In her review of Ad Astra, Slate movie critic Dana Stevens notes that “inexplicably but amusingly, Natasha Lyonne, with curls untamed and New York accent intact, shows up in a single scene as a kind of gate agent at the Mars base launchpad.” She’s not the only viewer to whom Lyonne’s surprise midmovie appearance jumped out. At Manhattan’s Metrograph theater on Tuesday night, Indiewire film critic David Ehrlich began the post-screening Q&A he was moderating with writer-director James Gray by asking him how the Orange Is the New Black actress and Russian Doll co-creator ended up in his sci-fi epic, manning a desk on the red planet.
In an attempt to explain one of the universe’s great inexplicable mysteries, we give you a lightly condensed version of Gray’s response.
I lived until very recently in an old apartment building called the El Royale, which was built in 1929, which for Los Angeles is extremely old. George Raft … a big movie star in the ’30s and ’40s, lived in the building, and Mae West lived across the street.
Anyway, every Sunday night, I make dinner … and we have a lot of guests, and it’s a wonderful thing. And one day, I’m walking down the hall, and I see Natasha Lyonne walking towards me, and she says, [extremely Natasha Lyonne voice] “Honey, I know who you are. You’re James Gray.”
“You’re Natasha Lyonne.”
And she says, “I’m smelling it. Every Sunday, I smell it. Every Sunday. What are you doing to me? What are you doing to me?”
“Would you like to come in and have dinner with us?”
She said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, I would.”
Natasha Lyonne joined us for dinner, and in the middle of it she said, “What are you doing now? What are you doing now?”
I said, “I’m doing this movie [in which] Brad Pitt goes to space.”
She goes [still with the New York accent], “Brad Pitt goes to space? What am I doing in it?”
I said, “The movie is Brad Pitt and Brad Pitt alone.”
She said: “I’m in it. I’m in it.”
Months later, I called her up, when we were getting closer to production. I said, “Would you come do one day for me?” Because I do love her … I mean, she’s a great actor. And I’ve known her work from Slums of Beverly Hills. She used to date Edward Furlong, who was in the first film I ever did, which was a movie called Little Odessa. He was 16 years old at the time.
In any event, to make a long story longer, she comes to set, and she’s incapable of an uninteresting moment, which is weird because it was supposed to be just a cameo. … And I kept seeing the cameraman keep putting the camera on Natasha Lyonne. I said, “Listen, buddy, I got Brad Pitt in the movie.”
Does Lyonne stand out too much? Even Gray isn’t sure, saying that he kept worrying that it would be an “Alan Cumming in Eyes Wide Shut moment.” Still, if anything, he says, “I kind of wished she were in more of the movie.” On that I think we can all agree.