March 30, 2012 at 09:25 PM EDT

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.”

Lyonne is smart and funny, and her mind pinballs between Dickens, Coney Island, Nietzsche, and NYPD Blue. 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 tussles with drug addiction and the law. Tabloids and websites chronicled every 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.”

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