Natasha Lyonne Dreamed of Being a Wallflower
A conversation with our favorite indie darling
Stephan Horbelt

Photos by Giuliano Bekor, giulianobekor.com

You'll find bits of Natasha Lyonne dispersed throughout 'favorite film lists' of gay men and women the world over.

She's an indie darling who has made a habit of taking roles that speak to the LGBT community—from the perpetually awkward Vivian Abromowitz in Slums of Beverly Hills to poor Megan, shipped off to lesbian rehab camp in But I'm A Cheerleader. Along her extensive career, she's also taken roles in American Pie, Detroit Rock City, Party Monster, All About Evil and more.

Lyonne currently has two new projects on the horizon, both of which continue the tradition of appealing to gays and lesbians—G.B.F., the new project by out filmmaker Darren Stein (Jawbreaker), which showcases the horror and hilarity of high school for a young gay boy, and Orange is the New Black, a brand-new show for Netflix that takes place in a women's prison. While she may not be consciously choosing roles to keep her gay fans intrigued, she's doing just that.

Frontiers was ecstatic when Lyonne agreed to take part in our annual Outfest issue's cover shoot, appearing alongside fellow G.B.F. cast members (as well as a dolled-up James St. James) for what resulted in some amazing images. The week after the cover shoot took place, I chatted with Lyonne by phone to reminisce about her now-iconic stint as the 'newly curvaceous' Vivian in Slums, which films spoke to her as a teen and how a dog named Root Beer helped her relate to the character of Ms. Hoegel in G.B.F.

It's hard to believe that as a young girl, Natasha Lyonne just wanted to be the quiet girl. 

How was the photo shoot?
Ah, working with James St. James, my old pal.

I was going to ask about that, because you of course know James from doing Party Monster [the 2003 film]. Had it been a while since you two had seen each other?
Yeah, I think it had, and he's always very adorable and funny, and he was painted as Divine, so what's not to love? So, yeah, it was good. It was easy. You know, I think a lot of stuff gets easier as you get older.

A month and a half ago at Tribeca, they screened Slums of Beverly Hills. I was just reading about that screening, where you appeared for a panel discussion. It's one of my favorite films, I've seen it several times, but I had no idea those were prosthetic breasts!
No way! 

Maybe it was because I was a little younger when I saw it, but yeah, I had no idea.
Well, I hate to burst your bubble, but those were what are now very popular 'chicken cutlets.' Everybody uses them now. At the time, I was flat-chested. I didn't even go through puberty until I was 25. No, I'm just kidding. [Laughs] But yeah, they threw some fake titties in there, and we made a wonderful, terrific picture.

I really have such a nostalgic soft spot for that movie. It really informed—it shaped me in so many ways, the people I worked with on that movie. So having this kind of reunion situation with them was very life-affirming, and I love them so much.

You were working with such a great cast on that film. Do you still keep in touch with anyone from Slums?
Well, I saw Marisa [Tomei] yesterday, actually. I did a cameo in this film she's producing called Why Now with Sam Rockwell, and these guys Ivan Martin and Michael Godere, who wrote, directed and star in it. It was the last day of shooting, and I just did a one-day kinda cameo in it, but we were hanging out and reminiscing. I love her so much.

Kevin Corrigan, who played my boyfriend, I've worked with a few times since, and I just love him. He's one of my all-time favorite people. And Krumholtz [David Krumholtz, who played Lyonne's brother in the film]—we email periodically and run into each other. We always talk about going to Langer's for a pastrami sandwich but never quite get there. But we've worked together since that movie as well. Kevin I definitely have the closest relationship with—no more than a few months go by where I'm not in touch with Kevin.

And then Tamara Jenkins, the writer/director [of Slums], lives a couple blocks away with me, so we always run into each other in the neighborhood. I get to play with her daughter, and I go to her daughter's birthday parties. For me, I'm just so happy that she's doing so well and she's become such a great grownup, because I think I really did the weird transference thing, since I was essentially playing a version of her. I very much, when I see life going so well, it fills me with a sense that everything's gonna be OK, that it's possible for a wild hair of a woman who doesn't know how to be a wallflower to actually sustain some sort of substantial, meaningful life. 

For so much of my life, I always had this dream of being a wallflower. I always thought the boys would be more attracted to the quiet girl, you know? But I was always sort of making jokes and talking too much.

Does that outlook influence the roles you take? A lot of the roles you've played—whether it's American Pie or Slums of Beverly Hills or All About Evil—you end up at least as this ballsy, take-no-bullshit character.
I think it's always a curious thing with roles, sort of like the chicken or the egg. Was the part written that way, or did the person play it—once the person got cast, did it become that part? Other than American Pie, especially Vivian from Slums of Beverly Hills—I think she is ultimately a shy person. She's coming of age, in a way. Similarly, in All About Evil, there's the sense that who Deborah is and who she becomes once she gets drunk with power are two very different people.

It's fun to play a range, but I'm not sure I've played a character yet who is super similar to who I am. Generally I always identify with the characters I play—you know, some aspect of them, usually their internal world.

Actually, the character I play in Orange is the New Black, Nicky—that's this Netflix show I have coming out—that character I can definitely identify with. Her internal world is sort of the result of my own self-destructive experience and the need to play the tough guy in the world.

Let's talk about G.B.F.
That character is definitely not similar to me! [Laughs]  But I really like Ms. Hoegel. She's not entirely distant from a strange thing I do sometimes. I dogsit my friend's dog Root Beer, and then I become a little more Ms. Hoegel-y when I'm talking to the dog. [Laughs] You know what I mean? There were some things about the character that related to different aspects of my life. And while talking to Root Beer is one of my favorite things to do, it's not the only thing I do—unfortunately. But that is really how I learned the most about Ms. Hoegel. 

Did you know Darren Stein [director of G.B.F., also of 1999's Jawbreaker] before taking the role?
Darren produced All About Evil, so that's how we met and why he ultimately offered me the role in G.B.F. Basically I had read the script as a friend of his, because it was his next project, and I was like, do me a favor—you gotta put me in this movie. I just knew it was going to be super special.

I haven't seen G.B.F. yet, but I understand it comes from a similar place as Jawbreaker—the dark, twisted teen comedy. Were you a fan of Jawbreaker?
Yeah, absolutely. I do think it's also really interesting that these movies end up living on. Like, Jawbreaker is one of the few that really holds up. I get that I'm not the most [suited] for a teen movie. I'm more of, like, Linda Manz in Out of the Blue. Have you seen that movie?

I haven't, no.
It's amazing. Dennis Hopper directed it. He plays her father. He's in jail, and she's falling into rebellion and she's a drummer, she listens to punk rock only. I kinda am more ... I dunno, I mean, I love Heathers, I love Jawbreaker, but I don't know if it's the genre that changed me the way other films did.

I was going to ask, because for so many people Slums is a film that people remember fondly from their teen years, what were some of those films for you?
When I found out who Cassavetes was, that was a game-changer, and I watched every single one of his films. And then every Woody Allen movie, every Albert Brooks movie. Susan Terrell in Fat City, the John Huston movie, with Stacy Keach and Jeff Bridges. It's amazing. I loved that performance. I always was a big '70s New York fan. I love Altman. Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye is one of my favorites. 

As a kid, my father was a boxing promoter, and the only movies we had in the house for some reason were Scarface, The Godfather, A Fish Called Wanda and Rocky, so I grew up on those movies. I think I have a funny New York accent considering I'm a girl who was raised on the Upper East Side, and people always think I'm from Brooklyn or something. [Laughs] I think it's actually because I sat for two years watching Rocky, The Godfather, Scarface—and I'm not sure who in A Fish Called Wanda had that accent—but I think I was always informed by a Pacino-Stallone-Deniro cocktail. 

That's hilarious.
So, I saw the pilot of this new women's prison show, Orange is the New Black, and I think I always expect, like, Warren Oates or Sam Shepard to kinda come on-screen and start talking, and when it's me, I find it so jarring! [Laughs] This ridiculous person with some big hairdo, and it's not the '70s cool inmate that I think I would be. I think I always sort of identified with the male tough guy or the more broken woman, but the idealized high school queen—that was never really my wheelhouse or the sort of movies I watched in my free time. 

However, I can tell you tell you what I do identify with and why G.B.F. was important to me is because my own high school experience in private school on the Upper East Side was so horrifying and minimizing and painful—a scholarship kid with all these rich girls, and me being a freak and an outcast, a bit of a misfit. I think it's important to keep remindng kids that there's a way out, and that what they're experiencing is so brutal that people are essentially making horror films about it, and they're funny because of how brutal it is. 

Someday you'll grow up, and this will not be your life. I do think these films have a really important value, and particularly this one. It's sad that it's still so painful for kids to be different, you know what I mean? I just want so badly for that tide to change, and that's why G.B.F. was important to me. The more stuff there is in pop culture where everyone gets fair representation, hopefully the more integrated things become and the more we get a sense that there will be all types of people in this life. 

My character at one point says, "I don't want this to turn into a witch hunt," but that was very much my high school experience—the witch hunt for those who were different, and making me feel bad because of it. Any opportunity to hammer home that this is a good thing, especially in the homogenized thing that showbiz can become, is something I very much want to be a part of. Darren does a really great job of packaging that in a palatable, hilarious way that feels integral to the moment—and then his movies have also proven to really have legs on them. People want to watch them for a long time after.

G.B.F. is the closing night film of Outfest on Sunday, July 21 at the Ford Amphitheatre (outfest.org). Orange is the New Black will premiere on Netflix on July 11, 2013.

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