Natasha Lyonne gingerly balances her lit cigarette off the graffiti-covered ATM before stepping into a deli on Avenue A to buy more cigarettes. She’ll quit one day. “It’s an inevitability,” she says. “I love cigarettes, but I’m not a teenager anymore. I feel those cigarettes, and I don’t like the way they feel—but only in the morning. Once I’m in the thick of the day, I can’t imagine life without them.”
Lyonne, 31, recently moved to the other side of Tompkins Square Park from where we’re standing. We grab a late-afternoon coffee at Odessa, a greasy spoon that has refused to shed its linoleum and go upmarket. She chooses a booth near the entrance.
“I can totally do this,” she says nervously when the tape recorder is placed on the table. “I’m going to remain a normal person. I can handle it.”
Right now, Lyonne is appearing in the Off Broadway comedy Tigers Be Still (running through November 28). She’s garnered good reviews for her supporting role as Grace, a jilted fiancée who plunges into a depressive, alcoholic fugue and kidnaps her ex’s dogs. At one point Grace slurs to her sister, “Just because you’re functional doesn’t mean you won’t hit rock bottom again.”
This could very well be a concern for Lyonne, who’s been in front of the cameras since she was 6, on Pee-wee’s Playhouse. In 2005, during a particularly wild-living period of her life, she ended up in the hospital with a collapsed lung.
“There are epic downsides to living a somewhat public life,” Lyonne says, both hands around the mug of black coffee. “The upshot of that is there’s nothing to hide. It’s a relief in a way. There’s nothing about me that can’t be said. There’s something great about all your worst fears coming true and being said about you. There’s a tremendous liberation on some level. You can just do whatever the fuck you want. There’s nothing left to fear. It’s incredible to come through on the other side and be like, ‘All right, what are ya gonna do?’ Yeah, I was fucking nuts.”
She is sober but doesn’t want to go on about it. “Obviously, there are things I wouldn’t be capable of doing in my life today if that were not the case,” she says. “I never thought I would act again. Obviously, I cleaned up my act in a big way. But I think it’s important to keep it …” She hesitates and then adds, “Precious.” As she speaks, a homeless man walks in front of the big window behind her and screams. Lyonne fixes her brown eyes—accentuated with thick, inky mascara, her only makeup—on mine and says, “That’s my boyfriend. He’s really jealous.”
Lyonne is cuter than she often plays. For the entirety of Tigers Be Still, she wears a velour sweat suit, her hair a frizzy nest, and chugs from a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. Other parts include the frumpy murderess (who becomes more glamorous the more she kills) in the recent low-budget horror flick All About Evil; a scabby possessed girl who torrentially urinates on the floor in Scary Movie 2; comic relief to the bimbos of American Pie;and an obese dreadlocked club kid in Party Monster.
She played hot girls, too, in films like Slums of Beverly Hills. “But I was wearing those prosthetic tits,” Lyonne points out. “Beauty was never really my trip. Maybe those roles are attracted to me?” Lyonne has a small part (as a prostitute) in the upcoming thriller 13, and will return to the stage in December alongside Ethan Hawke and Daphne Rubin-Vega in Blood From a Stone, about a dysfunctional Irish family (though she says her character “can be described as the most functional!”).
Lyonne feels deep kinship with outcasts. “I will take the subway and look at certain women and think God, that woman’s story will never be told. How come that lady doesn’t get a movie about her? I have this weird trip going where I think of some little girl in an abusive home and she’s got drunk parents or something and she’s flicking through the TV and can’t find anything she can relate to because it’s all assembly-line propaganda, it’s more tans and more teeth. I want to come into her trailer and say, ‘I know they’re making fun of you in school, Joanna. Just hang in there. The world can be a bigger place.’ Yeah, I named her Joanna.”
We walk across the street to the park and sit on a bench to take advantage of the last rays of sun. Lyonne often comes here, to watch the weirdos, the people who don’t get movies made about them much.