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Photo: Susanna Howe

It is something of a testament to Debi Mazar’s talent as an actor that she has been typecast as the tough Italian chick, because in truth she is neither tough nor Italian. She is genial and Latvian. But she has no complaints. “Being typecast is a great thing for an actor,” she says, because then “you work. I was considered one of the New York actors … one of the New York mob actors,” after her role in Scorsese’s GoodFellas as Ray Liotta’s gorgeous, coke-vacuuming girlfriend. “But I did get tired of the way people would think of me,” she says. “My heart was deeper.”

The way people are thought of and, more interesting, the way they think of themselves and their positions in the Hollywood economy are the central obsessions of Entourage, which starts its second season this Sunday night on HBO. On it, Mazar plays a publicist—tough, but not Italian—whose life’s work is the accumulation of fame through the manipulation of the press, a project Mazar clearly finds repellent. “I’m not in the business to make people aware of me. And publicists are very expensive—they’re $3,500 a month! I don’t want to spend that kind of money so I can get a stupid article in Interview magazine; I don’t give a shit,” she says and shrugs. “I sort of despise that part of my business. Press has become about tabloids, and I’m very private and I don’t like to talk about my love life.”

But then, I am the press. And it isn’t long before she pulls out beautiful black-and-white photos she’s taken of her husband, an extremely handsome guy in a tank top. (“He drives a motorcycle, he cooks … It’s almost like he’s gay.”) What are we talking about if not her love life?

This is part of what makes Entourage such a good show: the fact that what can seem ugly or pathetic in the abstract—the confessional conversation with a reporter, the slick, subverted aggression of an agent, the existence of a posse that lives off the income and ego of one famous friend—can be human and compelling in its exercise. Everybody on Entourage has a narrative they tell themselves about their role in Hollywood: Turtle, the chunkiest and most underemployed character on the show, thinks that he is taken for granted and that the whole operation would crumble without his enthusiasm and attention to detail; Johnny Drama, the half-brother of movie star Vince (Johnny is played by Kevin Dillon, the brother of movie star Matt Dillon), tells himself that he is a real actor, whose time will come imminently; and so on.

Debi Mazar’s story—and it sounds like a true story—about her relationship to fame is that it’s incidental. And it’s true that her own fame began sideways, when she was an intimidatingly stylish member of that famous entourage of the eighties: Friends of Madonna.

“Acting for me is not the end of the road,” Mazar says, and talks about how she might do some textile design, and describes an autobiographical novel she’s writing, and the editing she’s doing on her husband’s cookbook. “I’m passionate about life in general,” she says. “I don’t want to be 45 competing with 20-year-olds, running to go get Botox. I want to be an expressive actor hired for the age that I am, portraying women who are my age: 40. I’m just hoping I can find some of those roles to play. Otherwise I have to find something else.”

The place to which she is turning for these roles is, with a certain poetic justice, Italy. “I just got a great Roman agent,” says Mazar, who has been taking Italian lessons since she married her Florentine husband, a conga player, four years ago. “I spoke some Italian even before I met him, but since we got married I’ve gone back to school. I really got nervous because my daughter—at, like, 2—started to pass me by; she was conjugating verbs in the past tense.” Mazar declares herself “fluent enough.” At the very least, she has a nice accent as she orders off the menu at Bar Pitti.

Mazar and family divide their time between their home in Los Angeles and a fourteenth-century house outside of Florence that was given to them as a wedding present by Mazar’s in-laws. (She points out her town on a panoramic photograph hanging on the restaurant wall.) Mazar and her husband were married by Ellen Burstyn, Mazar’s co-star from the short-lived CBS series That’s Life, who is an ordained Sufi high priest. “She read passages about love from the seven holy books—the Koran, the Torah, the Bible—and the whole thing took twenty minutes. It was the most beautiful ceremony I’ve ever been to, and not just because it was mine.”

As grab-bag as her wedding might appear from the outside, Mazar’s ceremony was actually reflective of her upbringing, in Brooklyn and Queens, with a mother who “was born Catholic, converted to Judaism, then she became a Buddhist, then she became a Jehovah’s Witness. Then she was kicked out of Jehovah’s Witness for taking a blood transfusion because her at-home birth went south, and she was gonna die. Because she lived to tell, they publicly humiliated her.” Mazar’s father was Jewish, but he had been raised as a Catholic and hidden during WWII. “It was a big secret which I didn’t find out until I was in my twenties,” she says. “Heavy.” She is wearing a beautiful antique gold pendant of the Virgin Mary that sparkles with tiny diamonds, but she says it isn’t about Catholicism. “That’s about jewelry.”

“I’m not in the business to make people aware of me. And publicists are very expensive—they’re $3,500 a month!”

Mazar spent too much time switching religions in her youth to find Hollywood’s organized spiritual offerings particularly beguiling. “Because I was forced into it, even, like, Madonna, who is a very dear friend of mine—still—and shared her knowledge of Kabbalah with me, because of my past, I could never be pushed into something. It’s just not my thing. But I think if people find happiness in it, then good for them! I really resented my name being brought up in that Vanity Fair article.” A piece in the March issue claimed that Madonna had “lost friends, such as actress Debi Mazar, because they weren’t buying” into her Kabbalah fever. “I said to her, can’t you keep my name out of your fuckin’ bad press? She goes, what are you worried about what people say? I said, well, I’m just not used to my name being dragged through the press. You’ve chosen that path, I haven’t!”

On Entourage, smoothing that path is Mazar’s character Shauna’s entire career—keeping Vince from saying too much or putting himself out there too little. “I base Shauna on several people,” says Mazar. “Different publicists I’ve known, just because they’re megapowerful, who are very different personalities: Nancy Ryder, who’s fielding calls in her Manolo Blahniks, chatting away; my good friend David Pollick, a gay man who’s tough, aggressive, witty, charming at times; and then my manager, because being a publicist is like management in a lot of ways—you’re their friend, you’re their mother, you’re their confidante.”

Entourage is, among other things, the story of a town that is a notorious boys’ club. So there is a certain uncomfortable aptness about the lack of female presence on the show as anything other than sexual conquests. Mazar, the one female character who is there to work with the entourage, not hook up with them, has been underused so far. “We haven’t explored Shauna yet,” she says. “Is she gay, is she straight? I don’t know what’s her trip.” Her role is expanded this season, but Shauna—and Mazar—still remain frustratingly far from the spotlight. But she’s learned to tell that story her own way: “I’ve never wanted to be the ingenue. Now that I’m getting into my forties, I think my time as a woman has arrived; I think I might have a new moment in my career. I have that drive left—just for a little while.”

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