The French restaurant Lucien, where First Street meets First Avenue, has not changed in years. Not the menus, the white tablecloths, the little wineglasses, or framed photographs of celebrities on the walls. In many of the photographs, the bistro’s progenitor, Lucien Bahaj, is featured, a reminder of his recent passing.
Lucien is the kind of peerlessly located, effortlessly glamour-facilitating “hotspot” that could have been established at almost any point in the 20th century—it opened for business in the summer of 1998—and at no point since. Which makes it the perfect place for the actress Julia Fox, a consummate downtown girl with latter-day notions of fame, to be interviewed about her first real movie, Uncut Gems, as well as her life.
Fox is already seated when I arrive, at perhaps the only table in the restaurant that is invisible from the entrance, certainly the one that looks dimmest. Outside—this is early December—it’s cold and raining hard. Here the lighting is an afterthought, flattering. Amy Winehouse is playing. Fox sips a Shirley Temple and looks ideal, clad in all black, accessorized with diamonds and a Cartier Love bracelet. She has the pale neck, rounded shoulders, and swanlike bustline of a Hitchcock girl and the slightly oversized features of an Antonioni girl. Her lashes, faux, are delicately tinted. Her skin is clear and ivory, lightly blushed. Her lips look roseate, a little chapped. Her hair, which she obsessively brushes, is worn in a simple, keratin-sleek bob. (Very ’90s Vogue.) She is most often compared—visually, at least—to Debi Mazar, also a club kid who made it in pictures. Next to her on the banquette rests a neon-orange puffer by Juicy Couture, which she bought at her favorite store, Century21, and a new-looking Prada bag.
Fox seems only to trust what was cool when she was a teen: the films of Larry Clark, the art of DashSnow, the music of Chris Isaak, whatever. She has been coming to Lucien since age 15. She technically lives around the corner, on Third Avenue between A and B. But right now she’s staying at a hotel in mid-town, courtesy of the film’s distributor, A24, to make screenings, events, and press easier. This is not convenient, per se. It’s comfortable, a signs he has anxiety, or a New Yorker’s distrust of anywhere too old, too new, too tasteful, too highly starred, too nice.
Last time the distributors put her up in midtown, it was either at the Park Hyatt (established in 1919) or the Grand Hyatt (opened in 2014), she can’t recall, in any case it was a five-star hotel. “The nicest place,”she says, “and there were bedbugs. I got totally bitten up. It was not one bedbug. I was mangled. It kind of ruined my life for two weeks.” She pauses, sensing something of an insufficient reaction. “I felt super…raped,”she says, “and violated.
I feel a sense of responsibility for how the language has escalated. “Well,” I say. “All bedbugs are male.”
“Really?” Her blue eyes widen.
She sighs. “I was going to say, that makes so much sense.”
What is modern about Fox is her voice, which is luscious, secretly deep, and tricked out with every girlish tic known to millennials—likes everywhere, little bursts of upspeak, the pleasing sizzle of vocal fry, and occasionally a lisp reminiscent of Lana Del Rey saying gracias. It’s a delicious voice, slightly annoying. Combined with her halting locution, the voice connotes nothing so much as sugar and baby. It matches her eyelashes—faux. In the film, it’s louder, whinier, a little bit Bronx-y, inflected with a Mazarian pout. If you closed your eyes during her fight scene with Howie, you could almost start to dislike her. Hoooooowwwie. Her character in the film, also named Julia, is the role she was “literally born to play.” It’s the role of herself as she was nine years ago—the persona, the idea of herself she gave others. Like, Fox has been fired from every job she’s ever had, with the exception, perhaps, of dominatrix. She plays herself playing herself brilliantly. It wasn’t just acting, she says. It was creating, being there to micromanage the costumes, hash out scenarios, improvise lines. (LikeMae West, but she doesn’t really know who that is.)
“Josh [Safdie] always wanted to discover me, to do something with me. He would call me his ‘sudden star.’ He had this self-fulfilling prophecy” (not what self-fulfilling prophecy means, but close). “He was talking to me about playing Julia for five years. I don’t want to say it was written for me but…maybe,” she says, giggling. Her tone says “definitely.” Discovery may be the fantasy she most strongly encourages. Looking at her up close, I imagine that if I were a man in my place I would feel like a colonizer—finders keepers. Or like an author. She looks made-up. Sweet, a little crazy, killer curves. Somehow demure. A Vanity Fair writer once told me that what everyman desires is the body of a woman and the face of a girl—that is to say, a lover who looks nearly innocent of what she suggests.
The role of Julia in Uncut Gems is a superb one, maybe the closest to heroic ever written by the gutter-mind-ed Safdies. “Josh really wanted to show Julia’s power in that [Weinstein-esque] scene [in the penthouse at the Mohegan Sun Casino]. Like yeah, maybe most girls would be traumatized for life, but not Julia, because Julia knows that he’s a creep,”she says, easily sliding into the third person, or maybe it’s the first. “She’s using him for the room…he might be attempting to MeToo her but it doesn’t work because she’s completely oblivious to him, and like, watching the game. She basically just uses him and thinks he’s an idiot. Julia’s constantly in these predicaments where she could be taken advantage of but she never is. It’s always her playing them, playing the men. Josh wanted to highlight her strength, I thought that was interesting.” I also think it’s interesting, given that Fox in real life is a notorious victim of domestic abuse who (at least once) called the cops on ‘her abuser,’ a club owner. That the part was written for her didn’t mean it would go to her, though. Having long self-identified as a ‘creative,’ Fox was and is acutely aware that originating some-thing doesn’t mean you own it. “The big studios wanted a big actress.” Three hundred girls auditioned for the part, she tells everyone who asks, as well as some who don’t. (The Safdies told the New York Times it was more like 200. Who’s counting?) At first, she didn’t think she cared—it was just another one of their little films. “I didn’t understand what an amazing opportunity Uncut Gems would be, so I was just like, Dude, don’t worry. Like, you’re good. I don’t care.”
Then she realized it was a real movie—big. The Safdies convinced producer Scott Rudin to give her a pair of screen tests out in the wild. “Come as you are. Be yourself.” (For a normal person, an impossible directive.) The first: at Barneys, where she and Howie bickered over what to get her. “Julia wants him to buy her a nicer, more expensive dress, but he’s arguing for the cheaper, clearly not-as-nice dress. And then it’s like, arguing back and forth, and it was so good, so entertaining. I was like, oh this is major. I cannot let this opportunity…I can’t lose it. And I just embodied the character, I became her. I was like, nobody else can do this better than me. I just knew.” The second screen test: at karaoke, where—just like at real karaoke—she chose her song on the spot, singing Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Games,” and again “it was really good.” (The song is on the Wild at Heart soundtrack. The video came out in 1990, the year Fox was born. “I love that video so much, it’s so sexy. It won some awards or something.”) The karaoke place in Koreatown is the same one where Josh Safdie had his birthday. (“Or did he? Whatever.”)
Zak, Bahaj’s son, stops by and says, by way of greeting: “Off the record.” Zak is how she met Peter, her husband, at the Carlisle, where her best friend (who passed away this sum-mer) was living. “We bumped into Zak [in the lobby] and he invited Peter. Peter had a girlfriend and he let me know that. I was like, mmmkay fine, I’ll just wait. I waited and now we’re here.” Did she trust him more because he said he was in a relationship? Definitely.
Now she’s married. Her engagement ring is Alexandrite, rarer and more expensive than a diamond, and, like her, it takes on radically different colors in different lights. I ask if she got married so as to have more privacy. She says yes, that sounds right. Later her phone buzzes. Text from Peter. Proudly, she reads it aloud: “Are you telling her your life story?” he wants to know.The text sounds on screen like it might be impatient, but she reads it in a cosseting, knowing tone. A good line reading. It does the trick.
The story? I got bits and pieces. She has what I would call a casual and alluring handling of facts. She has a ken for what’s actually memorable, a carelessness about what’s supposed to be known. Dates, times, years. Whatever. But the Howie tattoo scene, that is real—I mean she did that in real life. (“I had done something really fucked up to an ex-boyfriend and for him to forgive me I did go get his name tattooed on me.”) The New York Times says she’s 29. IMDb says she is either 29 or 30—a mystery like Mariah Carey. Fox says to my face that she’s 28. (She also says she’s a Cancer.) It might be worth noting that Fox never says friend, it’s always best friend. (She has, like, 10 best friends.)
Anyway, Fox was born in Italy, where she lived with her grandpa. Grandpa was “a mechanic his whole life. He could fix anything that was broken. He was a frugal, honest, good man. Loving. Simple. He was just the best ever.” Her mother was studying to be a criminal psychologist. “She always said she had kids too young. Twenty-four or something like that. But she did the best she could. I guess.” Father was “here living on his boat” (on 79th St.). “When I was five, he finally got his shit together so I came to live with him.” In other interviews she says it was when she was six. “Then I would go back in the summers,” to northern Italy, near Lake Como. In New York, she lived in Yorkville.“Yorkville used to be mom-and-pop, working class. Mostly German, Irish, Albanian, some Italians, but very diverse. Cute place to grow up. We were such bad kids, but the place in itself was cute. Now it’s a bit more money. The Upper East Side-proper has spilled over, the property values are higher.” In other interviews, she’s compared it to growing up in Kids-era Yorkville. (Fox did live, according to public records, at 200 East 84th St., in a townhouse three blocks from the one where Telly takes that girl’s virginity, in the film’s opening scene; though she’s a decade too young for Kids-era anything.)
I once listened to an episode of a comedian’s podcast, the Chelsea Skidmore Show, on which Fox appeared to talk about herself. Skidmore described meeting Fox at a 12-step meeting, and prodded her, unethically, to relate for the listeners a story Fox once told in the famous safe space. It’s a story Fox alludes to in one or more interviews online, although it’s a different version than the one I had, maybe a different story altogether. That story involved St. Patrick’s Day revelers and angel dust. This one featured a boyfriend and heroin. Something about an overdose at 17 or 18. Apparently, the boyfriend dragged her unconscious body down the stairs of her apartment, knocked on her neighbors’ doors until one of them came out, then “dipped,” as Fox put it, because he was afraid of getting arrested; he took the rest of the heroin with him. Fox seemed to be remembering the story hesitantly, in bits and pieces, as if she’d repressed it or forgotten ever telling it. As Skidmore reacted, Fox got into it. When she came to at Mount Sinai, she told Skidmore, the first thing she did was call the boyfriend from a hospital phone demanding he bring the drugs back, but he didn’t answer because he was at his ex-girlfriend’s. No! said Skidmore, who clearly hadn’t heard this part before.
What I mean is she’s easy to believe. The truth is beside the point.
The day we meet, she will later attend the Gotham Awards, where she is nominated in the category of “breakout star.” She is not going to win—but she knows it, saying what every actress says, the award is beside the point: she feels like she’s “already won.” She’s not being self-deprecating, really. She’s preemptively spinning her loss. Somehow it doesn’t sound disingenuous, maybe because it doesn’t sound modest. (“First film ever,” she brags.) And she’s lining up for her next win. Her ambition is alluded to (“It would take a lot for me to be thrown off the course”) and framed by a certain hard-won reality (“How fragile life is…I’m grateful I’m still here. I didn’t die like a lot of my friends did”). The whole persona is glossed over with an unwavering confidence.“I want my I’m-the-girl-in-the-movie moment,” she says finally, as if she hasn’t spent her whole life manufacturing that feeling, over and over again, every day when she wakes up, which she has. “I was made for this,” she says of the screen tests. “I was born for this,”she says about debuting on the red carpet. “I’ve been every type of girl,” she said on Jimmy Kimmel. “You have to be careful,” said Kimmel of her move to LA. “No, they have to be careful of me,” she said. Kimmel seemed not to hear her.
PHOTOGRAPHER JASON NOCITO
FASHION SUE CHOI
HAIR MATTHEW COLLINS
MAKEUP SANDY GANZER
ON-SET PRODUCTION CONNECT THE DOTS
PRODUCER SASHA BAR-TUR FOR CR STUDIO
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