"Let's not make it about the hair, how about that. Let's be original and not make it about the hair," Natasha Lyonne says, sitting on a stool at the Howard Johnson bar in Times Square. Which means that questions about manageability, body, and hold are out, as are the tonsorial descriptions "red hot" and "firecracker." Anyway, she's strawberry blonde. "With brown eyes that are kind of hazel," she says. "Turn green when I cry."
At 22, Natasha is a lover and a fighter. She's disruptive in an academic sense, with an engaged disregard for Hollywood and its business rituals. It goes deeper than choosing roles like a gay cheerleader or a bulimic on the run or Tara Reid's best friend. "In American Pie 2 I purposely chose to look like shit," she says. "I put on a few extra pounds to be kind of not Tara Reid and not Mena Suvari -- who I like as people; I think they're very nice people." She visited MTV's Total Request Live to support the franchise, but also to "intentionally appear uncomfortable." Would she be a celebrity judge? "Yeah. Yeah, I'm a celebrity judge," she says. "I'd do it. I'm a celebrity judge." Has she ever been a celebrity judge? "I don't see why I shouldn't start. Excuse me, I'm going to send an e-mail," she says, fishing for a two-way pager. "Note to self about celebrity judging and needing to get into it."
Over the next year, Natasha will appear in seven movies. It's a Christina Ricci moment for her, but we don't say that. We saw her in Slums of Beverly Hills, But I'm a Cheerleader, Freeway II: Confessions
of a Trickbaby, Detroit Rock City, and Scary Movie 2. The coming round includes Kate and Leopold, a Meg Ryan romantic comedy; Zigzag, with Wesley Snipes and John Leguizamo; Plan B, directed by Diane Keaton; Comic Book Villains, with Michael Rapaport, Donal Logue, and Eileen Brennan; Fast Sofa, with Adam Goldberg and Crispin Glover; Adam Rifkin's Night at the Golden Eagle; and The Grey Zone, with Mira Sorvino, directed by Tim Blake Nelson. But because they're in various stages of development, Natasha has time on her hands to enjoy their publicity. "It's the first time in my life that I've had a safety net, careerwise, where I can really fuck with the system," she says. "And I'm definitely going out of my way to see how far I can push things before it's not OK."
Two years ago, Natasha made a sarcastic bet with herself that if she could be blonde, skinny, and straight-haired, she would get work. "It was a scam to get work that worked," she says. "And now I'm surrounded by enough movies that I don't have to do anything for anyone. I happen to like my hair like this, all fucked up and just angry." And that's all there is to say about that.
"Do you know Demi Moore?" I ask. "No," she says. "Do you miss her?" I ask. "Yes," she says.
We collect ourselves and pay the check because I've planned a high-concept field trip to the more challengingly middle-of-the-road Planet Hollywood, across the street; it's the week after American Pie 2 opened on over 3,000 screens to $45.1 million at the box office, displacing Rush Hour 2 at number one. At the register, the bartender asks me if the microcassette recorder is still taping. "It's OK, it's all for the record," Natasha says. "We're changing the world here today." "One celebrity profile at a time," I add.
Then, suddenly inspired, she volunteers a True Hollywood Story of her own. It takes place in Bulgaria during the off-hours of shooting The Grey Zone, in which Natasha and Mira Sorvino lead a barracks uprising at Auschwitz. "You know what I did that Mira doesn't know that might be funny to get out here? I took these pictures of her," Natasha begins. "Basically, Mira gets shot in this scene. And she's down to 90 pounds and it's just me and her sitting in the sauna. And I really like her; she's really, really smart. And she lets me take all of these pictures of her with her cropped-hair wig on, and this safety vest that she had to wear when they shot her. But it's Bulgaria and the only vest they have is this weird Wonder Woman-type thing. So it's her at 90 pounds in this Wonder Woman vest with a crew cut. And somehow she ended up in fishnets. So she looks like Pat Benatar meets Joan Jett but on crack in the Holocaust. And none of that is funny," she qualifies. "So she lets me take these photographs because I convince her that it's so genius. And I lost the disposable camera on the airplane." She laughs. I can practically hear the tabloids release the hounds. "There's somebody in Merle Haggard country with those pictures, thinking, 'Ah think it looks lahk that gurl hoo wun the Oscar!' And I just want that person to know that they're right, sell them on eBay, give me part of the profits. And I'm sorry, Mira. I'm so, so sorry.
"And I lost my hat on the plane," she says. I'm sorry to hear about her hat, but surprised that it merits a mention alongside the Shocking Mira Sorvino Sex Pics. "It's a great fucking hat," she says. "I wore it all the time."
"I love Planet Hollywood, don't you?" I ask Natasha as we follow a trail of wall-mounted Lucite boxes to the third-floor restaurant. "Not really," she says, even though she just found out her hands are the same size as Joe Pesci's. "Do you have anything in any of these?" I ask. "I think I donated a bra from Slums of Beverly Hills," she says. Did you present it? "Uh-huh. And I got really pissed off because it was back before I realized that media was a lie. And I was really big on integrity. And they took this bra, just this standard bra, and I was like, that was not the bra I was wearing. And if we're going to donate something, it should be the damn chicken cutlets I stuffed the bra with."
We move through the impossibly noisy restaurant to the impossibly noisy bar, where Natasha can smoke. But the tourists won't give up their seats, and the tongue-pierced bartender in a Planet Hollywood baby T-shirt isn't helping either. And no one is excited about the movie star I brought. We're at Planet Hollywood..."and no one fucking cares," Natasha says. I start to complain. "Everyone is so self-involved," I say. "It's not about the experience anymore. It's all about the food." "We could make an announcement," Natasha offers, "and tell them there's a spontaneous autograph signing and see what happens. We could tell them I'm here with Tara Reid and see what happens."
A table opens up and Natasha takes a seat behind David Duchovny's containment suit from Evolution. We finish our drinks and Planet Hollywood's Famous Chicken Crunch chicken tenders. While I'm at the bar negotiating another check, Natasha whispers into my tape recorder. "Mark, you're getting the check right now. I keep getting recognized while you're away. It's really tragic for you -- oh no, I'm sorry, miss, just hold on a second. This is the best interview I've ever had in my life. And I think I'm falling in love with you." Meanwhile, at the bar, I ask some Australians if that's Natasha Lyonne sitting over there, because I think it looks like her. Yeah, they think it is.
I return to the table. "I'm sorry, man," Natasha says generously, considering that I was the one trying her patience. "You should have brought Angelina Jolie. She would have gotten all of the attention." "I do think there's going to be some sort of backlash to all of this pop culture being so over the top," Natasha says, back at Howard Johnson. I counter that a backlash would only be co-opted by the culture industry. It's hard to outwit. "Well, sure," she says. "I'm still working. That's the punchline."
"I wish I was born in a time when my small element of subversion was meaningful enough to be revolutionary," she says. To this end Natasha Lyonne has a "posse," one that includes actor and best friend Clea DuVall, Squirt TV's Jake Fogelnest, stylist Annie P, designer and makeup artist Molly Stern, designer Waris, with whom she plans to start a production company, and Tara Subkoff of Imitation of Christ. Natasha agonized over re-signing as Sarcastic Jessica in American Pie 2. "I'm going to get the money" was the solution. "I'm going to buy an apartment in New York City, I'm going to be able to support myself and gain access to so much press that it's going to confuse people," she explains. And she would do a third, a fourth, and a fifth.
In the cab uptown, Natasha tells me that I have to write something interesting. Like what? I ask. "That I'm trying," she says. "I just haven't figured it out yet. I'm fucking 22 years old." We reminisce about the good days, in 1999, when the first American Pie was released at the moment when pop became so pop that there was something subversive about embracing it. "That's why I'm saying that I think Tara Reid is interesting," she says. "Which is why Planet Hollywood is interesting," I say. "And why I took you there. Even if it didn't work. "Which I blame on you," I add. "You're right," Natasha says. "I should have curled my hair."
Styling and makeup by Molly R. Stern * Hair by Dan Sharp/The Agency * Makeup: L'Oreal voluminouse mascara in black * Fragrance: Marc Jacobs * Shot at Jack Studio.