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How Natasha Lyonne Turned Working With Her Friends Into Being A Producer

The Orange Is the New Black star on first-time filmmakers and producing her first ads for Absolut Elyx and Water for People.

How Natasha Lyonne Turned Working With Her Friends Into Being A Producer
Natasha Lyonne

Natasha Lyonne started acting when she was six years old, and the past few years have been very much a renaissance for the star: She was nominated for an Emmy award for her turn as Nicki on Netflix’s acclaimed Orange Is the New Black. And, after a decade in which she appeared in films with names like All About Evil and Outrage: Born in Terror, her recent filmography is full of exciting projects from filmmakers like Adam Rapp, Michael Showalter, and Jamie Babbit, and TV appearances on Girls and Inside Amy Schumer.

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The story of Lyonne’s career arc has been well-told–legal issues, health issues, etc.–but one thing that is often left out is her work behind the camera. Lyonne is the executive producer on a new campaign from Absolut Elyx and Water for People–a partnership that has the liquor company funding the nonprofit that brings clean water to people who are currently without access around the world. To spread the message about the organization’s mission, she tapped friends and regular collaborators, including her boyfriend Fred Armisen. Lyonne has been producing for more than a decade, but the spot for Absolut is her first work in advertising.

Lyonne got involved with the campaign through the campaign’s agency Naked Luxury. Naked Luxury head Paul Sevigny is the brother of actress Chloe, who reached out to Lyonne about the idea. “The whole thing came up very organically for me to be involved, since i’m not really in the advertising business most of the time,” Lyonne says. “That was really how it came up, just hanging out with Paul and him telling me about the charity. From then, it was really just that they had this idea for it, and so then we just asked people. I see and talk to Fred [Armisen] and Chloe both every day anyway, so it was very natural.”

Lyonne recruited other friends–Tracee Ross, Alia Shawkat, Aimee Mann, George Wallace, Paul Scheer, and more–around the idea of working on a project for a good cause. “Because of the Water for People element–it’s just such a blue-chip charity,” she says. “We just reached out to a bunch of my favorite people, who I knew would be happy to be involved.”

Lyonne assembled a team that included Sean Boyle (of Between Two Ferns) to help produce, and to determine the tone of the content. “That means what everything means: lots of phone calls and emails. That’s producing,” Lyonne says. “That’s what it was like in practical application–traditionally, as an actor, I would get a call time, but in this case, I gave call times.”

That sort of thing doesn’t come out of nowhere for Lyonne, though. Her IMDB page is thin on producing credits–she’s listed as an associate producer on the 1999 feature Freeway II: Confessions of a Trickbaby, as well as a forthcoming horror feature called Antibirth–but she’s been heavily involved behind the scenes for much of her career.

“It’s something I’ve been doing for, I don’t know, probably the past 15 years here and there–producing an independent movie here, or a TV show that maybe didn’t make it to the air there, that kind of thing,” she says. “It’s something I’m very interested in, just in general. Especially if there are projects where you’re going to be heavily involved anyway, because you’re helping them find financing for the movie, or they’re asking you to participate in casting ideas, or script changes, or whatever. I think when you come from the world of independent movies, it’s something that’s collaborative by nature–you really become a small team that’s on a mission. You only shoot for like three weeks, but you’re trying to put it together for years. So you get much more involved than you would in an ordinary movie that you’ve just been cast in, that already has financing. To keep my mind occupied and to keep myself excited about things that start from the ground up, you sort of become like a de facto producer. Just part of the engine keeping the project alive.”

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Lyonne’s career, especially of late, has certainly been filled with the sort of projects that would give her plenty of opportunity to contribute. Many of her more recent features have been the work of first-time filmmakers–films like Teddy Schenk’s 7E, Tara Subkoff’s #Horror, Adam Green’s Aladdin, Thomas Dekker’s Jack Goes Home, and Clea DuVall’s forthcoming untitled feature–which tend to give a person a chance to tap into their more organized side if they want to contribute.

“I’ve been doing all of this for so many years that it’s almost like a tipping point where you start to be too aware of how things operate,” she says. That’s only true of certain types of independent films, of course. Lyonne is quick to point out that she’d have no idea how to produce a movie like San Andreas. “I would have no idea how to make that movie, or act in it, in case this leads to anybody giving me a series of offers to produce earthquake pictures–I’m not your guy,” she says.

But her years in the independent film world left her well-equipped to deal with the challenges on a project like the Absolut Elyx/Water for People campaign. So did her education: Lyonne was an early admission to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts as a film major at 16 (she later dropped out), with ambitions bigger than just acting from an early age.

“I did that Woody Allen movie at 16, and then I was like, ‘Okay, now I’ll go become a filmmaker.’ None of this is a series of coincidences that led to me being a producer–it’s not really how I operate,” she says. Lyonne’s approach to her career isn’t as simple as just surrounding herself with creative people so she always has work to do, although that’s a part of it.

“It’s not like an arbitrary thing that happened because I was, like, hanging out with my surfing buddies. I’m a much more neurotic animal than that,” she admits. “But I would say that I am definitely surrounded by a lot of brilliant people, and I always think of them first. What am I, like 60 movies deep at this point? So you have a lot of experiences at a certain point, and you can kind of bring to mind pretty quickly the ones you stay in touch with.”

That push to work with her friends has also been a part of what’s been driving Lyonne to work with first-time filmmakers. On the projects from Adam Green, Clea DuVall, and Thomas Dekker, it was less “I need to a project” and more “I want to work with these people.”

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“Those people are all just in my life,” she says. “Thomas and I made a movie together, and then Jack Goes Home was his first feature, so I really just jumped in and did a day on it, just one scene for fun. Adam Green is a musician friend of mine, who I know from the ’90s and the Moldy Peaches and everything. He’s become an artist more and more in life, making all of this papier–mâché stuff, and that was an idea he had told me about probably four years before it happened–“I think I’m going to make my own version of Aladdin–which was very funny at the time, but then four years later, you’re on set. And then Clea is my best friend. She wrote a script and wanted me in it. It’s my best friend’s feature, so I’m excited to be in it. You always end up speaking with all of these people. I remember Adam’s movie when it was just some index cards, or the amount of conversation between Clea and I just as a result of being best friends–we’d spoken about that movie for endless hours before ever arriving on set, none of what had to do with my character in the movie. In my history of reading all these books and being on all these sets, so much of this whole business in general is really being able to figure out the right people to surround yourself with who are going to bring out the best in the project.”

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About the author

Dan Solomon lives in Austin with his wife and his dog. He's written about music for MTV and Spin, sports for Sports Illustrated, and pop culture for Vulture and the AV Club

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