Breakout Talent : Natasha Lyonne - Spitfire Girl

In her first lead film role, actress Natasha Lyonne assuredly takes the reins as 15-year-old firecracker Vivian Abramowitz in Tamara Jenkins' semi-autobiographical directorial debut, The Slums of Beverly Hills, about a family that lives in one of the wealthiest zip codes in the world but is constantly struggling to make each month's rent.

The painfully comedic film, set in the fashionably frightful year of 1976, follows Vivian through a troubling and exhilarating period of her adolescence, when she is caught between childhood and womanhood.

From the moment the film opens--with Vivian's single father, played by Alan Arkin, dragging his reluctant daughter to the mall to buy her first brassiere--Lyonne captivates the audience with her combination of fierce dramatic acting and sardonic wit.

Lyonne, who was 18 years old when she made the film and is now 19, told Back Stage West/Drama-Logue that she was initially wary of accepting the role, partly because she felt she might be too old for the part and also because she had never been cast as a lead. Thankfully, she changed her mind.

"I saw that it was OK to carry a film. That was so intimidating to me," admitted the actress, who was last seen in Krippendorf's Tribe and, before that, as the worldly-wise daughter of Woody Allen and Goldie Hawn in Allen's Everyone Says I Love You.

"I also falsely felt that I was too knowing to play a character with such vulnerability, not recognizing just how knowing and truthful her vulnerability was," she added. "Vivian was, in fact, far more advanced than I was in her bravery and her ability to deal with life. I think there were a lot of similarities between Vivian and me that I was refusing to recognize because I didn't want to deal with them."

Like Vivian, Lyonne was also a product of a divorced Jewish family and led a nomadic lifestyle, moving frequently during her childhood. The actress grew up on the East Coast, but spent three years in Israel before returning to stay with her mother in Manhattan for eight years, during which time she lived in seven different apartments. Just prior to being cast in Slums, she relocated again to Los Angeles.

Lyonne could also relate to Vivian's awkwardness with respect to her developing body and her emerging sexuality, particularly her newly sprouted 38C-sized breasts. While Lyonne wore prosthetic breasts over her own chest for the film shoot, she strongly connected to her character nevertheless.

"I think that every girl that sees this is going to be able to relate to it completely," opined Lyonne. "It's corny, but Vivian was inside of me. There was this much more vulnerable, real, innocent, and excited person inside of this jaded New Yorker persona."

Lyonne began her professional acting career at the very early age of six when she was cast as Opal on Pee Wee's Playhouse. As the actress explained, the reason she got into acting was because, "I had so much excess energy, I was dying to entertain people."

After a stint as a contract player on As the World Turns, she made her feature debut as Meryl Streep's niece in the Mike Nichols film Heartburn. Her big break came when Woody Allen cast her in Everyone Says I Love You.

"Woody is to thank for me sitting here with you right now," she told me during a recent press day for Slums. "I'm aware that if it weren't for him, none of this would be happening. I also think there are things that he's taught me that are only settling in now that I wasn't even aware he was teaching me at the time."

It is not at all surprising that Allen was dazzled by Lyonne, who was just 16 at the time. For such a young person, she has more moxie, neurotic quirks, and wisdom than most adults. While Lyonne never received formal training as an actor, she is an avid student of the craft and has picked up much from her experiences on sets.

"I do study as far as I'm concerned," said the actress. "You can do it yourself if you have the motivation. I'm constantly watching movies. I read up on [film and acting]. And certainly, no one would deny that there's any better teaching than experience."

Lyonne has also had the rare opportunity to work with a number of Oscar winners--including Streep, Allen, Richard Dreyfuss, and Alan Arkin and Marisa Tomei on Slums of Beverly Hills.

Said Lyonne, "Every time I've worked so far, aside from the film that I'm doing right now (Great Falls for Universal Pictures), there always seems to be some Oscar winner in there somewhere. Even this little vampire movie coming out called Revenant had Rod Steiger in it. It's really amazing to me. You can't half-ass perform; there's no such thing."

As for advice for young actors, Lyonne tells them that fame rarely happens overnight. After all, she's been in this business for more than a decade and she's still hasn't "made it," in her opinion.

"Young kids, who are like 13 or 14 and want to move to Hollywood to become famous--there's no such thing," said the thesp, who plans to attend New York University's Tisch School for the Arts to major in film and philosophy. "I've been doing this for 13 years and I've done a bunch of work and I'm not famous. I'm not really known. So No. 1, focus on the work. No. 2, educate yourself--have a huge filmography and read as many books as you can. And No. 3, live life. Without living life, nothing's going to make sense and nothing's going to matter."

--Jamie Painter