Actress Clea DuVall Talks ‘Lizzie Borden,’ Horror Movies, and Being an LGBT Icon
Christina Ricci and Clea DuVall reprise their roles in the Lifetime mini-series The Lizzie Borden Chronicles, which premieres Sunday, April 5 at 10pm ET. The series derives from the successful Lifetime Original Movie Lizzie Borden Took An Ax, which aired in January 2014.
This spin-off gives an in-depth fictionalized account of actual events and people surrounding Lizzie’s (Ricci) life after her notorious acquittal of the horrific double murder of her father and stepmother in 1892. The eight part series, co-produced by Ricci, explores Lizzie’s newfound celebrity, bisexuality, and mysterious brutal deaths that seem to continue to surround her.
Amidst the controversy, is Borden’s loyal sister Emma, played by DuVall. No stranger to dark roles, the 37 year old actress is best known for Girl, Interrupted, The Grudge, The Faculty, the iconic LGBT coming of age film But I’m a Cheerleader, and most recently as the closeted grade school teacher and lover to Sarah Paulson’s “Lana Winters” on American Horror Story: Asylum. In 2012, she won a Screen Actors Guild Award for her portrayal in the film Argo.
The LGBT icon sat down with FireDownBelowOnline.com to discuss the series, why she thrives in sinister roles and But I’m a Cheerleader’s 15th anniversary.
Fire Down Below: When you were working on the movie, was there talk of a follow-up series?
Clea DuVall: No. I was totally taken by surprise. I had no idea it was going to happen. I don’t think any of us did.
I think that Lizzie needs Emma more than Emma needs Lizzie. I think that Emma is the only reason why Lizzie has been able to survive as long as she has, because Emma is her enabler.
At the start of the series, where is Emma in regards to accepting her sister?
Emma is in a place of blind acceptance. She can’t face any other reality than her sister being innocent. That really motivates her to stay with her and protect her, because Lizzie is the only family she has.
Was there anything you added to this role that wasn’t originally scripted for you?
Something that happened very naturally during the movie was that, as much as it’s this fun, thriller kind of horror series, it’s really a story about a family and these two sisters trying to survive. That’s something that Christina and I both really kind of fought for and tried to keep at the forefront of everyone’s minds. That’s the way we approached scenes together. There were definitely elements of myself that I brought. We’ve all had those dynamics, whether it be with a partner or a parent or a friend or a sibling that weren’t necessarily good for us but there was something we were getting out of it, based on where we were in our lives at that time. I think that Emma definitely kind of goes through such a change in that dynamic. It was really fun to play and I got to do a lot of cool stuff.
You and Christina have such great chemistry. Did you take some time to bond before filming? Were you familiar with each other?
I think I met Christina when I was 20. So, she would’ve been 17. I’ve known her for a really long time. We ran in the same circles. We weren’t necessarily that close when we were younger but there’s a level of comfort there that came naturally to us. We got along really well during the movie and then coming back, we spent a lot of time together off-set. I really care about her. I think she’s a really special person; a smart person and such a good actress. I was never not impressed by her. There were days where I was like, “How are you even doing that?” One minute she’d be acting totally normal with me, joking around and then a camera turns on and that’s what you’re doing. I was like, “No wonder you’re a movie star.” It was pretty exciting to be a part of.
The series expands so much more on the movie. All the characters are more flushed out in the series. I was wondering if the writers gave you any additional information, besides what’s in the script, in regards to how your character would progress?
I think the movie was really trying to straddle the line between reality and fiction. It’s a tricky thing to do. The movie felt a little more straight forward; a little more serious. In the series, we’re able to have more fun with it and take way more liberties to create a whole different world. I think that gave us much more room to play. We really didn’t know what was going to happen, because we would get the scripts close to shooting each episode. We never knew what was coming next.
Your character seems smarter this time around.
Yea. The show definitely has a clearer point of view, I think. [The story] found itself a lot more in the show. Being able to tell a story over eight hours as opposed to two can afford you more luxury to create a character and an arch. I love the format of series’. I love growing a character over time. You don’t get that luxury when you’re making a movie. Everything is so compressed.
In the movie, it seems that Emma assumes Lizzie committed the murders. What happened? Did she forgive her sister?
We approached the series as though the movie is a separate thing. For us, it wasn’t connected. So, it’s created a different history. In the movie, there was a lot more questioning and in the series, Emma believes her sister and the doubt is subconscious. She’s holding onto this idea that her sister is good and innocent even though there’s this part of her that knows that isn’t true. But it’s buried so deep under the surface.
What are you most looking forward to viewers seeing on The Lizzie Borden Chronicles?
I really think the last three episodes are my favorite. There are two really great actors who come in at the end that I really want people to see. I was blown away by them when they got there.
Can we talk about the costumes?
Our costume designer [Joseph A. Porro] was so incredible. He is so creative and they were so beautiful. He made everything that Christina and I wore from scratch. I met him in L.A. before we went out to shoot and he just had these bolts of fabric stacked up in a room. He was like, “Do you like this? Do you like that?” So, when I got to Halifax, there was this rack full of incredible clothing. The second you put it on, it was hard to not slip right into character and that time.
This year marks the 15th anniversary of But I’m a Cheerleader. Do you have any memorable moments you can share from filming?
Oh, my God, so many! There’s so many memorable moments. I can’t believe that’s 15 years ago! Way to make me feel super old. That’s so crazy. Natasha [Lyonne] is still one of my best friends, as is Melanie Lynskey. That movie was such a huge deal for Natasha and I, not only as actors, but also in our friendship. We were very much like siblings during filming, like fighting all the time. Jamie Babbit is one of my oldest friends, too. I don’t know if I can think of any one anecdote – or one that I can talk about. [Laughs] Cathy Moriarty was so incredible and awesome. She was the den mother for all of us. When we were shooting out at the house in Palmdale, [CA], she was so cool. At night, she’d bring us all into her room and just talk to us and tell us stories. We’d all just sit and listen like little kids at story time. That was really fun. It was such a great experience. I’ve been doing this for such a long time and the most vivid memories I have are of that film, and I think it’s because Jamie, Natasha and Melanie are still part of my life. We all share those memories and it feels like a – sort of – family experience. I am so grateful I got to be part of it. I think it’s one of the most important things I’ve done in my career. People still come up to me all the time – even kids – who probably weren’t even alive when that movie was made. And yes, they make me feel old, but still grateful that it’s so relevant for people now. I love that idea that it will continue on and keep being meaningful today as it was 15 years ago.
You also got to work with RuPaul in the movie. Have you ever been asked to be a guest judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race?
Oh, yea! [Laughs] No. We haven’t seen each other since. I think she and Natasha have had contact since then.
You’ve done so much horror in your career. What makes you drawn to that? Or rather, why do you think you’re chosen to play such dark roles?
I don’t know why anybody wants me in their scary movies. I really like it because it’s a lot of fun. Especially in an environment like this where I get to play this interesting, complicated character, there’s also the fun, heightened reality that comes with horror. I love watching horror movies. They’re so fun to make. It’s when you’re making a movie in the way that you would watch as a kid; you imagine make believe.
Going along with your horror genre, do you have any plans to return to American Horror Story?
I would love to!
Who: Clea Duvall
What: The Lizzie Borden Chronicles
When/Where: Sundays, 10pm ET on Lifetime
Photos courtesy of Lifetime