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The Individualists: Natasha Lyonne’s Indie Attitude

After 'Orange Is the New Black,' the actress brings three films to Sundance

Natasha Lyonne knows that she sounds like Al Pacino sometimes. And she seems well aware that her “thing” is not easily definable. In fact, she’s made a career of it with complex, oddball and wild characters: Vivian in “Slums of Beverly Hills”; Jessica in the “American Pie” franchise; and most recently we’ve met her as Nicky on Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black.”

Lyonne is in three films premiering at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. Again, her roles vary. She ranges from preppy wife (“The Intervention”), to scheming stepmom (“Yoga Hosers”) to drug-addled lost soul (“Antibirth”). She spoke about her Sundance Films as part of a collaboration between The Autograph Collection’s “The Individualists” series and Variety.

Both “The Intervention” and “Antibirth” were made with good friends of yours.

It felt so personal to me. Clea DuVall – my best friend of 20 years – wrote, directed, starred and produced her first feature, “The Intervention,” and “Antibirth” was with my other best friend of two decades, Chloe Sevigny. I was the most involved in that one. Now, we get to go (to Sundance) in a filmmaker capacity. The last time we were all there it felt like we were young actresses. Now, I feel like we’ve grown up and have a lot going on behind the scenes, which feels pretty great I have to say.

Was there something new you got to learn from performing your roles in these two very different films?

Because (my role in) “Orange Is the New Black” already existed, I knew I had to go even deeper and to an even more graphic place in “Antibirth,” because this character was supposed to be pretty raw and a real troublemaker. Since I’d already done “Orange Is the New Black,” it was like I had to find new ways to do that. Just how rugged could I get?

With “The Intervention” the question was just how J. Crew could I get? Getting to do those two kinds of roles close to each other was fun.

How did you channel your J. Crew?   

The great thing about working with friends is it’s kind of like, a litmus test of truths, right? They know. The actor’s job is to not be a phony and try to tell the truth. It’s a great litmus test if people already know you really well because they know when you’re lying. So what was interesting, Chloe is somebody who’s really seen me at my personally most graphic in real life. If I wasn’t going to be able to touch that then she would know I was lying. Conversely, Clea, who I’ve been riding through life with together as well, she already knows just how sort of raw I can be. It felt very safe to be very clean-cut around her.

I remember even Tamara Jenkins in “Slums of Beverly Hills” would really pull me aside and be like, “Take it easy, Pacino.” I think that it was sort of similar. Because Clea knows me so well, the version of me at two o’clock in the morning chain-smoking, sitting in her passenger seat — I could really go the opposite direction and we both felt pretty good about it.

You’ve had such a varied career in terms of roles. What drives you to be independent in your choice of projects?

I don’t know that I’m doing so much of it on purpose. I think it might just be that I’m actually an odd one, so naturally those projects are gravitating towards me. I think I speak the same language as those people so naturally I’m working with them. I don’t know that it’s super intentional.

What do you think it takes both to be able to work in this industry and be able to stand out kind of simultaneously?

I think it’s important to have a sense of self and keep your focus on your own little piece of the action, and not to get too distracted kind of thinking about what everybody else is up to. Just try to stay genuinely inspired and excited about what you yourself are doing. I think that really helps, and then hopefully that’s something interesting that hasn’t been done already. That’ll help you stand out.

Has “Orange Is the New Black” changed things for your career?

It certainly helped “Antibirth” get made. Mostly I think the show has helped me feel like I’m not so much in a rush, weirdly. As someone who has already had the experience in this business of discovering that there’s no “there” there, it’s a calming force. It feels like it’s OK for things to take their time. You don’t need all the jobs, you just need one good job.

What are some things that inspire you?

I love Samantha Morton. It’s pretty basic: I watch a lot of movies and read a lot of books and listen to a lot of music.

Where do you call home and what makes you love it?

The only place I’ve ever had a lease is in Manhattan, but that doesn’t mean that I value shacking up with boyfriends in Los Angeles any less. New York City never fails to inspire me. I could live without the people, though. There are too many people in that city right now. The streets late at night when they’re empty are still pretty magical to me, though.

Maybe a secluded beach is more your thing?

I do like the beach. I’m a big fan of the ocean. If you put me in the ocean, you can’t get me out. Once I’m in there, I’m like, “Oh, I should really live in the ocean.” But I’m not crazy about a bunch of strangers walking around half-naked. The whole thing creeps me out. I like the ocean itself. I wish the ocean could exist in my own back yard with nobody around. Except for maybe a lifeguard.

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