Writer-director exclusively tells EW about how he snagged an 'Orange Is the New Black' actress for a delightful bit opposite Brad Pitt.

WARNING: This article ahead contains some spoilers from James Gray’s new movie Ad Astra, which is in theaters now. Read at your own risk!

Sometimes, when you’re fresh out of baking ingredients, you might ask a friendly neighbor for a stick of butter or some eggs, or to grab your mail while you’re on vacation. When you’re Ad Astra writer-director James Gray, however, you ask them to fly across the country to film a one-day cameo in your latest film — a request Orange Is the New Black actress Natasha Lyonne gleefully accepted.

Though Gray’s new film is a melancholic space epic starring Brad Pitt as an astronaut searching the furthest reaches of the universe for his long-lost father (Tommy Lee Jones), the four-time Cannes Palme d’Or nominee tells EW he wanted “a burst of life and vitality” to pierce through the darkness of the material, and his search to find a ray of light to disrupt the film’s somber tone patiently awaited him four doors down on the ninth floor of his former Hancock Park residence at Los Angeles’ historic El Royale apartment complex.

“I’d met [Natasha] a few times and liked her enormously. She’s great. She’s also incredibly talented, and I begged her to do this part for a day,” Gray recalls exclusively to EW of courting his ex-neighbor (both have since moved out of the building) for a cameo as a perky administrator who greets Pitt’s weary space traveler, Roy McBride, upon his arrival to a Martian outpost. “She’s a great neighbor, it’s like having this exploding, vital ball of life right near you…. She moved out before I did, but we maintained the friendship and kept up through emails after she left.” (Though Lyonne was unavailable for an interview, a representative for the Emmy-nominated Russian Doll creator-star told EW she remembers Gray “cooking Italian” when he first suggested she take the part).

Gray says he laid out his intention to cast “the funniest, most interesting person” he knew in order to “inject a little bit of weird humor” into an otherwise deeply dramatic film.

“The movie is pretty heavy and dark, so it was a flash of humor. All of a sudden on Mars, you’re hooking up with a 1950s New York secretary!” he says of Lyonne’s desk-bound character, whose dialogue is brief, but nonetheless perky. “It’s never mentioned in the movie, but we had stationery [on her desk] made up with her name: Tanya Pincus. We wanted to conjure a 1950s New York secretary, like a clichéd, Hollywood-movie secretary in old movies.”

Ad Astra
Credit: Francois Duhamel/Fox

Lyonne flew to the film’s set in Los Angeles for a single day of shooting while she was on a break from working in New York City, and Gray fondly recalls the actress making the most of her limited camera time, adding that she improvised countless minutes of footage that didn’t make it into the film.

“She was like, ‘Can you go over to the disinfectant station and get sprayed down, please? You’re looking a little dirty!’” he remembers of a since-deleted scene. “She’s free. She’s willing to experiment and be silly and to work against what your expectations are.”

He says Pitt also found her to be “the funniest human being of all time,” though she nearly stole his thunder.

“There was a lot of laughing going on that day. She’s a riveting actress, so the cinematographer operating the handheld camera kept panning over to her,” Gray explains. “I kept saying, ‘No, we love her, but the scene is about [Brad’s] entrance into this base,’ but she was doing all of this cool stuff!”

Gray hopes to work with Lyonne in a bigger capacity in the future, though their professional relationship was almost cemented several years prior to Ad Astra‘s inception, as the Lost City of Z and Two Lovers filmmaker first met the actress at an audition for his 2013 movie The Immigrant.

“She would’ve been brilliant, but I didn’t end up casting her because I found out she didn’t speak Polish, and the scenes called for her to speak Polish with Marion Cotillard,” Gray says, confirming he wanted her to play the role of Belva, which ultimately went to Dagmara Dominczyk. “I knew she was fantastic, and I made a mental record and said, ‘Okay, this person, I’ve got to work with.’”

Now, several years later, the proof is literally written in the stars.

Ad Astra — also starring Liv Tyler, Ruth Negga, Jamie Kennedy, and Donald Sutherland — is playing in theaters nationwide.

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