The untold truth of Natasha Lyonne

There's no one quite like Natasha Lyonne. With her wild hair, gender-bending fashion, and unmistakable scratchy voice, the actress stands out among her Hollywood peers, who are arguably more self-conscious. But Lyonne is singular with a signature realness and ultra-sharp sense of humor. A self-described "open book," she's finally come into her own not just as an actress but also as a writer, producer, and director. Who knew she was so very talented?

If you've ever heard Lyonne in an interview, you know she can make pretty much anyone laugh, as well as regale people with some of the wildest stories about her life. But even though she's seemingly unafraid to talk about anything — no matter how personal — there are still some surprising things for fans to learn about the star of Russian Doll. So, how did she get her start in the entertainment business? Where's she from, and what's her family like? And what are her deepest thoughts about femininity, personhood, and life itself? Read on to discover the untold truth of Natasha Lyonne, who's been making some serious waves in the world.

Her childhood was pretty lonely

Lyonne didn't have the happiest childhood. Her parents divorced when she was between the ages of 8 and 10 years old, and, after that, it was just her and her mother — together but on their own. But that experience gave Lyonne some perspective on the world. "That was definitely an interesting dynamic that kind of taught me the responsibilities of being a single woman, and especially a single female parent," she explained in an interview with Bust magazine. "To learn that a one-bedroom was enough, and a studio wasn't." That's a lot to take in at such a young age, for sure.

Perspective aside, Lyonne didn't come out of her youth unscathed. "As a kid, I spent more time than I'm proud of hating myself," she recalled when speaking with Interview magazine. "Maybe that was a tangled version of also hating my absentee parents, as well as hating the kids in school." Sounds like she really did have a rocky start in life.

Her career started pretty early

While most 6-year-old children are focused on getting started in school and learning their ABCs and 123s, Lyonne was actually getting her start in television. She played Opal on the famous kids' show Peewee's Playhouse, which starred Paul Reubens in the role of Peewee. For a real trip, you can watch her watching herself on the show on YouTube. It's hilarious!

After that, she was in several movies, such as Dennis the Menace, Everyone Says I Love You, and Slums of Beverly Hills. But despite her early successes, starting her career so young wasn't an especially good thing for her. "The track record of child actors ... statistically it does not go well," she confessed in an interview with The Guardian. "And I would say I definitely fell in that pile."

After her early career start, Lyonne enrolled at the prestigious Tisch School of the Arts with the intention of majoring in film and philosophy, as she was "done with acting" and wanted to become a filmmaker. But she never finished, as things began to spiral in her life.

She's battled addiction

For a long time, Lyonne had a serious problem with drugs and alcohol, something that was well-documented in the tabloids. She was arrested for driving under the influence in 2001, and was charged with harassment, trespassing, and mischief in 2004. But Lyonne really hit bottom in 2005, when she was hospitalized for issues including hepatitis C and a collapsed lung — and nearly died.

In the midst of her self-destruction, Lyonne didn't ever see herself returning to acting. "Listen, I did not think I was coming back," she revealed in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. "So I didn't really care. When you go as deep into the belly of the beast as I went, there's a whole other world going on and something like show business becomes the dumbest thing on planet Earth."

Fortunately Lyonne isn't too hard on herself about her past. "Isn't everyone entitled to a moment of existential breakdown in a lifetime?" she asked in an interview with The Guardian. "Adulthood is making peace with being kind to oneself when a response to life that's so much more organic and immediate would be to self-destruct." Amen, sister!

Chloe Sevigny helped her get clean

Even while Lyonne was in the deepest throes of her addiction, one person never gave up on her, even when she was at her worst: her BFF, Chloë Sevigny. "It was hard to stand by and not be able to help when it was down and dirty," Sevigny confessed in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. "I tried to forgive whatever bad behavior she displayed because she wasn't herself. She wasn't in her right mind." That's real friendship right there.

So it makes sense that when Lyonne stopped using drugs and alcohol after court-appointed rehab in 2006, it was Sevigny who helped her with her recovery. She also helped her get back to work and vouched for her, strengthening their now-unbreakable bond. "I love her so much that when I'm close to her I'm actually calmer," Lyonne gushed in an interview with The Guardian. "I feel safe in her scent. I know, 'I'm home, I'm gonna make the flight, life is going to work out.'" The girlmance is real, y'all!

New York to the core

When it comes to where Lyonne feels the most at home, the answer is easy: New York City. You can easily hear New York in her accent, which is logical given that she was raised in Manhattan, a place for which she has a real affinity. "I have a real love affair with the city," she mused in an interview with Vulture. "I just feel like when you're up or when you're down, the city really cushions you. I feel like I just have such the blood and bones of a New Yorker." She definitely projects the NYC state of mind and attitude, too. 

So intimately connected to the Big Apple is Lyonne that Seth Meyers reasoned on Late Night with Seth Meyers that it's likely why fans might be hesitant to approach her. "Natasha Lyonne is so New York that because of her New Yorkness, she probably doesn't want a stranger to come up and ask for a selfie," he said.

Her grandparents are holocaust survivors

Survival and strength are traits embedded in Lyonne's DNA, as her grandparents are survivors of the Holocaust — a true testament to her family's fortitude. "My lineage is dark survivors," she revealed in an interview with NPR. "I come from real Auschwitz stock." 

It should come as no surprise then that this had a significant impact on Lyonne when she was growing up. "Hitler was a big player in my childhood," she continued. "And it was this mentality of surviving and no matter what sort of horrors life throws your way, that was something that had been endured by my grandmother and my grandfather and therefore it was kind of the litmus test of a human experience." That sounds seriously intense!

That seriousness also had an impact on her search for knowledge. "I think it was an interesting setup and foundation for curiosity, because a lot of the big ideas about the human condition were woven into the very structural fabric of my formative years," she added.

OINTB was her big comeback

After getting clean and spending time doing various acting projects, Lyonne returned to television in a big way in Netflix's Orange is the New Black. In the series she plays Nicky Nichols, a role that showed Lyonne was once again on top of her game — something she had to process. "Now we're in season five, I can be like, 'I guess it was a comeback,'" she shared in an interview with The Guardian. "But at the time it was really hard for me to see that word — there's an implication with a 'comeback,' that there was a going away." It took a little time and distance to acknowledge that she did pretty much drop off the radar for nearly a decade when she was using drugs and alcohol.

Lyonne is pleased that she became famous once again in such a "no-filter" role. "If I can be accepted at this level, this version of myself with the least amount of artifice ... Ultimately, all these things we've been talking about have created a sense of not being afraid of my own shadow," she continued. Girl, you got chops and we're here for it!

Russian Doll was in the works for over a decade

In case you eschew television and prefer to stay off of the internet as much as possible, Lyonne starred in a seriously hot Netflix series by the name of Russian Doll. But she's not just the show's star — she's also a writer, producer, and director of the series, and it's something she's been working on for a long time. "I've been writing versions of what would become Russian Doll for at least 10 years," she revealed in an interview with Elle. "In the last five years, it started crystallizing more and more. It was always a story that I wanted to tell."

That's not to say that Lyonne did all of this on her own. Rather, she had some help from powerhouses like Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland, who helped her realize her vision and make it a reality. "Watching it come to life is an extraordinary process that gives you the strength to go on trying to make things, which is a really hard thing to do," she continued. What a badass show from a badass team of ladies!

Her thoughts on having children

Never one to be shy or hold back, Lyonne has some pretty set opinions on the expectations placed on women in society. To that end, she thinks some all-too-common questions are, in fact, rather invasive and shouldn't be so flippantly asked by people. "People are constantly like, 'Are you getting married? Are you gonna have a baby?' It's so exhausting," she divulged in an interview with Elle. "How is this supposed to be a normal question?" She really does have a point, doesn't she?

For Lyonne, having children is a sacred act that should be heavily considered, as children are seriously special beings. "I think that children should be the anomalies, that we're constantly in awe, like, 'Wait a minute. You had a child?' Because a child is such a precious thing," she continued. "You should really be certain that that's what you want to do." Absolutely zero lies detected, Natasha!

"I'm so relieved to be older"

It's no secret that there's a lot of pressure both in Hollywood and in society for women to be thin and attractive, as well as to maintain a youthful appearance — and Lyonne is 100 percent over it. "I'm so relieved to be older. That we put so much preciousness on the teenage woman's body and the 20-year-old woman's body — f*** all of that," she proclaimed in an interview with Elle." It's so unfair and so minimizing to our true worth." Louder again for the people in the back!

For Lyonne, it's liberating to put some of that baggage down. Instead of obsessing over how she looks or what others think of her, she prefers to accept herself for who she is and to appreciate her own uniqueness. "We're all in our own little weirdo ... bodies with our own little weirdo faces and our own little weirdo ideas," she continued. 

And that uniqueness, Lyonne believes, adds to a person's true beauty. "We're all broken in our own ways and that's part of our power and our beauty: our imperfections and our differences," she added. Those are some wise words!

She prefers working with women

In case it wasn't already obvious that Lyonne is a feminist, she made sure that the writers' room for Russian Doll was comprised of only women. Doing so protected both her creativity and personal agency. "Having never created my own show before and it being so personal, I wanted to work with people who speak my own language," she explained in an interview with Broadly. "My voice is stronger when I don't feel like I'm the other in the room." That makes total sense, given how often women can be talked over.

That also made sure that the show didn't end up harping on unnecessary things, too. "To get to collaborate with all female writers and directors on this and never be worrying about... they never worried about, will James Gandolfini's character in The Sopranos be likeable, you know?" she shared in an interview with Elle. "That kind of stuff was never on the table in this story." Once again, you just can't argue with her logic.

These are her favorite comedians

Of course Natasha Lyonne has comedic inspirations, which is hardly a surprise given that she's often quite the comedian herself. So when asked point blank who her favorites are, she selected some true luminaries in the field. "Lenny Bruce, Andy Kaufman, and Richard Pryor are my favorite comedians," she noted to Interview magazine. "Richard Pryor and Bob Fosse are my biggest influences." Bob Fosse was a dancer, choreographer, and director as opposed to a comedian, but certainly he was a giant in his own right.

Comedians and choreographers aren't the only people that Lyonne looks to for inspiration. She also loves Tina Turner, Federico Fellini, Whoopi Goldberg, Sade, Lina Wertmuller (the first woman who was nominated for an Oscar for best director), Peter Falk in Colombo, and John Cassavetes' movies, according to news.com.au. "And music, baby," she added to Interview. "You know music really helps me get inspired." Right on!

She appreciates the support of this community

Given Lyonne's history of playing queer characters, such as in But I'm a Cheerleader and Orange is the New Black, she's become a queer icon in her own right in LGBTQ+ circles. That's a responsibility that she is honored to have, and she takes it seriously. "No pun intended, but I take great pride in having the appreciation of the LGBTQI community" she affirmed when speaking with Interview magazine. "It really means a great deal to me." And of course, we think that's fabulous.

It isn't just Lyonne's characters who are queer, as she also identifies as queer herself. "You know, I wonder if my queerness is actually that I just sort of identify as male in a way," she continued. "And I wonder what that would mean if I were a young person, because in a way the language for that is only being defined now." The kids really are alright, huh? 

A proud self-described "outsider"

Despite the fact that Natasha Lyonne is very much an It girl right now, that doesn't means she's someone who feels like she fits in. Instead, she fancies herself quite the oddball, something she wears on her sleeve. "I have kind of a healthy Twitter life with a bunch of other weirdos that I've found," she confessed in an interview with Decider. "I think there's maybe a comfort in being kind of an outsider figure." Sounds like she has found her people and has made a comfortable space for herself in the world.

That strangeness also filters into her work, which she says is very personal and informed by her life experience. "My family's story, my years through the ringer of being at death's door and addiction, and the experience of being a weirdo and an outsider in New York and in this business," she shared in an interview with Elle. "There's always the fear when you're digging that deep and exposing that much about yourself." That's probably why what she does reaps so much success — because of its innate realness.