Why Natasha Lyonne Took Blink-and-You'll-Miss-Her Roles in 'Ad Astra,' 'Uncut Gems' and 'Honey Boy'

Natasha Lyonne - Getty - H 2019
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"This was my big year of being unseen in great films," says the 'Russian? Doll' co-creator/director/star.

Natasha Lyonne dazzled the industry in 2019 thanks to co-creating, starring in, directing and producing the Netflix hit Russian Doll. Then she did the unexpected by disappearing into back-to-back indie critical darlings in Alma Har'el's Honey Boy (playing "Mom") and Josh and Benny Safdie's Uncut Gems (playing "Boston Player Personnel"). In the former, she's seen only once — just barely — while driving a car, and in the latter, it's her unmistakably raspy voice that cameos on the telephone trying to talk some sense into a spiraling gambling addict played by Adam Sandler. (She also appears opposite Brad Pitt in Ad Astra, but compared to the other two showings, that James Gray film feels like top billing.) Lyonne, 40, shares why she said yes to these blink-and-you'll-miss-her cameos.

This was my big year of being unseen in great films, which I think is its own sort of a Kaufman-esque plot twist. I do mean Andy Kaufman, not Charlie, but it could work as both. This was an incredible process with so many coaches, and I spent so much more money on the films than I made. It's obviously just really a nice thing that directors of that level want you to be a part of anything — via text message, no less. To speak to the actual films, those are both great works by true giants who are in the sweet spot of their artistic moments.

Joshua and Benny Safdie are extraordinary filmmakers. Alma Har'el is incredible and is an unbelievable visionary. What I love so much about the Safdies' Uncut Gems is that Adam Sandler's performance is as close as I've seen to my true family tale. So, for me, it actually felt like a deeply personal film. With the Har'el-directed Honey Boy, I remember reading Shia [LaBeouf]'s script, and it's so beautiful and is as close a tale to my own [experiences] as a child actor. So the two of those movies combined felt like deeply personal works. It's very exciting to see those things get made by my peers in my lifetime. It makes me feel a little bit less alone in this world that they're seeing the world that way.

So often I see the other side of things, which are rom-coms. I've just never understood that — so brightly lit and friendly. I've never been able to identify with that kind of Marley & Me experience. I've never seen the film. I'm sure it's great, but I don't know. I'm more of an Uncut Gems, Honey Boy-type than a Marley & Me type. I think that movie is about a dog. I'm not sure what happens to the dog in the movie, you know what I mean? Even when I walk my dog, I don't recognize a Marley.

About this year, it was great to have incoming emails after so many years of outgoing calls of me saying, "Surely there must be something for me to do in this town?" — to which they would often say, "No. There's not. They're not making movies anymore." I said, "Well, what about TV?" They said no. It would be hard sometimes because I could see for myself that there were all these new movies and television shows coming out all the time. I knew that they were lying — the evidence was everywhere. So it has been really an incredible, life-affirming time, even if you can't see me.

This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.