The hairy bulldog ladles the coals, and Paz de la Huerta’s body disappears behind a wall of asphyxiating 120-degree steam. It’s a Sunday afternoon, and Paz, exhausted from filming the upcoming HBO series Boardwalk Empire, has decided to spend a few hours at a bathhouse on Fulton Street. “I needed this,” she says, exhaling a deep whistle, expelling the weight of the world from her lungs. “This construction worker I’ve been fucking has really been keeping me up late.”
As the steam clears, Paz begins to rub her breasts with raw honey and salt while twenty dumbfounded overweight men stare down at her from the bleacher seats, their guts hanging over their trousers. Paz forgot to bring a bathing suit and borrowed a “granny bikini” from the lost and found; unsatisfied with its loose fit, she opted for a towel that has now disappeared. As the only nude bather in the entire facility, Paz is remarkably comfortable among the ravenous, Wile E. Coyote eyeballs. Our neighbors look in my direction with “get a hold of your girl or we’re going to take her from you” glances. Having known Paz for a few years, I would warn them to proceed with caution, because Paz would like nothing more than to start a riot. With deep, tenderizing motions, she continues to knead her breasts while loudly discussing her most recent romance. “I think I’m attracted to outlaws because they make me feel safe inside, like a little child.” She drifts into Carmen—“L’amour est un oiseau rebelle, que nul ne peut apprivoiser”—and then translates for her audience, “Love is a wild bird that doesn’t obey the law.”
Paz fills a plastic bucket and pours it over her head, the ice-cold water splashing a woman nearby. She fixates on the bulldog’s transparent trunks and begins to laugh hysterically. “Why does cold water always do that!” she shouts to no one in particular, pointing to the bulge in his shorts. The bulldog, who is covered from head to toe in tattoos, looks at her sheepishly as his comrades laugh. “What are you, crazy?”
Paz becomes very serious. “No,” she says. “I’m Paz. It means peace. Get it, got it, good.”
Paz de la Huerta, 25, is a master of social manipulation and a very fine actor, by which I mean she excels at creating, and causing, drama. In 2003, she shared the cover of The New York Times Magazine, which, in a feature on downtown artists, called her a “model and muse” and noted that she had already made a name for herself as an indie-film actress. She has spent much of the last decade a fixture of the downtown creative scene, modeling (and musing) for her high-school friend Zac Posen and playing some version of the same character—often sex-starved and/or deranged, and sometimes naked—in more than twenty feature films, including, last year, Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control. Still, she’s remained mostly unknown to the wider world, her career stuck in a holding pattern reminiscent of Chloë Sevigny’s, post-Kids, pre–Boys Don’t Cry.
Quite possibly, however, 2010 will be Paz’s year. Boardwalk Empire has all the makings of a very big deal: Produced by Martin Scorsese and co-starring Steve Buscemi and Michael Pitt, the highly stylized series about Prohibition-era Atlantic City is HBO’s big gamble for a Sopranos-size hit. Paz plays Lucy, the girlfriend of Steve Buscemi’s character, head gangster Nucky Thompson. At the same time, Paz’s most recent film, Enter the Void, left Sundance one of the most talked-about screenings at the festival. Directed by Gaspar Noé, the movie takes the viewer on an acid trip through the Tokyo underworld as Paz’s character goes to Japan to reunite with her drug-dealer brother, only to become a stripper. Noé’s previous feature, Irreversible, caused a stir at Cannes and subjected Monica Bellucci’s character to a graphic nine-minute rape scene. Enter the Void is equally controversial: “virtually unwatchable,” in the words of a Hollywood Reporter critic; “exceptional,” according to the Times’ Manohla Dargis. Both Boardwalk Empire and Enter the Void are set to be released this fall.
The thing about Paz is that there’s not much difference between her onscreen intensity and her daily life. “Paz is Genghis Khan meets Marie Antoinette,” says her mother, Judith Bruce. “She is tempestuous and provocative. She wants a big life, and like all great people, it’s going to take a little experimentation before she can get all of the keys together.” Experimentation is one word for it. Paz lives hard. Many of her long-term friends are approaching her segue from downtown darling to Hollywood actress with pride—and a slight edge of concern. “Paz is finally entering the diva stage of her career,” says Posen. “But she is a one-of-a-kind goddess. Her breasts fell out of her dress at my first-ever fashion show, and she just kept walking down the runway. She’ll never play a Jennifer Aniston role, but what would Jennifer Aniston have done in that situation? As a friend, of course I worry about her; but as an artist, she just keeps getting better.”