Chloë Sevigny has long been fascinated with Lizzie Borden. The Academy Award nominee became interested in the tale of the biggest murder mystery and trial at the end of the 19th century when she was growing up in Connecticut, and that seed of curiosity finally grew into the feature film “Lizzie.”
After numerous delays and countless obstacles, “Lizzie” is now in theaters. Sevigny takes on the role of Borden, the seemingly proper young woman from a good Massachusetts family who is accused of killing her father and stepmother with an ax. Along with the elements surrounding the murder, the movie also examines the relationship between Borden and housemaid Bridget Sullivan (played by Kristen Stewart).
The long road to getting the movie made started with Sevigny asking an old friend, screenwriter Bryce Kass, to write a script. They were so committed to making a story about Borden with new elements that Sevigny and Kass went to Fall River, Mass., where they spent the night in the room where the murders occurred.
Sevigny knew Borden’s story had been told in film and on TV before, but she wanted to make a version that took all the tidbits she had heard for years and offered a broader look at the Borden family history. The new version also delves into numerous alternative versions as to who could have committed the crimes.
By the time Sevigny had done all the research, she began to feel a lot of empathy for Borden.
“I fell in love with Lizzie. I wanted to play her. I wanted to make this movie. I don’t get that many opportunities to star in things and so I was determined to make this movie,” Sevigny said. “She’s this outcast icon for the misfits of the world. I wanted to make this movie for them and so I stuck with it.”
Sevigny — who is a producer on the project — never imagined how difficult it would be to get the movie made.
“We pitched it to HBO. We pitched it as a movie, and they wanted to do it as a miniseries,” she recalled. “We had to reconstruct it as that. Then they shelved it. Then they brought it back out again. The good thing was Bryce and I were working on other projects and not just waiting around for them to do it.”
The process continued for years, but Sevigny stayed busy with film roles (“The Dinner,” “Lovelace,” “The Snowman”) and television projects (“American Horror Story,” “Portlandia,” “Big Love,” “The Mindy Project”).
Director Craig William Macneill said having Sevigny playing Borden was a gift because she has “a magnetic onscreen presence.” A big part of playing Borden is what isn’t said, and Macneill found that Sevigny has a talent to keep powerful emotions just under the surface.
Playing a flawed character like Borden fits with the pattern Sevigny has put together in her career. The mundane and mainstream don’t get her attention as much as roles that push her. Sevigny’s first film role was starring in Larry Clark’s controversial “Kids,” and she earned her Oscar nomination for her work in “Boys Don’t Cry.”
Now that “Lizzie” will get to be seen by audiences, Sevigny has great hope they will see what she saw in this tale.
“Not only is it a love story, it’s also a classic American story of a woman thinking if she has financial independence she’ll find freedom and happiness,” Sevigny said. “I think this film works on many levels.”