Natasha Lyonne’s Time Is Now

The actor-producer-director is one of Hollywood’s hottest players, so it’s no wonder she calls L.A. her second home

Photography by GUY AROCH
Fashion Direction by CRISTINA EHRLICH


If you were to choose a superpower perfectly calibrated to this moment, you could do far worse than the one wielded by Charlie Cale, the protagonist of Poker Face. In an era of alternative facts, deep fakes, and simulations, Cale, played by Natasha Lyonne, may be just what the world needs: a human lie detector, immediately able to tell when someone is full of it. This capability makes Cale unbeatable around a poker table but—and here is the promise of the show, a delicious homage to the case-of-the-week episodic television of yesteryear—infallible when in proximity to murder.


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“I think there’s a hunger out there for truth,” says Lyonne. “Poker Face is literally about a character who calls out bullshit when she sees it, and that resonates with people. There are some dark statistics about how many images on Instagram are AI-generated, and we can’t even tell the difference. Reality has never been more in doubt.”

Lyonne leans back in bed in her apartment in New York City’s East Village. A large Rita Ackermann drawing is suspended behind her, in which a sword seems to hang menacingly over her head, with its reliable mop of tangerine hair. If there were times in her life that felt very much like this tableau, now is not one of them. Lyonne, in fact, is in her heyday, a mid-career flowering of creativity and its fickle handmaiden, popularity.


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Poker Face, which Lyonne developed alongside Glass Onion’s Rian Johnson, is a hit and an Emmy frontrunner; Peacock has renewed it for a second season. Russian Doll, an ambitious comedy-drama about a woman who keeps reliving (and dying on) her 36th birthday, which Lyonne created and stars in, returned last year for a critically acclaimed second season. Animal Pictures, the production company she started with her longtime friend Maya Rudolph, is humming with projects at various stages of development: The Hospital, an animated sci-fi comedy, is slated to air later this year on Amazon Prime, and Lyonne is especially proud of Sirens, a documentary about Beirut’s first all-female metal band.

“I’m somebody who really benefited from getting older,” says Lyonne, now 44, who was a child actor (her feature film debut, at age seven, was in Heartburn, the film version of Nora Ephron’s thinly veiled novel about the end of her marriage to Carl Bernstein) and had a first flush of fame in late ‘90s comedies such as Slums of Beverly Hills, But I’m a Cheerleader, and American Pie. “I think that in many ways the times caught up to me. I was a misunderstood ingenue because I didn’t know how to do it right. Then all of a sudden there was a space to be sort of an academic who was also an actor, who was just doing more things.”


“A lot of dark nights of the soul lend themselves to having stuff to write about”



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A New Yorker as much by birth as by temperament, Lyonne recently bought a house in Los Angeles, and the fact that her dear friend Chloë Sevigny often complains that she doesn’t live in New York anymore leads her to believe that she must be spending a lot of time on the West Coast. Rootbeer, her cream-colored senior Maltipoo, loves to frolic in the yard. “I’m basically just making money in order to put it into coyote gates,” Lyonne jokes. The house is a midcentury architectural affair with a pool she tries to swim in every day. (She is a newly minted surfer, too, but not yet ready for the break in Malibu.) “The place has big divorced-dad vibes to it,” she says. “I’ve had some good house parties. There have been topless swimmers, which lets me know I’m really doing it right.”

Lyonne says she bought the house hoping she would never have another conversation comparing L.A. to New York: “Now that there are cell phones, what’s the difference? I’m either doing the [New York Times] crossword and the Spelling Bee in one place or in the other. I’m a creature of habit, and those are my big events of the day.” There may be no greater proof that Lyonne has left behind her wild nights than the fact that in 2019 she wrote a crossword puzzle for the New York Times: “It’s maybe the biggest achievement of my life. I have it framed in multiple rooms of the house just because it’s probably the purest experience of a win that I’ve ever had.”

It doesn’t take much time with Lyonne to understand that her gifts were never going to fit in the slim suit of acting. She had stories to tell—many of them. Raised by Orthodox Jewish parents, she attended the tony Ramaz School on the Upper East Side on a scholarship and was expelled for selling marijuana. She remains, at best, “culturally hipster New York Jewish like Elliott Gould or Lenny Bruce or Albert Brooks or Garry Shandling or Larry David,” she explains. “I would not subscribe to any organized religion. It’s just not in my nature as a troublemaker.”


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Lyonne enrolled at NYU with a plan to double-major in film and philosophy. “I was like, ‘Oh, I’ll be that person who studies a lot of philosophy and then I can write, direct, and star in cerebral, existential comedies that take place in New York.’ And then I was heavily derailed.” She dropped out of college, she says, because she took umbrage at the idea of paying to watch Apocalypse Now in an Intro to Cinema Studies class.

And so she got her education elsewhere, principally at the independent West Village movie house Film Forum (where she is now, proudly, a board member). She learned about pre-Code cinema and film noir, which so heavily influenced Russian Doll and Poker Face. She fell in love with the movies of John Cassavetes, Sidney Lumet, Nicolas Roeg, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Brian De Palma, and Paul Schrader. “It’s like they all became my friends,” she says. “Like, this is who I’m into and who I want to be when I grow up.”


“I’ve learned to accept the chaos of the universe”



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There is nothing new to say about the derailment to which Lyonne refers, a drug addiction that has now been in her rearview mirror for almost 20 years. “There were some weird situations on the tile of the Film Forum bathroom,” she recalls. “I think I took all those years to just be a junkie, and then part of the bizarre gift of that was it was a very internal experience, and a lot of dark nights of the soul that lend themselves—on the B side, if you survive—to actually having stuff to write about: dark but tangible life experiences, a very clear aesthetic.”

By the time she got clean in 2006, few acting jobs were coming her way. After Sevigny vouched for her, Lyonne landed a stage role in Mike Leigh’s Two Thousand Years, which premiered off-Broadway in 2008. “Showing up to work every day so consistently was really good for me,” she says. The next year she was cast in Love, Loss, and What I Wore, a play by Nora Ephron and her sister Delia Ephron. Nora became a mentor: Lyonne joined her poker game, and Nora pushed her to write from experience. One of their conversations became the germ of Russian Doll. “It’s just so moving to me that she took the time to bully me into creating work for myself,” she says.

Starting in 2013, Lyonne began a seven-year run in the acclaimed Netflix series Orange Is the New Black. While her acting career was officially revived, she began to explore the other side of the camera. She directed a short film for the French fashion house Kenzo. She has gone on to direct episodes of OITNB, Russian Doll, Poker Face, and TV shows for friends including Awkwafina, Zoë Kravitz, and Aidy Bryant. “I just became hooked on the life,” she says. “It felt so natural. The actor’s job is essentially being chosen and being told that you did a good job. That’s a very painful way to live, in a way, because you can’t work unless somebody lets you. Acting was a gig that my parents had put me in, but directing is just a better use of my stuff.”


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The evolution from actor to auteur feels inevitable for Lyonne, who has multiple scripts in the works. In recent years, a consistent viewpoint has emerged through her acting, directing, and producing—an urban verism awash in nostalgia for the films of her heroes. In a Hollywood focused on its tentpoles, Lyonne is surprised to see her style click with audiences. “I can no longer claim to be an outsider artist,” she says. “It may be something of a subculture to have these loftier dreams in Hollywood, dreams of throwback ‘70s movies and the idea that we could still be making things that are think-y. I’m not alone, but it’s more rare, and when you find your people, it’s super exciting.”

Lyonne remembers how inhospitable the set could be for women directors when she was coming up in the ‘90s. She is pleased to find herself in different circumstances. “On Russian Doll, we had an all-female writers’ room, which I don’t think had happened yet in history,” she says. “When I directed a Poker Face episode with Nick Nolte and Cherry Jones, nobody was second-guessing that it was legal for me to be doing that job even if I was acting in it. But it’s still niche.”


“I’m somebody who really benefited from getting older”



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Artists, she feels, should be fighting the good fight, working against systems of oppression. She shudders at the retrograde tendency of recent political winds. “The idea that anybody thinks they have the right to tell other people what their basic human rights are is patently insane,” she says. “It’s literally an absurdist concept that should be something strictly out of an acid trip. There are so many games that we play to try to control women, especially, and to terrify them into utter submission. There’s that falsified idea of a rush to be a parent. I never understood how it is that people are just making wacky choices all day, like, sure, let’s have kids! There are a million ways to become a parent in this life. There’s no reason why at 55 you can’t adopt a kid in need. I’m not opposed to marriage or children. I guess I just have some other things to do first.”

Of course, one reason people start families is for the sense of purpose that emanates from deep attachments. These days, Lyonne seems especially attached to making the art that matters to her—and to making it with people she cares about. “I feel so lucky that I get to do all these different jobs now,” she explains, “but in many ways I care less about the specifics of whether I’m writing, directing, creating, acting, or producing. On my deathbed I don’t think I’m going to remember which projects I put the most elbow grease into. I’m just going to remember the people I was on set with and text-messaging funny photos from our day at work.”

She continues, “This is the dream of life in the arts that I was after. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve learned to accept the chaos of the universe. Sometimes the cards come up in your favor, and sometimes your chips are down. I don’t have control over whether any of the scripts I’m writing get made, or if people decide that the tide has turned and tomorrow they hate brassy redheads. So I’ve just got to do my thing and keep it small and play the crossword and the Spelling Bee every day, and everything else is sort of gravy.”


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Hair by VERNON FRANÇOIS at The Visionaries Agency for REDKEN.
Makeup by JO BAKER at Forward Artists using BAKEUP BEAUTY.
Nails by SREYNIN PENG at Opus Beauty using DIOR VERNIS.




Feature image: FERRAGAMO shirt, $1,290. DAVID WEBB earrings, $14,000.


This story originally appeared in the Summer 2023 issue of C Magazine.

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