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Natasha Lyonne Channels Her Inner Junkie on ‘Orange is the New Black’


Long before Amanda Bynes and Lindsay Lohan had highly public, drug fueled meltdowns, Natasha Lyonne was making headlines for her behavior.

In 2004, Page Six dubbed her the “cracktress” who was regularly spotted roaming below 14th Street, confused and unwashed and hitting up passerby for money.

“I was definitely as good as dead,” Lyonne has said. The Guardian has called her “the original queen of the career capsize.”

Today, Lyonne, now 34, is clean and sober, having recovered from heroin and alcohol addiction, and she is on the verge of a remarkable career resurgence: She has a supporting role in the upcoming Kristen Wiig comedy “Girl Most Likely,” has done guest spots on “Weeds” and “Law & Order: SVU,” and a has a handful of indies in the pipeline.

Most promisingly, Lyonne stars in the Netflix’s smash hit “Orange is the New Black,” which premiered in July. The critically acclaimed show is already garnering a very large following. It’s based on a memoir by Piper Kerman, a highly educated middle-class woman who did 15 months for drug dealing and money laundering. In it, Lyonne plays a fellow convict called “the junkie philosopher.”

No one is more aware of the irony than she. “I think I’ve certainly done my fair share of research and investigation into that subject,” she tells The Post. “I mean, I’ve never really been put into the system, in a uniform. But yeah, I’ve done time.”

Lyonne was born in New York City and attended a Jewish prep school on the Upper East Side. Her parents signed her to Ford as a child model. Her breakthrough came at the age of seven with a regular role on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. By her late teens, she was ascending professionally at quite the pace, her role as the narrator of Woody Allen’s highly acclaimed musical Everyone Says I Love You, alongside Julia Roberts, Edward Norton, and Natalie Portman, led to appearances in almost 30 films over the next 10 years. These include her widely praised performance in The Slums of Beverly Hills, and the role she is perhaps best known for- wisecracking Jessica in the American Pie films.

But by 2001, Lyonne was dating fellow troubled actor Edward Furlong, himself so far gone on drugs that he was dropped from Terminator 3 and could no longer get work. That same year, Lyonne was arrested in Miami on a DUI, infamously telling cops, “I’m a movie star — can I talk to my entertainment lawyer?” In August 2002 she pleaded guilty to drunk driving and paid $1,000 in fines and court fees, performed 50 hours of community service, took part in a victim’s panel organized by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, was placed on probation for one year and had her license suspended for that same period. In 2003 she was evicted by her landlord, actor Michael Rapaport, following numerous complaints by other tenants about her behavior.

Rapaport, infuriated about the condition of his property, penned a letter to Jane magazine in May 2005.

“It looked like a grenade had gone off in her bedroom,” he wrote in Jane. “There was garbage everywhere: scripts, contracts, pages from Hustler magazine, photos, letters and things I can’t even mention. There were glasses smashed in the kitchen and there was standing water in the clogged tub with flies hovering over it. When the plumber saw the condition of the bathroom, he said he’d never seen anything that bad before. A freakin’ New York
City plumber — that’s how bad it was.”

Rapaport spent $16,000 repairing the damage; even the ceiling had to be ripped open to fix the pipes. “I know that girl needs help, and I tried to help her — a lot of her friends did,” he wrote. “But she screwed me. She can kiss my ass.”

Between 2004 and 2006, dispatches were filed to Gawker and elsewhere by NYC residents who’d seen Lyonne in bars, drugstores, restaurants, on streets and stoops, the actress in varying states of decomposition, such as: “I saw her in the pharmacy section of [Walgreens on Union Square]. She walked right up to the cashier and asked for syringes! Specifically, she said, ‘Can you get me a pack of 1-cc syringes?’ The cashier made her sign her name in a book, Natasha paid for them, shoved them in her bag, and then left the store. I was very surprised she would be so open about buying them.”

“Listen, I did not think I was coming back,” she says in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. “So I didn’t really care. When you go as deep into the belly of the beast as I went, there’s a whole other world going on and something like show business becomes the dumbest thing on planet Earth.”

In July 2005, Lyonne was admitted first to Bellevue, then transferred to Beth Israel’s Intensive Care Unit. She had a collapsed lung, hepatitis C and a heart infection (interesting side note:  at one point in the “Orange is the New Black”, we see a huge scar on Lyonne’s chest from a heart surgery her character received related to her drug abuse. In reality, she actually had that exact surgery and that scar is real.)

In 2006, Lyonne was in the Caron Foundation, a drug and alcohol treatment center, and appeared in court after missing several court dates to face earlier charges of mischief, trespass and harassment.

The wisest thing she ever did, she says, was really take the time off work to get sober. “I mean, I didn’t have a 28-day drug problem. I had a take-five-years-off drug problem.” She told Vulture. It helped that because of “my well-publicized drug problem, there was many years I couldn’t get work.”

Since the break, Lyonne has been steadily working her way back into the limelight. Her most recent role, as an incarcerated “junkie philosopher” has caused a renewed interest in her own dark past.

“I certainly think that my personal experience gave me a lot of access to my character’s internal world,” Lyonne tells The Post. “She’s not too different from me. She comes from a pretty good home, not a ton of financial difficulty, but still with its own dysfunction.”

On The View recently, she had to spend the entire segment relating her character’s heroin use to her own “I’m so old now, and also it’s so long ago. We’re working our way towards ten years,” she says to Vulture. “It’s like, how much longer are they going to make me talk about this?”

The first season of “Orange is the New Black” is available on Netflix.

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