Hari Nef

Catching up with the model, writer and actress


Let the record show that at 9am on a bright March Monday, Hari Nef attended her first day of jury duty – ever – at the Manhattan courthouse on Centre Street. Our interview could not be put off, on account of a tight deadline, so we agreed at the last minute to meet during her lunch break. I selected a Cantonese restaurant on Canal based purely on its auspicious name: August Gatherings. I’ll confess to picturing a restaurant packed to the gills with influential figures celebrating success or hashing out deals, so much so that I wondered if we’d have trouble snagging a table. But when I arrived the place was half-empty, and Nef, having been released for lunch earlier than expected, was already seated. She had courteously ordered a dim sum sampler intended for sharing.

“It’s like going to the DMV, it’s boring,” said the 31-year-old actress, model and writer when I asked for any initial reactions to her mandated morning of video watching and form filling. She’d brought a book with her to pass the time (Cyrus Dunham’s memoir A Year Without a Name) and had just finished it before lunch. She said, of jury duty, that “it’s been knocking for me for a second now and I just want to get it done.” Now, the timing was right: she’d returned to her apartment in the Meatpacking District from a whirlwind four-city fashion month and Oscar weekend. There, Nef had bidden farewell to the protracted promotional tour that accompanied Greta Gerwig’s box office hit Barbie, in which Nef played one of the dolls. In the past year she had also portrayed the (very cool, exciting, yet self-deflating) role of magazine profiler in Sam Levinson’s show The Idol, a glossy fantasia about a modern-day pop star living in LA, and starred alongside Parker Posey in Thomas Bradshaw’s play The Seagull/Woodstock, NY.

Nef was never as big a reader as she was a movie-goer, although she enjoys both. She got her start doing internships and writing gigs in and around the fashion industry. The first kind of writing she did, outside of school (Nef grew up in Newton, Massachusetts amidst a vigorous academic milieu where she was “encouraged to write from all different points of view”), was her prolific posting on fashion forums. She moved to New York to do her undergrad at Columbia and started writing here and there about fashion, dating and art. The first pieces she ever published were her sex columns for the now defunct Adult Magazine. “I was really trying to be some kind of self-styled Carrie Bradshaw,” Nef told me.

It wasn’t until 2015, when she became the first trans woman to sign with IMG Worldwide and booked a recurring role on Transparent that her screen career really began to take off. It was around this time that I started to keep an eye on her as well. The modelling and acting work kept coming, but I paid at least as much attention to the outfits she wore on red carpets and the movies she added to her Letterboxd. When her name cropped up on playbills for off-Broadway productions of of Jeremy O Harris’s Daddy and Denis Johnson’s Des Moines, I was one of many who rushed to get tickets. She’s a star in the classic sense: not just a talent who lights up the screen, but a personality you crave fashion tips and enigmatic judgments from.

Suit Model’s Own

During the professional lull in which I encountered her – between two sessions of waiting for her name to be called, or not, and the bigger lull of waiting on backers for her next acting projects – Nef told me, “I don’t exactly know what the next thing is, honestly.” In other words, it was the perfect time to get some writing done and talk about said writing with me. But she couldn’t tell me much, except that she’s working on a screenplay, and has entered the research-overload phase of drafting. “I feel like I’ve done enough and that I’ve been delaying the actual writing process for a while now by just doing more research,” she said. “I like to sit down to it and have the day. I’m still kind of finding my process, for sure.” This is her second major attempt at a screenplay. The first focused on New York City culture workers in early 2017, an era characterised, according to Nef, by “the rabid search for certain voices that could rise in opposition to other voices. Money being thrown around and thrown at people who probably didn’t have that much or probably never expected to make that much.” The project moved along for years before fizzling out. Nef referred to the experience as “the definitive professional heartbreak of my 20s”.

I asked Nef if she felt there was some crucial connection between the two arts – writing and acting. She said she doesn’t think they relate much at all, that writing, for her, is more like painting, or any other creative activity one does alone. “I don’t really enjoy writing as much as I enjoy acting because it’s so solitary,” she said. “I find it easier to get things done through collaboration, and I guess I just find it easier to be accountable to other people than to be accountable to myself.” She went on to elaborate what this means to her from an artistic and industry standpoint: “A working actor has to be really skilled at unsheathing, offering, and protracting their intimacy in a way that’s probably not intuitive. You have to compartmentalise.”

As if in demonstration of this flexibility, Nef wore to our meeting a variation of day-to-night (or audition-to-club) look: black blazer over black T shirt, little-to-no makeup, brown roots now dominating the carroty-red bob she’s preferred for the better part of two years. I commented on the smartness of her self-styling (“very professional future jury member”) and asked if she was trying to get a seat in that juror pen. “I don’t want to be selected,” she replied slowly, making room for each word, “but I won’t navigate that at the expense of my dignity – ever.”

Based on the evidence of Nef’s demeanour available on the Internet – including witheringly funny tweets and YouTube videos of the actress displaying quicksilver wit as she gets ready for events – I had prepared myself for the possibility of fast-talking blitheness. But the version of Nef I encountered was subdued, comfortable with silence, and took her time answering my questions. Perhaps sitting in the lawful quiet of the courthouse had contributed to this disarmingly attentive state, but that didn’t make it seem any less real. Her words always had intention behind them and registered as deeply considered rather than laboriously practiced (although why not both?). Nef frequently spoke in pithy, playful, slyly analytic sentences of the sort most authors would be happy to begin or end their stories with. Sentences, certainly, that no profile writer would ever want to waste:

On recently rewatching Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls: “I can’t stop thinking of the scene where Elizabeth Berkley and Gina Gershon are bonding over both having eaten dog food before.”

On Joan Didion’s novel Play It as It Lays: “I mean, obviously I can’t resist an actress, I can’t resist show business, I can’t resist a self-destructive schism between fantasy and reality – I love all that stuff.”

On Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends: “Just straightforward enough and just nuanced enough to read – and succeed.”

She was particularly eloquent on the subject of Candy Darling, the legendary trans actress and Warhol superstar whom Nef will be portraying in an upcoming biopic. I asked her whether, after years of playing rabbis and culture workers, shifting to such a rebellious, underground, glamorous figure as Candy felt like a significant change. Objecting to my use of the word “rebellious”, Nef explained that she doesn’t see Candy as a rule-breaker at all. “Trust me,” said Nef, “she would rather have been Kim Novak than a downtown queen who could do a really great Kim Novak at a dinner party. She was, in her work, trying to make that miracle happen on the screen or on the stage for however long she had. Candy came up amid the civil rights movement and the earliest days of gay liberation – she was not interested in any of that. She was interested in Hollywood, and actresses, and acting. I think she wanted to be a star as much as she wanted to be a woman.”

It was not the only time that Nef spoke admiringly of an actress whose work is grounded in a kind of sublime stubbornness. “It was Isabelle Huppert’s birthday the other day,” said Nef. “She’s one of my favourites. There’s this video of hers I retweeted where she’s doing the actress roundtable that year she was nominated for Elle, and the moderator asks ‘has there ever been a role that’s changed you,’ and she very quickly was like ‘no.’ I love that.” I asked Nef if a role has ever changed her. “No.” She went on, “I love the idea that is not going home and twisting herself into a knot, allegedly, writing pages and pages about her character’s history or what she ate for breakfast that day. That you can get such a raw, powerful, and psychologically complex performance just by staging an encounter between yourself and a mindset, or a situation, or a character, or a physicality.”

Time and again our conversation returned to this tension between what an actress shows in her performance or to her public, and what she withholds. Oblique entryways into this subject matter ranged from Todd Haynes’ wonderful new film May December (which – to put it chastely – is about an actress researching a role) and rampant social media use (“there are parts of myself that I’ve shown to everybody that I’ll never get back,” said Nef). Over further courses of dim sum and chicken with broccoli, Nef told me she is less online now than she used to be – or, at least, she’s relocated her more personal content to private accounts.

“That sounds great!” I exclaimed, doing my best to sound affirming with an entire shrimp dumpling in my mouth, “More and more people are making that choice, and I support it, always!” “Sorry, shrimp,” I added. “Yeah, they’re not easy to eat, these things,” said Nef, generously.

At a certain point our conversation drifted from discussing the vision of Hollywood portrayed in Play It as It Lays, to Nef suggesting it would be her first choice of book to adapt for screen, to my suggesting that Sofia Coppola should direct, and Nef sensibly countering: “I feel like the Sofia Coppola movie is, like, while Maria was still booking acting roles when she was in her 20s and just starting to perceive the panic, and pain and hopelessness that she is fully mired in in Play it as it Lays.”

I like this reading. Coppola, after all, is one of those artists – like Huppert, like Nef – who does not seem much transformed from job to job. Or who at least wants to project steadfastness. Perhaps what I’m describing is something like artistic integrity, though fierce determination seems even more apt. These are women who would sooner see the world warp around their desires – their vision – than change themselves. “I think the idea of someone like Sofia making films about women in constrained environments kind of looking outward onto the world around them and through some kind of mirror back at themselves, wrestling with the idea of piercing it, there’s a grace to that,” mused Nef. “I just threw a rock at the glass. What else could I do?”

These days, it appears that the mirror is intact again. Nef has gone private. There are parts to play, boundaries to marvel at and wrestle with, at least for now. She is the comic actress, the cool customer, the holed-up writer, and – mere hours after we settled up and parted ways – just another New York City chick who wasn’t chosen for jury duty.







Special Thanks to SATELLITE SPACE




This article is taken from Port issue 34. To continue reading, buy the issue or subscribe here