The Art Issue 2022
Natasha Lyonne Doesn't Want To Get Lunch With You
Lone wolf, workaholic, budding surfer, aspiring cyborg — the Poker Face star is too busy chasing adventure in whatever form it comes.
On a Sunday evening in late November, Natasha Lyonne enters Café Standard, a few blocks from her East Village home, sporting a knit beanie, a dark winter jacket, and a backpack slung over her shoulder. If it weren’t for her trademark raspy voice, she could well have been any other bundled-up New Yorker. But after ordering a Diet Coke and tossing her backpack on a chair, the coat comes off, and then the beanie, revealing her explosion of vibrant red hair and the sort of outfit few could pull off in such chic fashion: a Beach Boys T-shirt underneath a Gucci-Adidas tracksuit, a bunch of keys dangling from her belt loop. She leans back in her chair, and the Natasha Lyonne that we are all familiar with — a propulsive force in several of the most beloved television shows of the past decade — is undoubtedly across from me.
Lyonne, 43, tends to move through the streets with little attention. A native of the city, she bristles when I describe her as a New York icon. “I don’t experience it as an icon,” she says, smiling gently. “I feel like more of a leprechaun. There is no screaming chaos. There’s more like a nod of excitement at a leprechaun, and I keep walking.” Such references to the otherworldly abound in our conversation. At one point, she muses about becoming a cyborg or like “Gary Oldman in Dracula” in the name of being more productive: “If I was a vampire, I could smoke as much as I want, and I’d never run out of time, see?” Later, in the middle of another anecdote, she offers out of nowhere, “I’m not sure that I am alive.”
Lyonne is a deeply compelling storyteller. You can’t predict where she will turn next, even when she is mid-sentence. It’s a quality her friends cherish: “Natasha loves the deep end, and it’s one of the best things about being her friend,” says Amy Poehler, who recalls being instantly taken by Lyonne’s “Bowery Boy persona” when they first met in the ‘90s. “We talk about space, robots, quantum physics, and game theory. You know, girlie stuff.”
Lyonne describes herself as much more introverted than the characters she is known for. “Probably because I have big hair and a New York accent, it seems like I’m a certain type of person,” she says. “In general I would say that I’m more of a witness and a cataloger.” Lyonne’s career has gone through several evolutions. She was a child actor and then a teenage star, appearing in both cult classics (But I’m A Cheerleader) as well as more mainstream fare (American Pie). Following a scaling back in her late 20s, during which she sought treatment for a drug and alcohol addiction — “I’m somebody who dropped out of society for five years” — she re-emerged in 2013 with a pivotal, Emmy-nominated role on the Netflix hit Orange Is The New Black, cementing her return to the industry right at the dawn of the streaming TV era.
Her most personal and critically lauded work, though, arrived with Russian Doll, in 2019, which she wrote, directed, and starred in, and for which she also earned multiple Emmy nominations. (The second season was released earlier this year.) “That show is not for everyone,” she says. “That’s a grown-up show for people who need it. And what’s beautiful about it is the way people respond to it. It makes me feel very much like, Oh, I see, so that’s what I’m here to do. It’s like all those long dark nights of the soul weren’t wasted.”
“I never really want to leave the house, but, by the time I’m out, I never want to go back home.”
Now, creators are coming to her with starring vehicles: She will soon be fronting Knives Out director Rian Johnson’s new Peacock television series, Poker Face, premiering in January, in which she plays a hardscrabble vigilante detective solving a case of the week. Lyonne knew Johnson first through Twitter and later through his wife, podcast host Karina Longworth. Soon after they were connected, Johnson presented Lyonne with the idea for the series.
“I’d always been obsessed with all iterations of Philip Marlowe. And I’ve long admired and imitated some of our great mumblers who were often noir types,” she says. “[After] Russian Doll came out, I guess people were noticing that aspect of my personhood.” Compared to Russian Doll, Poker Face exercised a different sort of muscle. “What [Johnson] does is just beautiful, and his work also is nothing but heart. I guess Russian Doll really is ‘outsider art,’ for lack of a better term.” Before Poker Face (and her cameo in Johnson’s new Knives Out sequel, Glass Onion), “I’d never really been embraced or put at the center of something that was potentially quite so welcoming and universal.”
While Lyonne is now frequently on the receiving end of this kind of attention from luminaries (and her fanatic following on social media), she largely prefers to avoid the trappings of the celebrity machine and, often, to avoid people in general. She spent Thanksgiving at home, writing on a deadline, before watching two movies — 1980’s Anne Bancroft-helmed Fatso and 1990’s Hal Hartley-directed Trust — as research for a “secret movie” she says she will be producing and acting in. Though that might sound like a solitary way to spend the holiday, it is exactly how Lyonne wanted it. “I enjoy sitting and thinking and being left alone,” she says.
She has a close-knit group of longtime friends in the industry, many of whom she works with regularly, including Poehler, Chloe Sevigny, and Maya Rudolph. These women in many ways function as her family. “I love the people that I love deeply, and I love getting to work with them again and again in different configurations,” she says. Poehler is a co-creator of Russian Doll; Sevigny appears in Russian Doll and Poker Face; and Rudolph and Lyonne recently started a production company together, Animal Pictures. “It was Natasha’s idea to start a company,” Rudolph says. “She’s the one with the drive. She’s got more drive than a pack of sled dogs in an Iditarod race. And I think we both knew deep down that forming this company would mean a way to be in each other’s lives even more. We have each other’s backs, which is more important to me than anything in a partnership.”
But left to her own devices, on a day off, Lyonne prefers to “have a Garbo day,” which nowadays involves some combination of crossword puzzles, chess against a computer, Duotrigordle (a supersized game of Wordle), reading “some weird shit,” swimming by herself, or staring at her dog or at the wall. “I guess the big difference is that most people have family, and I just don’t,” Lyonne says. “My mom is dead; my dad is dead; my grandparents are dead. My friends know that about me, so it’s like, Oh, it’s Thanksgiving…” Rudolph and Sevigny checked in on her for the holiday and offered invitations, but Lyonne turned them down. “They know that I’ll stay home, but at least it’s on purpose. If I wanted to go to Connecticut with a family, I could. I think Chloe knows I won’t take her up on it, but it’s the idea.” She adds, as a sort of conclusion, “I’m intuitively someone who likes to go to the quadruple feature at the Film Forum by myself. If you want to meet me there, that’s your prerogative, but I’ll be there either way.”
Like many a New Yorker, Lyonne also finds a spark in foraying out into the world now and again. “I always find that, once activated, the big joy in my life really is ideas and jokes,” she says. After a day spent alone, she’ll often find herself wanting to seek company late at night: “All of a sudden I’m a night owl, who’s going to be out ‘til 4 in the morning doing jokes and walking from here to there and seeing if the pals want to come out and meet me. I never really want to leave the house, but, by the time I’m out, I never want to go back home.”
She is not one to make nebulous plans to “hang out” without a goal in mind. “Unless it’s [related to] sex or work or a spiritual program, why the fuck do I want to go to lunch with you? I don’t want to, like, catch up. Lunch is my time to do my shit,” she says, her voice filling with glee, like a singer about to hit the chorus of a song. “Hanging out is for in the middle of the night, and sex or work or spiritual growth should be part of the agenda. Otherwise, I don’t need a general fucking hangout. We should be on the case of something chaotic.”
During COVID, Lyonne got out of a seven-year relationship with the actor and comedian Fred Armisen, which was partly related to Lyonne’s dedication and focus on her work. (She says she’s “still very tight” with Armisen: “I think it was so nice for us to have such a long relationship that we entered so clean — and were so loving to each other during — and ended very clean.”)
The pair were living together in Los Angeles at the start of the pandemic, and their separation, as Lyonne tells it, happened without her even quite realizing it at first. “I was still trying to run this writers room for Season 2 [of Russian Doll], but there was no Wi-Fi in the house. So I started renting these Airbnbs with Wi-Fi that had pools, because we were never getting any fresh air, because I was in the Zoom room,” she says. “And then I got really hooked on [the game] Zelda: Breath of the Wild. And so I felt like I really needed to be playing it in my downtime compulsively when I wasn't in the writers room. So it just felt like I need to be alone to do these things: swimming, in the writers room, and Zelda. And then it just sort of felt like, Oh, I think somehow this has ended… Oh, I think I accidentally moved out.”
“I don’t need a general hangout. We should be on the case of something chaotic.”
There was a brief postscript to their relationship, when Lyonne rented “some weird house in the desert,” where the two of them then visited over the holidays and exchanged Christmas gifts. “And then we left the next day,” she says. “I was like, I think we might be broken up now.”
Working with Johnson on Poker Face gave Lyonne some insight into how a robust personal and professional life can thrive in tandem. “[Johnson] seems to have a better way to ‘church and state’ his home life from his work life. But also, I do see him in the edit [bay] at midnight. So I’m not sure that anybody sort of mastered it,” she says. “Of course, it would be a dream to be able to get to a place where I could see having a family with all these normal things you’re supposed to do.” At this point, she grins widely. “The joy, though, of being a cyborg is I’d be able to put off all those basic bitch questions for a solid ‘nother 30, 40 years.”
Just when I think I am starting to get a handle on how Lyonne spends her time, she tells me she has recently found great joy in surfing. “I’ve been pushed into three waves and I got up on them,” she says. “In fairness, I was out there with a guy I’m seeing and he’s a terrific surfer. He was helping quite a lot. But the point is, I stood up, and it was very addictive. I love looping things, so I’d like to go back in over and over and over.” (When asked what she thinks people might be surprised to know about Lyonne, Poehler responds, “She loves spin class.”)
Still, the hunt for “ideas and jokes” consumes her most. Lyonne appears to be almost physically bursting at the seams with ideas for other projects she wants to create and write and direct. She says directing is the most “pure fun” she has experienced in her career. (She has directed an episode of Poker Face as well as episodes of shows including Shrill, Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens, and High Fidelity.) She hopes Poker Face finds an audience and gets a second season, and she would love to make a third season of Russian Doll, though there has been no official announcement about its future. “I think I’d have to really have a sense of an idea for what it would be, and then I’d really have to get all the way there. I just don’t know that I’m going to get there anytime soon right now,” she says, adding, “[Netflix] has always been very nice about going for it if it all makes sense.”
It is nearly time for Lyonne to return to work — to don the beanie and the coat once more and descend into the night, with the force of that pack of sled dogs. What lies ahead for her? “I’d like to be a cyborg, a surfer, and direct three pictures,” she offers matter-of-factly, making the kind of direct eye contact that makes it impossible to doubt her in the slightest. But before that, she’ll treat herself to another crossword. “I’ll walk home and do that puzzle,” she says, “and four minutes later I’ll have to find something new to do.”
Top Image Credits: Giambattista Valli dress and shoes, Another Tomorrow turtleneck, Eddie Borgo earrings c/o Paumé Los Angeles, We Love Colors tights
Stylist: Tiffany Reid
Set Designer: Two Hawks Young
Hair: Ursula Stephen
Manicure: Sonya Meesh
Talent Bookings: Special Projects
Video: Rebecca Halfon, Marshall Stief
Photo Director: Alex Pollack
SVP Fashion: Tiffany Reid
SVP Creative: Karen Hibbert