In Praise of Chloë Sevigny
Chloë Sevigny as Nicki Grant in Big Love
I don’t know if you have been watching HBO’s Sunday-night drama series Big Love, but if you haven’t been, you really should be.
Now in its third season, the show has recently generated some controversy with its portrayals of its main characters, a polygamist family from a splinter group of Utah Mormons, but that’s not why I’m recommending you check it out. I’m recommending you check it out for actress Chloë Sevigny‘s portrayal of one of the family’s three wives, “sister-wife” Nicki Grant. Sevigny’s performances on this show have been one of the finest examples I’ve ever seen of how an actor can shape the audience’s perceptions of a character through their performance.
If you were just reading the script for a given episode of Big Love, you’d probably think that Nicki Grant was a bitch on wheels, a woman without a single redeeming characteristic whose narcissism and inflexibility threaten to destroy her entire family. And you’d be right; as written, Nicki is those things. She’s not a very empathetic character.
But Sevigny brings such nuance and humanity to her performance that it changes before your eyes from a two-dimensional stereotype into something much more human. It’s not a case of the “lovable rogue” (think Robin Hood or Han Solo) or any of the other wheezy stereotypes of drama; Sevigny’s Nicki is far from lovable. But Sevigny brings to her performance an approach that teases out nuance from a character that otherwise would have none. Nicki was raised on an isolated compound of fundamentalist Mormons, and Sevigny plays her as half-woman, half-girl, tough as nails but with an incomplete, simplistic understanding of how the world works; just when you think her character is irredeemable, Sevigny finds a note of humanity in a gesture, a look, that stops you in your tracks and reminds you that there’s a person — a deeply wounded person — underneath all of Nicki’s armor.
Anyway, it’s a great performance, one that’s deserving of awards, and you if you’re interested in the craft of acting you could do a lot worse than to tune in and watch how a master does it.
Big Love airs Sunday nights on HBO at 9PM Eastern. The Season 3 finale airs next Sunday, March 22. If you want to start from the beginning, seasons 1 and 2 are available on DVD.