Natasha Lyonne Having the Last Laugh

Natasha Lyonne is looking for something truly elusive: the perfect Emmys dress. “I dislike ridicule as much as the next guy,” says the anxious first-time nominee, up for Outstanding Guest Actress for her portrayal of recovering drug addict and inmate Nicky Nichols on Netflix’s hit drama Orange Is the New Black. “I want people to say, ‘Oh my God, you look so great and yet so comfortable!’ ” When it comes to a perfect fit, Lyonne’s already found that with her character. “I feel very lucky to play Nicky,” says the actress, 35. “There’s no shortage of things for me to draw on when it comes to her backstory.”

A Hollywood veteran who joined the business at age 6 and starred in high profile films like Slums of Beverly Hills and American Pie as a teen, Lyonne notably faced her own demons in her 20s. She battled a heroin addiction that nearly destroyed her and ultimately led to open-heart surgery in 2012. It’s a procedure her character also faced after an overdose last season. “By no means was that an enjoyable scene for me to play. I had to call on memories of painful feelings,” she says. “And it was tricky because my experience was so similar but yet so far removed.” In real life, “I sort of fell victim to the teenage insecurity of ‘I’m not enough,’ ” says Lyonne. “I had this desperation, and wanted to look and be like other girls I’d see around []Hollywood[].”

One other major difference between art and life is her own now-positive outlook. “Nicky’s feeling was, ‘God, I’m still not dead yet, I have to face another day?’ ” she says. But with her own surgery, which came a little more than five years after she’d cleaned up her act, “I was surrounded by friends and was loved so much that I was like, ‘Gosh, I really hope this doesn’t take me out.’ ” On the show, revealing the actual scar on her chest was a particularly powerful moment. “Obviously one big reason not to do drugs is because they’re very bad for your health,” she says. “I’m pretty grateful that I’m okay.”

Now fully recovered and back in the spotlight, Lyonne says she’s better equipped for fame than earlier in her career. “I feel so lucky that that teenage chapter of feeling lost is closed,” she says with a laugh. At work she’s known as a pro whose only perceived fault is cracking up her costars. Says costar Taylor Schilling: “Natasha is really, really funny. It’s hard to keep it together around her.” But these days keeping it together is exactly what Lyonne intends to do. “This time around it’s very important to me to keep my head on straight,” she says. “At least now I don’t feel vulnerable anymore, like I need people’s affirmations.” It’s a confidence she gladly grew into. “I’m not sure why everyone’s so opposed to aging,” she says. “To me it seems to be actually the best gig in town!”

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