“My motto has always been ‘Be careful what you wish for,’” says Julia Fox. She’s riding in the passenger seat of an Infinity sports car making its way to Randazzo’s Clam Bar in the Sheepshead Bay neighborhood of Brooklyn because what she happens to wish for right now is a dozen oysters. This seems a bold choice for coronavirus takeout, but will probably work out for Fox. “I always had a way of getting what I wanted.”
Case in point: Uncut Gems, Josh and Benny Safdie’s adrenaline-rush of a film, which cast real-deal diamond-district hustlers as themselves and Fox as Adam Sandler’s minxish girlfriend, who turns out to be one of the biggest hustlers of them all. That’s because she is based on Fox, who can hustle with the best of them. Or rather — to illustrate the point — the character became based on her after she met the Safdies “in passing,” followed them on social media, started up a dialogue, and then one day got a call from Josh. “He said he was making a movie and wanted me to play the girlfriend,” she recalls.
The part wasn’t necessarily hers, though, not once producers like Martin Scorsese and Scott Rudin got attached to the project and thought it should go to a name — or at least an actor, which Fox wasn’t. Still, she and the Safdies kept talking.
“[Josh] would hit me up every few months and ask me for suggestions on the character,” she says. “Of course, I molded her to be what I wanted her to be, which conveniently was also what Josh wanted her to be.” What could have been a mere eye-candy role morphed into one that’s powerful, volatile, and iconic. The character’s original name was Sadie; by the end, it was Julia. “I knew I wanted to be in the film industry,” Fox says. “And I’m not one to wait for things to be handed to me.”
Indeed, she isn’t. Born to an Italian mom and American dad who quickly split, Fox spent the first six years of her life being raised by her grandfather in Sirona, a “very quaint, very sheltered” town outside Milan, while her mom finished college and her dad lived on a boat docked off of New York City and presumably did whatever young, itinerant guys who live on boats tend to do. When he eventually settled down enough to get a job in construction and an apartment, Fox, who was “getting to be a lot to handle,” came to live with him.
“The first thing he did when I moved to America is he brought me to the corner of our apartment building and he pointed to the street signs, and he was like, ‘This is where you live,’” she says. “ ’So whatever happens, just remember to come back here.’ And I was like, ‘OK.’ Then he sent me off into the world.”
Thus kicked off a fairly wayward youth in Kids-era Yorkville. “It was still very working class,” explains Fox of a neighborhood hemmed in by both public housing and the wealthy Upper East Side of Manhattan. “You’re seeing this really extravagant display of wealth, and you’re trying to look like that, but you have to do it by stealing.” By age 13 or 14, Fox was climbing down the fire escape at night so that she could go out clubbing in that stolen attire (she eventually got arrested for shoplifting at Bloomingdale’s, the department store for which she recently did a social media campaign: “So that was really full circle”). By 15, she ran off with a boyfriend who “was a drug dealer, so he had his own place.” She’d been such a free spirit — bouncing back and forth between Italy and New York at the time — that it took her family three weeks to realize that she was gone. “Then I had to hide. There were ‘missing’ posters all over the city.”
Eventually, the boyfriend went to jail, as drug-selling boyfriends do, and sometime after that Fox moved in with a friend downtown, contemplating the direction her life should take. Also, she needed money. “This was back when Craigslist still had an ‘adult gigs’ section,” she tells me. “I was scrolling, and in between ads for prostitutes, I clicked on one that said no nudity, no sex. That appealed to me.” The ad was to be a dominatrix, a high school gig that Fox credits with teaching her to act. “Except there’s no script,” she says. “You’re given a few words on what the client’s interests are and then you have to build from there and improvise the rest. So imagine having to do that multiple times a day in different outfits — a nun, teacher, nurse, mom — according to the clients’ desires.” The money was good, and so was the camaraderie among the workers. “I went in an angsty teenager, and left a really self-assured woman.”
“I knew I wanted to be in the film industry, and I’m not one to wait for things to be handed to me. [But] this is just another step on the ladder.”
Fox took that self-assurance and ran with it. “I started to realize I have these assets, I was getting this attention,” she says. “So immediately I rewired my thinking and was like, ‘This is how I’m going to get what I want in life.’” First, what she wanted was to create a line of women’s knitwear, which would be worn by starlets like Rumer Willis. Then she wanted to paint on silk with her own blood (pulled out by syringe), as she did for an art show titled “RIP Julia Fox.” Now, she wanted the Uncut Gems role, especially once she was called in for a chemistry read with Adam Sandler, in which they went shopping, in character, at Barneys. Says Fox, “That was when I realized I really fucking wanted it.”
And because Fox gets what she wants, because the rapport with Sandler was so electric, and because Julia Fox turned out to be really good at pretending to be someone very similar to Julia Fox (“Well, real-life Julia wouldn’t date someone like Howard,” she says. “Or maybe she would? I’m not sure — ha-ha”), the producers caved to her charisma. She wasn’t aware of exactly what she’d gotten herself into until she showed up on set the first day. “I was under the impression that it would be a modest indie production, so when I saw 200 people and all this crazy machinery and equipment, I was like, ‘Oh, shit. This is Hollywood.’”
Fox skipped seeing the movie’s early cuts at the studio; she first saw Uncut Gems at the film’s premiere in Colorado, at the Telluride Film Festival. In those 135 minutes of run time, her life changed. “I went into the theater a nobody,” she says. “And as soon as the movie was over, everyone was looking at me, and suddenly it was like, ‘Oh, the news is out.’” She’s since gotten a real Hollywood agent, taken some acting classes, and started plotting a move to L.A. (momentarily derailed by the coronavirus). The script she started writing back when she thought Uncut Gems was slipping away (about teenage sex trafficking in Reno, Nevada) is now a short called Fantasy Girls, which has been submitted to festivals. “I have more to offer than just the way I look,” Fox tells me. Uncut Gems may have given her a new platform, but it’s still just a hustle. “I’m not, like, starry-eyed. To me, this is just another step on the ladder.”
As for those oysters: Did she get what she wanted with those? “They were the fucking bomb! Totally hit the spot.”