Hari Nef | Karma, Karma, Karma, Karma, Karma Chameleon
“Love looks not with the eyes, but the mind,” wrote William Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
True? False? Have we—creatures of the 21st Century—been utterly confused?It seems, however, our eyes are slowly and sustainably opening.And in walks Hari Nef. The streaks of light shining through the dining room of The Sunset
Tower Hotel in Los Angeles, California resemble the arrows of Cupid. A floral print dress. Flaxen Hair. Undeniable eyes. She is a model and now a budding actress with singular poise. She has a mind, come to find out, that is utterly rare. She is also a startlingly complex creature—though I imagine, after speaking with her, her saccharinely self-effacing manner might suggest something like, “aren’t we all?”
Maybe, but Nef has helped set the table of a novel and divine age. She is a woman, a trans woman, a ground-breaker; she has spoken her piece on freeing femininity within a TED talk, she was the first openly trans model signed to the far-reaching IMG Models, and she has just wrapped a cover shoot where she was photographed among a trove of modernist gems at Casa Perfect.
LAND OF DISTRACTION dress and ZIMMERMANN earrings
But these gender-specific traits and exotic feats feel almost trivial upon speaking to her. Once she begins expressing herself, you feel what really matters exudes; a very deep and caring soul is within her, as well as a laser-point focus on her work. She echoes the sentiment lightly in an interview with Popsugar in 2016: “It’s cute for me to be on a TV show or in a magazine, but that’s not saving anybody’s life...maybe its helping people, but there are more impactful ways to do that.”
Love. Compassion. Knowledge. Sensitivity. Vulnerability. Expansion. Graciousness within the fires of the world—a world that is eerily on a precipice of significant changes, particularly the American world; a world that needs the likes of Nef, a kind of scout for the truth.
The air in the dining room changed once she arrived. Timothée Chalamet sat behind us moments ago [it’s Oscars week], and he was soon enough obliterated from the scene. Amy Poehler sat catty-corner, and she quickly became nothing more than a sweet apparition.
I ask Nef, the Columbia University-educated actress about courage.
“With the right dress and enough layers of make up you don’t need to feel courageous...”
We chuckle. She says she’s kidding. She is equally as funny as she is intelligent.
“It’s absurd to me, in a way, that I could be jaded at 25,” Nef utters slowly, thoughtfully, “but I really felt like I wanted some new energies and new challenges in my life, and coming here I feel overwhelmed. I feel like a twerp. I feel like a punk. I don’t know what I’m doing, but I like it... Talk to me in 5 years...”
When Nef says “here” she is referring to Los Angeles. She has just made the cross-country trek from New York City, where her career as a model began—a career that has been comparatively vast at such a ripe age.
Nef’s sartorial calling has spanned runway jaunts and campaigns for Gucci, Hood By Air, and Eckhaus Latta, as well as fashion spreads in the likes of Jalouse, Wonderland, Interview, and ELLE magazine. It feels the stuff of dreams. All of which looks to be just as cosmic as it is full of hard work, when she candidly told Vogue Paris in late 2016, “my identity has given me a lot of attention in my early career that a lot of people have to work really hard for. Making the choice to live authentically has actually been the best gift that I have ever given myself. It’s not easy, but I hope that I can be, not an example or a role model, but a possibility model for people...you can do this if you want...”
Nef’s relocation to Hollywood looks to be right on time as well. The old guard of male-run Tinsel Town is crumbling, what with the copious amount of executives and notable figures being taken down for malicious, devious, wholly chilling behavior toward women. I wonder how she may feel about this usurpation of power, and the witnessing of the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, the beautiful feminine overthrow, the opening up and disintegrating of dusty and conservative ideals. Thoughts pour forth in startling volume:
On the shifting status quo, and women in positions of power: “What does it mean for a woman to come into power?” Nef notes, less to me and more to the ether, “What does it mean for a woman to inherit, procure, or receive a power that has been wielded by men historically? Perhaps abused by men historically? Is that necessarily a power that we want? In the way that we receive it? I’m a lot less fascinated by ‘who’s going down and why’ than I am about ‘who’s coming up and how,’ because I don’t think just changing the gender of somebody in a position of power ensures that the power will be used in any other way. There is a top-to-bottom revision of things that needs to be done. That should be done or could be done, if change is what we want.”
On feminism and gender: “I think about the word ‘woman’ a lot. I think about the word ‘feminist’ a lot. I’m not sure what any of it means anymore. The only way I could ever define something like ‘my feminism’ is that I wouldn’t want to even say the word ‘woman’ in my definition of feminism. I would say gender itself needs to be interrogated a little more thoroughly before we can start parsing out a plan for women and men and others. I feel a little disillusioned by the way women’s liberation and uprising and progress is editorialized and mediated and filtered through. The thing itself excites me, but the way it ripples outward to all of these talking heads who want to love something or hate something or support something or divide something...it becomes tarnished and warped.”
On #metoo and the movement to end abuse in Hollywood: “I support the regime change that is happening in Hollywood, because it is a change and because there are people who have done terrible things, and they are being held accountable, but it’s not enough for a woman to merely walk into a room and sit in a chair and assume the position of power. There are so many moving parts underneath her that will just continue to move in the same way that they have always moved. It’s our responsibility as men and women to undue the conditions where a person like Harvey Weinstein could even feel at ease doing what he did. The circumstances allowed him to be a problem. I think people like to cry movement or progress at the first sign that a problem is identified. We’ve identified the problem, and this is where the work begins. I’m not satisfied by the truth alone. I need a new one. I don’t want an alternate truth. I want the nature of that truth to change. Because we have seen the ugly truth...”
What better way to create a new language and truth than through art? And with the supermodeling career more or less drifting into the distance, Nef’s puzzle of precocity is falling further into place—acting is now the priority.
She has most notably finished Assassination Nation, directed by Sam Levinson (son of Oscar-winning Barry Levinson, acclaimed director and writer of Rain Man). The film, featuring Nef as a central character, traces a band of women fighting for their lives over the course of a night in Salem, Massachusetts after a data hack plunges the city into chaos. It has developed a significant hum after a well-received debut at the recent Sundance Film Festival, and was quickly snapped up for 10 million dollars, a notable sum for a film with a prominent trans lead actress.
It is a film, Nef says, that is, “lessabout retaliation and more aboutsurvival,” making the film quite possibly the kick in the dick our collective patriarchal madhouse needs, a story about women getting their due and dignity, and keeping it intact.
“These are girls [in Assassination Nation] who are being attacked and persecuted in many ways because of the women they have developed into living as in post 9/11 America, living under patriarchy,” Nef elucidates. “These girls are persecuted for being outgoing and sexually free and visible...declare yourself...spread your legs...close your legs...be smart, but not too smart. And the eyes of this vengeful beast that needs a sacrifice, a victim, someone to blame for all this shit that is happening in the town... of course it falls on these four girls. There is violence in the film. There are people who die. But none of these girls commit any of the violence because they are angry or because they are spiteful or because they want revenge: they are doing it so they won’t die. They are doing it so they will live, which is what you have to do when people are trying to kill you...”
The word iconoclast is defined as: a person who attacks cherished beliefs or institutions. I offer it up to Nef, a conceivable definition of herself. A fairly hard rejection ensues: “I haven’t had my best ideas yet.
I haven’t given my best performances...I’ll probably be cuter next year.” Cheeks redden. Mine. Not hers.Nef is wistful. Profound. Unearthly. I look at her hands. I look at her arms. I look at a tattoo I can’t make out. I look at her purse. I’m not sure whom I’m speaking to. A poet? A grande dame? She moves a bit like a willow tree, but I can clearly sense the ferocity within her grasp. She is a mélange of a person with serious feelings.
Oddly, albeit naturally, she appears to bring everything back to the level of mother earth, time and time again. “Casual is a word I think about a lot...” Nef pronounces, gently holding a large shard of deep green kale on her shiny silver fork.
“Keeping things casual?” I ask, moving my head curiously. “Mhmm,” she answers, “I think we live in a time of sensationalizations. We’ve inherited this fetish for entertainment and for sweeping declarations of the self. Sweeping declarations of love. Sweeping declarations of hatred. It comes back to what we were saying about being in the grey area [before ordering our food we spoke of black and whiteness, the rainbow of living, if you will]. Between small and big or soft and loud, casual is the center of that a lot of the time. Not all of the time, but I think that the best way to handle difficult things, scary things, unfamiliar things, and new things is to handle them casually, with a sense of confidence and ease and an understanding of some smallness in the grand scheme of things. It’s transience... you’ll probably get a redo.”
Nef’s voice is magnanimous. I imagine people are listening in. She isn’t like everyone else in the room. I wonder how this happens. I wonder what a person like this is interested in, who they really want to be. I suppose an obvious blessing of being the thespian is that you get to frolic with the unknown ghosts.
“What kind of characters interest you?” I inquire.
“I’m interested in characters who are not living the big thing, not encountering the big thing, not having the epic journey, but dealing with life after it,” she replies, speaking of the forthcoming creative liaisons. “I think that is an underexplored space. The after. Maybe that space lends itself more to literature. But I think it’s a problem to be solved in cinema, where there don’t necessarily have to be a lot of things literally happening. I’m much more interested in the psychology of somebody who has gone through something crazy. Or has survived something intense, or has gone on a journey—what happens when they come home?” My head is enveloped in a violet aura. Nef speaks in a coo, the after she speaks of makes sense coming from her.
The integrity with which she lives might call for consistent self-reflection. Nef and I split the bill. We clumsily ask the waiter to take our photo. We are close together now.
I feel the feeling of two beings wanting to win. Wanting to understand. Wanting to be free.Wanting to reckon with what comes next...in an element of kindness, uncertainty, humility, passion... a new sort of fantasy.
Written by Augustus Britton
Photographer: Sandy Kim.
Stylist: Zoe Costello at Jones Management.
Hair: Gregory Russell using R+Co at The Wall Group.
Makeup: Natasha Severino using Nars Cosmetics at Forward Artists.
Manicure: Tracy Clemens using Chanel Le Vernis at Opus Beauty.
Location: The Future Perfect LA.