Natasha Lyonne, the big-haired, sass-mouthed ’90s teen actor (The Slums of Beverly Hills, American Pie turned 30-something ensemble member of the breakout Netflix TV hit Orange Is the New Black, thinks that OITNB’s rabid fans somehow can break the laws of time. “They manage to watch all 13 one-hour episodes in less than three hours,” she exclaims over the phone in her trademark New York rasp. “Sometimes less than 30 minutes!” Then, says Lyonne, they’re all over social media dissecting the new season, which Netflix releases all at once. (Season 3 premieres June 12.)
“I don’t understand if they have a certain relationship with a time machine,” Lyonne says of the die-hard fans of the show, based on Piper Kerman’s bestselling memoir about the crisscrossing stories (and juicy backstories) of a diverse group of inmates (black, white, Latino, hetero, lesbian, bi, transgender) in a minimum-security women’s prison a few hours outside New York City. “I picture them all looking like Christopher Lloyd in Back to the Future and they all have that hairdo, sitting in their time machine pressing buttons while they’re streaming the show.”
But Lyonne, who can spin a hilariously cranky standup routine that could rival Jerry Seinfeld, Louis C.K., and Amy Schumer, also seems to understand that the speed-watching derives from the fact that OITNB is just, well, compulsively watchable. “It makes me feel a lot better about addiction issues I’ve had historically, now that I can see that everyone is an addict by nature,” she says. And for Lyonne, who was known mostly for wisecracking teen roles before she spent her 20s very publicly bottoming out on, then recovering from, heroin addiction, the show has rebooted her creativity and career, allowing her to show new depths of sarcasm, compassion, and vulnerability playing Nicky Nichols, a poor-little-rich-girl recovering addict with absent-mother issues. As most fans know, it’s a role based heavily on Lyonne’s own child-actor upbringing.
“The challenge for me doing the show is that it so closely mirrors things I went through,” she says. (Both Lyonne and Nichols nearly died from illnesses related to their drug use — in Lyonne’s case hepatitis C, which she is now cured of.) “I’m very much a hair’s breadth away from Nicky. Luckily I’m in the clear and my health is in great shape now. I’ve gone from being a junkie to an actress at Soul Cycle, and it’s hard to say which is more mortifying.” But that personal closeness to Nicky can make the role tricky to play. “I have a real desire to transmit the truth, but having that firsthand knowledge can be crazy-making because it’s never quite as dark on the show as I know it to be.”
Fortunately, says Lyonne, she has a creative outlet, acting, that Nicky, still serving time, has yet to cultivate. “What’s great about the arts is that people who are otherwise problematic can be put to great use if they channel themselves correctly. I had a crazy childhood, but having a career means that my family story isn’t my life’s only story. I made my own friends and family, and there’s no holiday when I’m not surrounded by friends. In adulthood I was able to re-parent myself and focus on what was great about my life rather than broken. And I thankfully didn’t end up serving jail time, which I think is going to forever color Nicky’s life.”
Of course, playing Nicky Nichols has also made Lyonne more famous — and recognizable — than she ever was before, which has put a slight crimp in her freedom as a longtime downtown Manhattan denizen, someone who’s been besties with Chloë Sevigny since the ’90s. “Before the show,” she says, “I would walk down the street to get a coffee and people would give me a look like ‘Did I go to high school with her?’ They couldn’t place me. Now they definitely know who I am. I’m that prisoner from that TV show.”
One way she’s toned down the recognition factor a bit is to keep her signature mane of dirty-blond hair relatively groomed, in contrast to Nicky’s eternal rat’s nest. “Walking around with natural hair like Nicky’s in my real life is like wearing a neon sign, just begging for trouble. I play a sex-hungry lesbian character, so people on the street assume I’m just dying to talk to them and finger them. If I haven’t had my coffee yet, I don’t want to talk to you and I definitely don’t want to finger you.”
So now, to avoid those digital stimulation requests, Lyonne is careful to tone down the mane when out in public. “If I wear it washed and blown, I’m just some other New Yorker in black clothes,” she says. Not that she doesn’t slightly resent the effort it takes. “I don’t like that level of cleanliness in my life!” The upside, she says, is that “I’m probably always going to look better in person than I do on the show — even in my pajamas on the way to the gym, chain-smoking with yesterday’s mascara running down my face. It’s the opposite of being a Kardashian — my bar for public appearances is so low.”
Speaking of appearances, many OITNB fans were disappointed last season not to have more from Nicky — she took a backseat to the drama sparked by the arrival of evil den-mother Vee Parker, coming to the fore only when she nearly relapsed on heroin and when she faced off with Lea DeLaria’s Big Boo in a hysterical contest to see who could bag the most babes. Lyonne’s understandably mum about any Season 3 details that involve Nicky. “But I think in general that the show is going to go deeper this season,” she hints. “Jenji [Kohan, the show’s creator] has been saying it’s going to get more spiritual, which makes sense to me. All these characters are up against the wall, stripped of their freedom. We’ll definitely see more of Nicky. She’s all about her unavailable mother and her addiction, which is her Whack-A-Mole. She whacks down the heroin and up pops the sex, then the cookies.”
Meanwhile, Lyonne has some other projects in the works. She recently finished filming, with Sevigny, Antibirth, an indie psychological horror pic directed by their friend Danny Perez, who wrote the film for the two of them. Lyonne plays Lou, whose paranoia leads her to believe that her friend, played by Sevigny, is really out to get her. “It’s in the universe of Rosemary’s Baby or Repulsion, but takes itself less seriously,” says Lyonne. And she and Sevigny have smaller roles, as the mothers of teenage girls, in a cyberbullying scare flick, #Horror, directed by their friend Tara Subkoff, who once designed the Imitation of Christ label.
Lyonne is also interested in possibly transitioning from acting to writing and directing as she approaches her 40s. “All those years of having a wild existence and making it out alive left me with a lot of specific info that I’m happy to share with people,” she says. “It’s just about figuring out how I want to do that.” Beyond that, she’s simply hanging out happily with a new boyfriend, her little dog Root Beer, and, of course, her two veteran BFFs, Sevigny and actress Clea DuVall. “I’m having a very Chloë on the East Coast, Clea on the West Coast moment right now,” she says, adding that Sevigny, despite being “one of life’s great eccentrics,” is the more practical of the two of them, the one Lyonne relies on to fetch her keys when she leaves them behind somewhere. “She’s not only my best friend but the best person at being a friend. I’m never going to be alone in this world so long as I’ve got Chloë.”
It sounds as if, at 36, Lyonne’s learned to appreciate, rather than sabotage, her life — a blessing that Nicky, her TV counterpart, doesn’t yet have the freedom to attain. Lyonne would agree. “I’m determined to figure out how to enjoy my life,” she says. “When people say, Hey, how are you doing?, instead of giving them a neurotic monologue out of a Woody Allen movie about my entire state of mind, and they’re like, ‘Listen, I gotta run,’ I’d love to figure out how to say, I’m doing great — and mean it.”
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