Chloë Sevigny: More than just a damsel in zombie distress
“The Dead Don’t Die” — writer-director Jim Jarmusch’s zombie comedy that takes on fracking, consumerism, and more — boasts an ensemble cast of familiar Jarmusch faces. Some of the first actors onscreen are “Coffee and Cigarettes” (2003) co-stars Bill Murray, Tom Waits, and Iggy Pop. Adam Driver (“Paterson,” 2016) plays a local police officer. Tilda Swinton (“Only Lovers Left Alive,” 2013) is an eccentric funeral home director. Steve Buscemi, of “Coffee and Cigarettes” and “Mystery Train” (1989) is a racist farmer who wears a MAGA-inspired red hat.
Then there’s Chloë Sevigny (“Broken Flowers,” 2005) who plays sweet and sensitive Mindy Morrison, a police officer who watches with terror as zombies take over her small town.
Recently, Sevigny — who has family from Massachusetts, which means she grew up going to the Cape — was in Cambridge for an early screening of the film at the Brattle Theatre. The actress got her start in such indie films as “Kids” (1995) and “Boys Don’t Cry” (1999), which earned her a best supporting actress Oscar nomination. She’s also done notable television work, in such series as “Big Love” and “Bloodline.”
Sevigny talked about working with Jarmusch, becoming a zombie scream queen, and her own directorial projects.
Q. This film has an epic ensemble cast. How many of these stars did you know before the shoot?
A. A handful of them. I knew Steve Buscemi; I’d been in his  film “Trees Lounge.” It was my second film, which he wrote, directed, and starred in. I worked on “Broken Flowers” with Bill. Everybody else I think I kind of knew socially. I knew Tilda, Adam . . . and then became fast friends with Caleb Landry Jones [of “Get Out”] and Luka Sabbat, who plays, like, one of the hipsters. It was really nice to make new friends, and actually Luke and I have maintained this friendship, and it’s pretty rare. I think that’s one of the nice things about Jim and how he casts — that he casts like-minded people. You can feel that in the movie. Oh — I’d aso worked with Carol Kane, in “Trees Lounge.”
Q. Carol Kane in this movie — in anything — is such a lovely surprise.
A. Her whole schtick: that face, that hair. They play up your idea of her. The costume designer [Catherine George], she’s very intuitive.
Q. Speaking of costume design, you’re known for wearing clothes well. Often great clothes and costumes. In this film, you wear a drab police uniform for the entire movie.
A. I know. Like, could you make this any less flattering? [Laughing] Like, in the [back] area . . . terrible. There’s one scene where I walk away and I was, like, “Ugh, torture! Do me some favors, someone!”
Q. I can’t think of another film where you’re stuck in one outfit like that.
A. I did [an episode] of “Doll & Em” [in uniform], but I was playing an actress playing a cop.
Q. What’s your take on Jarmusch’s interest in telling a socially conscious zombie story right now?
A. Honestly, I have no idea, and he kind of skirts around that. Obviously the environmental issues are weighing heavily upon his soul — with the polar fracking [plotline]. I think, you know, [he thinks about] his daughter, and thinks about her future and the Earth we’re going to be handing over to her. He’s a very sensitive individual. But why zombies? I don’t know. Well, I mean, he’s a big [George] Romero fan, obviously. There are nods to the film in that. When he sent me a letter about the film — through the mail, he doesn’t e-mail.
Q. A handwritten letter?
A. Yes. Handwritten. He said, “I want to make this ridiculous zombie movie and I want you to play one of the main characters,” and I was, like, I don’t even have to read it. I’ll do it. Then he sent me the script and we sat down and met, and I was, like . . . I don’t want to say I was disappointed with the part, but I was, like, is [Mindy] just the damsel in distress? . . . I was a little jealous that Tilda got to be a feminist heroine and I was just, like, the scream queen. But I think [my character] turned out to be a lot more. It’s so funny; when you’re in it, you don’t think that, and then when you see it, you’re, like, how did that happen? That’s kind of the magic I feel, like, of acting and making movies.
Q. Is this the first film where you’ve been able to lose it like that onscreen?
A. [Laughs] Well, in “Lizzie” [Sevigny’s 2018 Lizzie Borden film] I did some of that but it was very different.
Q. How long did it take the cast to get into full zombie makeup?
A. I think it was, like, a two- or three-hour process. A lot of [people] were wearing masks. There were cheats. They did a great job, the special effects people. Right after, I went to [direct] my third short film, called “White Echo,” and I have some VFX and special effects, and just coming out of Jim’s world straight onto my set, I was trying to [laughing] steal those people and their ideas.
Q. You have shown a commitment to making — and loving — short films. You brought a short [“Kitty”] to the Provincetown International Film Festival when you were honored there a few years ago. What draws you to these projects?
A. I don’t want to call them exercises because they’re too expensive to call them that, but it is a way of learning my craft and the craft of directing. Even though I’ve been on sets for, like, 25 years, [I’m still learning] lenses and filters and some of the more technical aspects. Things you don’t think about when acting. For me, it’s a low-stakes opportunity to explore things. But even watching Jim on this film, with all the special effects, he was stressed — and he admits to that. It was, like, watching a mastermind re-learn aspects of filmmaking. I took that with me when I went on to my next short. It’s OK that I don’t know things.
Q. Are most of your acting choices based on directors?
A. Throughout my career, it’s always been director-based. Most of my films have been ensemble-based and have never really, like, been driven by, you know, a part — or to be, a star. “Lizzie” was, like, the one thing that I did where I tried to carry a movie, and I had to develop it for myself.
Q. Are there any directors on your wish list?
A. So many, We could spend all day. I saw Jane Campion at Cannes and was, like, “Remember when I auditioned for you?” And she was, like, “I’ve been following you.” Claire Denis. . . . The Safdie brothers. . . . Spielberg, obviously.