For anyone who has watched HBO's "Big Love," it would be easy to presume costar Chloe Sevigny to be icy and aloof, yet in conversation she is engagingly warm and a bit of a goof, with a streak of puncturing self-deprecation. She has an unexpectedly modest primness about her, albeit offset slightly by a pair of remarkably short shorts out of which sprout impossibly long legs.
An actress known as an indie-film it girl and style maven, Sevigny came into her own this season with her role as the scheming, uptight Nicki in the suburban family drama centered on a Utah polygamist and his three wives. She made Nicki strangely sympathetic, unexpectedly likable even, perhaps most of all when she was at her most manipulative and out of control. The actress clicked into something, giving Nicki a screwball snap and brittle fragility.
"I think she's much more raw in the third season," Sevigny said during a recent interview in Los Angeles. "You see everything that's happening to her, so you see her more open and vulnerable, though she's being deceptive. You see her really desperate, which is a different side to her."
To recap the recent trials of Nicolette "Nicki" Grant: She illicitly took a job in the local district attorney's office to tamper with an investigation of her father, leader of a polygamist compound, while engaging in an extended flirtation with a prosecutor. Her home life became increasingly strained, not least because she was revealed to be secretly using birth control pills in direct opposition to the tenets of the family's faith. She pushed her father down a flight of stairs after his acquittal, which was only part of her roller-coaster relationship with him, her volatile mother and power-hungry brother. Then her first husband showed up, which led to the ultimate reveal of a never-mentioned teenage daughter.
And that probably still leaves some things out.
"I've been playing the character for so long now it comes naturally," she said of the bolder, more troubled Nicki. And such intimacy with the character allows her "to be more confident, take more risks, go bigger. In my film work, I'm scared to go too big -- it's projected on the big screen and what not -- but on 'Big Love,' I feel I have a lot more freedom."
Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer, creators and executive producers of the series, say they purposefully shifted more focus onto Nicki this past season.
"When we came into the writers' room at the beginning of this last year," Olsen said, "it was with a very strong feeling that this character we all loved, Nicki Grant, really needed to deepen, or else she would become sort of a cliche, the Alexis Carrington of our show."
"In the first two years, Chloe's been sort of like, 'Can't I be warmer? Can't I be nice?' " Scheffer added. "And we were like, 'No, you're Nicki.' I think this year she just somehow knew to invest in the manipulations, the insanity of that character, because we were writing her toward this kind of expose of why she is who she is, this character that everybody loves to hate."
Now 34, Sevigny first garnered attention for her role as one of the teenagers in the controversial "Kids" (1995), moving on to indie acclaim in films such as "The Last Days of Disco" and "Gummo." She received a supporting actress Oscar nomination for her role in 1999's "Boys Don't Cry" before also appearing in films for Woody Allen, Jim Jarmusch, Lars von Trier and David Fincher.
Olsen and Scheffer had her in mind as they initially wrote the character and were pleasantly surprised when she became the first cast member to sign on for the show.
"I think we looked at that character as someone who is out of place," Olsen said. "She didn't fit in the compound anymore, nor did she fit in suburbia. There's something about that that Chloe exudes, you can't really pinpoint her. And we wanted Nicki to cover her insecurities with a sense of entitlement, the sort of polygamist princess, and she gave that really well. And she gave the ambiguity of the character real depth."
Sevigny expresses a small amount of pride at her agility with what she calls "zingers," the quotable quips that Nicki fires off as she careens her way through life. Olsen and Scheffer acknowledge that they often give Sevigny such lines just for the fun of hearing her say them.
"That is the perfect fusion of the actress and the character," Olsen said. "To give Chloe Sevigny a line like, 'It's Satan, Satan made me do it' -- it's true to the character and yet for Chloe to say that is just hysterical. Time after time, we can go to that well and give her the most preposterous things to say."
"She's canny," Scheffer added. "She knows what's going on and she's able to roll her eyes about what's happening around her in the moment. Some people have called it arch, but I would say 'knowing.' "