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Confessions of a Crazy Good Actress

If you’re ever lucky enough to spend an afternoon with ”Orange Is the New Black” star Natasha Lyonne, get ready for a fire hose of honest conversation about her life, her career, her medical history — and why she used to be the worst movie date ever

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The plan was to go to Natasha Lyonne’s SoHo apartment and watch an episode of Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black, where she plays snarky former drug addict Nicky Nichols. Like any good Jewish mother on the first night of Hanukkah, I arrived armed with a chocolate babka, ready to curl up on the couch and watch some TV. Turns out Lyonne — who struggled with drug and alcohol abuse before getting clean in 2006 — doesn’t like to watch her performances, and the only reason she’s seen the first episode of Orange is because she attended the premiere. She’s in the midst of shooting season 2, which is set to air next year. As riveting as the 34-year-old is on screen, she’s that much more so in person. It was tough singling out the most fascinating things I learned about her during our chat, but I managed to narrow it down to the following:

She and Amy Poehler go way back.
“I don’t even know where to begin with this Amy Poehler. She’ll sign an email ‘Good luck, Carol Channing.’ Do I write back? Do I frame it? I mean, such an epic human being. I’ve known her almost 20 years, when I was a UCB groupie in the ’90s and I would always be lurking in the shadows, drinking with them at McManus, this bar around the corner. Me and Maya [Rudolph] were thick as thieves. Horatio [Sanz] I’m still friends with. I just did Jimmy Fallon’s show. At the time I just thought I was developing a bad reputation, but now it’s very useful.”

She could have been Buffy.
“I remember after the Woody Allen movie [1996’s Everyone Says I Love You] The WB was really eager to have me join the network. I pitched them some show where each week we address ’60s political issues — civil rights, feminism. Another time I went in drunk with a fifth of Southern Comfort in my back pocket because I was on a Janis Joplin kick. Here was my pitch: ‘You seen Chinatown? I’m Jack Nicholson, Band-Aid on my nose, you can get one of those hot girls to be Faye Dunaway.’ They were like, ‘Sure, no problem.’ Meanwhile, they were giving me scripts for Buffy, Dawson’s Creek. [But not] Felicity. They offered me everything else, but they don’t offer me the one hair show? I remember going to see my mother after Slums of Beverly Hills. She was like, ‘I told you two things: I told you to get your boobs done, and I told you to do Buffy.’ Incidentally, I think Sarah Michelle Gellar is all-natural in that department.”

She got really fidgety during Passion of the Christ.
“I went to see The Passion of the Christ with Chloë [Sevigny]. She’s a real Catholic. I’m a very Jewy New Yorker. I went to f—ing Hebrew school, my grandparents are Holocaust survivors. She tells it like I was constantly going to the bathroom to get high. Each time I’m coming back more high and I’m like, ‘What the f—is going on here? Chloë, I’m so sorry this happened.’ Chloë was probably embarrassed and horrified. It’s a real Odd Couple friendship, and I’m definitely Walter Matthau.”

She has a surgery story even worse than Nicky’s.
“On Orange, Nicky ODs and has heart surgery. Mine was less tidy. I was many years clean and I was going to a cardiologist to be responsible because I’d had an infection eight years prior when I was shooting drugs. So I experienced the horror of going into open-heart surgery stone-cold sober. Your brain starts sending you signals like you’re in The Andromeda Strain. ‘Run! They’re trying to kill you!’ It’s a horror of a different variety, other than waking up in a hospital room post-OD, which was another one of my hobbies.”

She thinks Hollywood’s come a long way, baby.
“I remember [Slums of Beverly Hills director] Tamara Jenkins’ battle with the studio about Vivian getting blood on the seat at the dinner table when she gets her period for the first time. They came to her with notes like ‘Is this too female?’ Moving from blood on the seat to a tampon sandwich [on OITNB]? We’ve made real progress in the women’s movement in show business.”

An Endorsement from Amy
“Natasha’s such a formidable actress and an honest person, and she has a wise and weary quality to her that I find interesting in a person as young as she is. I met her when I was 28 or 29, and I was doing a show with Kevin Corrigan, this failed Judd Apatow pilot, one of three that I was involved in. She was this fascinating creature. Then I saw her 10 years later after a lot had happened to her, and her talent is shining brighter than ever. I look forward to the chance to work with her because I think she’s very special.”