January 21 2011: A topless turn in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire has fuelled her fame. But is there more to the eccentric actress?

I am hanging around the photo studio after the interview when Paz de la Huerta, on roller skates and wearing only black panties, crashes right into me. She disentangles herself, breathlessly apologises, giggles and sets off again at speed, her breasts bobbing. The men in the room flush while pretending not to look. A little later, when I go to say goodbye, I find her in the dressing room wearing only a black feather boa and a slash of bright red lipstick. She looks at me and pouts: “Write nice things about me, please.”

Paz de la Huerta is making a name for herself by stripping off. In 2009, in Jim Jarmusch’s minimalist film The Limits of Control, her character was simply called Nude, while last year she played a pole dancer in Gaspar Noé’s provocative, mesmerising Enter the Void. It’s no surprise, then, when she sits naked astride Steve Buscemi in the first episode of Boardwalk Empire, HBO’s terrific new series about Prohibition-era America. Created by Terence Winter, a lead writer of The Sopranos, it also boasts Martin Scorsese as an executive producer and director of the first episode. It’s the actress’s big chance to make a name for herself, to prove there is more to her than a great body. Boardwalk Empire looks fantastic — Atlantic City in the 1920s was recreated in Brooklyn at great expense; the pilot alone is reported to have cost $18million and is as addictive as Mad Men. The New York Times accused the drama of “historical fastidiousness”, but it also calls Scorsese’s attention to detail “lavish, exquisite and unswerving”.

Winter says James Gandolfini would have been an obvious choice as Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, Atlantic City’s corrupt treasurer, but the skinny, dashing Buscemi makes Nucky a more complex villain. As de la Huerta says: “It’s brilliant to have Steve play a gangster because his beauty shines through.” De La Huerta herself plays Lucy Danzinger, a troubled former showgirl who sets out to use Nucky to get ahead and then falls for him. She is perfectly cast as the overtly sexual yet ultimately vulnerable Lucy, a former Broadway dancer. “The great thing about Boardwalk Empire is that there’s time to let the character grow and change. It was really important for me to know how Lucy would move. I could have bought 15 million CDs, but Marty [Scorsese] is an encyclopaedia and he gave me a CD with the best compilation of jazz from the time. It was perfect.”

I meet de la Huerta, 26, in a photographic studio in Los Angeles the day after the Golden Globes. She is, at first, fully clothed, in a long black dress and silver sandals, but seems a little jaded. I ask if she went to the Globes and she nods warily, “Um, yeah.” She must be happy, given that Boardwalk Empire won Best TV Series and Buscemi picked up Best Actor in a TV Series. “I’m very happy. Steve is wonderful. He’s so warm and has such a huge heart. He is truly open and lovely and he really does care. He’s a good person.” She rubs a strawberry in a mountain of cream and waves it around on a plastic fork.

A little later, Paz talks about being a rebel, about learning to behave at public events, about not drinking. The next day there are stories all over the web about her behaviour at the Globes: apparently she was so drunk that she failed to make it on stage with her fellow Boardwalk Empire cast (leaving Kelly Macdonald, who is tremendous as an abused mother, to show some real class and decorum) and was then refused entry to a party at the Chateau Marmont. There is even video of her staggering away and a breast popping out before she falls over.

No wonder the actress seems a little off. But she says nothing of the events and instead talks New Age weirdness about getting through big events like the Globes. “I have to protect myself; there are a lot of vampires at awards parties and I’m an extremely emotional person. So I put on my psychic protection oil and go” — she flaps her arms — “waha gure, waha gure … I practise Kundalini yoga and it’s a mantra that stops people projecting their shit on to you.”

De la Huerta reminds me of a young Courtney Love. She has the same East Coast drawl, the same fractured grip on reality, the same lack of inhibition. Love used to talk about all the famous men she had slept with and de la Huerta has been linked with Jack Nicholson, Orlando Bloom and countless others. She says that she has had plenty of famous boyfriends, but has only ever been friends with Nicholson. “I love him … I only really like older men. Though Jack wasn’t one of them. Guys my age just repulse me. I feel like men are good when they turn 70.” Is she dating now? She smiles: “My boyfriend is 48. He’s an animal but he’s beautiful, he truly is . . .”

I ask his name and she gently shakes her head.

Although the actress is reluctant to discuss her background, she confirms that she was born in New York in 1984. Her father, Inigo de la Huerta, is the Spanish Duke of Mandas and her mother, Judith Bruce, is a policy analyst with the Population Council’s Poverty, Gender and Youth programme, which fights for women’s rights around the world. An article in New York Magazine last year says her parents split when she was 12 and her father returned to Spain.

De la Huerta hates that article; it was written by an ex-boyfriend, Jay Bulger, whose heart she says she broke. I ask if she will give me an abbreviated version of her life story and she shrugs. “My parents are both extraordinary people. My mother travels around the world and has been exposed to extreme poverty. My father is a true eccentric. So emotional and passionate.” Is she like him? She pouts. “Yes.” Did they clash when she was a rebellious teenage punk? “No, because I was his little girl, the youngest — I have an older sister. But there was a lot of unhappiness in my life. I’ll just say that.” Is she close to her father? “I’m hoping to have a closer relationship with him.”

Although she had a bohemian childhood full of art and books and famous friends — she cites Jane Fonda as a huge influence — the actress talks of her early years as a dark place. “I felt like I was my own entity. I felt like an orphan . . .” When pushed to elaborate, however, she just glares at me. So I ask instead about Zac Posen, her high-school friend who is now a fashion designer. She has modelled for him countless times; was she his muse? She smiles. “Yes … He’s like my little brother. He gave me a beautiful fur coat for Christmas.” Real fur? That’s, well, naughty. She scowls and strokes the cobra tattoo on her leg. “It’s not naughty. Peta sent me a letter and you know what? I’ve spent time on my father’s ranch in Spain, I’ve hunted animals. Foxes destroy the land . . .” And so on.

De la Huerta made her cinematic debut at 14 in Lasse Hallström’s The Cider House Rules. She didn’t aim to become an actress, but was obsessed with movies. Back home in New York — where, she says, she can now afford the rent thanks to Boardwalk Empire — she doesn’t own a TV and endlessly watches Last Tango in Paris, 3 Women and The Fugitive Kind (Anna Magnani is her favourite actress). She puts on Paris, Texas at bedtime and recites it in her sleep.

She talks about the triptych of shorts she has made herself, collectively called The Momento Mori Project. They sound bonkers, of course, and she stars in all of them. Although it’s the Brits that often shine in Boardwalk Empire — Stephen Graham as a young Al Capone and, of course, Kelly Macdonald — de la Huerta convinces as Buscemi’s mistress.

She is looking forward to season two, which starts filming in Brooklyn next month, and really wants us Brits to appreciate her on screen. “I hope people can get past the nudity and watch the performance,” she says, stabbing a strawberry and eating it so provocatively that I have to look away.