Spoilers for Uncut Gems below.
Directors Josh and Benny Safdie have built a career on cultivated chaos, crafting characters so addicted to self-sabotage, their decisions elicit audible dissent from a packed movie theater. Their latest, the 10-years-in-the-making Uncut Gems, is a raucous journey through the gambling addiction of a Diamond District jeweler played by Adam Sandler. His Howard Ratner can’t stop placing bets with the money he owes other people and cheating on his wife (Idina Menzel); when his rare, uncut opal attracts the interest of the Celtics’ Kevin Garnett, money changes hands faster than Howard can register the dollar signs, and he sinks further into debt in pursuit of the next, bigger bet.
But as Howard concocts scheme after asinine scheme to make more money off his next cash influx, it’s his mistress, Julia, played by magnetic newcomer Julia Fox, who emerges as the film’s unexpected hero. She’s flawed, for sure—a pivotal scene in Uncut Gems sees her publicly brawling with Howard over a chance encounter with The Weeknd in a club bathroom—but Julia is compassionate and loyal to a fault. In a moment so pathetic it circles all the way back to endearing, Julia unveils a new tattoo for Howard in an effort to cheer him up after a gamble goes bad. And it’s Julia who ultimately emerges as the last player standing as the film winds to a jerky close; Howard dispatches her to place a bet on a Garnett game with his latest profit, a wager that leaves Howard with a bullet in his head and Julia absconding with the winnings.
Uncut Gems is based on the time the Safdies’ father spent working in New York’s Diamond District, but the role of Julia was written for Fox. “I think they had already known that Howard was gonna have a mistress, but then when Josh met me he was like, it has to be her,” Fox, whose past incarnations include artist and fashion designer, tells ELLE.com. “At the time I was dating a rich older man and we were together for five years, so I was kind of known for that.” By the time Fox got her hands on the final script, she was the only option for the role. “I was like, ‘This is me. Have you been stalking me?'” The result is a meta-performance, a marriage of Fox’s past with the Safdie’s frantic impulses that’s garnering awards season buzz and landed the actress a Breakthrough Actor nomination at the Gotham Awards. Below, Fox opens up about her first-ever onscreen role, adopting a movie-star attitude, and where her energy is going next.
What’s your take on Julia the character?
In the beginning, the audience is like, hmm, she’s a little seedy. She’s been out all night. She’s with this older married man and he’s a train wreck. It doesn’t really seem like she likes him that much. Then at the end you’re like, oh my God, she’s actually the only redeeming character of this movie. She’s at his mercy because he’s so crazy and she’s always trying to pick up the pieces. She carries the weight of all his tragedies that occur every day, so she has a lot on her shoulders. But she’s strong. Nobody else could do it. A small town girl from Ohio couldn’t do what she does. She would’ve tapped out a long time ago, whereas Julia is like, okay, what’s happening today? All right, we’re going to get through this.
How did you first meet the character?
I can’t remember the first script they sent me, because it was so long ago, but I read a few scripts every year and I would give [Josh] pointers. Like, I don’t think she would say this, I think that she would maybe do this, this specific way. And then when it came to dressing her, I understood it was 2012 and we had to stay true to 2012 fashion.
Is there a moment in the movie where you see the most of yourself?
Probably the club scene, just because the energy was so high, and I feel like I’m really good at those dramatic scenes, which I didn’t know until now. I wasn’t even sure I could play this role. I remember being like, Okay, I conned them into thinking I can do this, but can I actually? I have that imposter syndrome. Am I worthy, am I going to get to set and not know how to act? But Josh had faith in me, and that’s all I really needed.
What was your first day on set like?
When I got to set the first day and I saw 200 people, I was like, “Oh, shit! This is a major movie.” I thought it was just going to be us and the homies. It was insane. But being a New Yorker, I adapt really well. I’m used to things changing, I’m used to having to keep going and not really stopping to think and stress out. Sometimes you just got to perform, even in life, so I got used to it pretty quickly.
[Josh and Benny] told me that at one point, when I would come to set, it felt like a movie star was coming. Toward the end, they were like, Julia’s here. The energy would shift because toward the end I was giving orders, keeping the momentum going when everyone else is tired.
Was there a specific scene that intimidated you?
The scene in the bathroom with the Weeknd. It’s the Weeknd, first of all. I was like, oh my God, how am I going to have this intimate scene? I just met him an hour before. But then after meeting him and spending time with him, I was like, oh, this is gonna be a walk in the park. He’s so humble, so chill, and such a pleasure to be around. He made me feel really comfortable. I really felt like the set was my home and those people were my family.
How do you think Julia reacts to news of Howard’s death?
She doesn’t really have time to mourn. Howard had life insurance, his family’s going to be great, and she gets away with the money. She has to flee New York because all these gangsters are looking for her, all the people he owed money to. So she runs away, and restarts her life, and eventually has a family of her own. She’ll always love Howard and she’ll always keep the tattoo.
You’ve worked in fashion and as an artist. Did you see yourself moving into performing?
Yeah, I feel as an artist, making a movie is the top of the food chain—that’s the peak, the climax of everything. I had already been disillusioned with the art world, and found it very pretentious. I was like, this isn’t exciting anymore. I wanted to tell stories, and I knew that I had good stories.
So I went to Reno with my childhood best friend with [the idea of] making a movie. We enter the city and meet this group of kids on the side of the road, and we just both knew, we’re going to uncover this story in this little mix. After speaking with some of their guardians, we were informed [that] the whole town is an underground prostitution ring. So many children are being trafficked and girls go missing all the time, and they were at risk. I was like, I want to tell this story in an artful way, not like a documentary.
[So we filmed a short] and the premise is that they’re on lockdown because there’s a predator on the loose and he’s kidnapping girls, but they find a flyer to a talent show. The whole movie is them preparing for this talent show, and then they make it there and it turns out it’s at a strip club. These girls are trying to preserve their youth and innocence in a town where that’s just not doable. This past fall we submitted it to festivals. A week after I wrapped [filming], Josh called me and said, “You got the role.” So it felt like I was inching my foot in the door, and then the doors swung open for me. That was the confirmation I needed to be like, okay, this is exactly what I’m going to do. After trying so many things, I finally found what my calling is. I want to use my platform to highlight and shed light on issues that are dear to me.