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Meet Julia Fox, the Diamond in the Rough From ‘Uncut Gems’

  • Words: Whitney Mallett
  • Photography: Richie Shazam Khan
  • Styling: Briana Andalore

This story was originally published on December 11, 2019.

FRONTPAGE is Highsnobiety’s weekly online cover story exploring the people, moments, and ideas shaping culture today. For the tenth edition of our series, Whitney Mallett meets up with Julia Fox to learn about her debut role opposite Adam Sandler in the Safdie brothers’ Uncut Gems.

“Have you been spying on me?” was Julia Fox’s first question when the director duo Josh and Benny Safdie first sent her the script for their highly anticipated new film, Uncut Gems. There were some strange idiosyncrasies shared between the first-time actress and the Diamond District shopgirl from their screenplay. “Pure kismet” says Josh, though it was true that the director had been stalking her on social media. “Vine was this keyhole into her wild world. I was totally infatuated.”

In Uncut Gems, her first film, Fox is electrifying – especially in a series of turbulent scenes opposite Adam Sandler, who plays her gambling addict boss and older boyfriend, Howard (one ends with a pink smoothie poured all over her pistachio-green leather trench).

Josh was first drawn to Fox because of how she rattled expectations with her online persona. “You couldn’t really peg her,” he recalls. “She’d be dancing to this amazing techno song about windows and happiness, and then releasing fine art photographs.” Fox worked with him in developing the fictional Julia to similarly upend assumptions. “The beauty of the character is that just when you think you know her, she does something that totally usurps that,” he explains. “She takes over the movie by the end.”

While the gritty follow-up to the Safdie’s Robert Pattinson-led Good Time also stars first-time actors Kevin Garnett and The Weeknd, it will certainly catapult Fox into another level of celebrity. However, she’s long been notorious, with a gravitational pull that has landed her in Playboy as well as on Page Six. With the cheekbones of Chrissy Teigen and the self-destructive decadence of Dash Snow, she manifested first in New York’s Downtown scene as a party girl, sneaking into clubs with a fake ID at 14. An Elle article from 2014 calls her “NYC’s hottest muse,” noting portraits gracing the walls of hotels like the Gansevoort and restaurants like Tammany Hall.

Highsnobiety / Richie Shazam Khan | Coat, top, and pants by Emilio Pucci; Earrings Julia's own; Gloves stylist's own. Title image above: Top by Emilio Pucci; Gloves stylist's own

In her 20s, she shapeshifted into a fashion designer, and then an artist — sunsets and bloody noses, bondage and heroine all make appearances in her unapologetically raw photography. Fox has made toxic relationships a frequent subject of her work, and publicly called out artist Chuck Close and ex-boyfriend Teddy Perweiler for inappropriate and abusive behaviors. Now, she’s exploring filmmaking from both sides of the camera, having shot her first narrative short Fantasy Girls right before production on Uncut Gems began.

When I meet up with Fox at a French café in FiDi, she is sporting her signature full lashes and a square tip French manicure. The nails are a throwback to the persistent tackiness of the ’90s, reminiscent of the women on The Sopranos in the early aughts, and the downmarket luxury of Balenciaga. Not to mention details in the film, like rimless glasses and a Louis Vuitton bucket backpack.

You can tell that Fox fiercely loves people, especially the ones who make up her chosen family of friends, a close-knit group that includes fellow “It” girl and artistic co-conspirator Paloma Elsesser (who makes a cameo in the Safdie brothers’ film) and Richie Shazam (who shot Fox for this story).

The week we met up, Fox had just lost another member of her inner circle, close friend Gianna Valdes, making all the early praise for her performance in Uncut Gems hard to absorb.

/ Richie Shazam Khan | Top and shorts by Kenzo; Bra Julia's own; Tights by Calzedonia; Earrings by BaubleBar

WHITNEY MALLETT: Uncut Gems is set nine years ago. What were you up to in 2012?

JULIA FOX: In 2012, I had a fashion line with my best friend Briana. In a way, 2012-Julia in the movie parallels 2012-Julia in real life. I was hustling, getting our clothes on celebrities. I had so much fun with it in the beginning. But eventually, it’s not exciting anymore when somebody famous or somebody you admire wears your shit. I felt like I had a story to tell that I couldn’t tell through high-end women’s knitwear.

MALLETT: Those years were around the very beginning of Instagram. Were you on it then?

FOX: I got it right away. It’s so much more curated now. Back then, it was like, “Who cares what my grid looks like?” My instagram got deleted a bunch of times. I don’t know why!

MALLETT: At one point you were doing a lot of photography.

FOX: In 2015, that’s when I said I didn’t want to do the fashion line anymore. And my best friend, who I was doing it with, was like, “Thank god you said that, because I don’t want to do it anymore, either.” She was getting frustrated that I was being laissez-faire. Around then [is when] I made a pretty smooth transition into the art world. I did photography. I made two art books. I also wrote poetry. Published some articles. A lot of my work was very self indulgent, though.

Highsnobiety / Richie Shazam Khan | Top by Moncler; Earrings by Nadri; Bracelet by Cartier; Rings Julia's own

MALLETT: Are you wearing a Cartier Love bracelet? You have to be locked into one of those, right?

FOX: I always have to take it off for photo shoots. It’s so annoying. This [other] bracelet on the same wrist is from my friend who just passed away, her mom gave it to me on the day of her memorial. I was repeating to everyone, “Gianna was a unicorn. Gianna was a unicorn,” and then she came and handed me this chain with a unicorn charm. I don’t usually wear yellow gold, but I’m not taking it off. Then this ring I’m wearing, I gave Gianna last Christmas. If she hadn’t been cremated, I would have wanted her to be buried with it. The diamond cross that I wore on set for the movie, I wanted her to be buried in that, too. But at least I put it on her for the open casket. And now it’s at home in my little Gianna shrine.

MALLETT: You grew up in New York, but you were born in Italy, right?

FOX: My dad is American. He’s, like, a seventh generation New Yorker. He’s out of his mind. I pretty much grew up with him. Single dad. Poor guy. My mom stayed in Italy. And I have two younger brothers. One is close in age to me, and the other one is 15. The 15-year-old lives in Italy with my mom, but the older one grew up with me in New York. He still lives here, but he’s not really around. He’s like a mad scientist recluse. He builds 3D printers for fun.

MALLETT: Where in the city did you grow up?

FOX: I grew up Uptown, mostly. We moved around a lot. It was kind of unstable. We were homeless at one point. I actually have lived in almost every single neighborhood – Harlem, Chelsea, everywhere. I moved Downtown when I was 17 and I haven’t left.

MALLETT: So by the time you finished high school, you were already hanging out in this Downtown scene.

FOX: When I finished high school, I was already tired. I felt like an old lady; I was over parties. I immediately started working. I tried to go to college but I didn’t finish because I was working.

/ Richie Shazam Khan | Dress by Sandy Liang; Tights by Calzedonia; Earrings by Nadri; Bracelet by Cartier; Rings Julia's own

MALLETT: Did you know Benny and Josh Safdie before this movie?

FOX: They had been talking to me about this role for years.

MALLETT: Before that, had you ever thought about becoming an actress?

FOX: Never. My whole life, people have always told me that I should be an actress, so it’s funny that it happened. And I really enjoyed it. I do think it’s something I’ll pursue seriously.

MALLETT: For the kind of movies Benny and Josh make, these gritty portraits of the city, it makes sense to have a non-actor like you, a real downtown NYC persona.

FOX: But even though they’d been talking to me about this role for years – and I helped them develop the character – when the big studios got involved and they were putting millions of dollars into it, obviously the studios wanted an established actress, a Jennifer Lawrence or a Scarlett Johansson. They wanted someone big, so I had to fight for it. I did a screen test with Adam [Sandler], and our chemistry was really good. He was so fun to work with. But they auditioned 300 people. Benny and Josh really had to fight for me. At first, Scott Rudin, the producer, was like, “No.” When he saw the tape of the test I’d done with Adam, he was like, “Alright, I trust you guys.” Apparently he doesn’t like anybody, and he loved me.

MALLETT: There’s definitely some crossover between Julia the character and Julia the person. In real life, have you ever dated a boss?

FOX: No, but I have dated an older man. We were together for five years. He was separated but still married. And he was really rich. So it was similar to Howard and Julia’s relationship in the movie. But my ex, he’s so different from Adam’s character. He was a literal saint. The best boyfriend I ever had.

Highsnobiety / Richie Shazam Khan | Top by Christopher Kane; Pants by Moncler; Shoes by Marni; Earrings by Nadri; Bracelet by Cartier; Rings Julia's own

MALLETT: And there’s a lot of gambling in the movie. Have you ever gambled?

FOX: I don’t like to play with money. That’s not me. I’ve gambled in life – I’ve taken risks – but gambling at the casino, thank god, it’s like the one problem behavior that skipped me. I also feel like women are less inclined to gamble, I think because we are often less financially secure. With this movie, you really enter the mind of a gambler. Howard is so compulsive. He cannot stop himself. I think they very accurately portray this addiction mentality. There’s this moment where he finally has enough money to pay off his debts but he can’t help betting on Kevin Garnett and risking it all.

MALLETT: What was Kevin Garnett like?

FOX: We had a few scenes together in the diamond shop and then we actually spent a lot of time together off set. We became friends. We spent every moment when we weren’t working chilling. He’s hilarious in real life.

MALLETT: And it was his first movie, too.

FOX: It was The Weeknd’s [first movie] as well. Then, all the secondary characters, a lot of them are real Diamond District people. Like, the guys Howard pawns the championship rings to, they really work there. The woman who plays one of my coworkers at the shop, she grew up in that world. Her parents worked in the Diamond District before her. The mailman who comes and delivers the fish with the opal in it, he’s been delivering in the Diamond District for, like, 20 years. He actually thought that he wasn’t going to be able to take the day off to be in the movie and someone from the film called his boss so he was able to. I think it’s awesome that these people who have dedicated their whole lives to the Diamond District can now see themselves immortalized on screen, getting the recognition they deserve. I got emotional just seeing how excited they were to finally be seen. It was very special; I met a lot of people who I’ll be connected to for life through this.

MALLETT: Do you ever buy jewelry from the kind of mom-and-pop shops that you work at in the movie?

FOX: If somebody else is buying jewelry for me, I’ll let them go to the big stores, like Cartier and Cellini, but if I’m buying it, I usually have little custom pieces made at a mom-and-pop shop. Over the years, I’ve had little pendants made, a pentacle with diamonds. Right now, I’m working on having a necklace made. It’s going to be a bit longer than a choker, sitting really low on the neck. And it’s going to be a diamond charm necklace with individual charms that spell out my best friend’s name, Gianna. I’m going to commission one of the guys that was in the movie to make it. That’s in the works. I’m still negotiating the price with a few different people.

Highsnobiety / Richie Shazam Khan | Coat by Puppets and Puppets; Jacket by 1017 ALYX 9SM; Bodysuit by Nike; Necklace by Martine Ali; Rings Julia's own

MALLETT: In Uncut Gems, I love the diamond Furby pedants.

FOX: They were so brilliant, right? My friend works for Travis Scott, and she said that Travis wants a Furby now. We’re trying to get him one.

MALLETT: So, I wanted to ask you something that I hope doesn’t come across too awkward. I wonder how you feel about your body type being more validated in a post-Kim Kardashian world?

FOX: In the early aughts, the ideal was definitely skinny and blonde. And that’s changed. Hopefully, in the film community, it will continue to be more accepted to have a big butt – but I hope I don’t get typecasted, or it doesn’t marginalize me where I’m not getting roles for serious actresses.

MALLETT: I think it’s definitely the mainstream beauty ideal right now, so I expect to see that reflected in films more and more.

FOX: I think it’s awesome that “regular people” – though I really hate that term – are getting more representation. I love movies that are street-cast. I love the mannequins at the new Balenciaga store. Growing up in New York, I learned how to communicate and relate to anyone from any walk of life. You can put me in the Ritz Carlton or you can put me in the trap house, and I can find a common thread to build a relationship off of.

MALLETT: So, Uncut Gems isn’t even theatrically released yet, and you were already nominated for this big award, the Gothams’ Breakthrough Actor?

FOX: I know, it’s crazy. But it’s been pretty hard for me to even enjoy it because I’m so upset about losing my best friend. I do feel like she had something to do with it. She was just so supportive, and my biggest cheerleader. With this [nomination] – I’m not in the film world, so I don’t even know what these things mean, but my manager’s over the moon about it, so I’m assuming it’s a really big deal. It’s very surreal and all happening so fast. I did not see this detour coming in my life. I always knew that I would do something really big, I just didn’t know what it was going to be.

  • Words: Whitney Mallett
  • Photography: Richie Shazam Khan
  • Styling: Briana Andalore
  • Hair: Evanie Frausto
  • Make Up: Michaela Bosch
  • Senior Producer: Chad Ghiron
  • Producer: Justin Trevino
  • Photography Assistant: Noah Blough
Words by Contributor