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 don’t 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 I’ve had to think, what is the most honest way that I can live? That feels the least like a lie? That means I’m less likely to self-destruct all over again?”
Lyonne has been acting since she was six, first in adverts “for dolls that don’t 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 York’s paparazzi. And some years later, having slowly worked her way back into the public eye (with the help of her best friend Chloë Sevigny, who vouched for her sobriety) she rose again.
Now 40, when she talks about a misshapen life, she’s talking about one that can be cleanly dissected, tangerine-like, into three. The first segment, child star, is often prefaced by the word “tragic”; she’s 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 neighbour’s dog.”
It wasn’t until 2013 that she returned for this, her third act, starring as recovering drug addict and inmate Nicky Nichols on Netflix’s 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 Schilling’s Piper (a wealthy white protagonist) to smuggle out the intimate stories of women rarely heard. Lyonne’s character had open-heart surgery after an overdose; the scar she showed was the actor’s 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.
‘The effect of performing the life of an addict was that Lyonne herself was able to stop talking about that part of her life’: starring in the latest season of Orange is the New Black. Photograph: JoJo Whilden/Netflix
Except, then she made the mistake of writing, directing, and starring in the hit Netflix comedy series Russian Doll, which has just received 13 Emmy Award nominations, including one for outstanding comedy series and one for Lyonne as lead actress in a comedy. The series is a surreal and delicious investigation into the nature of life and death, which meant the cellar door creaked open and once again she was being asked about ghosts.
She’d slid into the seat in front of me on a humid Manhattan afternoon wearing a blazer and black, and a weight of gold chains, and started talking. “Life and society are architected on a lot of ideas I just inherently don’t believe in. I think that we are hooked on a lot of bullshit.” The waiter appears again, a besuited vibration to the left of Lyonne’s hair, but she ignores him. She’s talking. “This idea that perfection is totally attainable makes everybody feel like a failure on a daily basis, gender norms, the idea that money is an achievement, the idea that essentially anything superficial could make me feel OK, is such a dark system, one that is clearly not working. And people are suffering: there’s a lot of violence around it, whether that’s acted out violence or the sound of colliding thoughts asking, ‘What does it all mean,’ and…” The waiter clears his throat. “More chicken hearts.” There are, yes, three servings of chicken hearts now, presented on skewers made of rosemary, and Lyonne deftly swipes them all on to her plate while completing her thoughts on the violence of modern life. It’s 6pm.
And I am getting a sense of the pace of Lyonne’s mind, a thing she has hungrily fed with such meats as Ingmar Bergman and Dadaism since she was expelled from her Orthodox Jewish high school for selling weed, and which she continues to feed, with politics, philosophy and New York Times crosswords. “You know when Paul Newman talks to Big Daddy in Hot Tin Roof about the click? And Big Daddy’s screaming about mendacity and he’s talking about alcohol? For me, there’s a certain state when no one’s awake. And I’ll crack the puzzle. And I’m in the sweet spot.” She pops her tongue. Click.
In April, she constructed a crossword for the New York Times herself. “I have become someone who thinks in clues, who jokes in puzzles and who lives for the answers,” she wrote. Clues included: “Poehler vortex of funniness?” The answer being “Amy”, co-creator of Russian Doll (the series came about after Poehler called her and said: “You know, as long as I’ve known you, you’ve always been the oldest girl in the world.”) Another was “Portlandia airer”, about her partner Fred Armisen’s sketch series, and one of the last was, “Where one might kick a habit, informally”: Rehab.
Early break: in 1999’s American Pie with Tara Reid. Photograph: Moviestore/Rex/Shutterstock
For her 40th birthday that same month, she wanted to celebrate in a way that would give her guests the “sensation their brain was melting,” but that is a tricky ask, sober. Her solution was to rent two cinemas, one in New York, where she screened The King of Comedy, and one in LA, where she screened Lina Wertmüller’s Seven Beauties. Did her friends appreciate it? She shrugs. “It was good for them!” she shouts.
As she’s got older, rather than simply moving forward, she gives a sense of having circled back around the tangerine, to reassess unusual moments of childhood. In Russian Doll, Lyonne’s character Nadia dies, and dies, and dies again, reappearing in front of the same mirror each time, to try and unlock the puzzle box of mortality. When she sat down to watch the whole series, Lyonne was struck by, “How much the show was unintentionally about suicide. About not ‘taking yourself out’. And I think that there are so many ways in which we can take ourselves out of our lives, you know, even just by stopping participating. I found myself crying at the heaviness of it. Anthony Bourdain had just killed himself and I felt overwhelmed that the show was really speaking to the search for a meaningful life. But, simultaneously, acknowledging we all feel sort of strange and dirty, and perplexed by what we’re doing here. And you know, that here were these characters willing each other to… stick around.”
In Lyonne’s life, clues from her past flash now in neon. “What’s interesting is that there was this person I abandoned for almost two decades, who knew exactly who I would emerge to be.” She realised recently that she has been trying to write Russian Doll since she was a child. “At 16, I already knew who I was. But then had just the most insane waylaid life where at every turn, I was my own worst enemy. Then I reappeared, to tell that story.” She chuckles. “I’m a letter of hope for weirdos who are having a hard time in high school, right? The very same things I was attacked for back then are the very same things that are now being rewarded.”
At 16, enrolling at NYU, “I was like, ‘I’m going to make a comedy about, you know, [Jean-Paul Sartre’s] No Exit and Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. A comedy about drama and the legacy of trauma.’ I was like: ‘This is going to be a funny half hour.’ Russian Doll is coming from that natural, internal world. And no one is more surprised than me that things turned out so well. And, of course, I really have the perspective now to know that really, these are the good years. This is kind of as good as it gets.”
‘I like to be late for gym, and I wear loafers and sunglasses’: Natasha Lyonne wears dress by Christian Siriano, crown by H Crowne and bracelets by Maxlor. Photograph: Ramona Rosales/The Observer
A large part of this long-time-coming success, she says, is down to Orange is the New Black. “It’s been a very healing environment for me for seven years.” The cast and crew had “been through too many international time zones on too little sleep to lie to each other. I could just say, ‘I think I’m miserable’, and there would be something in saying that that would defuse it. The magic of the truth and of a safe environment. Instead of constantly trying to lead a life of a cover-ups.”
It showed her safety and it showed her a different way to work and, then, live. “A less performance-based life, where I could be moving through with a little bit more authenticity. Instead of leading a life where I was constantly convinced I was broken, and that I had to hide that from you. I was starting to be like: “Oh, wait a minute, everybody’s fucked up and broken. They just had better parenting, so better tools for hiding it.’” She pauses.
“But I was also slowly discovering that, increasingly, I was an authority in the room. That a lot of people would be looking to me as somebody who had more information, more years on set, more experience. I was like: ‘I’m kind of becoming an elder.’” She liked it. She liked it when she was invited to direct an episode in the final series, too. This is a show whose themes have run uncomfortably close to the headlines, from the death of a black inmate to this season’s focus on immigration detention centres, subjects Lyonne wants to humanise.
“Being trusted with an episode was very… life affirming. I’d never graduated high school, I’d never graduated college, I’d never graduated a family, or relationship. My family was left in tatters. So there wasn’t really a sense of closure, even when my parents died. There’s no scenes in any of the deaths in my family that are like, by a hospital bed, with people saying sorry. It was more sudden, with traumatic phone calls. So I never really had that experience of saying goodbye to anything in a healthy way, until now. I guess I’d never, in many ways, really understood the concept of unconditional love until Orange.” She nods with the realisation, “Huh.”
‘I’m a letter of hope for weirdos who are having a hard time in high school’: with best friend Chloë Sevigny. Photograph: Maarten de Boer/Getty Images
Watching Orange is the New Black I had the growing realisation that women shouldn’t go to prison. In the UK, 85% are there for non-violent offences, yet it takes barely weeks inside for them to lose their kids. Almost half committed their offence in order to support the drug use of someone else, and most are addicts themselves. Prison does not work. “I agree,” she says. “Completely. I mean, in many ways, I’m very grateful I had such a public addiction story, you know? Sure, I find it tedious that 13 years later, people still want to talk about it as if it’s ‘juicy’. To me, what is more interesting about it is that I never feel like anybody in that position is a stranger to me.
“When I first started on Orange I’d never served time, but I’d definitely been arrested enough times. And, you know, the idea I was somebody in the system, who is now ‘the star’ of Netflix shows, is pretty insane, and makes you think about how we should be treating individual cases, rather than just punishing everybody. Especially in that space between release and acclimating to society, this murky terrain, without hope. How to get people back into society, how to get back to life.”
In the final season we see Piper, our original antiheroine, released from Litchfield to find herself free, but in new kinds of chains. “But you know, I agree with you. I find it devastating that prisoners are victims of sexual abuse or physical violence, or drug addicts. Look, the reason anybody’s addicted to drugs or, you know, their cell phones in the first place is because they’re constantly trying to process trauma, and find a moment’s relief.”
Lyonne squeezes half a lemon into a glass of ice as if she’s wringing its neck. “They’re not doing it because they’re stupid, or bad people. To then punish them for having an internal experience that is inherently punishing, is so malicious. So without grace. So brutal.” Again a waiter comes, and again, he goes.
‘I‘ve become someone who thinks in clues, who jokes in puzzles’: Natasha Lyonne wears dress by Erdem, boots by Tamara Mellon and headpiece by Rinaldy A Yunardi. Photograph: Ramona Rosales/The Observer
Every morning, Lyonne goes to the gym. “Yeah, I’m sporty, I’m very sporty, you don’t believe me? When I was a kid I went to an Israeli army training programme where I would shoot an M16.” But, just as at school where she’d adhere to the dress code, but wear it skin-tight and with spike heels, she rebels. “I always try to be late. And I don’t wear gym clothes. I’m wearing, like, Gucci loafers, sunglasses, chains. And I’m late. I don’t like the whole intro chapter in any class. There’s a lot of small talk. I hate small talk.”
And today, she works harder than ever, but on her own terms. “I don’t understand why people always want to shoot at five in the morning? They’re obsessed with daylight. But you know who’s not obsessed with daylight? Dracula. Right. And he’s been alive a long time. So who’s winning that war, hmm?”
Part of her career upsurge, she believes, is due to the world getting worse: there is a need for entertainment that does more than make us laugh. “You have this movement that’s in revolt, saying, ‘We want to hear people’s stories, we want to go right to the source for the truth. And otherwise, we’re going to call it out as a lie.’” She tells me about a book she’s reading by a Swedish professor that proves humankind is doing better than ever before, but even as she says it, the turn of her mouth suggests she finds it hard to believe.
“There’s a lot of very bad news out there. Like there’s a lot of evidence to support that things are very, very bleak. And, in fact, mounting in that direction.” She looks at her phone, then, groaning, turns it over. “But even as we’re aware of horrors mounting, we’re also constantly distracted. The same device that’s giving us all this insider information, in real time, is also, you know, constantly showing us cat videos.” Which is what she tweets, a lot, along with dancing penguins and, the day after we meet, a link to a montage titled: “How Debbie Harry Learned to Deal With Superficial, Demeaning Interviewers.”
Soon after forming her new production company with old friend Maya Rudolph she sent her a YouTube link to a time-lapse video of the end of the world. “It fucked me up,” Rudolph said, mildly. “I don’t know,” Lyonne sighs today, “I do think that these are legitimately scary times. But, I’m wired for hope. In many ways, the reason I’m not dead is because there’s a fighter in me that wants to survive. And see, well, maybe not a happy ending, but at least a meaningful one.” The last heart, gone.
The seventh and final season of Orange is the New Black is on Netflix from 26 July
Fashion credits: Natasha Lyonne was shot at Edge Studios NY; digital by Michael Guide; assisted by Danny Calderon and Simon McDermott-Johnson; styling by Kevin Ericson for Cristina Ehrlich; hair by Marcus Francis at Starworks Artists; makeup by Molly Greenwald using Armani Beauty at Starworks Artists