Natasha Lyonne used her starring role in Orange is the New Black to shake off her demons and reinvent herself. The actor and director talks about third chances, crosswords and being the class rebel
In a busy Manhattan restaurant, Natasha Lyonne is eating chicken hearts and talking about resurrection. Her own. And I had to forgive myself for wasting so many years, instead of punishing myself for this misshapen life. You dont so much interview Lyonne, I quickly learn, as herd her conversations like existential sheep. It is a precise chaos she has a lot to say and is aware of the many limits of time. Her voice crackles across the busy restaurant she moves like Joe Pesci as a Simpsons character. A waiter interrupts with a second plate of glistening meats: Madam, more hearts? In many ways, I did think I was going to die. He makes briefly frantic eye contact with me, then disappears. So now Ive had to think, what is the most honest way that I can live? That feels the least like a lie? That means Im less likely to self-destruct all over again?
Lyonne has been acting since she was six, first in adverts for dolls that dont exist any more, then with directors including Woody Allen, and in hits such as American Pie, before being hospitalised in 2005 with hepatitis C, a heart infection and a collapsed lung, and undergoing methadone treatment under the smirking glare of New Yorks paparazzi. And some years later, having slowly worked her way back into the public eye (with the help of her best friend Chlo Sevigny, who vouched for her sobriety) she rose again.
Now 40, when she talks about a misshapen life, shes talking about one that can be cleanly dissected, tangerine-like, into three. The first segment, child star, is often prefaced by the word tragic; shes been estranged from her parents since she was a teenager. At 16 she was accepted at NYU to study film and philosophy, having decided to quit acting and become a director, but she left within days: $60k was too much, she realised, to spend rewatching Apocalypse Now. The second segment, the heroin years, were bookmarked by tabloid humiliation and such stories as: A judge in New York has issued an arrest warrant for the actress Natasha Lyonne, 26, who starred in the 1999 comedy American Pie. She failed to appear for a hearing on charges stemming from an alleged rampage last December during which she was heard threatening to molest a neighbours dog.
It wasnt until 2013 that she returned for this, her third act, starring as recovering drug addict and inmate Nicky Nichols on Netflixs Orange is the New Black, one of its first original shows and one that pushed for a diversity of representation using the Trojan horse of Taylor Schillings Piper (a wealthy white protagonist) to smuggle out the intimate stories of women rarely heard. Lyonnes character had open-heart surgery after an overdose; the scar she showed was the actors own. The effect of performing the life of an addict, revealing its humility and nuance as well as its scars, was that Lyonne herself was able to stop talking about that part of her life.