Natasha Lyonne, born on April 9, 1979, worked as a child actress on projects like Heartburn and Pee-wee’s Playhouse before landing a role in Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You. More film projects followed, including Slums of Beverly Hills and American Pie, but Lyonne was eventually waylaid by major personal issues, including drug abuse, criminal charges and extended hospitalization. She took time to recover before taking on stage work and returning to the screen. She debuted as part of the cast of prison dramedy Orange Is the New Black in 2013, receiving her first Emmy nomination for her work the following year.
Future actress Natasha Lyonne was born Natasha Braunstein in New York, New York on April 9, 1979. Both of her parents came from Orthodox Jewish families and had rebellious streaks. They also had a desire to see their child become famous, and as such Lyonne was enrolled by her mother into the Ford Modeling Agency at 6 years old. She landed a role in Nora Ephron’s Heartburn before landing a recurring role as Opal on Pee-wee’s Playhouse, starring Paul Reubens.
But having her parents push her into the spotlight had associated costs. “It instilled in me a real revulsion to fame, because I was so confused and perplexed by why a parent would do that to a child,” Lyonne said in a 2015 Esquire magazine interview. “In their defense, I probably would've wound up doing something similar anyway—I am sort of wired that way. But part of that wiring has to do with growing up in such an absurd household that by the age of 10, Scarface, The Godfather, and Rocky were my three favorite movies.”
Lyonne spent part of her youth in Israel, with her parents eventually divorcing. After returning to the States, she took on a major role in her teens, that of lead character DJ who served as the narrator of Woody Allen’s musical Everyone Says I Love You, co-starring Goldie Hawn, Alan Alda, Drew Barrymore and Julia Roberts.
Drug Abuse and Health Issues
But Lyonne was already battling an array of demons, feeling burnt out by mid-adolescence. She was also kicked out of an Upper East Side yeshiva after selling pot. Nonetheless, Lyonne was able to maintain her career, starring in the acclaimed, thematically adventurous indie comedy Slums of Beverly Hills (1998). Then in 1999 she co-starred in American Pie, a super-popular comedy that grossed more than $235 million worldwide, with the actress appearing in the film’s two sequels as well. Other movies on Lyonne’s roster included But I’m a Cheerleader (1999), Scary Movie 2 (2001), Party Monster (2003), Die, Mommie, Die! (2003) and Blade: Trinity (2004).
But by the early 2000s, Lyonne’s life was unraveling amidst heavy partying and substance abuse. In 2001 she was arrested on DUI charges and by mid-decade was facing accusations of criminal mischief and harassment of a neighbor while missing court dates. She was later hospitalized at Beth Israel in New York for several months, receiving treatment for a collapsed lung and hepatitis C. Lyonne was immobilized and in chronic pain during her hospitalization, but would eventually complete both inpatient and outpatient drug rehab programs, and tend to her career after time away from the industry.
Major Comeback and 'Orange Is the New Black'
In 2008, Lyonne appeared in the Mike Leigh play Two Thousand Years, and two years later co-starred with Ethan Hawke in another stage work, Blood From a Stone. Big and small screen work came as well, with guest spots on the series Law & Order: SVU, New Girl, Weeds, and Inside Amy Schumer as well as a role in Abel Ferrara’s 4:44 Last Day on Earth (2011).
Lyonne also guest starred on Lena Dunham’s Girls and Portlandia before taking on a career-defining role—that of Nicky Nichols, a wisecracking lesbian inmate who’s part of the ensemble cast of Netfilx’s Orange Is the New Black. Like Lyonne herself, Nichols has struggled mightily with drug addiction, overcoming the habit with the aid of surrogate mother Red (Kate Mulgrew) while later expressing amorous interest in some of her fellow inmates. Lyonne has starred in the hit series through part of its third season and received a 2014 Emmy nomination for her work, with questions on whether she’ll return to the show.
With her career in full swing, other recent projects include roles in Hello, My Name Is Doris (2015), The Intervention (2016), Yoga Hosers (2016), Antibirth (2016), and Jack Goes Home (2016). On the small screen, Lyonne has also appeared in a number of prime time game shows including the reboot of Match Game and the $100,0000 Pyramid.
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