Chloe Sevigny’s journey to playing a notorious axe murderer started as a tourist at a bed and breakfast.
Specifically, the Oscar-nominated actress was a guest at Lizzie Borden’s house and museum in Fall River, Massachusetts, when she became fascinated with spearheading a new take on the Borden legend for the big screen.
Sevigny is a producer and stars in the title role of Lizzie, a biopic of the repressed spinster who was acquitted of the brutal slayings of her father and stepmother in 1892, although her guilt is generally accepted amid mysterious circumstances.
“One of our main objectives was to humanize her — the complexity of her and her circumstances, her relationship with the other women in the house, and her lack of options,” Sevigny said by phone. “We wanted to explore what might have led her to commit such a heinous crime, but we wanted to do it in a really subtle and nuanced way. What would cause someone to do something so extreme?”
In the film, Lizzie is a social outcast from an aristocratic New England family who lives in a modest house with her domineering father (Jamey Sheridan) and enabling stepmother (Fiona Shaw). Without access to the family fortune or the means to break out of her father’s shadow, Lizzie forms a bond with Bridget (Kristen Stewart), a housemaid who seeks companionship in a fellow outsider.
Sevigny, 43, developed the project with screenwriter Bryce Kass and director Craig Macneill (The Boy). Together they wanted to bring a new approach to material that had been portrayed frequently on television and in movies.
For starters, it’s structured more as a dark psychological drama than a traditional thriller, she said. By gradually exposing the audience to certain elements of Lizzie’s personality and lifestyle, the murders themselves would still seem shocking even if you knew they were coming. In other words, the tone of the film is dictated more by restraint than lurid rage.
“Lizzie Borden could be this really loud tyrant who’s always screaming at everybody all the time and throwing everybody around,” Sevigny said. “There’s something in the quietness with which she talks to people in the house that’s scarier and more effective.”
Besides the motives for murder, the film also speculates on the romantic relationship between Lizzie and Bridget, which was especially taboo at the time, and how it contributed to Bridget’s potential involvement in the crimes.
“When we were at the house, seeing the proximity of how they lived, in such tight quarters, and where the murders took place, it’s very hard to believe that Bridget didn’t know or wasn’t in cahoots. So we kind of ran with that,” Sevigny said. “From Bridget’s point of view, the woman who she thought she was in love with turns out to be someone who she doesn’t know at all.”
Although it took place more than 120 years ago, Sevigny thinks the Borden case has a renewed relevance today, in an age of #MeToo and improved voices in female empowerment. To be clear, however, she’s not labeling her a role model.
“We’re not condoning murder in any way, but these women come together and fight against their oppressors. She’s also fighting for Bridget, who is like the nameless, faceless immigrant,” Sevigny said. “There’s a lot of women out there who feel trapped, and I think Lizzie is representational of someone who’s fighting back against that.”