In the closing minutes of the third episode of Orange Is the New Black Season 3, Nicky Nichols (Natasha Lyonne) finds herself in the backseat of the Litchfield van on her way to maximum security prison, kissing her relatively lax life goodbye as the tears she's desperately trying to fight back mix with her signature black eyeliner, staining her cheeks.
After swiping several bags of heroin from Vee (Lorraine Toussaint) at the end of Season 2, Nicky — a reformed heroin addict — spent the first few episodes of OITNB's third season trying to sell the drugs through Luschek (Matt Peters), Litchfield's morally flexible electrician. But when the prison's warden, Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow), found a small sampling of the goods in Luschek's desk, Nicky's one-time partner sold her out and she was exiled to max.
The subsequent scene — as a handcuffed Nicky is led down the hall, past her "family," into a van, and shuttled to her terrifying new home — only lasts two and a half minutes, but in that short span of time, Lyonne takes the character, and viewers, on a harrowing, nearly wordless free fall of emotions that plays out on her sorrowful face. It's a moment that not only stands as Lyonne's last on OITNB (so far), but one of the series' most powerful ever.
"Nicky was playing very fast and loose all year and it makes sense that would get her into trouble," Lyonne told BuzzFeed News while relaxing in a suite at the Beverly Hilton Hotel during the 2015 Television Critics Association summer press tour. "I'll tell you this: I'm an ex-junkie and there's not a ton of fucking heroin baggies in my life. That's just a ballsy move for a junkie to have around. Hanging out with it and sleeping with it under her pillow and fucking smelling it? There had to be some hell to pay for it, and I think Orange Is the New Black would be a much lesser show if, in fact, the consequence of that was just, Oooh, Nicky met a fun new girl!"
And because of her own battle with drug addition, it's of particular importance to Lyonne that Nicky's punishments always match her crimes. "I'm coming up on a decade of being away from that whole time in my life," said the always-candid actor. "I'm far enough removed to not go nuts playing it, but close enough that I have a firm fucking memory of what it takes for a person to end up being somebody who wants to get high at the very real risk of death — not somebody who wants to get high and watch a movie, but wants to hit that other level of utter obliteration of all emotion. It's always that awkward space where it's too close to home, where it's not me and yet there's a real, personal profundity that I get to play Nicky just enough removed from my experience."
That close, personal identification was just one of the reasons why Lyonne found it so difficult to actually get through the scene in which Nicky's whole world crumbles around her. "The first time we did the little hallway bit, Yael [Stone, who plays Nicky's best friend and former lover Morello], Kate [Mulgrew, who plays Nicky's prison mother, Red], and [I] actually started crying," she recalled. "We're very close, so there were a lot of echoes and threads happening where reality and fiction were getting enmeshed. We're pretty tight unit over there."
"That was a short scene on the page," Lyonne continued. "I remember even in Season 1 — the scene where I'm kicking dope in the bathroom with Red — was only an eighth of a page. Kate, in particular, has this very intense effect on me, for whatever reason, when we're in character. When we're out of character, we're usually really cracking up and very filthy and pretty good times, but once we're in costume and in character, it's like an immediate nerve gets hit and those eighth-of-a-page scenes become very emotional for us."
Although Lyonne is able to find subtle nuances with the few lines she was given for the scene, her truest triumph lies in how expertly she conveys every confusing, warring, devastating feeling running through Nicky's mind as she takes the short drive from Litchfield to max. Even without the tangible trigger of Stone's or Mulgrew's presence, Lyonne was able to access that emotional kaleidoscope by, once more, tapping into her own personal life experience.
"Speaking as someone who is well-versed in self-destructive behavior, there's a lot for me to draw on. It's almost painful for me to draw on … because there was such a long stretch of my life where I lived in that space so consistently and thoroughly," she said of the scene where Nicky is, emotionally speaking, "beating the shit out of herself." "So much of living in that space has to do with your mind so loudly telling [you] how fucking terrible you are. So I really imagine that Nicky's drive away from there [is] her violent cutoff of the whole world she's leaving behind. It's too much love to process and the only way to do that is to tell herself, 'They mean nothing to me and love means nothing to me because I am nothing and I mean nothing and of course I'm getting what I deserve because I'm fucking worthless.'"
Fear also became a major factor for Lyonne's performance after she began to truly analyze the life that likely awaited Nicky in max. "There's an overwhelming fear that the very tools that have served her so well in a cushier prison are now her worst enemies," the actor said. "So I think there's a lot of fear, like, I'm about to get the shit beat out of me [and] I didn't even get to fucking get high. Like, I should have fucking done those drugs. At least then I might have OD'd and be dead. That fear of coming down the mountain and having no idea what's waiting on the other side [is] devastating."
Lyonne remained tight-lipped as to what's on the other side of the mountain for her on Orange Is the New Black; during both this interview and the show's TCA panel, she wouldn't reveal whether or not fans will see Nicky again in Season 4. But it's almost possible to imagine that showrunner Jenji Kohan wants to end Nicky's story with the character at her lowest, Lyonne surmised. "Jenji is such a vast mind and an incredible puppet master," she said after evading questions. "I feel so lucky to be in a show where a mind like that is pulling the strings of these characters, because she always has a big, bird's-eye view of what's happening and what will make sense. I think feeling like we're in very safe hands in terms of where the character should leave off and where there would be space for them in the future [is] what gives us all the confidence to do our best work. I try not to spend too much time thinking about what it all means and just do my best with what's handed to me."