assistant directors] and some PA [production assistant] girl who were trying to teach me.
There was also a lot of improvisation as well. If I had been able to stick to the dialogue, it would’ve been much easier. But improvising was so hard because I’d be so concentrated on the accent that I really wouldn’t be in the scene. It was very intimidating and really hard. I hate doing accents.
Can you talk some more about how much improvisation you did on “Mr. Nice”?
It was so much! We wouldn’t rehearse any scenes. We wouldn’t even block it. [Bernard] shot very off-the-cuff, like us just walking in. He wanted everything to feel very fresh and natural. It was very intimidating. Rhys was extremely good at it.
David Thewlis [who plays Jim McCann, one of Marks’ former associates] was even better, as you can imagine. He knew of Bernard’s style … He came in, and he had done so much research that he just had an arsenal of different points to make and little clever things to say in the context of the scene. I was so impressed. I’d never seen anybody who had worked that hard. I was in awe.
How did that make you feel?
Inferior. [She laughs.] Like I was not a good actress, that I was always the American. It made me feel many things, and they weren’t positive. [She laughs.]
Speaking of playing a wife who has an unconventional lifestyle, “Big Love” had its series finale this year. How would you describe the fans’ reactions to the finale? How do you usually get feedback from fans, besides meeting them in public? Do you read message boards or blogs?
No. I actually avoid the Internet. I don’t read any of the blogs. I know everybody else is all about comments, but I’ve had friends and people come up to me on the street. I think they suspected what was going to happen at the end. I didn’t. I had different ideas on how it would end.
When did you get the entire script of the final episode?
It was like a couple of days before we shot it. I got the scene from special red pages, and we had to go up to the producers’ room and read it there. That’s how they do it. There was even talk of shooting two different endings, like “The Sopranos” did, but our show wasn’t quite as big as that show.
You said that Judy and Howard Marks are not on good terms with each other. Can you elaborate?
After all those years of separation, [it took its toll]. They got divorced many years ago.
Howard and Judy play the game Go in “Mr. Nice.” Do you think that game is an apt metaphor for their relationship? And do you know how to play Go in real life?
I’ve never played Go. I still don’t know how to play Go. I think they explained it to me. I don’t remember. It’s a pretty board. It’s a pretty-looking game. I’m not really into games. I like Apples to Apples though. That’s a fun game.
To lead the outlaw lifestyle that Howard had, he had to be somewhat of an actor to be a con artist and to hide his drug-dealing activities. When Howard was visiting on the set of “Mr. Nice,” did he give you or Rhys Ifans any specific pointers or tips on how to act?
No. He kept a real distance. I don’t know how much he and Rhys spoke, he didn’t interject. I think he barely had any notes about the script. I think Judy was more concerned with the script and how she would was going to come out looking. I think Howard wasn’t as involved, but he’s obviously a fiercely intelligent man. He was into the hustle, into the swindle.
Actors are known to be great observers of human behavior. How was Howard Marks reacting to seeing a good deal of his life being portrayed in a movie? Did you get that vibe from Howard, that he was observing and assessing your behavior?
No, I was too concerned wit my accent. [She laughs.] There was a certain discomfort when he was on the set, and I think he knew it put more pressure on us. So I think he stayed away a lot. Everybody feels a little strange when you’re playing someone and they’re there.
Going back to the improvisation, there’s a scene in “Mr. Nice” where David Thewlis as Jim McCann exposes his penis as part of a prank. Do you know if Jim McCann really did that prank in real life?
That really happened. There was a lot of discourse over that because Thewlis is in the “Harry Potter” movies, so they weren’t sure if he could do “Potter” and then show his penis in another film, even if it was flaccid. Sorry to get so technical. But there was a lot of back-and-forth, because he is a “Potter” guy. Everyone is in England, I guess.
Did you and Judy talk about the commitment she had to Howard while he was in prison?
In her book, she does. She was there for [Howard] every day. We didn’t really talk about it that much in person, because I met her after [I finished filming the movie]. What was I going to do after the fact? I already shot it.
But in her book, she talked a lot about how she went to see him every day and brought him food. They were in love. They had children. I think the film is a great romance in that way; it’s a love story between the two of them, to a certain extent. And then there’s the marijuana.
Has Judy Marks seen “Mr. Nice”?
I think she has. I think she was at some of the festivals and premieres. It’s very exciting for everybody involved in the family. I think they were really pleased with the product. [Judy] and I were emailing around the time of the end of the shoot and after. She’s invited me to her home in Spain. I haven’t made it over yet, but they were really caught up in the whole thing.
You said earlier that playing a long-suffering wife can be a little humiliating. Can you elaborate on why you feel that way and how that influenced how you portrayed Judy Marks?
She’s the suffering wife. She’s playing that role in the film and the moral compass for him. I was concerned that in every scene she’s just whining to him, “Why do you keep doing this?” I hope I brought more strength to it, and I hope that I brought something that she was happy with.
What did you think about the production design and costumes in “Mr. Nice”?
I thought the production design and costume design were really right on. Sometimes [films that take place in the ‘70s] can look comical or ridiculous. I thought [“Mr. Nice”] was subtle and pretty to look at. I thought they did a great job with almost no money. The quality of film, I think it looks great. It looks like we had a lot more money than we did.
You’re known to be a fashionista in real life. Given that “Mr. Nice” is a low-budget independent film, did you give any input about the fashion you wore in the movie?
I had a little bit. The costume designer, [Caroline Harris], she said that everything she wanted my character to wear in the beginning of the film had to be handmade. I think she lived on Portobello Road [in London], and everything she bought was from the market.
A lot of the dresses that she found looked like they were home-sewn. I feel that brings a real authenticity to the wardrobe. It’s not like she was reproducing stuff or buying mass-market stuff and trying to make it look old.
Like in “The Runaways,” I thought the costumes were great, but one of the girls was wearing brand-new Levi’s. You could tell in the pocket in the back. It took me right out of the movie. Our costume designer was really concerned with keeping everything really authentic.
You were a guest judge on “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” a reality show/contest for drag queens. What was that experience like for you?
It was really intimidating. As you can tell, I’m often intimidated. But I was really intimidated because of the show and of Ru. I met Ru when I was a teenager, when she used to hang out at this Disco 2000, this party at the Limelight.
I was a really big fan of the show, but all of the other judges do commentary for a living. Like one of them is on radio, the other on has a TV, so for all of them, the witty banter just rolls off the tongue. And so for me, I was just struggling to interject, because I felt really shy in the situation.
I loved [“RuPaul’s Drag Race” Season 3 winner] Raja and just seeing the whole process. It was super-fun. They were like, “You should say one positive and two negatives.” I was like, “You’re lucky if you’re going to get anything out of me, let alone two positives and one negative about every girl.
Would you want to make another guest appearance on “Drag Race”?
I would go back. They wanted me to do the finale, but the timing was wrong. I was working on “Big Love,” and they were shooting during the week. So I had to do an earlier episode. I’d totally do it again.
And that was the only reality show I’ve ever done since the first season of “Project Runway.” They actually asked me to be a judge for the first-season finale [of “Project Runway”], and I kind of wished I had done that, because I actually became a big fan.
But “Drag Race” is the only reality show I’ve done since then. Oh, that’s not true. I recently did a show [“Obscura Antiques & Oddities”] about this shop called Obscura on 10th Street [in New York City]. It’s a show on Discovery. I probably shouldn’t say [any more]. I did that too, because [the Osbcura owners] are my friends.
What are your thoughts about Drew Droege, who plays you in drag in that series of Web videos?
I’ve met him. I met him at a World of Wonder party in Los Angeles. I really don’t feel like he’s [imitating] me. It’s more like weird performance art. I know he’s a great comedian. He works with those Funny or Die people a lot. I juts think people think it’s so weird, but it’s kind of cool. I’m all for weird.
What’s next for you?
I do a clothing collection with this store Opening Ceremony. We’re having a fashion show on June 7 [in 2011]. Then I’m going to England to do a miniseries. I don’t know if it’s been announced yet, so I don’t know if I’m supposed to talk about it.
Can you at least describe the character you’ll be playing in the miniseries? Is the character based on a real person or fictional?
It’s fiction. I will be playing a pre-op male-to-female trannie assassin. It’s f*cking awesome! [She laughs.] But there’s an accent.
Throughout your career, you’ve chosen some very interesting and varied roles …
As a matter of fact, they’ve all chosen me. I’ve never gotten a job going on an audition. They’ve all been incoming calls. Of course, I have turned down stuff and selected [the roles I ended up doing].
What is the main thing you look for when you’re offered a role?
Thus far, it’s been the director. Every film I’ve done has been a writer/director [film], except for “Zodiac,” and that was from [director] David Fincher. I think I’m more interested in auteurs and working with directors whom I admire, even though the roles weren’t great. Now I’m trying to concentrate more on finding better roles. Because after playing Nicki [on “Big Love”], which was so fun, it’s hard to go back to the suffering wife.
Are there directors you haven’t worked with whom you’d like to work with in the future?
I have a very long list. I like Catherine Breillat, a French filmmaker. Claire Denis, who is also French. The Coen Brothers [Joel and Ethan Coen]. Anyone I feel like who is a real master of their craft. I like Paul Thomas Anderson a lot. I can’t wait to see his Scientology movie.
I’m interested in those kinds that are real auteurs/artistes who are working inside the studio system and really bringing a voice to bigger movies. I think that’s pretty cool. I’d like to be a part of that. We’ll see.
What do you hope audiences will get out of seeing “Mr. Nice”?
I hope the stoners have fun. I hope they go and get stoned and watch it and trip out. [She laughs.] I don’t know really know what I want people to take away from it. I just hope it brings some sort of emotion to them.
For more info: “Mr. Nice” website
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