Eliza Morse/Saban Films/Roadside Attractions
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September 07, 2018 at 10:30 AM EDT

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Craig William Macneill’s Lizzie (out Sept. 14) slices down to the bone of speculative history with his feminist reframing of the mysterious Borden family murders, which suggests the infamous suspected murderess (Chloë Sevigny) actually rebelled against her father’s abuses with her Irish maid-turned-lesbian lover, Bridget, played by Kristen Stewart, who explains to EW why patriarchal oppressors should heed the film’s bloody warning — and how the project avoids dressing its central lovers in same-sex cinema clichés.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So, sex in a pigeon coop and bloody murder: this is the feel-good romance of the year.
KRISTEN STEWART:
[Laughs.] Hell yeah!

Lizzie’s story has, in reality, become a pulpy, almost cartoony legend over the years, which kind of dehumanizes it. Do you think this film reintroduces a missing human element?
I think it’s transformed from salacious, media-frenzied, true crime into folklore. Everyone knows the headline, but it’s nice to look inside and read the piece and consider there were a lot of details that added up…. She was really mad. Something must have pissed her off. She’s not just out-of-her-mind crazy…. I’m not encouraging that we empathize with murderers. I never think being super violent is necessarily the answer for anything. But it is cool to take a story that everyone is so familiar with on a really black-and-white level and breathe life into it.

Is there a punk-rock rebelliousness to it all, given all the twisted liberties you take in this film?
Definitely…. I went to Savannah [to shoot] two days after Trump was elected. These very loud conversations that are happening now were not necessarily at the forefront of everyone’s newsfeed on their phone. It wasn’t something that was so persistently in the press right now. So yeah, I think when we made the movie we were like, God, imagine two women who have these gaping voids, and they recognize that in each other…. Their instincts are so opposing but they fill each other’s voice in this way that bolsters each other enough to kind of go, actually, I’m done being taken advantage of and utterly controlled with absolutely no options for the rest of my life. I’m basically a prisoner in my own household.

It’s entertaining and it’s a tragic love story. Everyone’s into true crime, everyone wants to know how somebody could be capable of something so heinous…. But for this movie we’re not empathizers, but we are just saying that it was a lot harder to live then as a woman, and we’re still gunning and fighting and acknowledging things for the first time, so it’s kind of trippy to imagine: What did ‘gay’ look like then? What did it look like for young women to have really warm, transcendent feelings with pheromones flying between them, and support they’ve never even imagined from another person? And yet they’re wearing corsets and [Bridget is] sweeping the floors and being taken advantage of by [her] employer. Imagine all the different stories that have been told but completely partially.

Saban Films/Roadside Attractions

Chloë told me she wanted to bring down the patriarchy with this film. Did you channel any rage against the patriarchy into your performance?
[Bridget is] conflicted about her natural feelings and she’s not as outspoken as Lizzie because she doesn’t, in her mind, have that right. She comes from extreme poverty; she’s totally displaced in America. She’s completely and utterly alone. When she meets Lizzie…. there’s a spirit coaxed out of her because of their mutual recognition…. I never got to taste that [rage] because I was playing somebody who was entirely subdued. Theoretically speaking, yes, absolutely I wanted to be a part of this movie because you see these two girls who are entirely oppressed and unable to breathe and being strangled. Choice isn’t even a word that probably exists in the realm of their vocabulary…. Even though it doesn’t end super successfully for either of them, just being able to watch two people who are not allowed to f—ing be and just feel okay or happy for just one second, just share a few moments and kind of breathe together as one is, to me, so triumphant.

Bridget does deal with issues that are in headlines right now: She’s sexually assaulted by Andrew and is reluctant to speak up about it in fear of losing her job. I know you’re not trying to empathize with murderers, but in the twisted world of this movie, are the murders justified since Lizzie’s father is an abuser?
I don’t want to mince words and say it’s obviously why Lizzie had to kill him. I’d never justify violence, but we’re all animals. If you corner an animal after locking it in a cage and doing bizarre things to it, what do you think’s going to happen? It’s going to bite back. It’s satisfying to see that turn…. Theoretically, it’s total justification. Lizzie wasn’t an evil, crazy monster; she was an abuse victim.

The infamous murder scene takes place in the nude. How did you feel about that?
I love that detail…. The fact that we see her carry out this murder fully in the nude, she becomes feral. She becomes an animal. She’s visually, strikingly female in that moment, and also strikingly strong…. The image of Chloë’s face, checked out, turned off, carrying out this murder with blood spattered on it while you see her full tits out — you better watch out, dude!

Saban Films/Roadside Attractions

It’s interesting to me because the sex scene is fully clothed, and it’s not until the murders that they bare their bodies.
We were never inserted into overly beautiful [scenarios]. We were never like, “Okay, then your corset bursts open!” Of course it doesn’t burst open! It takes, like, 10 minutes to take off, so if we’re going to f—k, we’re going to do it with our clothes on! That intimacy level, that sort of hushed, quiet, whispered exchange they have, [fits]. It was present and honest. Same with the murder scene: They couldn’t wear clothes because blood would get on them, so they had to take them off. [But] seeing Chloë naked with an ax…is so representative of what this movie is about. Conversely, us in our clothing while being intimate is trying to get under these binds, trying so hard to just get one inch of space closer…. we realized what’s sexy is the immediacy of not taking our clothes off.

How did you guys approach presenting the same-sex relationship intimately, but not sexually exploitative?
Naturally, from an insider’s perspective. [It’s] a queer story line in a movie that doesn’t define the movie in its entirety — it’s f—ing cool to make movies that are nuanced, layered, and true to life rather than taking something that matters to me and making it cliché and broad. That gets under my skin; I hate seeing it presented that way. [For them] the word ‘gay’ doesn’t factor. It’s an instinct that doesn’t have a name.

Chloë and Bryce said they had spiritual encounters with a few ghostly presences before and during filming this movie. Were you spared from that?
No, I was never visited. [Laughs.] I totally believe Chloë had a really trippy experience…. she had a disturbed night and couldn’t sleep, and she was positive that it was Andrew being like, ‘No!’ I, on the other hand, didn’t have any specific experiences. When you do a movie about a real person — especially if they’re no longer living — it’s like that thing where…. you wonder if they can see you pick your nose or something. You wonder how they’re overlooking you…. any little gust of wind, Chloë was so consumed like, oh, that must be Lizzie! 

Well, if the spirits do visit you in the future, hopefully it’s to say you did a great job on the film.
God, I hope so!

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