President Obama may know that Lindsay Lohan is in the clink, but although Natasha Lyonne says her heart goes out to the blighted actress, she is trying not to think about it. Five years after her own meltdown made headlines and was mercilessly picked over by Gawker jackals, she is working, relatively content and a total scream to talk to.
Lyonne is following up her role as Deborah (that’s Deh-BOR-ah) Tennis, a deranged theater manager-turned-director of stylish snuff films in “All About Evil” (a horror romp directed by San Francisco camp guru — and drag queen — Joshua Grannell), with a couple of theater gigs, one an eight-month stint, the longest commitment she has ever made. “Knowing that I’m going to be able to show up is insane to me,” she says, adding that she’s hoping that she will emerge from the New Group production of “Blood From a Stone” (also starring Roseanne Barr) as “a real actor.”
Those are humble words from someone who has been in the business for 25 years, but Lyonne is not so much modest as finally open to the possibility. I spoke with her about falling back in love with acting, the tragic absurdity of silent movie queens, and battling the proverbial Angie Harmons of the mind. [Spoilers ahead.]
How did you meet Joshua, how did you hear about this project?
Tom Richmond — who is my favorite DP, the guy who shot “Slums of Beverly Hills” — was going to be the cinematographer on “All About Evil,” and that was how I ended up signing up for it. Since he was doing it and it was in San Francisco, I developed an open mind. My concern was just, the idea of how you flesh out this person, how you make her a human being. Once I spoke to Joshua, I found out we had a lot in common and we started to visualize it, and it started to seem like it was going to be a real filmmaker experience — like one of these indie extravaganzas that are right up my alley.
There was also this woman that I knew — I had this brief stint in Miami, before the DUI, actually — her name was Doris Wishman. She was the first female exploitation filmmaker, and she was incredible. I was this kid who had been raised in New York, and now all of a sudden, my mother decided that she was a Jewish divorcée and therefore she should be living in Miami Beach. I was totally lost out there, but somehow wound up making friends with this 80-year-old woman. And Joshua actually had a history with her — she’s since passed away — she was one of Joshua’s idols, this interesting, epic lady, and we started talking about this idea of my character, Deborah, as a Doris Wishman-esque kind of person.
I’m also obsessed with a lot of old movies — I spend a lot of time at Film Forum — with that whole era of women in film, Norma Shearer and Barbara Stanwyck, Lombard, all those jams. That was something Joshua and I had in common. Because to be honest, the whole slasher, B-movie genre… even though I make a ton of B-movies, I don’t think it’s that intentional — it’s more circumstance than anything else [laughs]. That wasn’t really what held me. What got me was the idea of how ego can be so all-consuming and all-corrupting.
All of those themes are trapped in me, and I wanted to explore them through the eyes of somebody who had grown up in a movie house, who had seen those movies for years as a chubby shy girl, fantasizing and becoming more and more delusional — if only I could be a screen idol. In general, our culture has become so disturbingly obsessed with that idea: like, if only I get famous. Yeah, but then what, dude? I liked the idea of exploring that stuff in a very strange comedy — doing it with a hammer is boring and reductive to me. I’m somebody who believes in funny things, and laughing, but I do like for them to come from a place that addresses the human condition.
It felt like an interesting cross between a campy horror flick and a very dark comedy — part of that darkness was this implied critique between audiences who can’t tell the difference anymore — and maybe don’t care — between what’s real and what’s not on screen. Deborah’s patrons are so turned on by the “gritty” realism of her short horror films (in which she’s actually killing people).
Joshua’s a very smart guy, and there are a lot of layers to it. Why is realism so exciting? This is when I begin to feel really outdated, as a person with a certain aesthetic, but I have to say: Cassavetes. [His films] are what got me so amped on the idea of acting anyway. But somewhere along the way the idea of realism — if it were ever meant to be positive, or could be — got lost in, what’s the word from “Cat On a Hot Tin Roof”? Mendacity!
But I do like the juxtaposition of the reality thing mixed with her doing throwbacks to people like Joan Crawford: it’s like that mixture is her version of the truth. In trying to find some logic in the character, I broke down scenes based on which movie star she was pulling from her Rolodex of insanity at any a given moment. I wanted her to start as Lillian Gish — now, none of this actually registers in the movie [laughs] — and end somewhere past Joan Crawford and into Tim Curry in “Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
That scene where I’m in the projection room, and I kill my mother — I don’t know if you’ve seen Clara Bow’s first talkie, “Call Her Savage,” and she’s still acting like she’s in a silent film, but she actually has words? It’s insane, and there’s this legendary scene where’s she’s trying to pet a Great Dane, but she’s so overzealous in her acting that she seems to be, like, humping the Great Dane? For that scene, I thought Deborah should have the reaction that a silent film actor would have to the murder of her mother. I knew stuff like that would keep me occupied, you know?
You’ve said that you don’t watch your movies — have you not watched this one with an audience? It seems like that experience is a key part of the film.
I saw bits of it in San Francisco — I’d like to work my way up to seeing the whole thing, eventually. But pretty much as a rule I try to catch them late at night, on cable, seven years after the fact.