Clad in skintight leopard-print Dolce & Gabbana, Paz de la Huerta poses on the red carpet as if she were doing an Ellen von Unwerth Playboy shoot: pouted lips, butt perched to the sky, big boobs everywhere. De la Huerta is not one to make a subtle entrance. The 26-year-old starlet even steals the limelight from nearby Courtney Love, also hamming it up for the party photographers lined up at the black-tie New Yorkers For Children benefit. For almost a decade, de la Huerta has become notorious for making a scene wherever she goes. Tonight is no exception. She preens and prances around the fancy crowd like Betty Boop, while the rest of the guests are very Betsy Bloomingdale. The photographers snap every second.

Despite working as a model and actress since her early teens, it's de la Huerta's provocative photo shoots, relationships with famous men and after-hours antics that have kept her in the public eye. Find a photographer she hasn't posed naked for. (Ahem.) Page Six reported that one night at The Beatrice Inn she was "crashing into people and tables" and did a striptease to the song "I Touch Myself." And then there was the time when she showed up on Jack Nicholson's arm at the premiere of The Departed. But the downtown party staple whose indie film career has been marked by a series of minor, mostly all-nude roles is finally taking her talents to a larger arena. Now she has the opportunity to become actually famous, as Lucy, Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi)'s girlfriend on HBO's hit Boardwalk Empire, and with a slew of meatier, more challenging roles on the horizon. She could very well be the next biggest thing to come out of downtown New York since Chloë Sevigny.

De la Huerta was discovered on the street in SoHo and cast when she was 14 in The Cider House Rules. She's worked consistently since, for directors like Clark Gregg (Choke) and Griffin Dunne (Fierce People), but has somehow evaded real stardom. Though her role in Boardwalk Empire is a step in a more mainstream direction, it isn't exactly a huge stretch for the actress. Lucy appears naked in the first episode. And she knows how to use her body to get what she wants. "Lucy is very ruthless," de la Huerta says. "She doesn't give a fuck what people think. That's what I love about her." Of working with her, Buscemi says, "Paz is very talented and totally unpredictable in her approach. She was constantly surprising me and it kept me on my toes."

A few days after the black-tie party, a very different de la Huerta strolls into the Greenwich Hotel. The red carpet vamp has transformed into a contemplative artist, this time looking a little funereal in all black, topped with a vintage chapeau that resembles a witch hat. But when she slides off her coat, her sheer black shirt reveals a lacy black bra. Even under the somber, serious outfit, the sex still peeks through. De la Huerta orders tea, pumpkin ravioli and a plate of charcuterie. She eats with her fingers like a precocious, flirtatious young girl. We immediately launch into her favorite topic: "Nudity is a non-issue for me. Sex is a huge part of life," she explains with a slight, all-purpose Euro accent. "To pretend it's not is being a liar, and people who are afraid of their sexuality are suffering." Director Jim Jarmusch, who wrote a part especially for de la Huerta in his 2009 film The Limits of Control, says, "I always joke that it's harder to get Paz to keep her clothes on than take them off." Needless to say, Jarmusch credits her character simply as "Nude" in the film's credits.

She mentions that she is wearing only one ring, of an Egyptian scarab, because jewelry (and lipstick) gets in the way of sex. She then recounts losing her virginity to a "very handsome" Serbian boy in Seville, Spain. "Before I lost my virginity -- my God -- I had a gazillion jewels everywhere. I was 17. But that time, I was like, 'Please just take it.' It was actually romantic. It was under a Goya in this huge bed in a room that had this Roman tub in it that went into a garden." Her brown eyes trail off to the garden outside the hotel's sitting room. She adds that she is currently single, having recently ended a relationship with an older man. "I always like older men. I think he got scared that I'd run off with some younger guy, which is so not true. But I'm so much better at being single now. I used to not be good at it at all." She's been linked to numerous famous men like Scott Weiland, Orlando Bloom and the aforementioned Nicholson, with whom she remains close friends. "I've had some amazing relationships. I need so much attention in a relationship. I need romance up the wazoo. I need roses every day. If I'm not getting enough romance, I get really bummed." She adds that she'd like to someday have a family. "When I date someone, it's not just because I want to have fun. I'd like to meet the man I want to marry and have babies. Family is important to me. I'd like to have a big family and cats and dogs and all those warm, fuzzy things."

How did de la Huerta become this sexual dynamo? She wasn't raised on a porn set. As a child, Maria de la Paz Elizabeth Sofia Adriana de la Huerta grew up immersed in the downtown art scene. She and her older sister, Rafaela, lived in a loft on West Broadway with her father, Ingio, a Spanish rancher, and American mother, Judith Bruce, who consults for the United Nations and works for women's rights in third-world countries. It was the height of SoHo's thriving art scene: Mary Boone's seminal gallery was on the ground floor (it has since moved to locations in Chelsea and the Upper East Side) and Larry Gagosian lived upstairs. When she was 12, de la Huerta had a mohawk and could be found sneaking in and slam dancing at East Village dives like Coney Island High, Continental and CBGB. "I was totally punk rock. It's not about the music you listen to, it's a way of being," she says. There is still something punk rock about de la Huerta today; her smile is almost a snarl. "In fact, she isn't comfortable without that punk edge in her life," says director Nemo Librizzi, an old friend. "I remember our encounter in Rome. She had been vacationing on the Riviera with the very rich and complained of all the coddling and spa treatments she had received at the four-star hotels. 'What do you want me to do, slap you in the face and throw a drink in your face?' I asked sarcastically. 'Oh, please?' she pleaded."

De la Huerta's rebel ways were honed at an early age. In sixth grade, she was kicked out of Grace Church School. She says classmates picked on her for being too skinny. One day she just lost it. "I broke a chair over a girl's head," she says flatly. "That was it. I thought it was a horrible school. They had some evil teachers. I always hated school." She transferred to the artsy Saint Ann's School in Brooklyn, where she met her friend designer Zac Posen. "She's wild and crazy, but has a heart of gold," says Posen, who later had her model in his first fashion show. "St. Ann's was interesting -- a lot of rich kids and a lot of kids whose parents were successful artists," de la Huerta recalls. "Because I was already a model at 15 and out in the world, I was meeting their parents. The kids had a lot of jealousy. But kids are like that."

While she loved modeling ("Anything not to go to school," she cracks) and acting in films, she needed more outlets for all her pent-up creativity and teen angst. So she started making short films, the first with her best friend, Jade Berreau, who later had a child with the late artist Dash Snow. When she mentions Jade's name, her eyes fill with tears. In the second film she wrote and directed, Pupa, Papa, Puta, she walks down Greenwich Street naked. She just completed her third short film, The Hairy Beast, a murder mystery. "Paz is a really talented filmmaker," says Jarmusch. "She gave me her films to watch and I kept them all on DVD for my collection." She plans to show them soon; maybe with photographs and a diary she kept when she was heartbroken. "I have so much I want to do," she says restlessly. "I just feel like everyone and their mother thinks they can be an artist. You can't. Sorry. I know I was born to be one."

De la Huerta's relationship with her parents has always been strained. "My mom is an odd duck," she begins carefully. "I'd say we talk very little. I know she loves me. We are so different. We can't even have a conversation." When she was 14, her parents went through an ugly divorce. At the same time, de la Huerta was shooting The Cider House Rules with director Lasse Hallström. "It was a roller coaster. It was nuts," she remembers. "My father was trying to get me off the set, he wanted me to take his side. But my mother didn't want me to be involved in this really awful mess. This was not a good thing to involve children in." The actress channeled her personal anguish in a dazzling debut performance. "I was having my own experience, expressing myself and a lot of this inner pain. It was exactly what I needed," she recalls. "I always felt like an orphan," she says, before adding that she is a lot like her father. "Out of everyone, I understand my dad the most. He's not a very healthy person. He should have been an artist, a painter or an actor. I get all my artistic integrity from my father because he is brutally honest. I've inherited that from him." And she may also have inherited her dad's lust for exhibitionism and need for constant attention. "My father never liked to wear clothes either."

The artists she's worked with throughout the years -- like von Unwerth and Jarmusch -- have become part of de la Huerta's family. There's something of a wise, concerned uncle in the way Jarmusch talks about the actress. "I've known Paz for years," he says, "She seemed like the perfect iconic femme fatale with something vulnerable and mysterious underneath. But I'd like to see her do something that is away from that. She has more range than that." Yet directors still continue to cast de la Huerta as the vulnerable sex object. Most recently, de la Huerta played a troubled stripper in Gaspar Noé's dark and trippy Tokyo-set feature Enter the Void.

Librizzi, who just directed her in his film A Night at the Opera, which de la Huerta describes as Marcello Mastroianni meets Woody Allen, agrees with Jarmusch that de la Huerta's talents as an actress have not been fully tapped. "I think the wardrobe departments are to blame," he says. In Librizzi's film, de la Huerta is hilarious and manages to keep her clothes on. "In her past three films, I have seen her wear little more than lingerie. When I think of Paz, I rather picture her in the flaring silk robes of a Velázquez portrait. While I find it fitting that she plays the vixen, my only objection is that her roles not be exclusively so. The full range of her talents is yet to be explored because of this pattern of narrow typecasting."

To that end, she says that her next project is a dark character in a movie that she likens to Funny Games. "I can't say anything more, but it's like no character I have ever played," she promises. De la Huerta is ready to give up playing the barely-clad girlfriend schtick. She would like to move to Europe one day and is enamored with Spanish, Italian and French cinema. "They write roles for mature women in Europe. Americans -- they don't get it. They make women look ugly. Then they all make fun of them. It's really a cruel culture. I'm half European and I feel more European than American inside. I'm a Spanish woman. I'm in the wrong country and wrong era."

While she can't travel through time, Paz is attempting something of a transformation. A first step: this past April she started seriously practicing Kundalini yoga at Golden Bridge Yoga on Centre Street. She meditates everyday and claims it has transformed her life and work profoundly. "Everything changed. It's phenomenal. It's medicine. It's healing me. I became a better actress, a better artist." And it's not just her body and mind that de la Huerta is trying to change. She recently switched the pronunciation of her name from "path" to "pahz." "I just reached the point in my twenties where I didn't want to be connected to the people who gave birth to me. And I didn't like explaining every time I said my name that it was the Castilian pronunciation. It still means 'peace.'"

This is a pivotal time for de la Huerta. Though she seems focused on building a lasting career as an actress, there is something of a lost child in her. "I haven't found a home yet," she says. "I guess my home is wherever I am. That sounds kind of cheesy," she giggles girlishly, then points to a leather couch across the table. "I can sleep on that couch and make it my home." But she does have a real home and it's only a few blocks away. Before she walks back to her apartment, she takes a last sip of her tea and slowly rolls up her pant leg to reveal a large tattoo of a cobra that snakes its way down to her toe. She got it about a year ago on Sunset Boulevard. "It's to remind myself that I can transform," she explains, slowly rubbing the ink on her leg as if petting the serpent to awaken it. "I can peel away layers of skin. I can constantly change myself."

Styled by Tom Guinness
Hair: Keith Carpenter at the Wall Group
Makeup: Chiho Omae at Frank Reps
Photo assistant: Craig Ward Edsinger
Style assistants: Kelly Govekar and Alexis Tannenhotlz