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Inside Natasha Lyonne's Career From Child Actor To Poker Face

Natasha Lyonne is a screen legend. She's known for her raspy voice, brassy New York accent, and gritty, sarcastic persona. She's completely in her element chain-smoking and mouthing off in interviews. She's real, raw, and authentic, and while this could be jarring at times, with everything she's accomplished today, she's earned the right to be this confident.

She started as a child actress on "Pee-wee's Playhouse," working her way up through the ranks with films like "Everyone Says I Love You," "But I'm A Cheerleader," and "American Pie." Her career flatlined for a bit as she battled a heroin addiction, but she pulled herself up and is now known for iconic roles in hit series like "Orange Is the New Black," "Russian Doll," and, most recently, "Poker Face."

Lyonne isn't just an actress; she's a woman of many talents, including writing, producing, and directing, to name a few. Her journey through Hollywood has been long and versatile, with more than one twist and turn along the way. For a proper inside look at everything that's brought her to where she is today, we have to take the scenic route to Lyonne's career.

She started her career as a child actor

At only six years old, after being signed by the Ford Modeling Agency, Lyonne booked her very first role as the character Opal on "Pee-wee's Playhouse." This was followed by her first feature film debut with a brief uncredited appearance in the 1986 film "Heartburn." Lyonne expressed mixed feelings to Heeb Magazine regarding this early jump into the entertainment industry, noting that this was not necessarily a decision she would have made for herself, but one made by her parents: "It is kind of a wacky idea to put your child in business at six years old." 

Lyonne was perhaps too young to fully appreciate or understand what this potential career might mean for her. It actually wasn't until she was 10 and participated in the 1989 Israeli children's film "April Fool" that she first began to take a personal interest in acting (New York Times). That appeared to do the trick for her, though, because she continued to work in the industry at her own behest, making small appearances in a variety of films including "A Man Called Sarge" (1990), and "Dennis the Menace" (1993).  

Woody Allen gave her her big break

Lyonne was a rebellious 16-year-old attending yeshiva when she got a big break after being cast in Woody Allen's 1996 rom-com musical "Everyone Says I Love You." She says she strolled into Allen's office with a pair of rollerblades, and, despite being advised that it's best to keep your mouth mostly closed during meetings with him, started on a cynical rant about her parent's divorce and her dislike for her peers. According to The Hollywood Reporter, he immediately took a shine to her and put her in the upcoming film. 

Lyonne, of course, jumped at the opportunity to book her first major role. This did come at a sacrifice, as she claims it contributed to her being expelled from school, but in retrospect, it was definitely worth it. Suddenly, Lyonne was a real actress, and she was even name-dropped in a review of the film in a 1996 edition of Variety. As she told Yahoo, she had finally made it: "All of a sudden I was No. 1 on the call sheet with all these incredible legends." 

ILyonne told Hollywood Reporter that, at the time, she didn't see this as a career kickoff, but as the conclusion to her work as an actor, since her dream actually lay in directing, "I was like, OK, I've now peaked. I started with Paul Reubens in 'Pee-wee's Playhouse' at 6, and I've ended with Woody Allen. Now I'm ready for film school to start making my own things." 

She had to drop out of school

One thing Lyonne's fans might not know about her is that she did not graduate from high school. According to an interview she did with Esquire, she departed after her junior year to finish out her studies at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. There was an agreement that, since she hadn't completed her senior year, she'd need to finish at least one year of studies at Tisch to get her high school diploma.

All was going to plan at first. Lyonne did attend Tisch for a short period, studying film and philosophy with hopes of being a director. However, things fell apart rather quickly, as she did not have enough money for tuition. She had been living independently from her family and supporting herself since the age of 16. When her bank account ran dry, she was forced to drop out.

While this was a tough break, Lyonne remained resilient and dead-set on continuing her career. According to Hollywood Reporter, she educated herself by watching movies all day at Manhattan's Film Forum, a nonprofit theater focusing on independent and foreign cinema. Looking back, she says she thinks this was ultimately the right path for her. 

She went on to book a variety of film roles

Lyonne's dream was to become a director. However, she was still young and yet to fully establish herself in Hollywood, and someone needed to pay the bills, so she continued to work as an actress for the early years of her career.

Her role in "Everyone Says I Love You" got her foot in the door, and she was able to book a variety of roles in film and television over the course of the next decade. She starred in the indie film "Slums of Beverly Hills" (1998), for which she earned two Teen Choice Award nominations, as well as the queer rom-com "But I'm a Cheerleader" (1999), which would go to be a cult classic of lesbian cinema.

She also made appearances in the 1999 film "American Pie" (another future cult classic), as well as "Scary Movie 2," two raunchy teen comedies that helped establish the gritty, sultry screen archetype she's known for today. Sometimes she steps out of this role, with out-of-character appearances even her fans might not remember, like Sommerfield in "Blade: Trinity," but ultimately, this is how she's known and loved.

Addiction and legal troubles undermined her career

Lyonne's rebellious image isn't just an on-screen character; it's her real-life personality. Per NPR, Her struggles with authority go all the way back to adolescence, when she was kicked out of school for bad behavior and even selling weed. While she was starting to make a name for herself in Hollywood, she still had an uphill battle fight—a battle worsened by personal demons such as depression and addiction.  

In 2001, while in the car with fellow actor Edward Furlong, Lyonne was arrested for a DUI, as well as careless driving and leaving the scene of an accident (ABC News). Her statement to the arresting officer was, "I'm a movie star. Can I talk to my entertainment lawyer?" Despite this jarring wake-up call, she still didn't take the matter seriously, and in 2004, she was charged with mischief, trespassing, and harassment of a neighbor (Recovery.org). According to Heeb Magazine, in 2005, due to a slew of complaints from neighbors regarding inappropriate behavior, she was evicted by her landlord, actor Michael Rapaport. By 2006, a warrant had been issued for her arrest after she missed a court hearing relating to her various legal problems (New York Times). She was circling the drain despite the myriad of consequences she was facing.

She gradually put her life back together

Heroin addiction was taking its toll on Lyonne, and in 2005, she was admitted to Beth Israel Medical Center in Manhattan at a dangerously low weight of 75 pounds and suffering from myriad health issues, including hepatitis C, infective endocarditis, and a collapsed lung (Heeb Magazine). She was treated for these issues and began receiving methadone treatment for heroin addiction. 

This intensive medical stay, along with a warrant that had been issued for her arrest, forced her to reevaluate her choices. Things were bad, and if she didn't do something about it, they were going to get a whole lot worse. Thankfully, in 2006 she decided to undergo therapy at a drug and alcohol treatment center. She also appeared in court after her treatment, where a judge granted her a conditional discharge (New York Times). Lyonne finally began to get her act together by taking responsibility for her addiction as well as her legal issues.

Even after getting into recovery, however, she still wasn't fully out of the woods. In 2012, Lyonne had to undergo open-heart surgery to correct valve damage caused by a heart infection, a consequence of years of heroin abuse (People). Luckily for Lyonne, the surgery was a success. Lyonne is still going strong today, sober and, as far as anyone knows, not in any sort of trouble with the law.

If you or anyone you know needs help with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

She made a comeback with Orange Is the New Black

Her hard fight back from the brink eventually paid off. In 2013, Lyonne's career was revived when she was cast as Nicky Nichols in the Netflix dramedy "Orange Is the New Black," her first job in television as an official series regular.

Her performance in the show is incredibly raw and believable, likely in part due to how close it hits home for her. The series is set in a women's prison, and Lyonne's character is doing time due to involvement with drugs. Is this starting to sound familiar? One fun fact OITNB fans might not know is that during the show, Nichols sports a post-surgery scar that is actually 100% real, with no contribution from the makeup department. It's the real scar Lyonne earned from her aforementioned 2012 surgery (Recovery.org). Talk about authenticity!

Lyonne's outstanding performance did not go unnoticed, and she was awarded the 2014 Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series, as well as two Screen Actors Guild Awards for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy Series (an honor she shared with her fellow cast-members). Her work on the series not only earned her these recognitions but also put her back on the map as an actress, leading to more roles in film and TV for the years to come.

She is well-versed in the theater

Lyonne's credits extend to the world of theatre. Her original theatrical debut came about in 2008, when she appeared in the New Group production of Mike Leigh's "Two Thousand Years." Her stage career continued to other award-winning productions such as Nora and Delia Ephron's "Love, Loss, and What I Wore," Kim Rosenstock's "Tigers Be Still," and a starring role alongside Ethan Hawke in New Group's "Blood From a Stone."

Her roles in these productions have been critically acclaimed, receiving rave reviews across the board, but Lyonne says these skills didn't just come naturally to her (Broadway.com). The theater is different than film or television, and it took some time and effort to adjust her talents to the stage. She's thankful these opportunities came at the right moment, because she wasn't always prepared to put in that kind of work: "There's something about theater that squashes the self-critical voices because you have to be in the moment. I'm glad that I didn't do this before I was ready before I was capable of showing up every day. That is not a skill set I had before."

She often works as a voice actor

Lyonne's irreverence and grit set her apart from other actresses, but her voice is truly her calling card. Her harsh, hoarse, cigarette-deepened, and super-accented sound unmistakably belongs to her. She clearly knows this and has definitely capitalized on it through her various projects as a voice actor.

She's put her voice to work across the board in animated film and television, with credits as Loretta Geargrinder in the 2005 film "Robots," Smoky Quartz on Cartoon Network's "Steven Universe," Gaz Digzy on Adult Swim's "Ballmastrz: 9009", Merton in the 2022 film "DC League of Super-Pets," as well as a variety of characters in "The Simpsons" and Netflix's "Big Mouth" (Suzette, Motel Pillow, Intellect Sphinx, and VHS Tape, to name a few).

Per The Hollywood Reporter, Lyonne is also set to join Ricky Gervais, Anthony Ramos, and Zach Woods in voicing a character on Bron Digital's "Fables," a new animated series putting a modern twist on classic children's fables such as Aesop's "The Tortoise and the Hare," "The Lion and the Mouse," and "The Boy Who Cried Wolf." Any fans of Lyonne's pipes should keep an ear out for these projects. 

She is also a writer, director, and producer

Lyonne never wanted to just be an actress; she also wanted to make movies or shows. It's safe to say this goal has now been officially accomplished, starting with her directorial debut back in 2017 (W Magazine). Carol Lim and Humberto Leon, then the creative directors at Kenzo, approached Lyonne to write and direct the fifth installment in their short film series. She took them up on their offer and made "Cabiria, Charity, Charlotte" starring comedy legends Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen.

This was just the beginning, though. Per Deadline, in 2018, after their work together on the short film, Lyonne and Rudolph co-founded a production company, Animal Pictures. Their first project was "Sarah Cooper: Everything's Fine," which Lyonne directed. They followed this with their first feature film, "Crush" on Hulu. In 2022, Animal debuted their first documentary, "Sirens," at the Sundance Film Festival, which was met with rave reviews. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the company has staked its claim to a variety of notable projects including "Desert People," "Loot," "Russian Doll," "Poker Face," and "The Hospital." 

In addition to her work through Animal Pictures, Lyonne has also directed episodes of Comedy Central's "Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens," as well as Hulu's "Shrill," starring Aidy Bryant; and "High Fidelity," starring Zoë Kravitz. Lyonne has more than proven herself as a powerful talent not only in front of but also behind the camera.

She is the genius behind Russian Doll

One of Lyonne's more notable recent projects is that of her role as Nadia Vulvokov on Netflix's dramedy series "Russian Doll." Lyonne stars in the show alongside Greta Lee, Charlie Barnett, and Chloë Sevigny. While all great actors, Lyonne is the draw of the series, as evidenced by the critical acclaim and awards she's received for her work on it, including a 2019 Golden Globe nomination as well as an Emmy win for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series.

However, she does more than just act in the series. In fact, she co-created it alongside Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland. She also show-runs, executive-produces, writes, and directs the series. She's got her hand in every pot, and at the end of the day, she's the one spinning gold over at Netflix's studios.

The series as a whole, not just Lyonne, has received esteemed praise and recognition, with a total of 13 Emmy nominations to show for it, including Outstanding Comedy Series and Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series. It's a more-than-binge-worthy Netflix masterpiece, and luckily for us, there may be more of it to come

She put on her Poker Face

As of this writing, Lyonne's most recent project is Peacock's series "Poker Face." Lyonne stars in the show as Charlie Cale, a human lie detector who uses her unique ability to solve seemingly perfect murders—the ones your average detective would likely have to close or let go cold. Cale isn't the average detective, though. In fact, she's not a detective at all, just a gambling enthusiast and a casino cocktail waitress. Her charmingly casual investigating style creates a "Columbo"-inspired character who draws audiences in and leaves them craving more.

The series was created by Rian Johnson, director of recent whodunnits "Knives Out" and "Glass Onion" (in which Lyonne made a cameo). Given the brilliance of those films, it should come as no surprise that the series is an intricately spun web of mysteries, with complicated and satisfying resolutions awaiting audiences at every turn.

So far, the show has a nearly pure Rotten Tomatoes rating of 99% fresh. According to The Hollywood Reporter, it's already been renewed for a second season. In addition to starring in the show, Lyonne also executive-produces it, and will direct one of the season's stand-alone episodes. Peacock really lucked out getting a gem like Lyonne on board for this series.