Over the past decade or so in New York, Hari Nef has graduated from Columbia University, signed with IMG Models, and become an actress. She's a muse to fashion designers, a published writer, and an in-demand party guest. In 2016, she was bestowed with the double-edged designation of It girl in The New Yorker.
Cue the Sex and the City theme music — or almost. If Nef is like a Russian nesting doll of New York City style and ambition, then appearing in the season finale of the SATC reboot And Just Like That… was another layer of reference becoming reality. "Ever since it was announced, I was just like, 'How do I get in there? How do I cross the threshold from what that show means to me into the reality of actually shooting it?'" Nef says.
"[While we were ﬁlming] I was sending my friend pics from inside Charlotte's [Kristin Davis's] apartment, and she was like, 'You're in a gay imaginary space.' It was so cool, but I had to treat it as a job — just a job — in order to do it well. I've never had to do that kind of acting before, where I'm sitting in the bathroom stall, waiting for my cue, listening to S.J.[Sarah Jessica Parker] and Miranda [Cynthia Nixon] do their scene." She pauses. "Oh my god, I just called one person S.J. and one person Miranda. Do you hear what I'm saying?"
Nef, 29, began her career by interning for the digital magazine archive VFiles in NYC's Soho, only to later debut on runways walking for brands like Hood by Air and Gucci. Her official jump into acting was as Gittel in the groundbreaking Amazon Prime Video series Transparent in 2015. Three years later, she made her mark in feature ﬁlms with Sam Levinson's cult hit Assassination Nation.
For this shoot, inspired by the 1960s sitcom That Girl, Nef hit the streets of her adopted hometown in a bevy of mod ensembles. ("'I have never loved anything more,'" Nef recalls her mother saying when she informed her of the concept.) In the series, Marlo Thomas played Ann Marie, a sporadically employed actress who moved to New York to make it in the big city. To step into Thomas's girl-on-the-go galoshes is meaningful to the Philadelphia-born Nef. She is drawn to characters like these because she appreciates actresses who carved out spaces for themselves where they saw none. She cites Fran Drescher (who conceived of The Nanny out of frustration with the lack of roles for openly Jewish female characters), Lena Dunham, Michaela Coel, and Issa Rae as examples. "I think that there's this beautiful affective lineage that gets passed down from generation to generation," she says. "They are potentially on some high-minded Maslow [Hierarchy of Needs], but also just 'What do I want to do in this industry?'"
Looking to these women has allowed Nef to focus on creating the type of career — and life — she wants moving forward. "At the beginning it was about a very speciﬁc kind of success, based on visibility and prestige and attention and money," Nef says. "I had stars in my eyes because I was being told that it was all there. After that initial breakthrough, I hit a crest and then kind of plateaued. I had to learn the ropes of screen acting. I had to keep my head down and get better at writing, which I'm still working on."
Nef has her eye on screenwriting and directing, although she's careful not to share too many of her ambitions publicly. "I've kind of committed to being a company woman for this industry," Nef says. "I want to learn how the goddamn sausage is made. I can't get away from wanting to do this stuff, so I don't care how long it takes."
It's an attitude that has yielded her most productive phase thus far. Coming up, there is the family-friendly indie 1UP ("It's a video game movie"); the "baby indie" Simchas and Sorrows (debuting at festivals this year); another big-budget, fashion-forward New York City–set series (on which Nef remains mum); and the biggie, an ABC pilot for the reboot of L.A. Law, in which Nef plays a lawyer alongside original cast members Corbin Bernsen and Blair Underwood. That project alone could establish a whole new chapter in Nef's career. "I deﬁnitely feel that none of what I'm doing looks quite how I thought it was going to look when I started," Nef says. "But I wouldn't have it any other way."
And like her favorite female protagonists, Nef feeds off New York's relentless energy. "It's a place where I can be simply what I am," she says. "Whether that is somebody who stays up smoking until 8 A.M., or somebody who likes to talk too loud in the back of the restaurant about the movie she saw this week, or the girl who wears a preposterous outﬁt to go pick up mood stabilizers at CVS at 11:15 at night. I've never thought about myself less. I don't care. I ﬂaunt it, and I'm having fun."
Photographs by Tom Allen. Sittings editor by Jasmine Fontaina. Hair by Elena Johannessen for Glamsquad. Makeup by Joel Vasquez. Prop stylist by Jacob Burstein for MHS Artists. Production by Boom Productions.
For more stories like this, pick up the March 2022 issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Feb. 11.
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