It's a sticky August day in the East Village and Natasha Lyonne is toying with the existential terror of procreation. This is partly because we're talking about her new movie, Antibirth, and partly because Lyonne, 37, has fought tooth-and-nail to get to the place of relative calm she's at now. "I had a fucked-up childhood. It was not a great example," she says between sips of iced coffee. “By the skin of my teeth I survived to be, like, a high-functioning, semi-well-adjusted and happening adult. And now you want to fucking saddle me with a kid?"
Antibirth (released on September 2) is the twisted new sci-fi-horror flick that the actress both produced and stars in, alongside best friend Chloë Sevigny. (Director Danny Perez, a longtime friend of both women, wrote the parts specifically for them.) Lyonne plays Lou, a Midwestern junkie who could not give fewer fucks; Sevigny plays her BFF. Lou wakes up after a black-out night of hard-partying to figure out she's pregnant with, well, something. And at first, she's comically complacent about the fact that there’s a definitely-not-human thing growing inside her. “She’s just like, ‘Aw shit. Now I gotta fucking deal with this? Like, I just wanted to sit here and take bong hits,'” laughs Lyonne. “Next thing you know, I’m caught up in this fucking interplanetary mission, and the thing is stuck in my body.”
"By the skin of my teeth I survived to be, like, a high-functioning, semi-well-adjusted and happening adult. And now you want to fucking saddle me with a kid?"
You wouldn't be wrong to sit back and appreciate Antibirth as the 90-minute fever dream that it is — "a rocket ship of insanity," in Lyonne's words. Though, the film is also a supremely sick analogy for the situation a woman can face when dealing with an unplanned pregnancy. "There is for sure a metaphor that tracks with that, that I seriously identify with, and have total terror and fear over having a child," says Lyonne. "Ultimately, I think a lot of women probably have that experience." There's a moment halfway through the movie where Lou finally flips a switch and decides her womb's invader has got to go. "In that second is when she decides she’s going to participate in her own life."
Sitting on a bench along a quiet side-street — with her lioness mane and not a spot of makeup — Natasha Lyonne exudes the vibe that she has always been, more than most, a spirited participant in her own life. This begins with that “fucked-up childhood” she touches on. Lyonne grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family in New York, with a couple yearlong stints in Israel and Miami. On paper, her early years read like the shiny resume of a child star: At age six, her mom signed her to Ford Models and Lyonne scored her first big gig on Pee-wee’s Playhouse, followed by a handful of small film roles. But the reality was grittier: Lyonne’s parents sought the spotlight for their daughter at the expense of being good parents.
Lyonne got her proverbial big break at 16, when Woody Allen cast her as his smart-aleck daughter in 1996’s musical comedy Everyone Says I Love You alongside Goldie Hawn, Drew Barrymore, Edward Norton, and Julia Roberts. Coincidentally, this was also the year she had her first run-in with the law, getting expelled from her private Jewish high school for selling pot. The actress moved into her own place and, at 17, entered NYU Tisch on early admission to study film. She stopped going to class and dropped out to star in late '90s comedies and indies, most notably American Pie (1999). And then, Lyonne's addiction took center stage. In 2001, Lyonne was arrested for a DUI in Miami. In 2004, she was arrested again (and evicted from her Manhattan apartment) for harassing a neighbor and said neighbor's dog. The next year, Lyonne was admitted to the ICU for health problems including a collapsed lung and hepatitis C, reportedly the result of heavy heroin use. Then, she finally entered court-ordered rehab in 2006. Afterwards, she kept clean with the support of friends — like Antibirth costar Sevigny. “Chloë and I are best friends of 20 years," she says. "We’re like sisters or something.”
"Sometimes it just seems like things are starting to pick up for her, and then all of a sudden it’s right back where we started. And I guess that really is the story of addiction."
Lyonne had no idea how formative her own struggles with addiction would be in the second act of her career. In 2013, Lyonne boldly entered chapter two of her adult career with a starring role as the gruff, funny, and endearing heroin addict Nicky Nichols in Orange Is The New Black.
Ever wondered what’s it like for a recovered heroin addict to spend her days pretending to be somebody still very much in the throes of a heroin addiction? It's complicated. “It can be tricky for me to play it, I will say,” Lyonne admits. “I get frustrated… Sometimes it just seems like things are starting to pick up for her, and then all of a sudden it’s right back where we started. And I guess that really is the story of addiction. It can be hard to play and hard to track.”
Fans of Orange are familiar with the crushing pang — anger, hopelessness — that strikes each time Nicky relapses. We last felt it in the sixth episode of season four as we watched Nicky exchange sexual favors with a female guard for dope. I ask Lyonne what it felt like to read that scene in the script for the first time. “It was very tragic, knowing what’s coming,” she says, taking a long pause. “It’s always going to be so hard for me to answer these questions in a way, because of my personal experience. I guess I’m always doing an element of projecting. It’s all so personal for me, that role.” She continues, “I think in most cases where Nicky is tempted by drugs it’s because she feels like, ‘Ah, it’s all fucking over anyway. Fuck it.’ So I can really see why she would feel that way.” She adds, “I never find it shocking.”
But as suffocating as that personal-professional crossover sounds, Lyonne makes it clear that the years between her getting clean in real life and beginning her role on OITNB, created a critical distance between Nicky the character and Natasha the person. Today, she mostly feels compassion for her. “My personal addiction is long enough ago that I do see it as this heartbreaking thing of trying to help other people,” she explains. “It helps me have a moment-to-moment empathetic relationship with her, knowing that it really is that complicated.” Fortunately for Lyonne, her character in Antibirth is a much less complicated (and, for Lyonne, less relatable) woman handling addiction. “Lou is a classic — what they would call in addiction language — a ‘garbage can drug addict,'" she explains. Lyonne compares Lou to a lot of characters during our conversation: 1970s punk-rocker Johnny Thunder; Denzel Washington at the end of Training Day; “someone out of an apocalyptic David Lynch movie that I haven’t seen yet," she says. But the most apt comparison Lyonne kept coming back to is "The Dude" of The Big Lebowski. “I mean, in his case it’s like a rug, right? In her case, it’s like a pregnancy.”
Comparing pregnancy to a piss-soaked rug epitomizes Antibirth’s cheeky, punk rock brand of feminism. For all the shock value of the trippy movie, Antibirth’s most subversive move is to knock pregnancy off its pedestal of sentimentality and romanticism. “There’s nothing sympathetic or sensitive about [pregnancy],” in the movie, Lyonne explains. “It's this idea that we should be allowed to own the idea of pregnancy.”
Another piece of pregnancy dogma that Lyonne would like to see toppled is the notion that it's all about the woman. Lyonne recently heard in passing that one of her favorite directors, Wes Anderson ("lovely guy") had a child. Her initial reaction was joy for Anderson. “My next thought was, How come nobody knew that he was having a kid? It’s because there weren’t ‘Wes Anderson is pregnant’ alerts every five minutes, because that would be absurd! I never saw a single baby bump on Wes — and I had my eye on all the gossip pages," she jokes. "So I’m like, 'Where is Wes’s baby bump?! That’s what I want to know. And how is his post-pregnancy body?” The point being that, in our sexist 2016 society — which is supposed to be edging towards gender parity, not reenacting Mad Men — no one expects dad to make a statement about how he's planning to balance fatherhood with his career. “I have no idea how it affects [Anderson] — or how it affects most men — because no one ever talks about it. I would love to know how these male giants that I look up to are handling incorporating that next phase of their adult life," she says.
So, what does the next phase of Lyonne's adult life look like? She'd like to take a page from her 17-year-old self, actually, and get back to her film-student roots and work behind the camera. “It’s just much more empowering as a woman," says Lyonne of producing. "It’s not like you’re sitting back waiting for somebody’s approval to choose you. You’re actually a part of getting to make creative choices, so it’s a much more satisfying experience.”
“I am excited. I don’t know that I’ve ever been in such a creatively fulfilling and challenging place," Lyonne says. "I feel good in my skin and personal life, and I feel excited about being in my 30s and not in my 20s. Things feel better than they ever have for me." She continues, "Getting to work with Clea [DuVall] on Intervention and Chloë on Antibirth, while I’m doing Orange Is The New Black? It kind of doesn’t get any better than this."