Natasha Lyonne in Slums of Beverly Hills
"I was never really a child actor and I'm not a movie star," actress Natasha Lyonne says. Yes, but she is an actress to watch. Born to a race car driver and an ex-ballerina, the native New Yorker began acting at the age of six. By age eight, Lyonne was a regular on Pee Wee's Playhouse. At age 16, she was cast by Woody Allen as his wise and wisecracking daughter in Everyone Says I Love You. After a scenestealing stint as Richard Dreyfuss' daughter in Krippendorf's Tribe, Lyonne is poised to break through with her stunning performance in Tamara Jenkins' semi-autobiographical Slums of Beverly Hills.
From a crackling cell phone while on her way to yet another interview (she's been up since 6:00AM), Lyonne credits Jenkins with her performance. It was difficult at first to reconcile her New York sensibility to her character's naivete but Jenkins pulled her through. By the end of the shoot, Lyonne had come to admire her character's openness. As she recently confided to Time Out New York, "I don't have the same idea of cool any more. I don't think that cool is about smoking cigarettes and wearing sunglasses and being closed. I think being open and available are important to life, not just acting."
Lyonne described Slums of Beverly Hills as "a cross between Fresh Prince of Bel Air and [director Francois] Truffaut's The 400 Blows." When I comment that not too many 18-year olds know who Truffaut is, she bluntly replies, "That's too bad." Then concedes, "Tamara recommended I see it." She likens her character to Truffaut's young protagonist, Antoine Doinel; both characters, she relates, are forced to grow up before their time due to their circumstances.
When asked about the renewed cinematic interest in the 1970's, Lyonne muses that the coldness of the technological age is leading us back to those relatively simpler times. Plus, "the filmmakers grew up in those times." She enjoyed immersing herself in the era's fashions and laughs when reminded of the tri-colored tube socks she had to wear. Lyonne confides that the platforms were her favorite things to wear. Unfortunately, the studio wouldn't let her keep them after filming was over. "I'm just an actress. What can you do?" You can practically see her shrugging at the other end of the line.
Filming the film's most memorable scene, an uninhibited dance shared by Lyonne and costar Marisa Tomei during which they toss a vibrator back and forth, proved to be a physically trying task. Lyonne had just been in an accident; underneath the baby doll nightdress, she was heavily bandaged.
A semester at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts looms around the corner (she's studying film and philosophy) but Lyonne's slate shows no signs of lightening up. Her next project, The Revenant casts her opposite a literally vampiric Natasha Gregson Wagner. She plays an emotionally unstable young woman in Rat Girl and is also appearing in a comedy called Great Falls.
We're on a roll talking about her time in Israel, where she also appeared in several films. One was titled A Man Called Sarge but "no one can find that film. I know it wasn't my imagination." Then the cell phone crackles and the connection is lost.