Why the ‘Feud’ Actresses Would Never Trade Places With Capote’s Swans

TheWrap magazine: Naomi Watts, Chloë Sevigny, Diane Lane, Calista Flockhart and Molly Ringwald talk fame, privacy and how the world has changed for women since the Swans era

Feud: Capote vs. The Swans- FEATURED IMAGE
Photo by Molly Matalon

Picture a television series starring five women around age 50, set in the unattainable salons of wealth and power in and around Park Avenue of the sexy 1960s. In the wildly imaginative and luxuriously appointed “Feud: Capote vs. The Swans,” showrunner Jon Robin Baitz and “Feud” creator Ryan Murphy bring to life the relationship between writer Truman Capote and a flock of the most desirable, admired Swans of high society: Babe Paley, C.Z. Guest, Slim Keith, Lee Radziwill and — on the left coast — Joanne Carson. The women were married to money and power. They were the most beautiful, most photographed and imitated women of their day. And they were fatally betrayed by their confidante, Capote, who soaked up their secrets and then spilled them on the pages of “La Côte Basque, 1965,” which Esquire published in 1976 as an excerpt from a book he could never bring himself to finish. 

The actresses in the series are themselves all too familiar with fame and “It” girl status. TheWrap’s editor-in-chief Sharon Waxman sat down with Naomi Watts, who plays Paley; Chloë Sevigny (Guest); Diane Lane (Keith); Calista Flockhart (Radziwill) and Molly Ringwald (Carson) as they talk about influence, money and beauty — and the generational shifts from the era of Capote’s Swans to today.

When I saw “Capote vs. The Swans,” I felt like I was watching all of you depict a version of what you represent, in some ways. Today, we don’t have high society in the same way. But we do have celebrity. And all of you have lived decades in the public eye. There’s a parallel to what you’re playing, these women living aspirational lives. So what did it feel like to be inhabiting these women who are emblematic of a pinnacle of beauty and perfection? Naomi, I’ll ask you to start as you’re depicting Babe Paley, this legendary figure.  

NAOMI WATTS I read everything that was available — and there was plenty. They were the envy of women at that time. And I don’t know that there are parallels — but yes, we’ve all been around a lot. We’re not all out lunching or striving to be on the arm of someone powerful, so there were plenty of differences as well. 

But yeah, I suppose that we’ve had this similar kind of longevity. I mean, some of us have been working since we were children. I have been hard at work for at least three decades now. 

Naomi Watts, Feud: Capote vs. The Swans
Photo by Molly Matalon

CHLOË SEVIGNY I think that the Swans were able to maintain a level of mystery and mystique that is very hard to maintain nowadays. And I think when that was broken, it was a real assault. I think that’s why the feud began because they were so protected by their husbands, even by society that wanted them to be a certain thing. So for that facade to be broken, it was like, “Well, they’re not used to that.” It was almost like the old Hollywood system where they were protected.

I think that we’ve all had our private lives exposed in certain ways over the years that maybe we didn’t feel comfortable with. So there was that to draw on. For me, at least. 

MOLLY RINGWALD I’ve been in the public eye way longer than I’ve been out of the public eye. I did my first movie when I was 13, but I’ve been acting in front of an audience since I was 3 years old. But when I came up, I feel like it was possible to have a private life and a public life. And that was always really important to me. I always wanted to make sure there were times when I was working, and there were times when I was just me. And I feel like that’s not really possible now. And I feel like all the Swans were able to do that. There was a sense of mystery and they kind of kept themselves apart. For the Swans of today, I don’t think that there is much of a separation between the public and private life. 

Chloë Sevigny, Feud: Capote vs. The Swans
Photo by Molly Matalon

DIANE LANE We’re meeting these women at a later stage of their evolution where they’re almost vapor-locked in people’s understanding of them. And they’re never going to be allowed to stray far from that moment of apex achievement, fame. It’s a different world now and it is a different playing field now. Women are afforded more options and more seasons — as Jane Fonda said — and I think also incarnations within one lifetime. 

CALISTA FLOCKHART In regards to playing Lee, I thought a lot about what it must have felt like for her, who had a sister who was the First Lady (Jackie Kennedy) and she could never leave her house without being “paparazzied.” So I dwelled a little bit on the paparazzi aspect, putting on your outfit or your facade and your protective armor and walking out your front door, knowing that there are going to be people taking your picture. And I did experience that. When I did “Ally McBeal,” I didn’t go anywhere without the paparazzi following me wherever I went. So that I understood.

And I know sometimes it’s OK, and sometimes it’s horrible, and sometimes it doesn’t matter. So there’s a whole myriad of emotions that come along with it. But I thought a lot about that. 

I always go back to a book, “One Special Summer,” a scrapbook about a trip that Lee and Jackie took to Europe when they were quite young, like 18 and 20. And it is so sweet. And funny. And the affection that they had for each other was obvious. It’s quite poignant and touching for me because they loved each other, and we can see how complicated their relationship became. So for me, it was always: In order to understand Lee’s pain, you had to understand the love and what she lost. She became self-protective — she was hurt a lot.

"Feud: Capote Vs. The Swans" (FX)
Naomi Watts, Chloë Sevigny and Diane Lane in “Feud: Capote Vs. The Swans” (FX)

Can you talk a little bit about working with Tom Hollander (who plays Capote)? Each of you has a relationship with him, and he says to each of you, “You’re basically my favorite.” 

WATTS We all saw it at once, at Côte Basque (for) the first time in one scene. When the cameras were rolling, it was like we are seeing exquisite art before our eyes in real time. And it was down to the fingers, how they moved, how the glasses were touched, the physicality, the pitch of the voice — everything. And every single take something else would be brought to it. He was doing cartwheels, it was just wonderful magic. 

RINGWALD A lot of American actors would be the character and never really leave. They would do the Method thing, whereas a British actor is trained differently. So I met Tom and then watched him become Truman, and then go back to Tom. And it was like watching somebody perform an incredible magic trick. To me, it was: How did that happen? Because the posture would change and the voice would change. But he did it so effortlessly. It was really magnificent. 

Calista Flockhart, Feud: Capote vs. The Swans
Photo by Molly Matalon

Was there any tension on the set among you, because you’re all such prominent actresses, over who had how many lines, or who would stand out more? 

SEVIGNY We’re all professionals. 

WATTS It’s usually just you and a bunch of guys. Maybe a sister or a daughter — or the other woman, of course! To be a group of women rooting for each other! We’ve given up on that competitive BS in our lives by now. 

RINGWALD I felt like that’s something that was fed to us at a young age — that you were supposed to be competitive. That scarcity idea: Someone else’s success means your failure. And that’s just not the case at all. 

The success of this show with all of these strong women, no matter who has more words, it’s great for all of us because that means that that idea that people don’t want to see women of a certain age is not true. 

Molly Ringwald, Feud: Capote vs. The Swans
Photo by Molly Matalon

Naomi, talk about your character being married to Bill Paley, who runs CBS. He’s one of the most powerful men in maybe the country. And then you find out that he’s sleeping with … 

WATTS …the world. (Everyone laughs.)

Yes, exactly. And still, Babe has this incredible dignity about her that you carry so well. 

WATTS Yeah, there’s a poise and dignity and grace. The thing I kept reading wherever I went was she would never say a wrong word. Perfect hair, never out of place. Everything was with intention. Huge thought goes into that way of living, just being the perfect wife. And it was ingrained into her as a child: “You must land a really powerful husband.” And so that became her purpose, to be a brilliant, successful wife. And along the way, that meant enduring some infidelities. 

With Truman, she really leaned into his comfort as this friend who was completely unthreatening. There was no limit to their friendship, because there was no sexual tension, no sibling rivalry, no familial stuff. And she gave herself to this support that he was offering. She wasn’t going to allow any emotion to surface but it was right there. There were cracks. That was obviously her internal battle. 

Diane Lane, Feud: Capote vs. The Swans
Photo by Molly Matalon

Do you think Ryan Murphy and Jon Robin Baitz feel somehow connected to Truman Capote as writers? 

LANE We would be surprised by the different perspectives that Robby took, especially in the final episode. It must have been fun to think about how, in a perfect world, would Truman have made amends with these women? What creative way would he have taken? And so we get to see that and I just thought, that’s a gift to himself as a writer.

SEVIGNY Ryan did say to me early on how much Truman had meant to him as a young person growing up as a gay cultural figure and how important he was to him. There’s a real reverence there and a love for Truman. 

RINGWALD There were not many people who were really out at that time. Norman Mailer tells this fantastic story about going into one of these Irish pubs, where even as a straight guy, you were afraid to go in if you weren’t dressed masculine enough. And he went in with Truman, and Truman just walked in with his fur coat and his glasses. There was no question that he was gay and nobody bothered him. I mean, just the confidence that he had. And I think that is pretty inspiring for anybody, but especially somebody who is LGBT. 

When you think about the distance that women have traversed since those days when the most privileged women of society were thinking about what they were going to wear to the Black and White Ball, would you choose that kind of privilege if you could? 

WATTS  Well, I think we’re all working, and speaking for myself, this is the greatest role I’ve had for quite a few years. I’m really proud of the piece of work and it’s landing with audiences. 

I think there’s parallels still to be drawn. We’re still fighting for relevance, I suppose, like these women were but I think that comes whether it’s male and female, that comes from midlife. There’s not so much judgment, we’re not judging ourselves. At this point in time, we’re learning to love because we’re living longer, I think, optimizing our health so that we can enjoy this time being in the middle of our lives.

Chloe Sevigny, Diane Lane and Naomi Watts in “Feud: Capote vs. The Swans.” (FX)

RINGWALD  The “It” girls of the moment — Taylor Swift, Beyoncé — have built their own empires. They are not dependent on who they married. They are completely in charge of their careers, which I don’t think any of these women that we played were allowed to do or expected to do. And I feel like we have really come a long way. It’s inspiring to me as an actress, but also as a mother with two girls. You know that there’s going to be more opportunity for them. 

Would you choose the life of a Swan?

RINGWALD  Not me. Absolutely not. 

LANE  I don’t think that Slim felt she was a victim in any sense of the word. And I don’t think that really any of these women did. But there is a sense of being trapped by your good fortune. In a sense, we’re asked to experience the cracks in the facade or the burden of the loss or the uncomfortableness of the fact that you are replaceable, because you are a wife and you know how that can happen. 

I think generationally, we’re improving with each mother and their daughter. It gets better for each of our daughters. You look back and you see all this glamour, and then you realize how much effort it takes and the sacrifices that were made. So there are choices there. And today, I don’t think we’re asked to make those extreme choices.

RINGWALD I wouldn’t have taken any of their lives over my own — but I would have liked their wardrobe!

Feud: Capote vs. The Swans cover
Photographed by Molly Matalon for TheWrap

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