As Orange is the New Black comes to a close and Russian Doll roars toward Emmy-land, a star is reborn in Hollywood.
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One thing you notice immediately about Natasha Lyonne is that she doesn’t do small talk. The actress, who recently turned 40 and is enjoying a peak moment in her career, bursts into Little Dom’s restaurant in Los Angeles 35 minutes late—all red curls, crushed blue velvet and oversize sunglasses—and just lays it on the line.
“I was in deep conversation about sex, so you’ll have to excuse my tardiness,” she says, sliding into a banquette. There’s a vintage Catskills quality to her husky deadpan that makes you forgive her; plus, the woman is obviously busy. Lyonne just wrapped her final season as inmate Nicky Nichols (the one with the heroin problem and heavy eyeliner) on Orange Is the New Black, and she is forecast to be an Emmy front-runner in various categories for dark comedy Russian Doll. Lyonne writes, produces, directs and stars in that Netflix cult hit. The delay today was an interview that went long with Liz Goldwyn, granddaughter of the movie mogul and host of a podcast—“Everybody’s got a podcast, I’ll tell you,” Lyonne says—called The Sex Ed.
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“We spoke about our common interests, which include Mae West, Emma Goldman, Tallulah Bankhead, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich and gender in general—namely, what it’s like being a man in this town, i.e., me. I’m a man.”
Lyonne lets that last line linger there a moment. She knows she’s being provocative. She and comedian Fred Armisen have been a couple going on five years. They share a poodle mix named Root Beer at various homes in New York and LA. So, what does Lyonne mean exactly?
“I think it’s wonderful that as a species we’re seeing that black-and-white thinking has caused so much undue suffering, and that suddenly there’s an ever-increasing vocabulary to express each person’s nuanced individual experience,” she says. “If I want to be a man, I can be a man.” Another pregnant pause. “Also, I’m hungry and I want the cauliflower rice.”
Lyonne has been a working actor for more than 30 years, dating back to her debut on Pee-wee’s Playhouse at age 6, and yet only now, she insists, is she able to fully express who she is.
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On Russian Doll, Lyonne plays Nadia Vulvokov, a Manhattan software engineer who finds herself in a time wrinkle that has her reliving her 36th birthday party over and over, with innumerable deaths in between. Lyonne created the show with Amy Poehler and playwright Leslye Headland, and worked with an all-female writing staff for what Time magazine called “2019’s best new show to date.” The series runs only eight episodes but is a big enough talking point in media circles and at dinner parties to all but guarantee a second season. If you watched Russian Doll’s jigsaw-tight finale, which Lyonne wrote and directed (“brain-breaking work,” she calls it), you might wonder how a follow-up season is even possible. “I mean, how is a second round of anything possible? It’s all a miracle,” she says. “You keep hunting, thinking, digging, dreaming and pushing the edges until you figure the shit out.”
That might as well be Lyonne’s personal tagline for everything. She was born Natasha Bianca Lyonne Braunstein and raised in an Orthodox Jewish family on Long Island, New York City’s Upper East Side, and in Israel and Miami. Her dad was a boxing promoter, and her mom the daughter of Holocaust survivors. Both are now dead. “I had this sort of childhood wiring of high alert,” she says. “There was always this question of, what if my mother was right and we were on the verge of a second coming of the Third Reich? That’s not wonderful for the nerves.”
Being a child actor did not ease the anxiety. Lyonne says she felt a “keyed-up awareness of the family circumstances”—money was very tight—“and that everybody had to do their part, which meant, for me, getting the job, whatever the job happened to be.” She recalls a moment at age 12, shooting Dennis the Menace with stars Walter Matthau and Christopher Lloyd, and having her first kiss in real life and on camera at the same time.
“I didn’t understand why that felt weird then,” she says, “but now I look back and think something was very, very off. By mere virtue of the fact that I was wearing tight pants in the scene, it meant, oh, of course you’ll be making out with somebody. At no point was there a thought of, ‘Hey, kid, do you actually want to do this?’”
The server stops by the table to see if anybody needs anything.
“Just a lobotomy,” Lyonne says, but the joke doesn’t land. The server walks away.
“I swear to God,” she says, “you used to be able to order a lobotomy in this town.”
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It is almost hard to fathom now, given Lyonne’s current run of success, but before Lindsay Lohan, Lyonne was a Hollywood poster child for addiction. By her teens, she’d made a decent name for herself in movies like Everyone Says I Love You, American Pie and Slums of Beverly Hills, but she kept getting in trouble. Lyonne used to shy away from talking about her misfortunes, but she’s been sober for 15 years, and, as she puts it now, “that period does kind of contextualize a lot of things in terms of my point of view today and the way I had to reconfigure myself in order to become a member of the living.”
She credits close friend Chloë Sevigny as the “one consistent figure who stood with me through the ‘before’ chapter.” As Lyonne says, “In my early days of getting clean, Chloë would show up in an oversize Morrissey T-shirt just to make sure I would leave the house. We’d go to the beach. She’d peel off into a bikini. I’d be in eight layers of black, smoking a cigarette going, ‘I’m outside in sunlight, OK? What more do you want from me?’”
Lyonne found her footing again with “a hundred mostly unwatchable indie movies and a gap where I mostly disappeared into the ether,” and then came Orange Is the New Black. Inhabiting the role of an inmate dealing with her own addiction problems, Lyonne says, “[I] reassembled my relationship to my profession. No longer was I acting because my parents or anybody else needed me to. This was becoming my own dream in a new and healthy adult way.”
What began as a guaranteed three-episode arc on OITNB turned into a run of seven seasons and extras such as a 2014 Emmy nod and opportunities to direct. When Lyonne walked off set after the series wrapped earlier this year, “a sound came out of me like a wounded animal,” she says. “I grew up on that show; it restored me, and those are my people for life.”
Lyonne is currently experiencing what you might call next-level happiness. She and Armisen are a good match, albeit an odd couple (“Fred’s a man of routine and I want music blaring late into the night and a hand out the window while driving, but it works,” she says.) As Russian Doll’s second season takes shape, Lyonne is also developing new series projects for Amazon Studios with Saturday Night Live alum Maya Rudolph, her producing partner at Animal Pictures.
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“I can’t believe how solidly good my day-to-day is,” Lyonne says. “My parents put me into this career to be Bette Davis, and the best I could give them was Joe Pesci, but so be it,” she says. “I’m waking up with my boyfriend and my little dog, and I get to work with people who challenge me and see and accept me for who I really am. Honestly, I don’t need much more than that.”
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