If she hadn’t gone into show business, Natasha Lyonne thinks she could have been a great taxi dispatcher. Although she has the voice for it—her husky baritone calls to mind Patty and Selma Bouvier doing standup in the Borscht Belt—the 39-year-old actress would have made an even better cabbie; what she says, even more than how she says it, has been captivating audiences since she appeared, at the age of 16, in the Woody Allen musical comedy Everyone Says I Love You. From her first leading role in Tamara Jenkins’s Slums of Beverly Hills to her tour-de-force comeback as an inmate on the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black, the native New Yorker has brought to life roles that fearlessly careen between gender and genre boundaries. Early next year, Lyonne will star in another Netflix series, Russian Doll, that she co-produced with fellow female titans of comedy Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland. In anticipation of the show’s premiere, which opens with a young woman trapped as the guest of honor at a party she’d rather not attend, we asked Lyonne to act out this very same anxiety dream by fielding questions from 18 of her fondest admirers and co-conspirators.
LAVERNE COX: What element from your life has most informed Russian Doll?
NATASHA LYONNE: I really believe in the underlying goodness in the admission of brokenness. That’s very important to me as a value system. I think we’d be a much happier species if we could just all admit how broken we are in so many ways. Then we would really discover that we’re actually okay. And that doesn’t mean not participating in life—it means having the freedom to participate in life as you actually are.
AMY POEHLER: Which male actor should play you in the movie about your life?
LYONNE: It’s funny, I would play Joe Pesci in “The Joe Pesci Story” if it came up, but I don’t know that he would have the nuance to play me. No offense to Mr. Pesci, who is clearly the better actor. I really don’t know.… Are there any Jewish Jack Nicholsons?
PAUL REUBENS: If you weren’t an artist in show business, what other profession (trade, career, business, field, métier, calling, craft, vocation) would you choose? And what, along the same lines, do you think you absolutely couldn’t stomach?
LYONNE: I would be a great car service dispatcher—like, “Hey, where are you? LaGuardia? Alright, we’ll have a car there in ten minutes.” I think it would show my personality well, although I’m not sure if it’s a profession that’s still in play. So I guess maybe a radio dispatch person in New York, but ideally in the ’80s. I couldn’t stomach being an Uber driver. I think I’d be bad if people had attitudes and thought they knew directions better than I did, you know?
HUMBERTO LEON: If you could inherit an actor or actress’ wardrobe from any movie, whose would it be?
LYONNE: Lucille Ball’s and Kate Hepburn’s looks in Stage Door, please. Even Ginger Rogers’s looks crush.
TRACEE ELLIS ROSS: In Russian Doll, you play a woman trying to escape a party that’s in your honor. If you could plan the ideal party for yourself, what kind of party would it be and where?
LYONNE: There’s footage I’ve seen of a party that Salvador Dalí had that was called A Surrealistic Night in an Enchanted Forest. Bob Hope was there holding a silver tray with live frogs jumping off it. There were leopards involved, and a lot of other animals—it’s not a very PETA-friendly party but mine would be. Mine would have animals and insects. Bob Hope, I could sort of take or leave—I’d maybe have Peter Sellers instead. At Dalí’s party, they were drinking out of shoes, which I also find appealing, and everyone had nine-faced masks on. My hope is to recreate that for my 40th somehow. I like the idea of the brain melting in on itself as a concept, and would like to see it more often at parties.
ETHAN HAWKE: Career longevity is so elusive. What attribute do you think you possess that has helped you survive and excel in this profession from a young age while so many others haven’t?
LYONNE: Downtime. I strongly recommend it to the youth.
AIDY BRYANT: What’s your perfect day for food? Breakfast? Lunch? Dinner? Snacks? I want to know it all.
LYONNE: I like to start the day with some coffee and a pack of cigarettes. Then I move on to some sort of a smoothie to get my grains. I’m in a balancing act—a very severe balancing act. I’m also a big fan of ice cream. If I’m ever offered ice cream on an airplane, I will say yes. I always tell myself that today is going be different and it never is. You and I once ate a meal in Iceland, and they serve whale in Iceland, which is obviously disturbing. There would be zero whale on my snacking menu.
ERIC BOGOSIAN: How has your hair inspired your work?
LYONNE: My hair is like wearing a sable coat, in the middle of summer, at all times.
CHLOË SEVIGNY: After creating the brilliant pilot for your show, you built a writers’ room filled with peers. What were the challenges involved in turning your ideas over to others?
LYONNE: One part that was really important to me was for it to be an all-female writers’ room, and to have only female directors. I happily surrounded myself with people who I knew really understood my trip in a very deep sense, and believed in it enough to want to see that end up on-screen. People like Jamie Babbit, whom I’ve known for 20 years since But I’m a Cheerleader, and Amy Poehler, who, as a producer, really helped me maintain control over this project. The incredible thing about true collaboration is when you see how limited your singular view is. There’s almost an exquisite corpse element to it that’s very inspiring to be around.
SAM GOLD: What character from dramatic literature would you most like to play?
LYONNE: For some reason, Kathy in Tree of Smoke has always seemed outside my wheelhouse and yet playable because Denis Johnson’s writing is right in my bones. I’ve also always wanted to play one of the old men in [Edward Albee’s one-act play] The Zoo Story.
ZADIE SMITH: Which golden age actress do you most admire and why?
LYONNE: Mae West is a pretty revolutionary figure. Her persona is so larger than life that history hasn’t quite done right by her, vis-à-vis her contributions as a self-made feminist in complete command of her own image. She wrote all those plays. She created her own persona completely. And she had to fight against so many censorship boards and bureaus from the New York theater all the way out to Hollywood.
ROSIE O’DONNELL: Is Stacy Keach your true love or spirit animal? [Ed. Note: In her Instagram bio, Lyonne includes a disclaimer that she and the 77-year-old male actor are, in fact, two different people.]
LYONNE: It’s actually Susan Tyrrell in Fat City. [Ed. Note: This is a boxing movie from 1972 that also stars Keach.] That’s my true spirit animal. But on the day I created the necessary social media account to stalk my ex-boyfriend, I was thinking of Fat City. I went with Stacy Keach because I thought Susan Tyrrell would be too obvious.
SARAH MCBRIDE: From your roles in But I’m a Cheerleader to Orange Is the New Black, you have been a funny and loving icon in the LGBTQI community. How do you navigate that unique responsibility and what do you hope to see for the LGBTQI community moving forward?
LYONNE: No pun intended, but I take great pride in having the appreciation of the LGBTQI community. It really means a great deal to me. You know, I wonder if my queerness is actually that I just sort of identify as male in a way. And I wonder what that would mean if I were a young person, because in a way the language for that is only being defined now. The thing that I find most offensively egregious and devastating is this idea that anybody thinks that they have the right to dictate whether another human deserves the right to the same basic human rights. The idea that it’s even up for discussion is something that really breaks my heart.
I cn only think of the lamest questions like… whose yr favorite comedian, who was yr biggest influence? and how do you get writing when you don’t feel inspired?
LYONNE: Please do not edit the way Kim wrote this question. Lenny Bruce, Andy Kaufman, and Richard Pryor are my favorite comedians. Richard Pryor and Bob Fosse are my biggest influences. And music, baby. You know music really helps me get inspired.
MAYA RUDOLPH: What are your thoughts on Elon Musk?
LYONNE: I’m a big fan of his. We’re in a climate change catastrophe that is so sweeping, and it’s kind of like there’s only one guy who’s even up for the challenge of getting us out of this. So if he wants to have a consensual hookup with Azealia Banks and smoke weed and talk about space all day—or whatever his scene is—fine! I mean, I’m sort of into the fact that his type is Grimes. TMZ should back off and give the guy some breathing room. Who else is going to save us from the beef-eating, smog-producing catastrophe we’ve created with this nightmare of a president?
ABEL FERRARA: How has acting changed now that you’re sober?
LYONNE: One time, I was just coming off a breakup, so I decided to go to a retreat in Honduras. It was in my early days online, and I had just Googled “retreats” and found this weird place that, when I got there, turned out just to be a single woman in her house. I’d taken, like, nine connecting flights, in coach, and it was very unlikely that I ended up in that place, but somehow I got there. It turned out to be lovely—nothing but raw food and hiking and very weird. Since I was coming off a breakup, I was checking my phone every five minutes and the first few days were torturous. My mind was a ping-pong nightmare, and I thought, “I’m never gonna make it. What am I doing in Honduras anyway? I can’t stand the heat. I really don’t enjoy sweating. I want everything to be at night during the winter.” But then, days later, I acclimatized. I had even broken in my Tevas, which were required footwear for every adventure that I didn’t previously know even existed. When I was wrapping up my Honduras trip and on the plane ready to fly home, I got cell phone service again, and there were all these panicked voicemails saying, “Abel needs you on set in eight hours!” And I was like, “What are you talking about? I didn’t even know this movie was greenlit.” Even though I was in my zen zone—all raw-fooded out, having done lots of Ashtanga yoga—I went directly from JFK to this apartment on the Lower East Side. You were there and you were like, “Alright, these are your coke lines and you need to cut ’em up. You’re Willem Dafoe’s drug dealer.” So the next thing I knew, I was cutting up lines of baking powder for Willem Dafoe, and there was a camera rolling. By the next morning, all that serenity had evaporated and I was in that old mindset all over again. But I guess in that long tale is the answer to the biggest way that I’ve really changed, which is that I made it to set on time.
CARRIE BROWNSTEIN: What pre-code Hollywood film would you have wanted to star in?
LYONNE: The Divorcee, as Norma Shearer’s character, just because that’s the one that set it off. The people who pushed the code hated the idea that a woman might actually enjoy her life after ridding herself of her husband and wearing lots of beautiful Adrian gowns.
LUCAS HEDGES: What’s your experience with hatred? Have you ever felt hated, and if so, how did you handle that?
LYONNE: As a kid, I spent more time than I’m proud of hating myself. Maybe that was a tangled version of also hating my absentee parents, as well as hating the kids in school—and school itself for making me feel like an outsider. Somehow, with a lot of back-breaking work and dark nights of the soul, I pulled through and am overwhelmed by the amount of love I have in my life now. The people willing to ask me questions for this article are no small example.
Hair: Sabrina Szinay using Less Is More at The Wall Group
Makeup: Kabuki using MAC Cosmetics
Production: Leonel Becerra
Photography Assistant: Romke Hoogwaerts
Fashion Assistant: Dominic Dopico
Manicure: Dawn Sterling using Lavy at Statement Artists Agency
Production Assistant: Stan Jouk