Natasha Lyonne’s season three character arc was brief but powerful. ADTV talks to the star about her time in and outside of Litchfield prison.
Natasha Lyonne’s Nicky Nichols was dearly missed for the majority of the third season of Netflix’s Orange is the New Black. Even though she’s in maximum security for 10 of the 13 episodes last year, she returns for the latest (and best) season of the prison drama. It’s great to have her back at Litchfield. It wasn’t the same without her.
In 2014, Natasha Lyonne was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series alongside her Orange co-stars Uzo Aduba and Laverne Cox. Since the recent rule change, the show competes in Drama, and Lyonne has a chance to be nominated for her meatiest role of the third season. In “Empathy is a Boner Killer,” Nicky is betrayed by a corrections officer, and she’s sent to maximum security. The episode also delves into the strained relationship Nicky has with her mother. Lyonne might only be in the first three episodes, but she packs a significant emotional punch. You feel her presence throughout the rest of the season.
After I sufficiently geeked out over talking to the star of the beloved queer comedy But I’m a Cheerleader, I asked Natasha Lyonne about what it felt like to step away from the show, and she described her favorite scene from the new season.
Natasha Lyonne, when you received the script for the episode “Empathy is a Boner Killer,” was your first reaction, “What the hell?!”
I did talk to Jenji before reading “Empathy is a Boner Killer,” and I knew it was coming of course. But I guess it’s a testament to how great the writing is. Even though I knew it was coming, it didn’t make it any less shocking and heartbreaking.
I definitely missed you the entire rest of the season!
I’m very sorry.
Was there any discussion of showing Nichols at all in max, or did Jenji Kohan want to cut everybody off?
I think that part of it was this brutal cut. So much of the show is the overall impact that it has on all the characters. The brilliance of the show is the way in which one thing affects another—so much like The Wire. That’s personally one of my favorite shows and you sort of see how everything is connected. In a weird way almost like a real time Rashomon, you know, with many people’s points of view. In that sense the main story takes place at Litchfield, so the impact that it ends up having on Kate and Yael (on Lorna and Red) is that much more intense if Nicky is sort of not in their psyche. In a weird way, it’s sort of like negative space. What we don’t see impacts as much as what we do see.
Since I watched the third season very quickly, a lot of people kept saying to me, “She’s coming back right? She’s coming back.” And I kept saying, “I don’t think so…”
Your flashback scene in the third season (with your mother in the limo and the scene where you crash the cab) features other actors. Is it sort of refreshing to do work a little outside of Litchfield?
Well, I mean, in a sense I’m sure for any of us the person we would send into prison would be a sort of representative. It would be too risky a situation to send in our truest, most vulnerable self. I think the benefit as an actor in getting to play scenes outside the prison is a bit of insight into other sides of Nicky—how she would exist out in the world without the risk of other prisoners judging her strengths. In a weird way, she’s much whinier than we’ve ever seen in prison. It only occurred to me in this moment. It’s not aesthetically palatable.
Everyone’s lamest side is them in the face of their mother. It’s not a charming, sexy side of a person [Laughs]. She’s a brat, short tempered and needy. That coupled with the desperation of drug addiction and the circumstances really make for far less suave presence of when she’s in prison—even when she’s down and out. There’s a certain bravado she never loses even when she’s her most vulnerable in prison. With her mother on the outside, there’s so much need in a way. Nicky doesn’t know where to look for it.
One of my favorite aspects of your character is that Nicky is so charming and she’s always on. Any time there’s any interaction with her and another character, there’s always that great back and forth. In the scenes with her mother, she’s looking out the window of the car (in episode 3). The relationship is really interesting to watch.
I think Nicky really gets a kick out of people. And I don’t know if she’s “on” as much as she’s engaged. I don’t think she’s trying to impress anyone as much as she’s generally getting a kick out of most situations even if it’s their darkness or realism. It’s something I really identify with. I think that it’s not the case with her mother. It’s the one and primary relationship where she is not charmed at all. It’s heartbreaking. It’s one thing for a person to kind of survive their own circumstances, but it’s another to have to look it in the eye. It breaks down whatever shell you’ve encased yourself in to survive. I think that’s mostly what you see in the scenes with her mother.
In the scene in the lawyer’s office in my mind was about horror and shock about my circumstances my potential sentencing as it was kicking dope in that one scene. At least what it means in the throes of my addiction. Out in the world, Nicky is getting high every five seconds. The idea of a sentence for an addict who is not going to be able to get drugs, I’m not sure what’s worse: the idea of going to jail or not being able to get heroin.
Since you weren’t in a lot of the third season, how did you experience a lot of it? Were you on the set? Did you watch any of the filming?
Well, I don’t watch the show, so I haven’t seen it. I watch the first episode of each season at the premiere, but two of those I haven’t been in. Essentially I’ve only really seen one episode in full which is the very first episode of the show. [Laughs] This last one I wasn’t in, obviously. My experience of the show is in real time—the experience of shooting it. I didn’t visit the set, so I wasn’t there. A least a bunch of us are really close so there wasn’t a time where I wasn’t connected with the show. But, yeah, what I would know would come from someone texting me—like Lorna—and stuff like that. We would find ourselves engaged, and I would be like, “I don’t know what’s happening!”[Laughs] .
It’s sort of like you’re experiencing exactly how Nicky would experience it.
That’s the thing! That was my goal having never been on a television show before. Watching your own movie, it’s never pleasant, because you’re picking apart your own performance. At least it’s sort of like spilled milk—there’s nothing you can do about it, you know? The idea of watching a show that’s in motion, it feels too risky to me. I’d be too afraid that I wouldn’t be strong enough to not impact my own performance based on the opinions of what I thought. I feel like that’s a little bit of a dangerous dance. Something is going very right with that show with people (it was picked up until at least season 7). I feel very grounded at work and I get to go deeper and deeper as I figure out who she is. I feel like I can take bigger swings. Maybe I’m just reluctant to have the outer body experience. I just want to keep it pure in a way that I only know what Nicky knows.
You wouldn’t want that to affect your character later down the line.
Kind of. I’ll tell you another thing, I don’t know if this was the best choice. It’s something I made early on and I don’t want to be in the position of watching, you know, 70 hours of television in one sitting. I love the show. I’m so obsessed with the writing and the experience and getting to act with them. What I do get to see is a true ensemble. They are such singular characters.
I think I’ve said it every single season that this is probably one of the truest forms of an ensemble that we have on television. It’s not just everyone working together in the big scenes, but everyone works so well individually.
It’s a very generous cast in that way. There’s a real sense wanting each other to succeed and to bring out the best in each other. When you put a bunch of character actors together, something very special happens. You see it on Game of Thrones, too. Character actors kind of learn along the way to do their best and keep it moving. It’s no fault of the movie star, but there are a lot of elements they are juggling that are not strictly about doing the scene. There’s a lot of pressure there and whatever. The experience for us is that we’re very grateful to have such a good job, and we love to play together. It’s a bunch of session musicians instead of rock stars. It’s a different feeling.
What was your favorite scene to shoot in season 4? My personal favorite was the scene between you and Luschek on the phone. I was on the edge of my seat with that one.
Yeah, that was pretty crazy. What I loved about doing that scene with Matt was that Lauren Morelli wrote it, and it was the first time I’d been on set in a while. It was the kind of speech that a woman so infrequently gets. It was like one of those De Niro speeches, a Goodfellas speech. I think that’s always been my dream as an actor to do some of that stuff that should be more unisex, in my opinion.
Nicky is a really incredible character to get to play. Her sexuality, in that context, allows her to not only speak to the human experience but also the female experience. In general, I’d say that’s why I so identify and enjoy so much playing gay characters. I feel like it’s not all about boys. Those women are allowed to just be existing. Like Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces. Karen Black is existing in the movie as a response to Nicholson. Playing the straight, female love interest, too often it becomes about the character’s response to the man she’s with. That scene was intense to shoot, so I don’t know if I’d classify it as fun. It was also fun to scare people on the day. [Laughs] It was a good way to take up space again.
I also really loved the crack scene. The situation itself was insane, so it really allowed us to dig out heels in and be completely in character. There was nothing coy about that scene—it was out of control. It was so hot and disgusting, so I never want to relive that scene. There’s something about horrible physical circumstances of just bleeding and sweat and dirt in your fingernails, passing the pipe, and accidentally burning yourself with the lighter. At a certain point, you can’t act anymore. It’s so completely in the moment. Your physical senses are too spent in a way. In the moment it was pretty insane, but afterwards you say, “That was a crazy day!”
Natasha Lyonne and Orange Is the New Black are currently streaming season four on Netflix.