The Star on the Sidewalk: How Arielle Holmes Went From Homeless Addict to Hollywood Actress

Arielle Holmes stars in Heaven Knows What, a movie based on her own life. Photo: Zackary Drucker
The Star
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Arielle Holmes was a homeless junkie when she was “discovered.” Now she’s the lead in a movie based on her own life, and thinking maybe she’ll give this acting thing a go.
Photographs by Zackary Drucker

As discovery stories go, it’s not exactly Lana Turner at Schwab’s. Josh Safdie, a filmmaker in New York, was hanging around the Diamond District when he met Arielle Holmes. He’d been doing research for a film called Uncut Gems and had decided that total immersion — a sort of Method directing — would help his work. After two and a half years, he had a pretty good sense of who was who on the 47th Street scene. But then, there she was in the subway: someone new, fresh, looking like a young Anjelica Huston, swiping her MetroCard at five in the afternoon.

“I was like, Oh, there’s a classic Russian Diamond District girl,” he recalls. He approached her, expecting broken English and a hard-knock immigrant tale. Instead, there was a Jersey accent. She — this girl with the long brown hair and the big, sad eyes — said she’d never acted before, but she’d always thought she’d be good at it.

Safdie and his brother, Ben, have a filmmaking collective called Elara Pictures.* Andy Spade produced their first film, The Pleasure of Being Robbed, then they made an autobiographical feature about their father called Daddy Longlegs that had its debut at Cannes.* That was followed by a well-received documentary about a basketball player called Lenny Cooke. Uncut Gems was to be their next big feature, but by the time Josh met Arielle in the subway, he’d been through two long years of false starts with various producers and celebrities. He was getting restless. 

Safdie and Holmes planned to meet and talk more in Chinatown, where she said she lived, though she was cagey about the precise location. Safdie suggested a cheap Chinese restaurant. “I pull up to meet her, and now she looks like a street kid,” he says. “She was looking like a punk.”

Slowly, over salt-baked shrimp, her story began to take shape. She didn’t really live in Chinatown. She lived mostly in Central Park or on the steps of churches on the Upper West Side. Her methadone clinic was down here, and so for the past two weeks, she’d leave the Diamond District “apprenticeship” she’d gotten after a jeweler saw her sketching on the street and go to Chinatown for her daily dose. Then she’d catch another train to Chelsea, where she worked nights as a dominatrix named Siouxsie (“The French spelling,” she explained) at a club called Pandora’s Box. When Safdie remarked that she looked really well dressed and put-together that day on the train, she explained that she’d washed her hair in the sink of a public bathroom and spent all of her money on that, her only dress.

Safdie was intrigued by the matter-of-factness with which she presented her situation. “She wasn’t on vacation,” he says, “like a lot of the Tompkins Square kids.” They started meeting up regularly, and she continued to tell him about her life and her friends, all of whom slept in Central Park. There was Skully, Buddy, and Polish Mike. There was the lady named Margaret who let people crash in her apartment for 15 bucks a night, and the Buddhist temple whose steps were somehow nicer to sleep on than anywhere else. It seemed like a hard life, though Holmes didn’t seem to mind it. In fact, she kind of preferred it to the idea of going to school and getting a job and paying rent.

“Look,” Safdie says, “I’m horribly addicted to drama. That’s my drug. Drama. And now here’s this girl who’s so unbelievably original in her thought. I just wanted to be around her. She schooled me on black metal” — an extreme form of heavy metal — “she introduced me to hard-style music” — a kind of hardcore techno — “which I’m now really into. I just wanted to hang out with her, and it was cool to, like, buy a meal for her.”

“I learned that doing drugs makes me feel good, but I believe that you can break the pattern, and if you’re sober for ten years and you overcame your addictive behaviors, you’re not an addict anymore.” Photo: Zackary Drucker

What intrigued Safdie most was the way she talked about her boyfriend. His name was Ilya, she said, and their love was epic. “The way she was talking about him,” recalls Safdie, “the only thing I can liken her to is when I first heard people in the Manson family talking about Charlie.”

Knowing that her life was chaotic, Safdie wasn’t surprised when, two months into their conversations, Holmes disappeared. The number he’d had for her, a pay-as-you-go cell, stopped working. He was a little frustrated — he’d gotten her cast in a music video directed by Richard Kern and she hadn’t shown up, but whatever. Then, two weeks later, Safdie got a call from a pay phone. It was Arielle. She’d just been released from Bellevue after a suicide attempt precipitated by a fight with Ilya. They made a plan to meet and talk. As Holmes told him about what had happened, Safdie was concerned for her, but also struck by how cinematic her descriptions were. He urged her to get busy and to stay away from Ilya, and he began paying her to write her story down. He paid by the page, and Holmes worked everywhere she could: mostly in Apple stores and on the iPad of Buddy’s girlfriend, until the girlfriend got too “full of drama” and that had to stop. At one point, Safdie loaned her his own laptop and got a call from a stranger saying that he’d found the women who’d stolen his computer at a Starbucks uptown. (His name and number were on a sticker on the computer.)

“She would just go stand for nine hours at a time at an Apple store,” he says. “Her eyesight is terrible, and she would just be hunched over. She would just write and write and write. It was no bullshit, so conversational and unpretentious. The whole thing was very schooling for me. I said, ‘Look, I want to adapt these into a movie,’ and she said, ‘That sounds awesome,’ and I was like, ‘I want you to play the lead,’ and she was like, ‘Okay, sure.’ She lives so presently. Two hours before she met me, that didn’t exist, and then two hours later, I didn’t exist. She exists in hours.”

Heaven Knows What, which Josh Safdie directed with his brother, is adapted from the hundreds of pages Holmes wrote. It is the story of a 19-year-old homeless junkie and her junkie boyfriend, living on the streets of Chinatown and the Upper West Side, begging for change, shoplifting 5-Hour Energy drinks, and generally treating each other like shit. It begins with that suicide attempt: In the movie, Holmes is attempting to apologize to her boyfriend for an infidelity, but he tells her that the only way he will believe she’s truly sorry is if she kills herself. And so she does, or she tries to, anyway, slashing her wrists in a public park.

Holmes, who is now 21, plays herself (called Harley), and her friends play themselves (or versions thereof). Ilya, though, is played by an actor because the real-life Ilya was too volatile to pull it off: On the last day of rehearsals, he showed up on set and overdosed, requiring an ambulance. Safdie began to wonder if he was in too deep with these kids. “I was like, I don’t want to do it,” he says. “It’s too dark. They really romanticize death. Death was around the corner at any moment.” But his brother and the other producers encouraged him to keep going, and the next morning they went back to work.

During filming, Holmes was off heroin but still on methadone. Photo: Zackary Drucker

It is tempting, as many people have, to compare Heaven Knows What to Kids, the 1995 film directed by Larry Clark that more or less introduced Chloë Sevigny to the world. But the movies have little but their settings in common. In Kids, there is still the excitement of Washington Square Park in the evening, still the rush of young love and summertime crushes. That movie’s devastation comes from the squashing of something gorgeous. This movie makes no pretense that there was ever anything gorgeous: The city looks cold and unrelenting, the characters are marginal and difficult. It is a love story between Harley and Ilya, though the only palpable love anyone seems to experience is for heroin. But at the center of it all is Holmes: charismatic, forceful, affectionate, winning in her sincerity.

There is a fascination that certain people, particularly those who would never have any reason to be without a roof over their heads, feel for life on the street: a sense that somehow it’s more legitimate, more authentic, more present than the lives of those who rush past it, not seeing it. “Growing up in New York, you hang out on the street,” says Safdie, who grew up in Queens and went to private school on the Upper West Side. “That’s where I would hang out. I am very used to hanging out on the street.”

Not that he wanted to romanticize it. “All I wanted to do with this movie is shed some light or shed some truth on what this lifestyle actually looks like. What I most want people to see is how dangerous being so romantic can be. Drugs are just a metaphor,” says Safdie. “I responded to Ari’s resilience as a person. Her perseverance, her warriorlike quality of trudging through. And, of course, there’s the irony of her hating repetition, and yet she was stuck in this Möbius loop of a lifestyle. Addiction. People see youth homelessness and think, Wow, they’re so free, they’re not signing up for the social contract. But drugs wind up structuring their lives.”

“I miss it. The freedom. The not having responsibilities. The need to survive every day. The just having to be resourceful and use your brains. Even when it sucked and it was cold, it was an adventure.” Photo: Zackary Drucker

The film played well on the festival circuit: It’s been to Venice, Toronto, and Tokyo, and now Holmes has been to all of these places, too. On May 29, it will be released by the Radius Weinstein Company. The movie has also had the somewhat surprising effect of turning Holmes into a fledgling indie-film actress. She has an agent at ICM and a manager, and she shaved off most of her hair for a part in a science-fiction movie. She was photographed for a beauty story in W magazine (the caption reads, “Piece Out With Redken Short Sculpt Touchable Texturizing Gel”). On my way to meet Holmes at a coffee shop in L.A., I ran into Andy Spade, who is excited by Holmes as an actress. “She’s amazing,” he tells me. “We’re doing some short films for Sleepy Jones, and I’m hoping she can be in one.” A girl who has slept many nights on the street could soon be hawking $300 pajamas.

Holmes is also about as unlike the rest of the ambitious young women of Hollywood as she could be. In and out of the coffee shop they go, with their muscular arms and yoga mats and thick, glossy hair and the confidence of having been the best-looking people in the places where they are from. It’s a city of former prom queens and mean girls, and into it walks Holmes, whose hands still shake unless she’s smoking. She is thin but without the dewdrop glisten that usually accompanies the recently anointed. Her paleness still carries the pallor of malnutrition that accompanied years of neglect, drug use, and other kinds of abuse at the hands of her mother, her boyfriend, and many other people. She dresses in street-kid clothes, a style unchanged for at least 20 years: short cutoffs, flannel shirt, sheer black stockings laddered with intentional runs, Doc Martens boots. She doesn’t like the haircut she got for the movie — a severe, peroxided Mohawk — but it does complete the look.

It’s only been 18 months since Heaven Knows What was shot, and Holmes finds herself in a radically different life. She moved into an apartment near Amoeba Music and the Scientology Center in Los Angeles with Caleb Landry Jones, the actor who played Ilya in the movie. Jones was in Teen Vogue’s “Young Hollywood” issue and appeared in No Country for Old Men and X-Men: First Class. It’s also only been 18 months since Holmes started feeling the first throes of withdrawal symptoms, as she finished her voice-overs and waited to leave for rehab.

During filming, Holmes was off heroin but still on methadone. When it was over, she asked the Safdies if they would help her get clean: She was ready to be done with all of it. Josh negotiated a deal with a plush rehab place called Lucida on the Intracoastal Waterway north of Boca Raton. The treatment center was just opening and offered her a space at a fraction of its usual cost. It was a weird setting for Holmes — what her fellow patients had left and would return to had nothing to do with where she’d come from or where she was going — but she dried out and ate three meals a day and slept in a bed.

“I don’t go about sobriety in a 12-step way,” she says. “They believe that being an addict is a disease and if you are clean and sober for ten years, you’re still an addict with a disease. But I believe it’s not a disease, it’s a learning disorder. I started using drugs when I was very young, and I didn’t have a lot of things in my life that made me happy, so my pleasure receptors — instead of learning that things like riding your bike make you feel good, I didn’t develop that. I learned that doing drugs makes me feel good, but I believe that you can break the pattern, and if you’re sober for ten years and you overcame your addictive behaviors, you’re not an addict anymore.”

Holmes tells me her mother was an alcoholic, her father a cute Irishman she met when he was here on a trip. (He quickly returned home, though Arielle has seen him a few times.) For most of her childhood, she lived with various family members in Bayonne, New Jersey — a grandmother who suffered from posttraumatic stress after a lifetime of domestic abuse, an aunt and uncle who had two kids of their own and weren’t hugely interested in caring for another.

She first smoked crack with her mother as a 12-year-old, and she dropped out of high school after the tenth grade. She liked to take the train into Manhattan “because Bayonne sucks,” and there she met a bunch of kids who hung out on the street. One of them was a stormy Russian with crazy hair and a thing for pentagrams. Ilya. Holmes stopped going back to Bayonne after some bad fights with her mother and fell wildly in love with him. “We were really into the rave scene,” she says. “Ilya had sold drugs when he was younger, and it was something I’d always wanted to do, so we started doing that and we saved up enough for our own place in Jersey City.” They began using heroin together. “I wanted to travel,” she says, “and I wanted to find new drug connects, and Ilya didn’t want to come, so I decided to go to California. The first place I stopped was Cincinnati, and I had a real good time and was making friends there, and then Ilya stopped answering the phone. I got worried, and I called my mother because Ilya used to buy Suboxone” — a drug used to blunt the effects of opiate withdrawal — “off her, and she said she hadn’t seen him for days.” When Holmes got back, she learned that there had been a fire in the apartment in Jersey City and that Ilya was in the hospital: His hands had been badly burned and his long hair had been singed off.

They spent the next two years living on the street, during which time Arielle’s mother and grandmother both died. In 2014, they managed to get into a couples’ shelter in the Bronx. “We weren’t using heroin, but we were drinking a lot, and then he started drinking a lot more and taking a lot of Ambien. But it didn’t put him to sleep, it would just, like, put him on Mars. We’d be watching movies and he’d think he was in the movie and he’d start doing things like he was in the movie and he wouldn’t remember any of it. Like, if he wasn’t being really cruel to me, he was just acting fucking insane, wanting to go out and kill people.” Eventually, they were kicked out of the shelter, and Holmes got involved with someone else, which upset Ilya, which led to the suicide attempt, which led, eventually, to the film.

She presents all this cleanly, a series of facts that make up her life, which she sees not as good or bad but simply what happened. “In the past, I used drugs a lot and I became very detached, and it’s something I still have. Even though all this crazy shit is going on in my life — don’t get me wrong, I have severe depression and anxiety a lot — it didn’t happen to the person I am right this second. But the stem of depression and all that, those things are still inside me. It doesn’t really leave me.”

“In the past, I used drugs a lot and I became very detached, and it’s something I still have.” Photo: Zackary Drucker

When she walks down Hollywood Boulevard, the street kids shout out catcalls. They recognize her as one of their own, somehow. The boys, especially, they go crazy. “You’re gorgeous,” one calls. “Damn. Have a nice day. Damn,” says another.

Sometimes she thinks she’d like to join them, relax onto a square of the sidewalk and call out for spare change. “Usually, when I see someone spanging, if I have a buck to give them, I will. I don’t give a shit what they’re going to use it for, it’s just about making their day easier. Sometimes, when I used to spange, I’d see someone walking around that would kind of look like me now, like well dressed, obviously looks like they have a place to live, and they’d walk by and I’d feel like, Hey, that’s not cool. And now I’m walking around looking like that, but sometimes I don’t really have a dollar, and I know people are probably thinking I’m a bitch.”

Her narrative of homelessness does not involve a redemption fantasy. Holmes is not entirely convinced that the path she’s on right now is empirically better. “I’m not used to this, and I don’t really know how to connect to people that aren’t in that life. I miss it. The freedom. The not having responsibilities. I miss it a lot. Being on the street was fun. The need to survive every day, the just having to be, like, resourceful and use your brains. Even when it sucked and it was cold and shit, it was an adventure. Right now, I’m just trying something new. I’m trying to see if having this self-control and working and getting to a place where I have stability is worth it and I’ll be comfortable. I don’t know yet.”

Last month, on April 12, Ilya was found in Central Park, dead of an overdose with a syringe next to his body. Holmes had seen him a few weeks before, stopping in New York on her way to the Dublin Film Festival. “I’d heard he hadn’t been doing very well. I called his grandmother, and it turned out she’d gone to the city and found him, and he’d come to her house and detoxed. It was amazing, because I feel like I got to see the real Ilya again. He wasn’t hiding behind darkness or grudges or spite. It seemed like he was doing a lot better.” But the turnaround didn’t last. “One day, I was taking a nap at Josh’s house, and he woke me up and he was like, ‘Yo, Ilya died.’ ”

Holmes doesn’t always make eye contact, and her hands waver. She has an overbite and can look, at certain angles, like a very tentative mouse. She doesn’t take up a huge amount of space in a room, and yet she is present, solid, and disarmingly direct.

“Not everybody thinks it was an accident,” Holmes says, “but I believe that it was. Me and a bunch of our friends helped bury him, and that brought me a lot of closure. Ever since then, I feel him all around me. I broke down a couple of times. Like, there’s a song called ‘Heroin,’ by the Velvet Underground, and I watched it on YouTube and I read the comments people left, like girls who had lost their love to heroin, and I had to go outside and smoke a cigarette. But it’s okay. He’s actually inspired me to write and to paint. I’m using the whole situation for good, trying to take the best out of it and learn and create.”

“Usually, when I see someone spanging, if I have a buck to give them, I will. I don’t give a shit what they’re going to use it for, it’s just about making their day easier.” Photo: Zackary Drucker

Holmes seems to be the only one of her friends who has been able to use this whole situation for good. Safdie describes overhearing people at Ilya’s funeral talking about getting clean and then making excuses for why it doesn’t happen. “I started to cry,” Safdie says. “It really hit me, all the excuses, how imprisoned everybody is.” Buddy missed the festival circuit because he was in Rikers serving a 12-month sentence for dealing dope. Even Ilya’s stand-in, Jones, came to resemble the other street kids over the course of the shoot. In interview footage following the release of Heaven Knows What, he appears sweaty and shaky, clenching his jaw, scratching his limbs, and even appearing to nod out. Safdie acknowledges Jones’s odd behavior but says it’s not drug-related. “He’s Method.”

Still, I wondered if Safdie felt a sense of responsibility for the young people in his film.

“Who’s hustling who?” he says. “Ari always says, ‘You’re such a little hustler, Josh,’ and that she likes that about me … I never had a complex that I was going to save her. I related to her. It was a genuine interest for me. I wanted to investigate that life and try to do it justice. But look, I get it. I’ve had a middle-class upbringing. I’m 30 and I have a home and I pay rent and my rent is not cheap.”

Safdie talked to Buddy in prison on the phone every day. “He was going crazy in there,” Safdie says. “And he’d already done three years prior. So I would say to him, ‘All right, how does time pass? Time passes with purpose, because purpose is the antithesis to existentialism and depression. So, Buddy, I’m sending you a notebook and you’re going to write every single thing that happens to you down.’ ”

*This article appears in the May 18, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.

*This article has been corrected to show that the Sadfie brothers’ production company is called Elara Pictures, not Red Bucket Films. It has also been corrected to show that Andy Spade produced the brothers’ first feature.

How Arielle Holmes Went From Addict to Actress