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Natasha Lyonne: 'I was as good as dead'

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The waiter at the East Village coffee shop smiles shyly at Natasha Lyonne before walking away. ”Did you see that?” Lyonne asks. ”I’m totally going to f—ing hit that later. I mean, I’m not… It’s just knowing that he wants it makes me want him.” She grins. ”But I know that’s just low self-esteem.”

Spend time with Lyonne and you learn things about her pretty quickly. Like how smart and funny she is, how fast her mind can pinball between Dickens, Coney Island, Nietzsche, and NYPD Blue — and how, when she feels uncomfortable, she deflects questions with non sequiturs, often bawdy ones.

Lyonne’s anxiety today is understandable, because she doesn’t speak much to journalists these days. In the late ’90s, the actress, now 32, was on a promising track thanks to her work in American Pie, But I’m a Cheerleader, and Slums of Beverly Hills. But her ascent was derailed after some very public tussles with drug addiction and the law. Tabloids and websites chronicled every dark turn of her downward spiral and gleefully posted her mug shot. In 2001, she was arrested for a DUI. In 2004, she was charged with mischief, trespass, and harassment of a neighbor (and the neighbor’s dog). In 2005, she was admitted to the intensive-care unit of a New York hospital for a variety of ailments, including a collapsed lung and hepatitis C. All of which is to say: Before we had Lindsay Lohan to kick around, we had Natasha Lyonne. ”Oh, I thought I escaped under the radar,” Lyonne deadpans. ”But everybody knows? That’s embarrassing.”

Contemplating her future in Hollywood, Lyonne seems sanguine: ”Rather than spend so much time wondering if I’m going to get hired or is it a problem that I’ve got this black-tar history, I’ve just got to keep doing what I’m doing and try to be decent,” she says. But her candor must make her uncomfortable because she veers off on a sexual tangent: ”And, you know, lots of bl– jobs! I just need to focus on the bl– jobs and let the career work itself out.” To her credit, when all the jitters and church giggles are out of her system, she’s utterly honest: ”Listen, I did not think I was coming back,” she says of acting. ”So I didn’t really care. When you go as deep into the belly of the beast as I went, there’s a whole other world going on and something like show business becomes the dumbest thing on planet Earth.”

Lyonne was working in show business before she even knew what that term meant. Her parents signed her as a child model with the Ford agency, and she got her first big acting job at 6, on Pee-wee’s Playhouse. When Lyonne was 16, two things happened: She landed a role as Alan Alda’s wisecracking daughter in Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You, and she was expelled for selling pot at a yeshiva high school she attended on scholarship on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. ”I was the weird kid with the weird hair,” she says. Lyonne and her mother moved to Miami Beach. She was later accepted at NYU and intended to study philosophy and film, but never went to class. ”I thought, ‘Do I really need to watch Apocalypse Now with 100 f—ing teenagers? I’ve been watching this movie since I was 4 years old.”’

Today, Lyonne still has the same glorious mane of hair and oversize brown eyes that made her so memorable in the ’90s. She wears a lot of black (”Richard Belzer is my style icon”) and talks with a tough-guy New York accent — think gangster from the ’20s — which makes for a funny combination with her cherubic face. Lyonne’s best roles were her edgiest: a teen who considers breast reduction and discovers the pleasures of a vibrator in Slums of Beverly Hills (1998), and a lesbian high schooler who becomes the target of an intervention in the satire But I’m a Cheerleader (1999). ”She was like from another time,” says Alan Arkin, who played her father in Slums. ”She was a total natural. No artifice, never worried for a second about what she looked like or how she was going over. She wrote poetry and was interested in literature and philosophy. She was a joy to be with.”

Directors Chris and Paul Weitz cast Lyonne — still a teenager — as cool girl Jessica in 1999’s American Pie. ”She had this excessive talent, and this quality of really knowing what she was all about,” says Chris Weitz. The film was a smash and propelled its cast to stardom. ”I don’t think we realized it much at the time, but when you cast someone quite young, you are, in a way, giving them a poison pill,” says Weitz. ”It was great that the movie did well and helped bring all of these kids to prominence, but that’s a mixed blessing. It’s a system that can give someone a wonderful career and money to go to college…. But there’s also the possibility that you’re throwing someone under the train.”

Ethan Hawke, who costarred with Lyonne in the 2010 stage production of Blood From a Stone, goes a step further. ”I was a child actor, and if you survive it teaches you a lot. The trouble is that most people don’t survive. I’m not speaking figuratively. I’m talking literally, like there’s dead bodies everywhere.”

Lyonne remembers being a curious teen who meditated on the Big Questions even as she ventured into the public eye. ”There was the Talmudic existential question of what does it all really mean? juxtaposed with being a really poorly parented teenager in show business,” she says. Then she pauses. ”Spiraling into addiction is really, really scary. Some things have a very A-to-B scientific effect. Like, alcohol is a depressant. Cocaine is a stimulant. And then: Cocaine plus heroin is bad! That’s the point of my story, that’s the moral,” she says. ”Coke plus heroin equals speedball. And speedball equals bad, you know?”

Lyonne fidgets and sighs. ”It’s weird to talk about. I was definitely as good as dead, you know? A lot of people don’t come back. That makes me feel wary, and self-conscious. I wouldn’t want to feel prideful about it. People really rallied around me and pulled me up by my f—ing bootstraps.” She laughs. ”There was a warrant for my arrest, which helped too.”

Oh, yes, that. In December 2004, Lyonne was living in a Manhattan town house owned by actor friend Michael Rapaport when she was arrested for harassing neighbors (as well as the aforementioned dog) and destroying property. Rapaport was so angry he wrote an article in Jane magazine titled ”Evicting Natasha Lyonne.” Looking back, Lyonne says, ”At the time I didn’t understand, but now it’s like, if I owned a nice brownstone — and [someone] was constantly moving pianos while listening to Richard Pryor CDs, and trying to figure out how to play ‘Easy Like Sunday Morning’ on the piano for days at a time — I would potentially be pissed too.” She smiles. ”It’s the fallout of shenanigan-based behavior.”

The charges against Lyonne were ultimately dismissed after she completed court-appointed rehab in 2006. Later, she continued working on her recovery, thanks to support from longtime friends like actress Chloë Sevigny. ”It was hard to stand by and not be able to help when it was down and dirty,” Sevigny admits. ”I tried to forgive whatever bad behavior she displayed because she wasn’t herself. She wasn’t in her right mind.”

In 2007, Sevigny encouraged Lyonne to audition for the Off Broadway Mike Leigh play Two Thousand Years — and more important, vouched for her with the director. Lyonne stayed in corporate housing near the midtown theater to avoid old temptations in her former East Village neighborhood, and concentrated only on work. ”[The play] really got me back on my feet,” she says. And it helped her love acting again. ”It all sort of happened,” she says of her career up to that point. ”I was on Pee-wee’s. Then I’m 16 and I’m in a Woody Allen movie. I never stopped to wonder if I knew how to act. I had to relearn it all and come by it in a much more honest fashion.”

By the time she was on stage with Hawke in 2010, Lyonne could regularly be seen Off Broadway. ”It was cool to be around her,” says Hawke. ”She’s incredibly talented and she liked working hard, she liked being challenged. If you get caught up in the nonsense of celebrity and the demons that are involved in feeling like you are important and special in a way that others aren’t, the theater will cure you of that.”

Lyonne has since dipped her toe back into films with smaller pictures such as Evil Dread and Club Night, but last fall she embarked on a more pronounced return. She recently appeared on Law & Order: SVU and New Girl. And she has four films in the works, two of them in theaters in the next few weeks: Abel Ferrara’s 4:44 Last Day on Earth, costarring Willem Dafoe, and American Reunion. Getting the part in 4:44 felt like a milestone to her. ”I knew Abel from back in the day,” says Lyonne, meaning they ran in the same wild circles. ”He called me up to do this film and I couldn’t believe it. I was over the moon.” Ferrara returns the compliment, to say the least: ”It’s not a common talent she has, you know? She’s a real actor. I wouldn’t make another movie without her.”

Reuniting with the American Pie family — even for a small role — was also a big step in coming full circle. ”I believe in comedy. The cleaner I got, the funnier things got. Life became crisp, less muted,” Lyonne says. ”Though [going to the set] did have that feeling of ‘Oh, God, what are they all going to look like? And how embarrassing — after what I’ve been through, I hope they don’t search me on the way in.’ And no one did! Everyone was really nice.”

Will the rest of Hollywood be as forgiving? The industry certainly loves a good redemption story. ”Look at Robert Downey Jr.,” says Chris Weitz. ”He’s a very personable, decent guy who people want to work with. The problems come when someone has been really difficult or mean-spirited. Natasha is a good person and very talented and great to work with, so I don’t see a problem. Personally, I’m rooting for her.” Sevigny is too, of course. ”I think the industry in general is harder on women,” she says. ”But Natasha is improving herself. She has been steadily working and she’s trying to keep busy. She’s a great talent and I hope they’ll embrace her again. I love her to death.”

As for Lyonne herself, perhaps the biggest positive is that she’s finally found some balance. ”I love not having secrets,” she says. She has returned to the East Village and visibly brightens when she mentions her boyfriend (she declines to name him: ”It’s Tony Soprano. No, it’s Gary Oldman”). As far as her regrets go, taking a sabbatical from Hollywood isn’t one of them. ”I don’t think I needed my ingenue years. What would I have done, some more movies? The flip side of taking time away is I really figured out some stuff. I figured out things in terms of quality of life. I’m sure people have reservations about it, but you can’t work with everybody. And besides, I don’t want to be famous when I grow up.” She laughs. ”I just want to do good jobs.”

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