After making her screen debut on the second season of Transparent, Hari Nef is back with her biggest role yet as Bex in Assassination Nation. Sam Levinson's film, co-starring Odessa Young, Suki Waterhouse and Abra, follows four high school teens at the center of the violence and chaos that befalls Salem when a hacker starts releasing everyone’s personal data -- particularly people’s stash of cell phone pictures and videos as well as their internet history.
When Nef first appeared onscreen in 2015 playing Tante Gittel in flashback scenes on Transparent -- which she calls an “amazing introduction into the industry” -- the budding model turned actress had already generated a mystique about herself, earning “It Girl” status. Dubbed the “Tumblr-age Chloë Sevigny,” she was part of a new generation of stars building their brand (and following) on social media.
Her biggest platform then (and now) is Instagram -- now up to 314,000 users -- which she previously told ET that she values more for messaging than her growing legion of followers. “I just wanted to create a space where I could create visibility and a vocabulary for myself,” she said. “Whether you’re a woman, a transwoman, a person of color, I feel like Instagram is really important for the creation and framing of the self.”
It’s fitting that someone who gained notoriety on social media -- perhaps with much more self-awareness than many of her peers -- is now one of the stars of Assassination Nation. “The film illustrates the idea that social media is an interface that can be leveraged for quote-unquote good or quote-unquote bad. I think it’s all about the intention that you bring to social media,” Nef explains.
“Obviously, it can be this very positive thing, where as a woman or another disenfranchised person from another intersection of society, you can represent yourself and seize control of the way you are portrayed,” she continues. “In this film, we explore the other side of that, where vitriol righteousness and hatred are interfaced with social media and how there’s dangerous connotations for the real lives behind the screen.”
In Bex’s case, it’s becoming the target of transphobic attacks, when the phone of Diamond, a cisgender, male student she’s been flirting with is hacked, leaking their late-night interactions for everyone to see. At the height of the violence, which takes over the town of Salem, she is kidnapped by a group of jocks who want to hang her from a street light.
It’s a harrowing scene -- and just one of many in the film -- that demonstrates Nef’s growth as a performer. “The main thing that I was thinking about during that scene is how someone deals with such a severe trauma as it’s happening to them and trying to put myself in that position,” she explains, adding: “I think Bex, in that moment, is outside of herself and she is not trying to break down in the face of assailants. But the reality, I think is so severe and terrifying to her that I put myself somewhere else during those scenes.”
Filmed in New Orleans, Nef spent over a month on set and in the headspace of Bex -- the longest amount of time she’s had with a character so far. “I have so much affection for Bex. She is absolutely the girl I wish I had been in high school,” she says, grateful to learn from her and from her experience on set. “I became sure during that process that this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. I have never been happier than I was during that month and a half that I shot Assassination Nation.”
The release of the film, which is in theaters Friday, Sept. 21, also coincides with her recurring role as Blythe on Lifetime’s You, starring Penn Badgley and Shay Mitchell. Following a bit part in Mapplethorpe, these two significant roles cement Nef’s place as an actress on the rise -- and one to watch in Hollywood.
“I am really enjoying just sitting back and surrendering these projects over to the people who want to watch them,” says Nef, who is eager to explore life on the other side of the camera as a writer or producer. “My passion for storytelling continues to grow as I continue to have these super rich experiences that I’m grateful for. All I can say is that I am grateful and I understand how lucky I am and I just want to work. I’ll be very happy if I can do that.”
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