The very first sight I get of Paz – or María de la Paz Elizabeth Sofía Adriana de la Huerta if we’re being formal – is her bum. I walk in to the Brooklyn studio where her shoot for Wonderland is taking place and I’m confronted, smack in the eye, with a bare expanse of impossibly peachy bottom.

Its owner, wearing only a studded leather bra, is standing in front of a full length mirror, gazing at herself and languorously shifting from side to side while a kneeling assistant inches a pair of rhinestone knickers up her ankles.

Knickers now on (some very un-cheap merchandise, naturally), Paz sashays on to the set, shrugs off her bathrobe and is instantly working it like a 50s pin-up, slowly writhing her coltish limbs like she’s moving in honey. There’s an 80s rock soundtrack playing in the background and she frequently shouts: “I love this song!”

There’s a sizeable team of people watching Paz – about a dozen – and they all seem pretty dumbstruck. Stylist Emilie Kareh, gazing at her from the sidelines, purrs that it’s so easy to dress her because, “she knows how to mooooove”, while photographer Danielle Levitt earlier describes her to me as, “a very charismatic and energising creator.” She adds, perhaps just a touch archly, that, “she does ‘fantasy world’ very well.”

At one point though, Paz seems to feel there isn’t sufficient adulation in the room. Her brow suddenly furrows, she juts her lips into a pout and calls plaintively to the camera, “I need you to be in love with me! Aren’t you in love with me?” It’s a little ridiculous, but not without its own strange pathos – hilarious and heartbreaking all at once. Her astrologer has told her that she was “definitely” Marilyn Monroe in a past life.

Paz was born in SoHo in New York in 1984, the child of Iñigo de la Huerta, a Spanish rancher and Duke of Mandas and Villanueva, and Judith Bruce, a policy analyst for women’s issues in developing countries. It was, by all accounts, a fairly unorthodox childhood.

“When I was a little girl I was quite shy, and my mum took me to acting classes aged four so I could open up. It really became my outlet for me to express myself. That and painting; I paint a lot. There was a lot of drama in my household, so I had a lot of anger at times – especially when I was a teenager.”

In fact, she was kicked out of the sixth grade for breaking a chair over a girl’s head, having been bullied for her skinniness. She went on to St Ann’s school in Brooklyn, where she befriended Zac Posen – she still models for him. It was while at school that she landed her first film role, playing Mary Agnes in The Cider House Rules after she was discovered on a SoHo street.

Jim Jarmusch cast Paz in Limits of Control, in 2009, having written the character of “Nude” especially for her. A character who – you guessed it – isn’t a great wearer of clothes, except for a transparent plastic raincoat, that is. Jarmusch has said, “I always joke that it’s harder to get Paz to keep her clothes on than to take them off.”

A less charitable summation of her came from her mother, who supposedly described her as “Genghis Khan meets Marie Antoinette” in an interview for New York Magazine. When I raise this with Paz, the words are barely out of my mouth before she silences me with a waved hand.
“First of all the guy who wrote that article was an ex-boyfriend who was severely heartbroken and had a lot of ulterior motives so it’s not journalism. It’s against the law for an ex-boyfriend to interview you. So I learned from that experience. Always learning.”

And in terms of keeping private life private, there will probably even more learning to do now – after Boardwalk Empire and her captivating performance in Gaspar Noé’s psychedelic Enter the Void, her fame is going to spread a lot further than the Lower East Side.

She thinks the world would also be happier if everyone lightened up about sex: “I don’t really consider the nudity, it’s just like another costume. I approach it from an emotional space. That’s why it shocks me when people are like “`Oh, she’s nude!” – well what about the fact that I’m crying? Or I’m laughing? It’s an emotional scene. A lot of crazy things happen in the bedroom. Not just sex. Lovers quarrels.”

Is sex important to you?
“Love is,” she coos. “Love, baby, love. Love is really the most important thing. I can’t have sex with someone I’m not in love with. I still love every ex boyfriend I’ve ever had and I talk to them all the time.”

How would her ex-boyfriends describe her?
“Complicated? Fun? Umm. Passionate. Definitely passionate. I think they would say I’m passionate above all. I keep it honest. I don’t like games. And in my work, it really makes me feel things very deeply. I can get to places that I need to get.”

Styled moodily in black dress and plum-coloured lipstick, Paz turns away from the camera to “get into the right emotional space”. There are a few suppressed smirks. When she turns back a moment later though tears are running down her face.

She says she wants to “try everything” and be thought of as, “somebody who gets to people, whether good or bad. I mean, if you get to someone, it means you’re making something in them aliven and awaken and make them question themselves. So I’d like to be a provocative actress. I really know I’m capable of everything and I have so much I want to play … a lot I want to do.”

What sort of thing? She thinks for a moment.
“I would love to do some Victorian like …” she searches for the term.

Costume drama?
“Yeah, costume drama.” Paz in bonnet and crinoline – that really would be a shock.

Photography: Danielle Levitt
Fashion: Emilie Kareh
Words: Hermonie Hoby

A full version of this article first appeared in Wonderland Issue 25, Feb/March 2011