Uncut Gems is propelled by the boundless, boneheaded ambition of a jewelry-store owner named Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler). But Howard is driven by twin addictions: to basketball and to his girlfriend. In order to explore each, directors Josh and Benny Safdie, known for working with first-time actors, hired two people to play a version of themselves onscreen. Kevin Garnett plays himself, but in 2012, when he was a Celtics power forward playing against the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Julia Fox, a longtime friend of the directors, plays a beguiling 20-something devoted to Howard’s skeevy charm. Howard is the movie’s beating, bleeding heart, but Garnett and Fox are two standouts in a cacophonous New York opera. Love is greed is a gem is basketball. Howard lends Kevin Garnett the prized uncut gem he plans to auction off at Sotheby’s, and spends the rest of the movie trying to get it back and flip it for even more money. Howard and Julia have their share of street squabbles, but mostly she’s by his side.
Sitting together at the Crosby hotel, Garnett and Fox reflected on their first gigs as actors. “It became life or death,” Fox says of the opportunity to act in Gems, a movie the Safdies had been telling her about for years. “I love being in front of the camera.” Garnett, however, is a little less certain of his future on set. “I can’t say that [acting is] on the top of the list, but it was fun.”
I want to start pretty generally. How were each of you cast?
Julia Fox: I’ve known Josh and Benny for a while and they’ve been talking to me about this role for like five years.
Did you audition?
JF: I had to do a screen test. Even though they knew that they wanted me in it, obviously I had to prove myself to the money guys and the producers and the studio. I got approved for a screen test and the chemistry was there, the energy was there; it was undeniable. They said they auditioned like 300 girls and I stood out. It’s like a miracle really.
So over those five years, what had you been hearing from Josh and Benny about this movie?
JF: I was hearing about it, and then they did Heaven Knows What, and then I was hearing about it. And then they did Good Time, so I was like, “Is it happening? Is it not happening?” I didn’t realize what this movie meant, you know. I didn’t understand [at the time]. I was just like, “Sure I’ll be in your movie and if it doesn’t happen, whatever.” It wasn’t until the screen tests that I was like, Oh shit, I need to be in this movie, like I will die if I am not in this movie.
And for you, Kevin?
Kevin Garnett: For ten years they were going back and forth with this whole story. It was written for Amar’e Stoudemire and then they went to try to get Kobe Bryant in it and they rewrote the script and then they tried to get Joel Embiid, and none of it connected. It was only when they went to retired players that I was brought up. I got on the phone with these guys and it was instant synergy, just like how Jules was talking about. I can say the one thing: I don’t think all of us knew that we were a part of something special — it felt special, but you didn’t know it. This was my first time [acting], I’m not speaking for you —
JF: It was my first time.
KG: It was just great synergy. After that they called, I was here [in New York] and we all met up for coffee. They said, “Yeah, we’re going to give you this.” I was just like, “Okay.”
JF: And it’s crazy because nobody else could have played [Kevin’s] role.
I wrote about this at the Toronto International Film Festival: Every time you come back into the story, it almost seems like a miracle that you actually showed up.
JF: You know what I mean? I can’t even picture anyone besides Kevin. Just like how I can’t picture anyone besides Adam.
I talked to Josh and Benny last week, Kevin, and they said they knew that you were the right person because you’re such a good storyteller that you sweat when you tell stories. You have that much energy.
JF: So much.
KG: Ah, man. Listen, everybody that knows me — Jules, you probably noticed me — knows my life has been like a big-ass storybook. Sometimes I have to stop and be like, Is this shit really happening? You know, I have some really good stories. So we were just sharing and everybody’s kind of —
JF: He’s the most entertaining person ever.
How did each of you feel the night before you started shooting, with this being your first movie?
JF: For me, I was just kind of like, Okay, now I tricked all these people into thinking I can do this so I better fucking perform. You know? I was like, What if I forget my lines or what if I freeze and what if I’m uncomfortable? What if I don’t know how to act? After the first day I was like, okay, I can do this. I felt very relieved because I really thought that I had conned all these people and then the day comes and I don’t know my lines? It was cool when the wheels were in motion and we were all just perfect.
KG: The Safdie brothers, I can honestly say, they made the set really calm, really chill. It was about how you would do something, it was about you and what you were able to articulate to get to this scene’s ending point. You come into a new situation, something that you haven’t done, you’re going to have some nervousness. But I was prepared for what I had to say. Everybody was just about helping each other and it wasn’t a stressful time, none of it. I don’t even know how long that joint was, but it was like a whole page full of an interaction with Adam that I had to memorize!
JF: It was like 12 pages.
KG: When I first saw that I froze, like, “Are you serious?” And they were saying, “No, say it how you would say it.”
What was it like shooting those jewelry scenes? The two of you are there with Adam, but there’s also so much background noise, so much chaos happening.
KG: There’s a scene in there where the glass breaks, and we all got to be in there — a fight breaks out in the hallways. For me it felt like, yeah, I’ve been in here before. I’ve been in a jewelry store. It felt like that.
JF: It felt real, and then you would walk outside and it’s like scaffolding, and you remember that it’s a set. But when you’re inside it feels so real. They destroyed the set at the end. They just completely demolished it. I remember being like, What? No. How could they do that? But it’s a set, like, that’s what you do.
Kevin, I have to ask you if that was your real championship ring.
KG: No, obviously that was a fake one, but it was a very close [replica]. Like I tell everybody, once you win a ring, that’s the real one.
Like, whichever one you have on is the “real” one?
JF: No one knows.
KG: You won it, you know? They can’t take that away from you, is the point.
Julia, can you tell me more about the movie-Julia’s relationship with Howard? Why do you think she loves him so much?
JF: I know a lot of people are like, what does she see in him? I always just say, like, yeah, he’s a fuckup, but in the end, he always pulls through. He always cleans up the mess, and he’s just very charming. I think they trust each other. I think Julia really trusts Howard, that he’s going to take care of her, that he might be broke right now, but he’ll find a way to scrape up whatever money to pay for whatever it may be. They take care of each other. They’re very ride or die. I think that Julia loves Howard unconditionally whereas Dinah [played by Idina Menzel] loves him conditionally. Howard and Julia, they’re both flawed and they really accept each other for who they are.
This is a question for both of you, since you’re essentially playing versions of yourself. How are you similar to these characters, and how are you dissimilar?
JF: I’m pretty close. But if I was being kicked out of an apartment that I shared, I definitely wouldn’t leave it pristine with like a cute little note and a Madonna song playing. The TV would be gone, the couch — shit would have been trashed. Like, it’s not going to be that easy. Other than that, we’re similar, like any 20-something-year-old girl from New York.
KG: I thought I was myself. People were like, “Yo, you’re doing such a great job!” It’s like, I’m playing myself! If I was actually in a real auction, I probably would’ve gotten more aggressive. If it’s something that I want, I go for it. [Imitates bidding] “Yeah. How much? Boom. Okay, cool. Let’s go.” But for the most part, everything that was in the movie was me. [Pauses for a moment] I probably would’ve had a lot more people around me in the jewelry store.
Do you gamble?
KG: No. I will say this: You can’t catch me at Caesars [Palace] on the blackjack table.
KG: But if I’m in the neighborhood and the guys are out there, we start shooting dice, I might get on my knee and you know, I’ll jump in the neighborhood joint. [Imitates getting down on one knee to shoot dice like every black uncle in American history.] But to go into a thing that’s made for you to lose? I can’t. No, I’m not a casino guy.
We have to talk about the actual gem itself. Do you believe that objects can have a mystical power? Are either of you very superstitious?
KG: I’m an athlete. I’m an athlete! Athletes, in our world, if we wore these shoes last night and something works then you know what, let’s try it again. I think everybody has them. Women may have, like, jewelry —
JF: Lucky panties.
KG: See? Right. Superstition comes into it. Listen, in sports, it’s about you believing it and then having confidence in it. That’s really what it is.
Julia, can you tell me about the club scene, and your fight with Howard?
JF: That was probably the climax of my whole performance, I think. I was so exhausted at that point and I tapped into my energy reserve and then I went into a mania. I really lost myself in that scene. I could have kept going the whole night. It felt real. I was really feeling all those things. Even when I woke up the next day, I felt hungover.
Inside with the Weeknd — he’s such a chill dude. He’s super humble, so easy to get along with, so talented. I was maybe nervous when I first got in that bathroom with him, but then after a few minutes we were laughing and joking around and it was fine.
KG: Abel is cool people. I’ve known him for a while.
Obviously you both have careers outside of acting. I’m curious to know what acting fulfills in you, creatively.
JF: I think as a creative person, anything you put in front of an artist, any type of medium, your specific tastes will come out. I could be baking a cake and I’ll do it a certain way. If you’re just a creative person, it’ll come out no matter what. I think this was just another expression of that for me.
KG: Creatively, it kind of gives you a channel to act out or to be someone that you’re not … Anytime you’re able to tap into a different energy, or a different character, and challenge yourself [is good]. Like Jules said, creatively, if it’s in you, it’s going to come out. I appreciated this. This was a good outlet. I don’t play anymore, so watching everybody else watch you — like, I was watching everybody watch a game where I knew what the outcome was! It was just funny.
What was it like thinking about those games again, revisiting — and in some sense, re-creating — something that you’d done years ago?
KG: That was real footage used. I’m telling you, from the start of how [the Safdies] saw this movie to the now, how it ended up is like a story within itself. Ten years in the making. I didn’t even know the Weeknd was going to be in there, you know? I didn’t know who was going to be in the movie! Then you start seeing Trinidad James. It just meshed. It just meshed. It’s a perfect story, seeing where [Gems] came from to where it’s at.