Born April 4, 1979 in New York City, Natasha Braunstein was the daughter of Yvette Lyonne and Aaron Braunstein, as well as the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors. As a child, Lyonne lived in both New York and Israel, moving permanently back to the Big Apple when her parents divorced. An outgoing, precocious girl, Lyonne was pushed into acting by her mother, and earned her first film experience, although not a screen credit, for a sliver of screen time as Meryl Streep's niece in Nora Ephron's New York divorce comedy "Heartburn" (1986). A bigger part followed, with the kooky Lyonne proving a perfect addition to the charms of "Pee-wee's Playhouse" (CBS, 1986-1990), and adding just a little bit of edge to the otherwise banal Dennis the Menace (1993) as a babysitter. With her career picking up, Lyonne was on her own from the age of 16 after her mother moved to Florida. She would go on to maintained a physical and emotional distance from her parents for years.
Critics took note of her next role of D.J., the narrator of Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You (1996). An unusual musical, "Everyone" boasted a cast made up of non-singers who provided their own vocals, including Julia Roberts, Edward Norton and Goldie Hawn. Lyonne, playing Allen's daughter, received excellent reviews, and many were struck by the young actress' maturity, wit and screen presence. The rising star performed daughter duty again in the comedy Krippendorf's Tribe (1998), where she played the only one of Richard Dreyfuss' children who refuses to participate in an elaborate anthropology scam. With the film's success, Lyonne gained a foothold in the minds of mainstream America. She cemented her success by starring in "Slums of Beverly Hills" (1998), Tamara Jenkins's successful indie that lovingly but mercilessly recreated the 1970s growing pains of an unusual family, especially the wry, jaded teenager Vivian Abromowitz (Lyonne). Surrounded by her colorful relatives, including Marisa Tomei and Alan Arkin, Vivian must navigate her own coming-of-age, including her unexpected sexual development. Insightful, funny and warmly feminist, "Slums" gave Lyonne the ultimate showcase for her unique talents, and the actress was nominated for the Chicago Films Critics Association Award for Most Promising Actress for her performance, as well as for two Teen Choice Awards.
The tart appeal of Lyonne was a fascinating addition to the otherwise saccharine teen-star cast of the gross-out sex comedy American Pie (1999), which followed four high school boys making a pact to lose their virginity by graduation. The film was a crowd-pleasing success and made stars of most of its young actors, which included Jason Biggs, Chris Klein, Tara Reid, Mena Suvari, Alyson Hannigan and Shannon Elizabeth. In an overstuffed cast, Lyonne was stuck playing third banana Jessica, but the actress made the most of her racy one-liners while providing a rarely-seen element in this type of film: a fully clothed female full of sexual confidence. She essayed a similar role as a platform-shoe-wearing KISS fan in the fun throwback Detroit Rock City (1999), but fans failed to give the movie much more than a quick peck on the cheek at the box office. At the time, Lyonne was enjoying a real-life romance, however, with her co-star, fellow child star Edward Furlong of "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" (1991) fame who would later endure public troubles himself. The two dated until 2000.
Always a shade too offbeat to be mainstream, Lyonne went from the mall multiplex to tiny arthouse fare, appearing in the little-seen oddity "Freeway II: Confessions of a Trickbaby" (1999) and the campy But I'm A Cheerleader (2000), which enjoyed minor LGBT cult success. Lyonne played Megan, the titular cheerleader whose burgeoning homosexuality gets her carted off to a cartoonish gay rehabilitation camp run by a scenery-chewing Cathy Moriarty. A lesbian love story with a larger message of acceptance, "Cheerleader" appealed to an underrepresented demographic. It offered gay women an honest onscreen romance, with Lyonne and Clea DuVall grounding their roles in real emotions despite the candy-colored production design.
"Cheerleader" also featured Michelle Williams in a small role, and she and Lyonne worked together again in the "1972" segment of the lesbian-themed anthology "If These Walls Could Talk 2" (HBO, 2000). Next up, Lyonne briefly spoofed Linda Blair's possessed-by-Satan "Exorcist" character in the raunchy hit Scary Movie 2 (2001) and reprised the wisecracking Jessica in the successful sequel American Pie (1999), but as fun as her cameos were, they did little to advance her critical or popular reputation. A supporting role in the time-traveling romantic comedy Kate & Leopold (2001) as Meg Ryan's wacky assistant seemed promising, but despite decent box office, the film fell flat with most reviewers. Hints of Lyonne's personal demons became evident that same year when she was arrested in Miami on charges of driving under the influence of alcohol, reckless driving and leaving the scene of an accident.
Although she worked constantly, the projects and roles grew smaller and more obscure compared to her auspicious beginnings only a few years prior. The naturally thin actress gained weight for a tiny turn as a club kid in Party Monster (2003), and rose to the campy hysteria required of her in the retro throwback "Die, Mommie, Die!" (2003). A fixture in the New York underground and independent film communities, Lyonne's willingness to work with up-and-coming filmmakers paid off when writer-director David S. Goyer cast her in the big-budget horror-action sequel Blade: Trinity (2004) as the blind biologist Sommerfield. She had previously appeared in his indie, ZigZag (2002). Lyonne had another professional success to add to her résumé the next year with a voice role in the animated hit Robots (2005), alongside Halle Berry, Robin Williams and Jennifer Coolidge.
Tragically, Lyonne's personal and professional selves fell apart during this period. The actress had been renting an apartment in a building owned by actor Michael Rapaport, but her fellow tenants began to complain about her erratic and violent behavior as early as 2003. In December 2004, Lyonne was arrested for a bizarre incident in which she burst into a neighbor's apartment, screaming, before grabbing their pet and announcing, "I'm going to sexually molest your dog." After her arrest, Lyonne was charged with criminal mischief, criminal trespass and harassment, but failed to appear at several court dates, resulting in another warrant for her arrest. Facing what he said were $16,000 worth of damages done to the apartment, Rapaport evicted Lyonne in January 2005. In August, the New York Post reported that after being homeless since January, Lyonne had been admitted to Beth Israel Medical Center in Manhattan under a pseudonym and suffering from a heart infection, hepatitis C and a collapsed lung, as well as having to undergo methadone treatment for heroin addiction. The news shocked the public, with the majority of people not having any idea things had gotten to such a desperate state.
Two years after her arrest, Lyonne appeared in court in 2006. The judge sentenced her to a conditional discharge due to the fact that Lyonne had successfully completed a court-ordered drug program and paid $2,000 in restitution, as long as she stayed out of trouble for six months. With that, Lyonne began the long process of rebuilding her career and reputation. At first, she focused on theater work, earning good reviews for her role in Mike Leigh's Jewish family drama "Two Thousand Years" after longtime friend Chloё Sevigny referred her, and then on film and television. While confined to supporting work in lower-profile projects like the syrupy Jewish romance "Loving Leah" (CBS, 2009) or the horror comedy "All About Evil" (2010), the fact that Lyonne was healthy and stable enough to book and complete jobs boded well for her continued recovery. She was welcomed back into the "American Pie" fold with the release of the film's second sequel, a 10-year American Reunion (2012), with much of her press for the film centering on her fall from grace and subsequent recovery.
By Jonathan Riggs
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