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July 31 2014

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Natasha Lyonne Lays Down the Law

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Natasha Lyonne

Natasha Lyonne is no stranger to the spotlight, having started her acting career at the mere age of 6, when she was cast in Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. The inimitable, filter-free actress has worked with everyone from Woody Allen to Nora Ephron (whom Lyonne cites as her personal-style inspiration). Some of her most impressive work includes her starring roles in late nineties independent films Slums of Beverly Hills and But I’m a Cheerleader, as well as her current performance as Nicky Nichols on the hit Netflix series Orange Is the New Black. There’s a lot of Lyonne in Nicky—a penchant for wisecracks, an endearing crassness, a refusal to tame her unruly locks. But what’s most personal, perhaps, is the fact that Lyonne and her character on the show are both recovered heroin addicts, and the actress says that her own experience helps her relate to her incarcerated character. Here, Lyonne speaks to Style.com about the trouble with prison khakis, the psychology of addiction, and why she’s just like Beyoncé.

Did you have any idea how successful Orange Is the New Black would be?
No. I don’t think any of us anticipated it. My working theory is that it’s a response to our really homogenized, Botoxed, spray-tanned culture. It’s a really creepy phase we’re in. So I think the show ended up hitting at a perfect time. I think [the creators] were just trying to tell the story of what happened to Piper [Kerman]. They cast people who looked real and who felt real, instead of glamorized prison inmates.

There aren’t many women-centric shows with strong, female-ensemble casts like there is in Orange Is the New Black. Do you think your show is breaking the mold?

I think the show breaks the mold in a lot of ways. I feel really privileged to be in the company of that cast and our writers and Jenji [Kohan]; it’s such a strong group. And there are so many lessons in that for women—it’s amazing how there’s space for all of us. I think society would have women falsely believe that there’s some sort of competition happening, and ultimately that’s an idea told by advertising and marketing to try and pin us up against each other. It certainly doesn’t feel like [we're competing] on the show. In fact, [the show's success] feels very rewarding for the human spirit because it seems like it’s OK to be who you are.

How did you prepare for your role? Did it hit close to home?

I read the book [Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison, 2010] and [Nicky Nichols] is really an amalgamation of several different characters in the book. And obviously I had enough of my personal experience to make it feel very real for myself. Oftentimes what’s so tragic about drug addicts is that they’re people who are so full of life, and then those around them watch them destroy themselves. That’s what’s so frustrating for the people around them.

In many cases, the drug addict is a person who has a heightened sensitivity to life and can’t handle it. That same quality can make them seem very alive to their friends. A drug addict is often somebody who wants to play music really loud, and drives the car really fast, and is the life of the party. Or it’s the person who will get on the phone with you while you’re crying until 4 a.m. So when addiction gets ahold of them, it can be really heartbreaking because they lose all that and they become a shadow of themselves. They become like the walking dead—internally wounded. Having that firsthand experience set me up really nicely for understanding what that person is like in the aftermath, which is that they get to be just as full of life as they were in the first place. In prison, Nicky doesn’t have drugs. She’s just left with her personality, which means she’s always a little bit uncomfortable because her “medicine” is gone. She feels like reality is a little bit more surreal and wants to comment on it a lot. I guess my point is that I shared a lot of her personal experiences.

Do you find that the cast’s uniforms allow the audience to better understand the characters individually? Does it help the characters to develop on a leveled playing field?

I think all those things are true, and Jenn Rogien does a great job of helping us all come up with something specific to make [our looks] our own. In our flashback episodes, what we wear becomes doubly important because it’s the only time you get insight into what kind of person that character was. For example, when we were doing my flashback, it was important that it was clear that [Nicky] came from money.

How do you deal with wearing khaki all the time?

It never gets better. You get in your fucking prison outfit, you look like shit, you try to work it from different angles, and you realize that it’s hopeless. You might think, Maybe if I roll up the pants underneath my T-shirt, it’ll lay flatter underneath my outer shirt…? But it’s just a hopeless cause. Maybe if I tuck my pants into my socks it’ll be better…? That kind of gives them a nice parachuting effect. Really lengthens the legs. If you’re 5’2″, the first thing you want to do is tuck your khaki pants into your white socks—that’s a hot tip. You have no fuckin’ choice, dude. You’re in prison! So stop fucking around and get your head in the game. You’re just forced to give up on vanity on that show.

I’m a big fan of your hair. It looks like it has a mind of its own.

No idea what you’re talking about.

Obviously it’s a signature look of yours. Do you have any secrets to keeping it so disheveled but cool at the same time? Or do you just wake up like that, like Beyoncé?

First of all, I’m a lot like Beyoncé in a lot of ways, so I’m glad it’s finally come up. Ideally, it’s an “I wake up like this” kind of look. The only trouble is that sometimes if I have a 4 a.m. call time, then we’ve got to be working by 6, my hair won’t dry in time. My hair, when it dries naturally, it’s really at its best. Once you put a blow-dryer on it, it just gets frizzed out. I always get really bummed when we have to do that. I cringe and pull away if somebody comes at me with a brush or a blow-dryer because it seems like it’s going to fuck up [my hair's] natural rhythm. But Angel [De Angelis] and Val [Valerie Velez] have come up with a system for making my hair look like itself quickly, even if it’s wet.

And what are things like in the hair and makeup room of a prison show?

Actually, it’s our first week back at work, and yesterday Angel, who has a thick New York accent like I do, was doing Taylor [Schilling]‘s hair, and I was sitting in Val’s chair, and I heard her saying to Taylor over the blow-dryer, “It’s going to be a very elegant season.” She was actually talking about how it’s going to be a very intense allergy season, but ever since, I’ve been telling everybody that this is going to be a very elegant season of Orange Is the New Black. A lot of people have been calling it “groundbreaking” or “captivating,” but not a lot of people have been calling it an “elegant” show. I was like, “This is a very special, very super-elegant episode of Orange Is the New Black in allergy season.” So now every time Andrew McCarthy gives me direction, I’ll be like, “Yeah, I’ll do it just like that but more elegant.” I’ve been smelling my fingers very elegantly thus far this season.

Does anything inspire your personal sense of style?

In my real life? Yeah, Lou Reed and Nora Ephron.

Natasha Being a New Yorker, do you wear a lot of black?

Yeah. The thing I don’t like about black is that, in New York, it’s like a uniform—I can just blend in. But when I go out to Los Angeles, it’s like all of a sudden I’m making a statement, like I’m a goth or something. I’m not trying to make a statement, I’m just trying to get my cup of coffee, OK? And I might be warm because it’s so sunny in your town, but that is definitely your problem, not mine.

Do you like New York better than L.A.?

Of course I like New York better than L.A. What am I, stupid? But Los Angeles doesn’t offend me like it used to. When I was a rebellious teenager, it was really difficult for me. But now I feel like I know who I am out there.

Do you follow any TV shows?

Yeah, I watch Game of Thrones, and I’m watching all thirteen seasons of NYPD Blue.

Do you binge-watch like your audience does?

Yeah, I don’t know why it took me so long in life to discover Law & Order, but when I did, like, three years ago, I watched every Law & Order. Every Law & Order: Criminal Intent, every Law & Order whatever. I even watched every Law & Order: Trial by Jury, which was a short-lived version. The only Law & Order I haven’t seen is the SVU episode that I’m in.

That’s funny. I remember when you had a cameo on Will & Grace.

That’s great. I remember one time, like, five years ago I was hooking up with some guy for the first time in a motel room in San Francisco—don’t worry, we were from New York—and I was very pleased when that episode came on TV because I was, like, so young. I was like, “That’s me, you’re welcome.” That was a long time ago.

What message do you want Orange Is the New Black viewers to take away from the show?

Don’t break the law! No, I’m just kidding. Totally kidding. I don’t know. Be yourself. It’s going to be all right.

Photos: Courtesy of Netflix 

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