With her doe eyes, wild tangle of blond curls and deadpan line readings, Natasha Lyonne made a big impression during the late ’90s with comedies such as American Pie, The Slums of Beverly Hills and the queer-themed cult classic, But I’m a Cheerleader. After a celebrated career comeback (and an Emmy nomination) for Netflix’s buzzy ladies prison series Orange is the New Black, Lyonne has reteamed with Cheerleader director Jamie Babbit for Addicted to Fresno, a comedy trifle that opens in select theaters today. The 36-year-old actress plays against type as hotel maid Martha, the responsible sister to unstable sex addict Shannon, played by Judy Greer. Queerty spoke with Babbit and Lyonne about reuniting for the film.
Queerty: Addicted to Fresno was written by your wife, Karey Dornetto. Was there any apprehension about going to her with story or writing notes considering you had to go home together later?
Jamie Babbit: [Laughs] Well, we’re still together. Working with Karey was great. It’s really great to have a collaborative experience between the writer, director and actors.
The role of Martha was written with Natasha in mind.
Natasha Lyonne: I was super flattered to hear that Jamie wanted to work with me again. She sent me the script and I was just shocked that she had thought of me for it.
Babbit: Karey researched cities in California and found that the top two places people say they want to escape are Bakersfield and Fresno. She chose Fresno. It’s one of the most polluted cities in the United States. I’m interested in that kind of subject matter; people that are either trapped in cities or trying to get out. It’s a theme I continue to explore.
Natasha and Judy Greer have such great chemistry. How much of the script was improvised and how much was on the page?
Lyonne: Emotionally and artistically speaking, it was a real joy to be able to feel such a state of freedom. I could really explore things and make things up. Judy Greer is such a master. She is a great person to have as your number one on the call sheet. You’re in safe hands. She is incapable of having a false moment. She’s always stellar.
What do you think your character, Megan in But I’m a Cheerleader would be up to now? Would her life resemble Martha’s at all?
Lyonne: I think Megan is a little more of a natural overachiever than Martha. I feel like Megan could be like a political advisor. Megan is a like lesbian Republican but still anti-Trump.
Lyonne: We went out to the desert in Simi Valley during the apex of summer. I remember that first day I pulled up 15 minutes late, panting from the heat with the air conditioner blasting, chain smoking and drinking a Red Bull. I was wearing a black blazer, black jeans, black boots and thinking, “Why is it so fucking hot out here?!”
Judy shows up with a picnic basket and homemade cupcakes. She’s wearing a sundress and smiling. And I thought in that moment, “Wait a minute, they got the parts wrong.” Then we went upstairs to a motel room and began our housekeeping lessons. We followed a housekeeper around. Judy excelled at it. I was a failure.
First of all, they work very quickly. The woman was drenched in sweat because she would clean the room so quickly. They all have serious hairdos and full makeup and sweat profusely. There is only one cleaning product, Lysol. And it gets sprayed on everything.
There’s a scene in the film in which Natasha and Judy are styling Natasha’s hair. It’s wildly comical as I feel like Natasha’s hair is often its own character in films.
Babbitt: It was actually Natasha’s idea that she wanted to look like Gilda Radner in that scene. So she brushed her hair out and it’s enormous. Natasha’s hair is its own character. Natasha did her impression of Cousin It for us and it was so funny. She did it one of the takes and I liked it so much I reshot the master because I knew I wanted to use it. It was all totally improvised.
Natasha’s character, Martha is much more of the adult, responsible sister and goes to great lengths to help her older sister Shannon. It was great to see Natasha cast against type.
Babbitt: Natasha was definitely cast against type in this film. I think it was a nice break from her Orange is the New Black character where she is playing someone a little closer to herself.
She’s such a phenomenal actress and comedian so I think this movie shows what a remarkable range she has. I hope it inspires other directors to cast her against type because she is truly, truly gifted.
Watch the film’s trailer below.