With an acting career that spans just about thirty years, Natasha Lyonne has been in some of my (and your, I’m sure) favorite projects from cinema and TV OF ALL TIME. 2015 has been a particularly busy year for Lyonne, though; apart from a new season of Orange Is the New Black (which premieres 6/12), she’s worked on a variety of films (like Hello, My Name Is Doris, for one) and shows (Inside Amy Schumer, anyone?) that stand to further prove what we already know: she is PRETTY MUCH THE GREATEST.
I was able to speak to Lyonne over the phone last week in advance of an upcoming appearance at DC’s Sixth & I for The TEN (5/20); during the course of our conversation we covered dream topics including (but not limited to) the next-level improv acting on Portlandia, what would happen if Megan from But I’m A Cheerleader and Nicky from Orange Is the New Black were featured on Trading Spouses, what it was like to work with Her Majesty Sally Field and MORE, so I do hope you will internet-eavesdrop on all of that below. (I also hope that if you are in the DC area next week you will grab tickets to Natasha’s talk at Sixth & I, because if you don’t, you will risk living in a state of eternal regret FOREVER.)
And so without further adieu, let’s get into all of that RIGHT NOW:
You’ve played many different roles throughout your acting career, and I’m sure they’ve all had varying degrees of creative flexibility involved in the script; what (for you) is the ideal balance between having total creative flexibility versus very set boundaries when approaching a character?
Interesting question. I will say that it’s nice when there’s a very specific point of view, like when I did The Grey Zone (that Tim Blake Nelson directed), which was a Holocaust movie based on a true story; there was a ton of research and rehearsal and boundaries built in.
And in a very different way, in Slums of Beverly Hills I was playing a variation on Tamara (the director), so it came with a lot of research and listening to Carole King 24 hours a day, and it felt very specific, which I think is always nice.
Another nice experience I’ve had (sorry, now that I’m thinking about it) is when I did a play called “Tigers Be Still” (by Kim Rosenstock), which was sort of a character that was comfortably in my wheelhouse of a drunk, depressed troublemaker, but because it was a play, it became very lived-in and naturalistic; I could do all kinds of new things on a more subtle level every night, but it still felt sort of specific.
I mean, I really enjoy making stuff up as well, of course. Basically I think the way it works is, the better the writing and the people around you in the first place, the more freedom you have to kind of improvise in big and small ways; big meaning making up full scenes on the fly (which can be a lot of fun if you’re doing it with people that are good at it), and small ways meaning that it can be that none of the lines will change, but there are subtle human behaviors that change.
I don’t know, it sounds like I really like a lot of things. What all of those have in common is that they were all very well-written, and the directors were all very clear on what they wanted to make.
And I’d say that extends to Orange Is the New Black; there’s such specificity of character and vision and tone, and at this point (almost like a play) I’ve lived in the character for so long that there’s a lot of freedom in big and small ways. (Often what we do there is there’s a take as written, and also a take that’s played around with a little more.)
But for example, I’ve also done Portlandia and Inside Amy Schumer recently, just one episode of each, and it’s wild to see how they work; it’s really on another level. I’m definitely a real actor, but these are for real improvisers, and they can literally just go off at such a master-class level that it’s pretty wild to watch. I’m certainly capable of doing all kinds of my own things, but to watch them do that at the master-class level is just really insane. I mean, they can just make something completely out of the ether.
Oh my god, I’m sure.
It’s just so fascinating to watch, and it’s just so funny that it’s hard to keep a straight face. Seeing Fred and Carrie and Amy doing that up-close recently was really wild to watch, because it’s really as fascinating to watch as Kate Mulgrew bending her tears. It’s all in the same universe.
Completely. I can’t even imagine watching that up-close.
Yeah, it’s really wild. I mean, part of it is even their ability to keep a straight face, and it’s something that I very much understand how to do within the framework of a character, you know? I could have Nicky Nichols say shit for hours; if they needed the Nicky Nichols Improv Hour for me to fill, it would be very easy for me to just wing it, because I know that character so well that I know exactly the boundaries within which she can still be real. So what’s wild about watching them do sketch like that, is that they don’t even really have an idea of who the people are yet, and they’re playing these people for the first time, yet they can go off and it feels equally real.
Yeah, it seems like there’s almost this level of “Magic Eye puzzle” to that; you have to un-focus enough that you can slip into it, but at the same time, you also have to be VERY focused. So that to me is just next-level.
That’s kind of an interesting way of putting it, because it is like that; there are various forms of how you can restructure reality while you’re performing. Part of what’s great about working a lot is that you become a very efficient machine where you can kind of lock into your necessary parallel universe very quickly, and it takes you less time to warm up into it. For example, on the set of Orange Is the New Black, we’ve been doing it for several season now, and we’re all pretty efficient at talking shit about our weekend and then when they say “ACTION!” we can all lock in pretty immediately with very little lead-up. It would be the same with an athlete who would need to stretch first, you know?
So it’s being in training versus actually running a marathon. That’s one of the great things; the more you work, the more you can lock into the zone almost immediately. For example, I did a play with Ethan Hawke not too long ago called “Blood From A Stone”. And that was really tricky, because I had to jump in forty-five minutes into the play and have one twenty-minute scene and be done until the end of the play, and that was a lot harder, because you have no sort of lead-up; you’re just sort of shot out of a cannon, and you’ve got to arrive on stage completely in the middle of your character’s reality, which can also be tricky because you have no time to warm up to the air around you. I’d say that what was so great about the other play I did was knowing how the show was going, not coming in too high or too low.
Well, and because you do such a range of different things and there’s a lot going on (especially this year for you), how crazy do you let your own schedule get, and how do you deal with it when it gets super hectic?
I think I’m definitely in a time right now (having done this for thirty years, there were points that I was not so into working) that I’m really enjoying myself, and I love going to work. I’m much more inclined to say yes. And I have no idea because I don’t play music, but I always sort of think of it like a session musician who wants to play on as many good records with as many good musicians as possible, you know? Because it’s fun; if that’s what you do, that’s what you think about, and that’s what keeps your engine going.
I think there’s also a great joy to being a character actor, because it’s less about your outsides, and more about your other stuff. So I think that also kind of makes it enjoyable and there’s less pressure; it’s not like I jump from one action movie to the next or something. And, you know, the more you stick around, you generally know at least one person, so it’s fun in the sense of it feeling a little bit like hanging out.
Again, I think of it as more of being a musician than being an actor, just because an actor can’t really sit at home and be fiddling around on the guitar while they’re distracted and watching TV, you know? The only way you can really be doing it (other than sort of people-watching) is that it has to be actually happening. You can’t be acting a scene at home alone or running into friends and saying, “Hey, let’s get together later and practice some acting.” [Laughs]
I remember Clea DuVall and I used to make fun of this in the nineties; she was dating a musician, and the musician had another friend (also a musician) come over, and they went in the other room and played music for fun, like, maybe it will turn into something and maybe it won’t. And Clea and I sat outside and we were just like, “This is fucked. We can’t do anything.” So we started reading aloud from Anne Heche’s Call Me Crazy memoir, and we were just reading it for each other, like acting for fun, “acting jamming” [laughs], and I still think of it that way. And so the only way for me to really do that is to go show up on set. So what would I rather do? Sit at home and read a book? Or show up for one scene on Amy Schumer’s show? I’m not saying it’s not work and it’s not nerve-wracking, though.
But I think press can burn you out more than a lot of other things, because I think you can be left with a hollow feeling. Because it becomes about hair and makeup and outfits and repeating yourself over and over going to events. And I think that starts to get very dangerous; it’s easy to lose the plot. I think that’s where you start to feel emotionally very drained and existential.
Yeah, I can’t even imagine. And this is what I do on a fairly regular basis, asking people questions, and there are certain situations where I just feel bad, you know? Like, I don’t want to be the person who is asking the same question over and over again, and there’s a weird aspect of it where you can see the other side of it and how taxing that can get.
Yeah, but I mean, I would say that it’s even less about having a conversation on the phone, but more when I think of the effects of having success in this profession and having to leave the house in a borrowed dress and getting your picture taken, and being asked ridiculous questions like, “Hey, are you havin’ a great time tonight?!” [Laughs] And you have to answer on camera, and you don’t want to seem ungrateful, but at the same time, you’re like, this isn’t a real question. So that can be confusing, and I think it can take a toll to be monitoring this series of hollow interactions. THAT can be more draining, in a way, than the work itself, which is a different kind of draining; it feels like you’re exhausting yourself by doing your job, versus exhausting yourself by trying to keep things light and superficial. A real conversation gives you sustenance, whereas a bunch of small talk leaves you going home exhausted and questioning the meaning of life.
When that stuff gets jammed in with your actual work, that’s when I think it gets tricky, and I think people become very tired. Not only me, but I think with everybody; that’s when it starts getting very tiring. The work part is actually very fun, even the soul-searching part of it where you’re going home every night and beating yourself up because, “Fuck, I was just trying to do a good scene and I fucked it up!”, you know? It’s different than asking yourself, “Did that person give me a dirty look? I’m pretty sure that person gave me a dirty look.” [Laughs]
Totally. Well, you just worked with Sally Field on Hello, My Name Is Doris, too, so I wanted to ask you a hypothetical two-part question: 1. if you could go back in time and pull Sally Field into any one of your past projects, which would it be, and/or 2. if you could go back in time and have Sally Field pull YOU into any one of HER past projects, which would it be?
Hmm…well, she’s amazing. I really enjoyed her. We did talk about doing a truck stop movie [laughs], because when I walked in the first day I just happened to be in these weird undergarment fishnet things with a robe over it because it was very hot out, and I was only half in my costume, and she was half in and out of her makeup as Doris, which was very garish even though she was going to be toned down once her glasses were on and everything. She was also in half-undergarments with a weird robe, just because it was a hundred degrees, and we both started really laughing at the idea that we should really be shooting another movie simultaneously that took place at a truck stop and we had to work for our money. I don’t know, Sally Field is amazing; I’d love to have her in anything I’ve ever done. I’m trying to think of something that has a crossover, because even a Norma Rae or something, I don’t totally know what I’m doing in that movie. I don’t know, can you think of any?
I’m trying to think. I mean, for me, obviously Mrs. Doubtfire stands out, though again, I don’t necessarily know what you would be doing there.
Name some seventies Sally Field.
I don’t know, for me, I’d want to just completely go back to the beginning and Gidget it up.
[Laughs] Oh yeah, or The Flying Nun? I don’t know. I’m probably over-considering this trying to pick which one.
I forgot she was in Forrest Gump…
Oh, that’s right!
God, so many things.
Let’s see what else she was in.
I mean, Norma Rae is definitely the big kahuna. Smokey and the Bandit, that’s funny…Soapdish…remember Punchline? I might go with Punchline. I would have liked to be an ancillary character in Punchline.
I support it.
And I could definitely see her in Slums of Beverly Hills somewhere, maybe if we’d have made her another one of Alan Arkin’s girlfriends or something.
Maybe one day time travel will be invented someday and we can play all of this out.
Oh god, I hope that the first thing I do is start restructuring movies.
[Laughs] Okay, and one more hypothetical; if any two of your past (or present) characters could be featured on that awful show Trading Spouses, who would you want to switch lives for one week?
You know what I think might be nice? Is if Megan from But I’m A Cheerleader got to switch places with Nicky Nichols from Orange Is the New Black.
Yeah, I feel like that would be fitting.
First of all, I feel like Nicky and Graham (Clea Duvall’s character) would really hit it off and fall in love, and I feel like Megan and Lorna (Yael Stone from Orange Is the New Black) would really be able to hit it off. They’d all actually fall in love; it could get pretty hairy.
Yeah, you’d send them back after the week and they’d all be miserable.
Yeah, Megan and Lorna would be painting each other’s nails and looking at pretty dresses, and Nicky and Graham would be chain-smoking and listening to music really loud and whatever the hell they’d be into. And then they’d be like, “I miss the other one, opposites attract!” But also, with Megan, she could be like, “Holy cow! Here in Litchfield, everyone’s gay!” [Laughs] And Nicky could be at True Directions like, “Are you guys fuckin’ nuts?” [Laughs] She would really get in Cathy Moriarty’s face and be like, “What are you, fuckin’ crazy?” [Laughs] That could make for good reality TV.
I completely agree. Now, I have ONE MORE QUESTION, and that is: people say that when you dream in a foreign language, that’s a sign that you’re becoming fluent. Is it (provided you remember your dreams in the first place) the same for acting? Have you ever dreamed in character before?
I have dreamt in foreign languages, but I’m trying to think if I’m dreamt in character. I don’t know. I mean, I’ll tell you that I don’t remember many things in the first place, let alone my dreams, so I feel like this is an unfair game. I do remember (and perhaps this is appropriate) that as a young girl I lived in Israel for two years, and at that time (from eight to ten), I would actually dream in Hebrew, even though I was a New York kid. So there was that.