All Grown Up: Chloë Sevigny and Leo Fitzpatrick on 25 years since Kids
As it approaches a quarter century, Larry Clark's seminal movie remains as iconic as ever. Here, the film's stars reflect on making 'Kids'.
It's 1995, and America's in the middle of a media renaissance; a thriving New York City sitcom explosion pits Friends against Seinfeld on the small screen, and indie cinema rules the theatres. Pulp Fiction's just picked up seven Oscar nominations, while slacker hits like Dazed & Confused and Clerks offer teens something to which they can relate. Then came Kids, which was, by all accounts, a cinematic outrage.
A quarter-century later, much of the film's cast are still hanging out in the city, but instead of being poster-children for shocking teendom, they're raising kids of their own. How did that happen? Leo Fitzpatrick and Chloë Sevigny rolled back the years for i-D, to look back at one of American cinema’s most notorious films and see what's changed since those heady days.
Speaking from their respective Manhattan apartments, the pair paint a vibrant scene. "It was a really hot summer," recalls Chloë, describing her life as a "promiscuous" 18-year-old, listening to Dinosaur Jr. and Pavement with best friend Harmony Korine while working at rave emporium Liquid Sky on Lafayette Street. A twenty-minute walk up the road was Washington Square Park, where Harmony and Larry had first crossed paths. It was here that Leo Fitzpatrick, a shy 16-year-old skateboarder into Wu-Tang Clan and A Tribe Called Quest, would respond to an open-casting call for a new film shooting that summer. He landed the lead role as Telly, a troublesome, amoral teen spreading HIV like a sexual hurricane among innocent girls like Chloë's Jenny.
"I was the youngest guy on set!" Leo claims disparagingly, as his role as "virgin surgeon" unavoidably comes under scrutiny. The warm figure speaking over the phone, though, sounds nothing like the film's notorious lead. "I was the sober kid from New Jersey, and I'd had sex maybe once. When I was cast in the film, my Mom had to let me do it!"
But Kids as a whole, they agree, was a ripe snapshot of the world they inhabited. "Outside of the sex, everything else was everyday for us -- the fighting, the hanging out drinking forties," says Leo. A production journal confirms that adolescent chaos was everywhere during filming, from shoplifting of the grocery store next to the set, to "authentically irritating" extras, to turning up drunk, or not at all. Chloë cites the support she had from co-producers Christine Vachon and Pamela Koffler as essential to the film's success ("they were running the show, and managing the kids -- that was not easy"), but she was not exempt from such behaviour herself.
"I remember one day smoking pot and getting high and being like "Oh my God… now I have to act!"," she says, pointing out the obstacles in delivering the "grounded and real" performance she strived for. There was at least one scene she felt she pulled off well, though: "the elevator scene where I had to seem really high," she laughs. "It's now the famous photo of me with my eyes rolled back. I remember after completing that being really proud of myself like "Wow, I really nailed that scene!"."
Whether through skilful method acting or otherwise, Kids was an unmitigated success upon release, grossing $20.4 million off the back of a $1.4 million budget. But while the careers of Chloë and co-star Rosario Dawson kicked off soon after, for cast members like Leo things were more complicated. With Miramax marketing the documentary-style film as genuine, Leo ended up as the object of much backlash, with some members of the public believing that Telly was still out there on the streets.
"People thought it was real," says Leo, letting out a sigh. "And nobody really told us what to do about that. I wasn't smart enough to know that I, in theory, had been abandoned. I was so weirded out about being known in NYC that I moved to London for a year."
He laughs: "It was pretty brutal for a 17-year-old, but growing up skateboarding I already had a thick skin. The best compliment I ever got was when I met [film critic] Roger Ebert, and he said: "right now, I want to punch you in the face. But that just reminds me that you did such a good job as an actor’.”
After "a few years" out of the limelight, Leo landed memorable roles on HBO's The Wire and Larry Clark's Bully, among others. But other members of the cast didn't have the same good fortunes. Justin Pierce, who played Telly’s sidekick Casper was incremental to the film's success, was found dead in his Las Vegas hotel room at 25, just five years after the film's release.
"He was the coolest one out of everybody, the one we all wanted to be like," claims Leo. "It's hard to understand people's insecurities when you look up to them so much, but a lot of those guys would drink whatever they could get their hands on. It's a roll of the dice. At this point I've kind of lost count of how many friends I've lost, it's almost more strange to have survived it."
Another prominent face from the film, Harold Hunter, died from a drug overdose in 2006. "He was the life of the party," Chloë laments. "He didn't care where you came from or who you were; he was just the nicest person in the world. But Justin and Harold were set free, in a way, after the movie. I'm not one to hold Larry or the film responsible, but I loved them both dearly, and they fell to addiction and depression."
Despite these blows, Leo and Chloë feel that the lasting cult around Kids is a boon. "It's become such a cultural touchstone for teenagers, and I'm proud of the fact people are still inspired and weirded out by it," says Chloë. But with both actors now raising children of their own, their advice for aspiring young actors has changed.
“What's interesting for me is having to show it to my son one day -- I don't think he even knows I'm an actor! ", says Leo, who's avoided re-watching the film for over 15 years. "But I see my life through my kid's eyes these days. I've played multiple racists and junkies, and I have no regrets. I know I'm not a villain -- and I'm comfortable enough to know that acting is just one small part of what I do. If that role was presented to my son, the advice is do it. Of course, do it."
As they reflect on one of the most disruptive films of the '90s, Leo and Chloë seem to agree -- maybe the kids had it all right back then. While there is much to learn from the chaos and tragedy of Kids, the sense of spirit and innovation that existed there in '95 is something worth striving for. "It's interesting to have been here for this long, and to watch it change over and over," Leo concludes, putting on a face-mask as he prepares to leave the house. "But it's kind of nice to get back to grimy, old New York, even if it's just for a moment."