After spending three decades in film, Natasha Lyonne is Emmy-nominated for her portrayal of sarcastic ex-addict Nicky Nichols on Netflix’s Orange Is The New Black. Like her character, the former child actor has battled her share of personal demons, but bounced back with roles on stage and in television, including a guest stint on Weeds that landed her in front of OITNB creator Jenji Kohan. All that gave Lyonne cause for reflection as she pondered her first Emmy nod and what it means to be having a “moment” with such a personal role.
DEADLINE: You first learned of your Emmy nod while boarding a plane. How surreal was that moment?
LYONNE: My manager calls me and says, “Hey, you just got nominated for an Emmy.” And I’m like, “Thanks a lot, Dave. That’s really nice of you.” It was clear to me that he was just ridiculing me for reasons unknown, at a very early hour. I genuinely didn’t believe it. I’m shuffling on the phone with my dog into seat 27C. I’ve got Taylor [Schilling] on the phone, and then it was real – they started saying, “Now we have to do interviews.” I just have to make sure nobody can overhear what I’m saying because I’m trying to play it cool. I was essentially committing a crime. I was very Ocean’s Eleven.
DEADLINE: And then you had a whole cross-country plane ride with strangers to let that achievement sink in. What does Emmy mean to you now?
LYONNE: I was coming out to LA to make a movie, Hello, My Name Is Doris, with the wonderful, extraordinary Sally Field. Because it was Sally Field, I had Sally Field on the brain. I started doing a real “They like me, they really like me” routine in my head but I’d never really processed what that meant when she said it. That is the feeling – you’re like, holy sh*t. You go off, you do your work, you hope it’s good. You hope people like it. You hope you continue to work. You hope somebody relates to it, that it touches them in some way. Hopefully you can even try and tell the truth a little bit, if you’re lucky. It hasn’t always gone my way in this business. I feel very grateful to be having a “moment,” and very happy for it and enjoying it. But the nature of the beast is it’s inevitably temporary. You want to stay in a consistent space so it doesn’t go to your head too much.
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DEADLINE: The fact that OITNB earned so many nominations spread across so many categories is a testament to how deeply its strengths are stacked. When did you first realize it was such a special project?
LYONNE: That show is a phenomenon. It’s incredible, it’s completely original. Jenji is beyond brilliant, a one of a kind mind. I did know that the script was extraordinary and was begging to be a part of it. I was shooting the Weeds finale in an orange spray-tan in a very different part, with the leopard-print dress and the fake tits and everything. Maybe Jenji was like, “Maybe I should check out that troublemaker and see what she’s up to now.” I have no idea. I’ve never asked.
DEADLINE: You’re open about your own past struggle with addiction. How much of your experience is reflected in Nicky?
LYONNE: I struggle to articulate just how personal this has been for me and how heavy it really is without minimizing my own life experience. I did not anticipate making it out alive, and I surely did not anticipate being in a sudden-hit television show, and getting a second round at this. And I most certainly did not expect that it would then lead to awards attention, and recognition for playing something that’s funny and vulgar. It’s tricky for me to play because I have such a firsthand experience of who she is and who I want her to be. I know so many other people that are her because of the kind of life I lived when I was, you know, out “doing my research.” The show is ultimately about big themes like regret and mistakes and living with the consequences of those things.
DEADLINE: How much harder is it to play a character that you’re so close to as opposed to one farther removed from your own life?
LYONNE: I think every actor experiences a certain degree of dripping shame at the end of the day, when you’re regretful of a job that could have been done differently. I’m sure there are certain people who are sociopaths who don’t experience this. That’s part of the challenge for me in playing her; it’s so deeply personal that I don’t even know how to get it out of my system. I know so much of how she’s feeling and I’m often scared that I’m not going be able to articulate it properly. It’s important for me that that experience I had wasn’t a throw-away. There were many years of regret and pain and humiliation in the face of the mistakes I’ve made in my life. But there’s the idea that on the other side of all that is the possibility of putting that to specific purpose, strangely appropriate to play this specific role. That’s the lucky thing that undid a lot of the shame of what I’ve been through.
DEADLINE: You’d been acting steadily in film since the early ‘90s, but you really mounted your comeback on the stage. Then you found your way to one of the hottest TV shows in town. What perspective on that personal and professional journey have you gained from this awards nomination?
LYONNE: So many people took a shot on me when it was not trendy or hip. Scott Elliott, who runs The New Group in New York, cast me in this Mike Leigh play [Two Thousand Years] because Chloe Sevigny vouched for me. She was one of the only people that I was actually seeing because I was isolated in the middle of nowhere, reading books and taking time off. He really went on a limb and offered me this play. I never went to acting school and was so busy with really trying to do that sort of focused work. It was really very re-grounding and refocusing in many ways. Delia and Nora Ephron cast me in their play Love, Loss, and What I Wore. Nomination morning became emotional too, because Nora’s gone, and Delia was one of the people who texted me. I think part of the fallout of being a child actor is that inevitably there are so many relationships that are based in the industry, so the life and the work can be problematic when they get so mixed up. Getting those text messages from those people who had taken a shot when it wasn’t so hip was very meaningful for me that day.
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