34-year-old Natasha Lyonne is making a big comeback with Orange is the New Black after a Lindsay Lohan/Amanda Bynes/Amy Winehouse-type descent into drug addiction and arrest records. She’s now sober, successful, and seems to generally be in a really good place, but her descent into heroin addiction, health problems, and the seedy side of life has helped inform her role of Nicky in the Netflix original series.
Dubbed as the “junkie philosopher,” Nicky can play any prison game with pluck and cunning, and always has a biting comeback, but she’s also capable of a degree of loyalty, compassion, and emotional connection that eludes many of the characters. The chest scar Nicky reveals in the first season is real, Natasha had heart surgery in 2012 to repair damage from a past heart infection brought on by drug use. She hasn’t spent any time in prison, but she’s been arrested a few time, and definitely put in some time in hopeless apartments.
In 2013 she talked extensively about her past to Marc Maron on his WTF podcast. She explained that her descent into hard drugs was accompanied by a disillusionment with Hollywood.
“I think it was the hard drugs that took it to another level. The full blown addiction, and I remember sort of making a very clear decision when I sort of threw in the towel on life . . . This is not about dancing on tables, this is about hanging out with one-legged Tony who has a colestemy bag in his f**kin’ project apartment with the tiny roaches climbing down the wall, passing the pipe and going to the bathroom to shoot heroin with the girls who are turning tricks, and luckily I have residuals. I was like ‘What is this about, fame? Why is that the big end in life? To be like “Let me borrow your dress to go to the big movie premiere so that you can take my picture, and then like, maybe you’ll give me a job if I’m skinny enough? F**k you! I just didn’t want to do it. I was sort of like ‘There’s no there there,’ you know?”
Lyonne started showbiz early as a child actress in Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, and then got a role in Woody Allen’s 1996 film Everyone Says I Love You. She charmed audiences with her sly bluntness in a bit role in American Pie, and the leads in Slums of Beverly Hills and But I’m a Cheerleader. In between Pee Wee and the movies, Natasha spent a year in Isreal at age 8, and then enrolled at The Rabbi Joseph H. Lookstein Upper School of Ramaz where she took honors Talmud classes.
She started smoking pot at age 15, right before the Woody Allen film and got into heavier and heavier drugs as the years went on. After she started losing jobs and fading into obscurity, she racked up DUIs instead of film roles, and at her lowest point (around 2004-5) would wander around Chelsea completely strung out. Witnesses reported to Gawker and other sites that they saw her purchasing needles at the pharmacy and injecting in the street. Everything came to a head when she was charged for harassing her neighbor (she threatened to molest the neighbor’s dog, among other things,) and she was hospitalized for a month with a heart infection, a collapsed lung, and hepatitis C.
“I mean, I didn’t have a 28-day drug problem. I had a take-five-years-off drug problem,” she told Vulture last years. It was easy for the actress to take time off of work because “my well-publicized drug problem, there was many years I couldn’t get work.” And she’s fine with that. “I mean, life is very short but life is also very long. I don’t know that there’s such a rush. I think I also needed a break just in terms of the child actor in me was tired. I mean, I’d been working from, like, 6 to 24, pretty much nonstop.”
After facing death, Natasha made a decision to truly get clean, and her ascent from the depths has sharpened her sense of humor, and her sense of appreciation. She’s now grateful to have a place at the table of entertainment, and at the table of life.
“Yeah, you talk about people who already have a sensitivity to the majesty and brutality of life, and they’re already kind of experiencing life as this really, ‘God it’s so poetic,’ it’s just too much,” she told Marc Maron. “I spent so many years being like ‘I hate myself and a I want to die,’ that I’m gonna f**king die, I might as well live a little . . . Now I just feel really lucky that now I have this precious thing.”
Marc asked if she hates herself less now, and she replied “Yeah. For sure. I mean, I hated myself A LOT.”