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Julia Fox and Debi Mazar keep the soul of New York City alive

Julia Fox and Debi Mazar keep the soul of New York City alive

For Document’s Summer/Pre-Fall 2021 issue, the actors discuss growing up in New York, the beauty of club culture, and fucking up your kids ‘just the right amount’

“After a while, it got to be all normal, none of it seemed like crime,” Karen says in Goodfellas, a movie that’s sort of, at least in hindsight, about cutting a few corners en route to the American dream. These days essentially everyone is making a few bucks hustling; decent handouts only go to those listed on Forbes’s Richest. In New York you get to witness both ends of the spectrum at once: base temptations and blinding luxury on the same corner, the governor doing mob deals and mayoral candidates promising crackdowns on unlicensed shawarma, and you’re still told not to grab at the shiny stuff. Every so often this city spawns someone who breaks the rules because the rules are stupid and everyone else is breaking them anyway. If you’re smart enough to figure out a shortcut, you should get a prize.

This is partly what makes Julia Fox a perfectly American antihero. The New York artist and actor first crashed into mainstream consciousness in 2019 via the Safdie brothers’ heist vehicle Uncut Gems, playing a character inspired by Julia Fox: the hedonist with hustler mentality who can befriend a landlord and identify the shit out of an Ionic column. Fox was actually born in Milan, living with her mother’s traditional Italian Catholic family before suddenly being relocated to Yorkville to be raised by a father she barely knew. In Manhattan, she was baptized by fire and learned to grow up fast. By her late 20s, she had held down jobs ranging from pastry salesgirl to dominatrix. Then she arrived in an industry where women are not supposed to come with interesting bios. Instead they’re supposed to be standard-bearers of virtue and ideally a canvas people can graft their own insecurities and desires onto. Which is why Fox spent the pandemic filming Steven Soderbergh’s No Sudden Move in a barren part of Detroit, trying to pretend she wasn’t five months pregnant.

Debi Mazar became familiar with Fox in a relatable way: getting COVID, watching Uncut Gems, and wondering, Who the fuck is this girl, Julia Fox, she’s gorgeous. Mazar got her big acting break starring in ’90s classics like Empire Records and Goodfellas. She has brought such a level of authenticity, in the form of hard-knock life experience and libidinal charge, to her roles that some thought she was just playing herself. It’s clear why Fox sees her as an inspirational figure. Mazar has become a cool girl spirit guide of sorts for anyone who appreciates realness on screen, regardless of whether you have anything in common on a personal level—and Fox is possibly the only girl with a similarly nontraditional career trajectory.

To recap, Mazar has been: a hair-and-makeup artist, a dental assistant, a Fiorucci sales girl, a dancer for Madonna’s breakout music videos, and an original anti-It Girl of New York City before It Girls were even a thing. She attributes her education to NYC stairwells, rooftops, and nightclubs, and is fluent in multiple languages—including the Italian she perfected years after being typecast as a mob girlfriend, probably due to what IMDb describes as her “thick New York accent and perpetually arched eyebrows,” and the Spanish she nailed long after proving she was far more than a stereotype, starring as an almost superior form of Ava Gardner in the outstanding recent period comedy-drama Arde Madrid.

When Fox and Mazar met on Zoom, they discussed the upshot of being left to your own devices, choosing to raise their own kids on New York City streets and subways, and the sociology of Italians versus Italian Americans.

“At least these days women are finally celebrated for their curves again. I’ll say, ‘Oh my God, my ass is so fat!’ And my daughter goes, ‘No, a fat ass is good, Mom!’”

Hannah Ongley: Have you two ever met before?

Julia Fox: We’ve spoken over text and DM, but never in person. I’m sorry, I’m, like, starstruck! [To Debi] You look so gorgeous!

Debi Mazar: Thanks, thanks. I was like, ‘At least let me put some lipstick on for Julia.’ I literally got out of quarantine [in London] two days ago.

Julia: Are you there to work?

Debi: Yeah. I decided to finally move to Florence—which was a dream for [me and Gabriele Corcos] for 20 years. We packed during lockdown of March 2020. I was [in Florence] for a month, then I spent the entire winter shooting Younger. And the winter in New York was intense this year.

You were hugely pregnant, which I didn’t even know until you announced it. I was like, ‘Look at her!’

Julia: I kept it a secret. I just think it’s so annoying when girls get pregnant and then that’s all they post about. Like, ‘Okay, we’re happy for you.’ I didn’t want to do that to people. People actually thanked me. They were like, ‘Thank you so much for not being one of those people.’ And I was like, ‘That was totally intentional.’

I found out I was pregnant right as I was up for this role in No Sudden Move. My manager was like, ‘So when do we tell them you’re pregnant?’ I was like, ‘Alan, we don’t.’

Debi: I was hugely pregnant with my second child during Entourage. I remember going, ‘Uh oh, I’m supposed to go back and I’ll be in my seventh or eighth month, oh shit.’ I gained all this weight, I was fat and happy. I arrived at work, and they didn’t like it. They actually canceled my contract, I lost my paycheck. I was devastated. I was like, ‘I finally have fucking tits, why would I want to cover them up.’

But I was so proud of you. And when you posted those beautiful pictures, like, three seconds before—

Julia: Literally. I was like, ‘I don’t have any photos!’

Debi: And how is the baby, good?

Julia: Oh, he’s so good. I’m pretty much doing everything by myself, and then my dad helps me. My dad and I did not really have a relationship before Valentino was born. Now I feel so much closer to him. I understand him more, and I forgive him. At the end of the day, my dad raised me. We’re very similar in personality, but we had such a big disconnect. I had a lot of resentment and anger. Now I feel so at peace.

Debi: My mom had me at 15. So we grew up very close, but once I hit my teenage years, she was still young. She was still going to the disco, so I had to babysit all of her children—my younger siblings. I had a lot of resentment too.

Debi Mazar photographed in New York City, 2008.

Hannah: When you’re forced to grow up at a young age, in New York City, does that cause you to think differently about the role of a mother?

Julia: Growing up in New York, you’re fresh meat. This is not a city that is warm to children. You grow up in the shadows. On the outskirts. You’re kind of just a nuisance, we hung out on rooftops and stairwells. There weren’t a lot of spaces for us.

Debi: I had kind of an idyllic upbringing in the sense that, even though I was running wild in the streets of Queens, it was a different era. I knew the whole neighborhood. There were no cell phones, there was no checking on anybody when I was a teenager.

Julia: I kind of caught the tail end of that, not having cell phones and social media. It was wilder because there was more anonymity. People were just more reckless and did crazier shit back in the day. Now people are very reserved, they could be caught on camera.

Debi: You could make mistakes, you could get drunk—

Julia: You could take your fucking top off at Max Fish and pull the fire alarm and fucking run down the street naked, like, No one will ever know about that.

Debi: Now it’s like, Did you hear what she said; did you see what she was wearing? She did this or that, so un-PC. I’m like, ‘Fuck you all!’

Julia: Kids these days don’t mess around. They are tough, they are informed, and they are on a mission to make life very difficult to navigate. [laughs]

Debi: At least these days women are finally celebrated for their curves again. I’ll say, ‘Oh my God, my ass is so fat!’ And my daughter goes, ‘No, a fat ass is good, Mom!’

Julia: I remember growing up when fat asses weren’t a thing. Skinny, heroin chic was the vibe. I got so much shit because of my fat ass. I actually had liposuction when I was 20, but it didn’t even work. If you don’t work out and maintain it, the fat just goes to other areas. So I did my outer but my hip area came back—it’s still a huge mess.

Debi: Especially in our business, you’re not allowed to age. During lockdown I tried to go gray, and it wasn’t the gray I thought it was going to be. I thought it was going to be white. Then it grew out, and I was like, ‘Oh, hell no!’

Julia: Well [dark brown] is your signature now, you can’t change it up on us.

Debi: I’m going to, it’s a matter of time. When I decided to move to Italy I said, ‘I’m going to manifest getting work in Europe.’ I manifested it, and I got a job. I get to wear a blonde wig and honey-colored lenses.

Julia: I love that you used the word ‘manifest.’ That’s all I’ve ever been doing in life, manifesting.

Debi: You and I both have fearless personalities. We decide we are going to do something, we do it—we’re like, ‘Fuck it, let the chips fall where they may.’ My friends are like, ‘I’ve never done this before.’ Well then, do it! You can just figure it out as you go.

Julia: People cannot figure it out, Debi. I’m so solution-oriented, if there’s an obstacle, in two seconds I have come up with the A-to-Z of how to bypass it. Some people just aren’t wired that way. I think it’s from [their] being given things in life, being handed the solution.

Debi: I was left to my own devices at 15, and I had to figure it out: how to pay your rent, how to pay your bills, how to keep the electric turned on. But I want that pair of Manolo Blahnik shoes! Well, then I won’t have electricity, I guess, for the month. I’m trying to give my kids a little bit of the school of hard knocks. You want your kids to have everything you didn’t have, but at the end of the day, you have to sometimes say, ‘Figure it out.’

Julia: I’m worried that my son won’t be street-smart or funny—you know how the fucked-up kids are always the funniest ones? I’m like, ‘I need to fuck him up a little bit.’

“Growing up in New York, you’re fresh meat. This is not a city that is warm to children. You grow up in the shadows, on the outskirts.”

Dress by Salvatore Ferragamo. Earrings, bracelet, watch, and rings Julia’s own. Shoes by Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello.

Debi: It happens in middle school, sixth grade—all of a sudden they start going into the yard to smoke weed, they start taking the train, they run in packs like dogs. Then you’re like, ‘Oh, fuck.’ New York makes for great, great kids.

Julia: It’s true. A lot of the people I grew up with died. Some went to jail or were institutionalized. The rest moved to LA. When you’re growing up here, it’s always in the back of your mind: One day I’ll go to Hollywood. It’s like it’s the final destination of a New Yorker.

Debi: I was in LA for 20 years and bicoastal for 12 of them. I love LA, but I needed to get back that New York realness. One summer, I thought, I need to get out of Hollywood. I was working too much and wasn’t really living. I went to Europe and I met my husband. We spent the summer together, and I said, ‘I have to go back, I’m doing this Jackie Chan movie, I have to be back in LA in September.’ And he followed! He came two weeks later and we’ve never been apart, so it’s been 20 years.

Julia: Where did you meet him?

Debi: I met him at Katia Labeque’s house. I met [Katia] at Madonna’s wedding to Guy Ritchie. Madonna and Gwyneth and all these girls were doing yoga and shit, and me and Katia were having some coffee and cigarettes. And she said [in French accent], ‘Debi! If you are in Paris you must come to see me, chéri!’ Then I went to go on vacation, and Madonna said, ‘Deb, during my tour, why don’t you come meet me in different cities if you’re traveling?’ That’s when I met my husband. He was working for her that summer.

Julia: It’s literally Eat, Pray, Love. [Laughs] I love that.

Debi: When we went to kiss goodnight on two sides of the cheek, like, ‘Muah muah,’ I didn’t know whether to go left- to-right or right-to-left, and we banged lips. I held out for about a week, and then we had sex on the floor of Villa d’Este, because Madonna called me, and she goes, ‘Debi, I just fired my makeup artist—’

Julia: Wait, Villa d’Este in Lake Como?

Debi: Yeah!

Julia: Oh my God! I’ve been there too, that’s crazy.

Debi: Well, Madonna wanted me to come do her makeup, and I said, ‘You have to hook me up at Villa d’Este if I come do your makeup, send me a car and get me a room for the night.’ I said to Gabriele, ‘Do you wanna come?’ We ended up talking all night after the concert, smoking cigarettes, drinking prosecco in the window overlooking the lake, then made love on the floor with dirty curtain mirrors. I hope it was clean, given the prices there.

Julia: What do you think about Italian people? Now that you’re around them all the time?

I feel like the more south you go, the more people are fun and free. The north, they’re so uptight, so pretentious, so sophisticated. Milan people are worse than Parisians in terms of thinking they’re God’s gift.

Debi: I just break them. I loosen people up, I’m a natural lubricant. I refuse to have people throw me shade, and if they do, I’m like, Ciao, please, ciao. I don’t have time for that drama. But I love a chic suit. I crack up because all the men wear those skinny-leg suits, and then it gets caught on their calves, and they have no socks on and shoes. And they iron, because they don’t have dryers.

Julia: I lived there for two years in high school. I got there, and I’m 14 years old, my hair’s dyed black, I have a tongue ring, a belly ring, tattoos, and pierced nipples. I wore thongs. They had never seen anything like that before. I’m sitting in a classroom with other 14-year-olds that look like children. I’m a grown woman at this point. I was like a fucking alien, and they talked so much shit about me. But I’m the same as you, I broke them, and in the end I was the most popular girl in the whole freaking town. They were obsessed with me.

“I’m worried that my son won’t be street-smart or funny—you know how the fucked-up kids are always the funniest ones? I’m like, ‘I need to fuck him up a little bit.’”

Debi: Did you go to international school?

Julia: I didn’t, I went to Catholic school. I studied languages, I was learning Latin and German. I didn’t know how to study. I didn’t even know what an adverb was. I was coming from a public school, I didn’t know any of this shit. I thank God for my time in Italy, because I learned about art history, and Greece, and how to identify columns.

Debi: My daughter’s in high school in Italy. She’s taking Latin and Spanish and Italian. She’s learning the history of the world and the Romans.

Julia: Does she have to go to school on Saturday?

Debi: She doesn’t because she’s in an American school.

Julia: That’s good. I had to go to school on Saturday. I was like, What the fuck is this. But on the plus side, I could go clubbing, I could drink, I could buy cigarettes at the vending machine. So, I was like, ‘All right, I guess it evens out.’

Debi: I hit the clubs too, when I was young. I worked at Mudd Club, Danceteria, Roxy—my coming up in New York was so much fun, it was a time when hip-hop, punk, disco, and glitter rock all jammed together. I wish that culture still existed. I wish it would come back already!

Julia: Actually, with COVID, a lot of that was popping up. People were throwing pop-ups in any venue they could get. I loved it! People were like, ‘New York is dead,’ and I was like, ‘Maybe that shitty New York that you know is dead. But this other New York is alive and well!’

I’ve been trying to leave New York for 10 fucking years. I always end up coming back. It changes so often, and the people have become so wack. It’s like I have a resentment. I have a grudge that the places I grew up with have all closed. I see these people and they’re all rich, their parents pay for their art studio and their career.

Debi: I didn’t have any money growing up. My parents got divorced when I was two. My father was basically a young gangster—he was raised in New York, but he was from Latvia. He and my mom were stealing cars and having fun, and he was really good-looking. But it didn’t work out. They got a divorce, he went to prison for whatever. Nothing bad bad—robbery or something.

College wasn’t part of the discussion. I went to beauty school at Robert Fiance in Times Square, and I walked down the street with a can of hairspray and a lighter in case I needed a weapon, like, ‘PSSSSH!’ We thought we were badasses. I’m really proud of myself and people like you, because it turned us into good, strong characters.

Bra stylist’s own. Jacket, trousers, earrings, and bag
by Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello. Necklace, bracelets, and rings by Cartier.

Julia: I have moments where I wish I had a fucking dad who had 50 million dollars lying around. But then I wouldn’t be who I am today. And I wouldn’t trade that for the world. I want to raise my son to think we’re poor. I really want to instill those things in him, because I’m so good at getting a deal, I never pay full price for anything, even if it’s rent I’ll befriend the landlord. I’ll figure it out.

Debi: My daughter says, ‘How am I supposed to do this with the rent?’ I say, ‘Look, I’m not paying your rent, all right? You’re going to be 19 this summer.’ At 19, I’d already had an abortion, had several jobs; I was in my second apartment.

How did you go from doing whatever you were doing to deciding to become an actress?

Julia: Trial and error. First it was fashion, then art and photojournalism. I wanted to be a journalist, then I decided I was to be a director. I didn’t know what the story was going to be. I went to Reno, met up with a bunch of girls from the street, 12 to 14 years old. I shot this short film, which still hasn’t seen the light of day because it’s not very good. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

This film wrapped, and the smoke cleared. I could see my calling. I got back to New York three days later, and I got the call that they were going to put me in Uncut Gems.

Debi: You were so fucking good in that! I had COVID, and I was like, ‘There’s this girl who’s aware that I exist, let’s watch this movie together.’ And I love Adam Sandler, who, by the way, hated me forever because he offered me The Wedding Singer, but I had this bougie agent who was like, ‘You absolutely cannot do that movie, because Drew Barrymore is going to make more than you.’

My [current] manager said, ‘There is this girl who is talking about you in the press.’ I’m like, ‘Who?’ They said, ‘Julia Fox!’ And I’m like, ‘Who is that?’ I looked you up and I went, She’s gorgeous! You were talking about how you felt this certain similarity [with me]. We do need to play relatives at some point.

Julia: I actually wrote a little short film, and I had you in mind as the mom. It would be funny to develop that, I’ll send it to you just for laughs, see if you’re into it.

Debi: There was a series or movie where they were talking about me playing your sister! I don’t know where that went. I was like, ‘Julia Fox? I’m in.’ The same thing happened to me when Scarlett Johansson emerged, like, ‘Oh! You look like Scarlett Johansson.’ I’m like, ‘Not really, but thank you.’

Julia: Maybe a little in the eyes, the high cheekbones. But I do feel like you’re much more striking.

Debi: The cheekbones used to be better, but between the slower metabolism and the fact that I love a glass of wine and my pasta, I’m just like, Fuck it, I’m going to live my life.

Julia: Go live your life.

Hair Blake Erik at Forward Artists. Make-up Shayna Goldberg at The Wall Group. Stylist Assistant Jazmine Alzado. Production Director Madeleine Kiersztan at Ms4 Production.

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