YOU CAN ARTICULATE JUST AS MUCH PAIN OR IMMEDIACY WITH A SOFT SHOE SHUFFLE AS YOU CAN WITH, LIKE, A LEAD FOOT. Natasha Lyonne
With her slyly engaging performance as the tough, wise former junkie on the hit Netflix show Orange Is the New Black, Natasha Lyonne has yet again emerged as a challenging, dynamic actor, and reentered the limelight for at least the third time in her career. It is the completion of a long loop of stardom that began for Lyonne at the age of 7 with her appearances on Pee-wee’s Playhouse in 1986. After a breakthrough role in Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You (1996), Lyonne was, for a time in the late ’90s, the quirky queen of indie cinema, turning in brilliant performances in The Slums of Beverly Hills (1998) and But I’m a Cheerleader (1999). Now in the second season of Orange (out June 6), the 35-year-old die-hard New Yorker is entering a new phase—that of gifted character actor, at turns tough, blunt, and disarmingly hilarious. The woman knows how to deliver a line.
Lyonne’s dear friend (and pretty witty gab herself) Maya Rudolph called from her home in Los Angeles to talk to the actor in her Manhattan apartment—just in time to catch the FedEx guy. Rudolph also penned her own intro to their conversation:
“I first saw Natasha in 1998 in Slums of Beverly Hills and just remember these big, gorgeous eyes surrounded by even longer eyelashes. Somehow those eyes and lashes were attached to an incredibly funny, acerbic but charming old man trapped in a tiny, adorable girl’s body. On screen, Natasha surprised me with how familiar and funny she was. She instantly felt like an old friend, but it would actually be three years until I met her in person, in her hometown of New York City—and I began my own initiation as a New Yorker by befriending one of the truest New Yorkers who ever lived.
“Here’s the secret that only those who know Natasha well know: She is first and foremost an incredibly loyal and wonderful friend. When we lived together one summer in the West Village, she threw me a 30th birthday party as kick-ass as if it were my bat mitzvah. She is the definition of a mensch: a person of integrity and honor. She’s a hooker with a heart of gold, minus the hooker part.”
MAYA RUDOLPH: Yo. How ya doin’, buddy?
NATASHA LYONNE: I’m good. I’m picturing you having had a full day already, dropping off children …
RUDOLPH: I just had that thing happen where you think you’re just going to drop them off, but then the crying—”Don’t leave me. Oh God! Don’t leave me.”
LYONNE: God, it’s like, “Grow up!” Am I right?
RUDOLPH: [laughs] I’m sure [Lyonne’s dog] Root Beer doesn’t give you that much guff in the morning.
LYONNE: No, all we’ve done today is get a cappuccino. And now we’re just sitting on the sofa, listening to Dr. Dre … Wait, Maya—there’s suddenly somebody at my apartment and I have no idea who it is. I see him on the screen. He buzzed. He’s leaving something. He’s probably just a messenger, but what’s he messengering?
RUDOLPH: Maybe you won the lottery.
LYONNE: [laughs] I’m going to let him in just because I’m on the phone with you and worse comes to worse, you can disconnect and get a direct line to the police. Also, maybe I won the lottery.
RUDOLPH: You sound like a worldly New Yorker: “I don’t know who it is. I’m just going to let him in.”
LYONNE: But you know me—I’m street-smart. So I clocked him. He looks suspicious, and now I have a gun in my hand for when he gets here.
RUDOLPH: I was assuming that you were going to get out your nunchucks.
LYONNE: [laughs] My nunchucks! And my brass knuckles! Most importantly, though, my throwing stars.
RUDOLPH: I wouldn’t be surprised if you wore all of those things on a chain around your neck.
LYONNE: Maya, there’s someone at the door, for real. This could be the end.
RUDOLPH: Ask him who he is.
LYONNE: If I die, I just want you to know … Oh, FedEx! [laughs] All right. Hi.
RUDOLPH: No paranoia whatsoever.
LYONNE: The FedEx guy said, “I ain’t a psycho.” That was his opener. [to the delivery man] Lyonne, L-Y-O-N-N-E. All right, see you around … [to Rudolph] Fuck, that guy was within an inch of his life.
RUDOLPH: Your street-smart level is the equivalent of a Spidey-sense. A true New Yorker like yourself has the balls of 50 armed guards.
LYONNE: I thought you were going to say, “The balls of 50 Spider-Mans.” I just got this image of Spider-Man with 50 iron balls. [laughs] I was like, “How did he get them in his little onesie?”
RUDOLPH: I always feel weird seeing them in those onesies, because where are their balls?
LYONNE: [laughs] You know what you and I should do? Make a fucking Spider-Man movie.
RUDOLPH: [laughs] You know, the iPhone 8 will have a new feature that just shoots your movie and puts it out for you. Instantly.
LYONNE: It’s the future. Dude, remember when we didn’t live in the future? When we were young, it was not the future yet. [laughs] Do you remember that?
RUDOLPH: I definitely remember that it was not the future.
LYONNE: We had burner phones and pagers.
RUDOLPH: Did I have a pager when I met you? I had the Nokia! The straight-up Nokia, son. This ain’t no smartphone. Those were dumb phones. You couldn’t take a picture of your junk on those, thank goodness. When we were first starting out as pals, we probably had to call each other on the phone to talk. There was no such thing as texting.
LYONNE: Not only that, but we had to make a plan and then stick to it. If I was like, “I’ll meet you at that brunch spot across the street from your house,” I had to show up. I couldn’t reschedule eight times. Now nobody shows up unless it’s been reconfirmed 45 times.
RUDOLPH: I think we’re facing a crisis. In the old days, they used to teach people manners—don’t put your elbows on the table, use this fork to eat your shrimp. And now we have this new technology where we’re supposed to interface in this way where nobody has any proper manners. Do you ever get a text and you’re like, “Jeez, take it easy. What are you so mad for?”
LYONNE: I send them all the time.
RUDOLPH: And then they’re like, “Oh, I wasn’t mad at all.” The person sending them has no idea that their voice does not sound so great in text. There’s no dry sense of humor in a text. It comes off as a little bit shitty. I’ve gotten into trouble for many an ironic text. I’m sure you’ve never sent an ironic text.
LYONNE: I just never get into trouble. It’s not my thing. [Rudolph laughs] Also, in terms of, like, sexy texting, it’s really tricky.
RUDOLPH: Yeah, that’s called sexting.
LYONNE: [laughs] Sexy texting? I’m already out of the loop?
RUDOLPH: I also like to call it “sexy texting,” but the kids call it sexting.
LYONNE: I don’t like all this abbreviating. It’s too hip for me. I just call it what it is: sexy texting. Sometimes I feel way too zany in texts. But, in fact, my tone is meant to be like, “I’m being zany on purpose.” Always assume that I’m in on the joke, pal. Let the record state, I get it.
RUDOLPH: If anybody knows you, I think they’ll get it in a text. Before emojis existed, I used to get some wonderful imagery from you, using letters and numbers to make different shapes.
LYONNE: I’m a text artist. It’s an unsung art form because it’s so ahead of its time.
RUDOLPH: You’re a tartist. I’m going to ask you a couple questions now because that’s my job. This is the only time in your life that I’m going to ask you these questions, so buckle up, because this is not how we normally talk.
LYONNE: This sounds a lot like the opening of Bette Davis’s autobiography.
RUDOLPH: You taught me a famous Bette Davis quote. Do you remember what you taught me on Fountain Avenue in L.A.?
LYONNE: I do because you’ve told me.
RUDOLPH: I’ve told you that you told me?
LYONNE: You told me that I told you.
RUDOLPH: Johnny Carson supposedly asked her, “What’s your advice on how to get into Hollywood?” And she says—
LYONNE: Take Fountain!
RUDOLPH: You still got it, kid.
LYONNE: [laughs] Every time I’m on Fountain, I think about Bette Davis.
RUDOLPH: I do too. I think about you and me driving in your rental car, driving on Fountain, talking about Bette Davis. I think it was a black Mustang.
LYONNE: It’s always black. I really struggle with red cars. I don’t want to attract too much cop attention.
RUDOLPH: Also, who drives a red car? And you’re a bit of a ginger as well, so a redhead in red car is a little too much, if you ask me.
LYONNE: My mother used to do that. My mother was a real redhead. I’m a half a ginger, but my mother was full-blown. She would drive a red Alfa Romeo Spider listening to “Nights in White Satin,” on a loop with me in the passenger seat.
RUDOLPH: That’s the best thing I’ve ever heard. It reminds me of the scene in High Anxiety . Madeline Kahn is driving a Louis Vuitton Cadillac and she’s wearing a Louis Vuitton jumpsuit with a Louis Vuitton bag and Louis Vuitton shoes. It’s the best joke, but it actually looked good, which is what I’m picturing your mom driving in the Spider looking like. Do you remember meeting me?
LYONNE: No, but you’ve told me about it since.
RUDOLPH: We were down below the Mercer, in that dungeon-y place where they have parties. You were with Chloë [Sevigny] and Tara [Subkoff], but Chloë did all the talking. She was having a fashion show and she invited me to be in it. She was using actors and comedians and all these non-fashiony people. But she didn’t know that I was secretly a fashion nerd and I knew all about Imitation of Christ. She probably thought I was a wacky comedy lady with a slight afro. In those days my hair was pretty full.
LYONNE: You’ve always had excellent hair.
RUDOLPH: But then you and me hit it off. I met you at the showroom and we tried on some clothes, and then we walked down Seventh Avenue and I thought, “I’m really making it in New York, with a cool New Yorker, walking down Seventh Avenue, chatting on the street.” It was the best time of my life.
LYONNE: We were kids in New York, in the prime of our lives.
RUDOLPH: Listen, we are New Yorkers … I just said “we” by the way. “We are New Yorkers.”
LYONNE: I love you so much that I let you say it. You know what, Maya? You are a fucking New Yorker, okay?
RUDOLPH: I am a fucking New Yorker!
LYONNE: Here’s the key to the city.
RUDOLPH: Listen, if somebody were to give me the key to the city, it would probably be you. There are not a lot of authentic New Yorkers in this world. You are one, my friend.
LYONNE: I’m going to level with you, though—just between you and me and whoever is listening in, I don’t even have a key to the city. I have a lot of keys and I do live in New York City, but I don’t have a key to the city, per se.
RUDOLPH: I picture you with a full keychain, and there’s this one key, and one day, you’re like, “Holy shit, I’ve had the key to the city this whole time.”
LYONNE: If my life was like a “Choose Your Own Adventure,” Wizard of Oz movie, that would totally happen in the third act.
RUDOLPH: What do you mean if? You’re right there. You know, I had this moment this morning—I’m getting older. I’ve always had a hot temper, and just this morning I was like, “I’m done with that,” being angry.
LYONNE: We’re hitting that age where we’re too tired to get angry.
RUDOLPH: But instead of being angry, I’ve got to enjoy this shit while it lasts. Like, you see Root Beer laying in a position that is so fucking cute, and you’re like, “This is the best position I’ve ever seen a dog lay in in my life. I don’t even know what to do with myself.” And you take a few photos, but then you just find yourself staring at her with this, like, drunk-looking shit-eating grin because you’re so in love and you realize like, “This is it. This is how good it is. This is the best feeling in the world.” Soak it in. Don’t take a picture. Enjoy it right this second.
LYONNE: I definitely would rather take a nap than get angry. There’s also that imagined crisis of youth. And, over time, you realize that even the things that are most high stakes kind of resolve themselves. “Oh my God, I’m going to be late. There’s traffic!” It’s like, “Guess what, the world is going to continue to revolve without me.”
RUDOLPH: I was talking with a very funny, wonderful person—we had both just left our respective therapy sessions in the same building—
LYONNE: Mel Brooks?
RUDOLPH: And Mel Brooks and I were talking on the corner, and she said to me …
LYONNE: [laughs] Mel is really going through a late-in-life-transition …
RUDOLPH: Not–Mel says to me, “Let me tell you something: life is not for pussies.” It’s not.
LYONNE: I believe Bette Davis also said that.
RUDOLPH: I bet she did. She also was too tired to put up with bullshit, which I think is why you look up to her so much—idolize her, I would say.
LYONNE: Her autobiography is called The Lonely Life. And I happen to have a copy, if you would like me to read you some excerpts. She talks about how there was thunder and lighting the day that she was born. “It was true about the thunderstorm. Ruthie said,” that’s her mother, “Ruthie said the gods were going mad and the earth was holding its head in a panic,” just because she was being born. “The offstage noises were deafening. Thank God, I didn’t have a line at my entrance.” She does not apologize for being born. Not a Jew, you know what I mean? [laughs] There is nothing apologetic about Bette Davis. I feel like the Jews’ plight is like a constant state of self-consciousness just for taking up space on the earth. I’m like, “I’m sorry I walked in here. I didn’t even know. I don’t even know why I have a rental car, let alone why I’m on Fountain. I’m so sorry.” She’s like, “And then I was born. You’re welcome.” Which is something that I really admire and just don’t relate to immediately.
RUDOLPH: I love that distinction. Whereas you’re the ballsy little Jew, this lady was, like, 100 percent non-Jew. That’s the part I think that we can look up to as Jews. It must be so nice to not be self-effacing or self-deprecating about every single part of your life.
LYONNE: And not a neurotic. It doesn’t mean that you’re not leading an examined life, but you’re not in a constant state of neurosis. On the other hand, I have a certain underlying discomfort. Existence itself is disconcerting and disorienting.
RUDOLPH: The underlying discomfort is like a nice, warm, fuzzy blanket. I like my neuroses. I like knowing that they are real and that they are from my ancestors, that I have inherited them and that they are genetic. And it is a predisposition to self-effacement.
LYONNE: [laughs] Life is not for the faint of heart.
RUDOLPH: It’s not for pussies! Not—Mel was right!
LYONNE: And it’s important to analyze that statement ad nauseam on a daily basis. [laughs] That’s how I like to live, with that mantra.
RUDOLPH: When I worked at SNL, the show was my life. It was like my husband and my child—it was my everything. Then I had [her eldest daughter] Pearl and I went back to work there, and it was great to have both because I loved both, but a lot of the bullshit fell away. You realize, “There’s a lot of bullshit I’m storing; ain’t nobody got time for that.”
LYONNE: Another way of saying that is “Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think.” That’s a song.
RUDOLPH: We should just keep finding quotes to see if they fit what we’re saying.
LYONNE: Do you remember when we bought matching sofas? They had pinstripes. [laughs]
RUDOLPH: Oh yeah!
LYONNE: You lived in that tiny apartment in the West Village and we bought, like, a six-foot sofa. That was a whole adventure. [Root Beer starts to bark] Root Beer! She’s gotta cool her jets. She thinks she runs the joint. Man, when I got into my storage space and I saw the condition of my sofa—I was so excited to be reunited with that sofa, but it was a disaster.
RUDOLPH: I don’t even know where my sofa is.
LYONNE: [laughs] Agatha Christie presents The Case of the Missing Sofa.
RUDOLPH: I bet you a million bucks that somebody I know has that sofa somewhere and it is not in the best condition possible. What happened to those carefree days?
LYONNE: Fucking bedbugs destroyed the city. You can’t even go to the flea market with an open heart anymore. You have to go with a full state of lockdown paranoia. It’s terrifying.
RUDOLPH: It’s not even called the flea market anymore. Let me ask you a question that I’m going to make up right now. You have to answer immediately. You can’t even think about it. If you could live anywhere else, where would you live?
LYONNE: [long pause] Canada. [laughs] I was just kidding. Okay, that was the wrong answer.
RUDOLPH: But that’s the rule. You can’t think; you just have to answer. You can ask me too, so you’re not on the spot.
LYONNE: If you want to move to Canada?
RUDOLPH: I didn’t think you’d want to move to Canada. This is news to me.
LYONNE: I don’t want to! You said the first thing that comes to mind. I said Canada! I regret it. For the rest of my life I’m going to regret it!
RUDOLPH: [laughs] Stream of consciousness: If you had to give yourself a new name, what would it be?
LYONNE: Nadia for Nadia Comaneci. But I’ve been using that for years, so that’s not fair. That’s not a new name. When I’m talking about myself, in my mind, I’m like, “Nadia, calm down.”
RUDOLPH: Is that your Starbucks name? I don’t like the very personal aspect of Starbucks. I don’t like that they ask you your name. I feel like it should just be: “What’s your favorite color?” But people always ask me my name and when I say, “Maya,” they write it down wrong, like M-I-A or M-Y-A, and then pass it to the next barista and they’re like “Mia!” So I got so tired of having to answer to “Mia” and walk around with a cup all day that said “Mia.” So I just started saying “Donna,” and my Starbucks name is Donna. Nobody ever gets Donna wrong.
LYONNE: What I like to do is to give them my real name but be really hostile each time, as if they’re asking me something that I’ve never heard in my life. [laughs] I give them a really dirty look, “Really? It’s Natasha. Okay?” Like I’ve never been to Starbucks before. Each time. I enter the premises looking for combat.
RUDOLPH: When I first moved to New York, someone who thought they knew more than I did said: “You have to always look like you know where you’re going when you get out of the subway.”
LYONNE: Oh yeah, that’s a fact.
RUDOLPH: So I used to look mad all the time, on purpose, so that people were like, “Oh my God, I’m not going to fuck with her. She’s a New Yorker.” Would you say that you’re livin’ the dream? You get to go to work, you get to kiss your dog, you have a good life, you have friends, you have people who love you—people love you to no end.
LYONNE: I am a hooker with a heart of gold.
RUDOLPH: You really are.
LYONNE: I spent so many years in a state of rebellion, but now I do feel pretty great. I really worked out a lot of kinks. “The living is easy,” all of a sudden. It’s really fun. [Orange Is the New Black creator] Jenji Kohan and I get to think about Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces  every day. Everything is coming together in a really nice way. I’m really enjoying growing up. I feel like so much of my life was in an existential crisis, and I don’t feel as bogged down by that anymore. When I was young, I think I was so into this Cassavetes fantasy that I had in my mind—I felt like you had to be really hard to be good. There’s a certain buoyancy that comes out when you’re a little bit lighter on your feet, leaning into that a bit more. I feel like the beauty of having these long-term relationships, like with you, is that, all of a sudden, you have friends for 15 years, 20 years, and it does become a meaningful life. It doesn’t feel so flimsy, like, “What does it all mean?” It feels a little bit more concrete. I don’t feel like I have to push so hard to be in a state of inspiration. And you can articulate just as much pain or immediacy with a soft shoe shuffle as you can with, like, a lead foot. We really signed on for a lifetime in the arts and it doesn’t have to all look like the Oscar Levant story.
RUDOLPH: I think everyone young feels like they have to have that struggle and that cigarette hanging out of their mouth, brooding.
LYONNE: I still have the cigarette dangling out of my mouth, which isn’t a good idea. I’ve got to shake that cigarette.
RUDOLPH: I’ve seen you dabble in shaking that. It’ll come.
LYONNE: I feel like we’re actors on the lot at Paramount. I love those old movies and biographies of old Hollywood stars so much. I like that, as we get older, we’re less like the new kids in town and more like the old standbys. It feels much more substantial. I think I just really like growing up.
RUDOLPH: It suits you.
LYONNE: I’m always so blown away that you’re a mother. I have all these pictures of us in Hawaii and you look like this little teenager, just a pile of limbs with some hair on top, in a little bikini, jumping around and, like, drinking a fucking margarita. It’s hilarious to me. We look like Hunter S. Thompson and his attorney on that trip. And when I saw you in Away We Go —you are a woman in that movie and so fucking good at acting. I was blown away that that’s my little friend Maya, all grown up.
RUDOLPH: You’ve always been attracted to seasoned people and seasoned lives. And that’s what you’re accumulating now. You’re refining yourself and what you do and who you are. “Seasoned” sounds like I’m talking about a frying pan, but you know what I mean-well-worn and leathered from life and experience and highs and lows and love and relationships and appreciation for life and gratitude. Those are all the things that you’re putting in there now and it shows.
LYONNE: It’s like Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling .
RUDOLPH: Thank you, that’s exactly what I was looking for.
LYONNE: But it is! It’s like Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling or All That Jazz .
RUDOLPH: Oh my God, it is.
LYONNE: I love those self-reflecting movies. Your trade becomes very much impacted by the quality of your life experiences and your capacity to process them. Jo Jo Dancer. Maya, I love you.
RUDOLPH: I could’ve talked to you for a million. You’re wonderful, kid. Mwah!
MAYA RUDOLPH IS AN ACTRESS AND COMEDIAN WHO HAS APPEARED ON SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE AND IN THE FILMS AWAY WE GO AND BRIDESMAIDS.