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Cara Seymour has become the year’s flashpoint actress, with small but pivotal roles in two controversy-courting films: In Mary Harron’s American Psycho, her dead-eyed prostitute was the only recognizable human being in a parade of hollowed-out ’80s mannequins, and in Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark, her prim housewife’s material desires indirectly hasten saintly Björk’s downfall. This week, Seymour tears through Katherine Dieckmann’s Southern Gothic debut, A Good Baby, as Josephine, a blowsy beauty itching to flee her rural hometown. “I was attracted to Josephine because she was independent-spirited but damaged, and a potential damager herself,” says Seymour. She’s in Rome at the moment, shooting Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (as is her Good Baby costar, Henry Thomas), tricked out in pointed teeth as legendary gangfighter Hellcat Maggie. “I’m on Leonardo DiCaprio’s side,” she clarifies.
Dieckmann cast Seymour in A Good Baby after remembering her performance in the New York run of the Mike Leigh play Ecstasy, which Dieckmann had favorably reviewed in 1995. The actress spent six weeks filming in Asheville, North Carolina, “in a valley called Sandy Mush. It’s a weird place, with real pockets of poverty—no running water or electricity. They’re people who are always stereotyped as racist hicks, and they’re definitely religious and all that, but I was impressed by the wildness in the air.” A native of Essex (“It’s the New Jersey of London”), Seymour nailed Josephine’s drawl with the help of “a really good accent coach, though I was always chasing women around the hotel or hounding anyone in a restaurant, saying, ‘Can I just talk to you please for a moment?’ ”
At Cambridge, where she had originally planned to pursue an education degree, Seymour and six female friends founded the theater troupe Trouble & Strife (“It’s Cockney rhyming slang for ‘wife’ “), hitting the road from Northern Ireland to New York to San Francisco. “We were a real collective. We wrote collaboratively, built the sets, drove the van, and raised the money, and we did it for seven years. It wasn’t the conventional Hollywood path.” Now 36 and a resident of the East Village, where she lives with her husband, Seymour landed her first movie role in the 1998 Stephen Rea obscurity The Break (“I play the screaming junkie”), followed by a small part in You’ve Got Mail. Von Trier cast her in Dancer in the Dark (“I loved my cheesy sub-Jackie Kennedy wardrobe”) on the basis of a video audition, though Seymour explains, “I look like Lars’s first wife, so my suspicion was that was why he cast me, not on my acting talent.”
Perhaps the most surreal indicator of Seymour’s ascendancy through moviedom’s ranks was her appearance last February before the Motion Picture Association of America, where she and Lions Gate copresident Mark Urman unsuccessfully appealed the NC-17 rating dumped on American Psycho due to a scene depicting a ménage à trois between Seymour, Christian Bale, and Krista Sutton. “They were very shocked that the woman who had been riding about with her bum out was talking to them,” Seymour reports. “People always assume you’re the character you play, so you’re only capable of giving a blow job. So I’m arguing on behalf of satire in front of all these Hollywoody guys who’ve obviously been with hookers and stuff, and they’re getting hot under the collar while we’re dancing around semantically. I mean, sex is good for you! And I wanted to say wait a minute, I feel no fucking shame about anything I’ve done, it’s you lot who should be ashamed for saying sex is bad and letting violence play out.” Seymour finally pauses for breath and laughs. “Fear of pleasure—that’s what I’d call the rating.”
Plus: Amy Taubin’s review of A Good Baby