Natasha Lyonne: ‘I just don’t deal with people that seem full of sh*t’

·10-min read
Natasha Lyonne by Yana Yatsuk for ES Magazine (ES Magazine)
Natasha Lyonne by Yana Yatsuk for ES Magazine (ES Magazine)

It’s a Tuesday morning on the outdoor terrace of the infamous Hollywood landmark, Chateau Marmont, and flame-haired actor-turned-auteur Natasha Lyonne is leaning back on a sofa pondering the idea of ‘till death do us part’. ‘A lot of the guys I’m seeing at the moment are talking to me about marriage and kids and I’m like, “Calm down, bitch, I’m just sleeping with you!”’

I’m not entirely sure how we ended up talking about advancements in scientific reproduction before segueing into divorce rates, abortion rights and AI, but that’s a conversation with Natasha Lyonne for you. As anyone who has watched Russian Doll (which she created two seasons of with comedian Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland) will know, Lyonne doesn’t sweat the small stuff. It’s the bigger picture — the existentialism of it all — that keeps her awake at night.

For the uninitiated, Lyonne devised an exceptionally clever TV series around mortality (the main character, Nadia, played by Lyonne, is stuck in a Groundhog Day loop of dying repeatedly). And whether it’s because the show felt unlike anything else on television or because Hollywood was finally ready to embrace her weird and wonderfulness, Lyonne became a bona fide star.

Natasha Lyonne by Yana Yatsuk for ES Magazine (Yana Yatsuk for ES Magazine)
Natasha Lyonne by Yana Yatsuk for ES Magazine (Yana Yatsuk for ES Magazine)

Now 44, Lyonne is enjoying a renaissance akin to that of beloved The White Lotus star Jennifer Coolidge. It’s the kind of recognition she craved as a teenager cast in cult 1990s movies like Slums of Beverly Hills, But I’m a Cheerleader and American Pie. After a decade lost to drug addiction, Lyonne found moderate success as series regular Nicky Nichols in hit Netflix comedy-drama, Orange is the New Black, but it wasn’t until Russian Doll that she came into her own.

Her latest project, Poker Face, is a 10-part case-of-theweek mystery series created by Knives Out director Rian Johnson that she is producing and starring in. It’s funny and quirky and features fabulous guest stars like Chloë Sevigny and Adrien Brody. Johnson contacted Lyonne after seeing her in Russian Doll. ‘It was a feminist move in a way to be like, “I saw you in this and now I’d like to work with you on something else, can we do something together?”’ she recalls.

My goal is to accept that these are the good times, this is as good as it gets

‘He followed through and wrote a script; it wasn’t just a bunch of fake dinner meetings and us talking about movies we like, it was for real,’ she says, in her iconic New York rasp. ‘He’s the opposite of a coke head. He’s not there with you at 4am watching the sun come up, dreaming big dreams and then nothing materialises — he’s the real deal.’

If Lyonne sounds surprised at Johnson’s determination to collaborate, it is because people weren’t exactly queuing up with work offers after her success as a show runner on Russian Doll. Which doesn’t really add up. Why does she think that is? ‘It’s much easier, for some reason, for the industry to accept men who are auteurs and say, “Oh, great, now we’ll put them in a bunch of other action movies or something,”’ explains Lyonne with an eye roll.

Natasha Lyonne by Yana Yatsuk for ES Magazine (Yana Yatsuk for ES Magazine)
Natasha Lyonne by Yana Yatsuk for ES Magazine (Yana Yatsuk for ES Magazine)

‘For women, it almost seems like, “Oh they have their thing” and it’s kind of intimidating the idea that we do a bunch of jobs. There are so many extraordinary femaledriven shows, from Fleabag to I May Destroy You, and in talking to a lot of those women and knowing them personally, it is interesting. I don’t know if they even ask men, “What’s it like to do all those jobs?” — it’s a very patronising question.’

And not one, thankfully, I was planning to ask. Like her Poker Face character Charlie — a casino worker with an innate ability to spot lies who’s been compared to TV detectives from Columbo to Jessica Fletcher — Lyonne has a pretty solid bullshit radar. ‘I just don’t deal with people that seem full of shit,’ she says. ‘I will hide behind my weirdness or my hair or something. I’m sure it’s because I’m an old junkie that I immediately have this radar for people that are trustworthy and untrustworthy. If you spend your life being a bit of a wild thing, roaming the streets, you pick up a thing or two.’

I love vices. I’ve got to get into weirder shit that’s going to get me cancelled

It’s part of what makes her such a fascinating interview subject. I should know, I first met her about six months ago. There aren’t many people you could interview twice in such a short space of time for risk of them repeating the same lines, but Lyonne is the complete antithesis of the mediatrained, junket-friendly Hollywood star.

She doesn’t do small talk. She won’t engage with questions that are too basic (when I ask about whether she prefers New York or LA, as she divides her time between the two, she replies: ‘I spend most of my time playing the crossword and spelling bee and that exists in both cities on my cellphone, so…’). And don’t even think about asking where her clothes are from (when I point out her knitted sweater, which is embroidered with ‘The Cure’, she just says, ‘Somebody sent it to my house’).

Of course the upside of being in the sort of position where brands send you nice things to wear is that you can be choosy about the work you do and the people you work with. That’s long been Lyonne’s non-negotiable. ‘These things take a while [to get made] so I think that really factors into my decision of, “Who do I want to be on the road with? Who do I want to be on this ride with?”’

It’s why she has collaborated with her best friend Sevigny nine times and founded the production company, Animal Pictures, with her mate (and Bridesmaids star) Maya Rudolph in 2018. ‘I really like being bossed around by my friends basically,’ she quips. ‘They’re all so good at their jobs and I think I just really enjoy — almost as a kink or something — seeing my friends go into their alpha work mode.

‘Watching someone come alive in the way that they defend their belief system. Like if Chloë says something like, “This blocking doesn’t make sense, would I see her coming through the door?” And I’m like, “I’m sorry Chloë, I’ll come in through the other way!” There’s something very joyous about it to me.’

Natasha Lyonne by Yana Yatsuk for ES Magazine (Yana Yatsuk for ES Magazine)
Natasha Lyonne by Yana Yatsuk for ES Magazine (Yana Yatsuk for ES Magazine)

A therapist might conclude that through her work environment, Lyonne, who made her film debut aged six in the film adaptation of Nora Ephron’s Heartburn, is creating the family she missed out on in a more conventional sense. Estranged from both her parents from the age of 16, she raised herself on old movies and books, and dropped out of college (where she was studying philosophy and film) to build her own curriculum around watching films because it was cheaper.

‘I do think a lot about, a sort of, family in my own weird way,’ she says. ‘Like building safe houses, family units with my work; I really believe in making outsiders feel sort of safe and seen and unloading the veil of shame from people’s life experience or something. Those are things that really matter to me, thematically, that I can see in all of my work. It’s like I’m trying to make people feel a little bit at home and not judged.’

I don’t ask Lyonne — who has been single since her seven-year relationship with comedian Fred Armisen ended in 2022 — about marriage and babies, so I’m surprised when the subject comes up. ‘It’s weird the guys I’m dating keep bringing it up to me,’ she says. ‘I think because I’m older they’re like, “Hey, so, is this something you’re going to be interested in?” It’s hard for me to separate the concept of the absurdity of bringing new life into the world by choice or against your will from the world that we’re building that’s increasingly so chaotic.’

Natasha Lyonne by Yana Yatsuk for ES Magazine (Yana Yatsuk for ES Magazine)
Natasha Lyonne by Yana Yatsuk for ES Magazine (Yana Yatsuk for ES Magazine)

As for her foreseeable future, there is no doubt Russian Doll changed her life. It gave her autonomy as an artist and as a result she is prolific. This morning, for example, before meeting me, she tweaked the script of a feature film she’s writing and then had a meeting with fellow writer, director and actor Marielle Heller. After our interview, she goes to record The Hospital, an animated series (co-starring Succession star Kieran Culkin) she’s producing. And then she will meet up with comedian Jacqueline Novak to work on the script they are writing together. ‘That’s how I spend my workaholic days,’ she smiles. And she’s never been happier.

‘I changed from being somebody who was waiting to be chosen to a shot-caller, which I much prefer. I’m much more comfortable here, especially after 30 years of doing it the other way,’ she says. ‘My number was not getting called in ways that I thought were super interesting that often. It was only people imagining the thing that they’d seen before, which I think is pretty common, but now there’s an opportunity to do much more.’

Other plans include directing a show written by her friend, Search Party star Alia Shawkat, starring in a second season of Poker Face and then, of course, there is the possibility of a third season of Russian Doll. ‘I do have a pretty clear vision of what that would be and I’m excited to do it, I just don’t know what the timing of that will be. It is a philosophical undertaking.

Natasha Lyonne by Yana Yatsuk for ES Magazine (Yana Yatsuk for ES Magazine)
Natasha Lyonne by Yana Yatsuk for ES Magazine (Yana Yatsuk for ES Magazine)

It’s not often that she’s not working (‘I mean, I don’t know what else I would do. I guess I could read more books or something’) although recently she was in St Lucia for her birthday with her friends and Orange is the New Black co-stars Samira Wiley and Dascha Polanco. It sounds like it was the opportunity for some reflection; to feel present in this moment.

‘It’s a pretty nice moment,’ she admits. ‘I’ve definitely had a lot of moments in my life that are much darker than this. I worry that my underlying existential nature will make me forget how profoundly beautiful and rare these narrow years are because it took a long, long time to get here. My goal is to really accept that these are the good times, this is as good as it gets.’

It is why she quit smoking a few weeks ago. ‘A terrible decision,’ she has been struggling with ever since. Her final vice. And a habit so synonymous with the star there is an Instagram account dedicated to her dragging on cigarettes and looking effortlessly cool.

‘I love vices. I’ve got to get into other weirder shit that’s going to get me cancelled,’ she says. ‘I was f***ing fine with cigarettes but apparently that’s not good for your health, so I guess I’ve got to go and sleep with strangers at the gym or something. I’ll just hang out at the locker room like, “Hey, how’s it going, glad you saw the show, anyway I just quit smoking, wondering what you up to, you wanna take a shower?”’

And just when I think the conversation can’t get any weirder. ‘I’m convinced cigarettes are going to come back into my life in a new form,’ she says. ‘I’m convinced I’m going to get some weird baby and husband through some AI shit 15 years from now and that they’ll come with cigarettes, you know what I mean?’ I nod. I’ve no idea what Natasha Lyonne means. But I nod.

‘Poker Face’ will be available to stream in the UK soon

Photographer: Yana Yatsuk

Stylist: Cristina Ehrlich

Hair Stylist: Vernon Francois at The Visionaries Agency using Redken

Make-Up Artist: Jo Baker at Forward Artists using BAKEUP Beauty

Photographer’s Assistant: Gilles O’Kane

Stylist’s Assistant: Bridget Blacksten