I elbow my way through an art show at Collective Hardware, an art co-op on Bowery that is teeming one Wednesday night with socialities, hipsters, and trust-fund shamans. There is a private party in the fourth-floor bedroom. Near the entrance, a disheveled older woman is playing YouTube videos of herself onstage twenty years ago, claiming that Lady Gaga “hijacked” her style. Knocking over ashtrays, stepping over surviving members of Warhol’s Factory, I pass through the Chinese partition where Paz is holding court over a group of aspiring actors, a black druid robe covering her face.
She shoots me a sharp glance from beneath her hood, then returns to the crowd, continuing a monologue about her performance in Enter the Void. “It was a twenty-minute, one-take scene. My character is having sex with the strip-club manager and then answers the phone to hear that her brother’s dead,” Paz says. “It was pretty intense.” Then she clenches her lip, looks in my direction, and says, swaying from side to side, “I’m hungry, but I’m broke.”
Paz is perpetually broke. Always in search of a bargain, she will sweet-talk the juice-blender at the health-food store into giving her a free sample, whisper into the ear of the maître d’ at Gusto for a plate of free ravioli, and compliment the Mexican worker at Ray’s Pizza on his smile, winning a slice in return. When she has money, she loses it on clothes or lampshades or curtains. She never pays for dinner: She will book dining companions months ahead of time—her family friend Jane Fonda, say, or Salman Rushdie, whom she met recently and who she thinks would be the perfect writer to adapt Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark, which she is hoping to make into a film. Tonight, we stumble out of Collective Hardware and into a noodle house off Bayard Street, where for five bucks you get a big bowl of ramen and green tea served in a Styrofoam cup.
We start to talk about her recent career success. Earlier that day she had done a photo shoot for L’Uomo Vogue, and she is still riding high from her reception at Sundance, where Enter the Void received a standing ovation. “I quit drinking—for vanity purposes,” she says, taking off her robe and tossing it onto the wooden stool. “And I changed my name.”
I’m confused. To what?
“Paz,” she says, “with a z.”
What did it used to be?
“Poth,” she says, exaggerating the lisp.
“Paz is Genghis Khan meets Marie Antoinette,” says her mother.
She tests a cup of boiling tea, her lipstick leaving a kiss mark on the edge. “It’s called Rus-si-an Red,” she says, smacking her lips like a goldfish, mouthing every syllable with a deep, Nico-ish delivery. (“When Paz says something, you can taste it in your mouth,” says director Nemo Librizzi, a longtime friend. “When I’m hungry, I just ask her to say strawberry shortcake.”) Paz tries slurping the noodles, juice dribbling down her chin. They are too long to manage, so she rubs the chopsticks together, sawing them until a long noodle falls from her mouth onto her lap. Filming for Boardwalk Empire has been grueling, she says. “I’ve been crying for two days straight doing this very emotional scene. But it’s getting easier for me. I have a lot to source from.”
Inspired by her idol, the actress Anna Magnani, Paz has always retained an enormous amount of confidence in her ability to become a leading lady of film, and is expecting that this fall, Hollywood will finally pay attention. We start talking about her appearance, and I ask her how she would describe her lips.
And your face?
Who would you say you look like?
“Brigitte Bardot,” she says without hesitating.
Paz was born with a cystic hygroma, a lump between her right armpit and her rib cage that had to be removed surgically soon after she was born. Her parents took her on a Catholic pilgrimage to Lourdes, where she was dipped into holy water in hopes of preventing a recurrence. But soon after turning 3, she started wearing extra layers and pinning her arms to her side, and her mother knew the lump had returned. As much as Paz tried to hide it, the lump would continue to return, every so often, throughout her life, requiring seven operations and many hospital visits.
I first learned about Paz’s lump three years ago, when I was recovering from a skin-cancer operation at the NYU Langone Medical Center, and Paz, who had been admitted for yet another cyst-related surgery, stumbled into my room. She walked up to my bed and traced her fingers along the 150 stitches on my face. “You used to be handsome,” she said, though we had never met. “Now you’re something else.” Then she unzipped her hospital gown and showed me her wound. We were a match made in Cronenberg heaven, and for three months we hid at her apartment on Gay Street, watching Melville, Hitchcock, and Almodóvar on a mattress on the floor. We separated soon after we recovered, and she very quickly met an ex-convict tattoo artist.