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The following contains minor spoilers for Brad Pitt's new film, Ad Astra**. If you want to look for this cameo yourself, go check out the film, then come back.**
Brad Pitt's Ad Astra is a pretty serious film. It's about a man flying through outer space on a quest, but also about that man's personal demons and the closure he seeks. Pitt's character, Roy McBride, is permanently serious. He never cracks a joke, or even a smile, throughout Ad Astra. But director James Gray says he wanted to inject some small bit of humor into the movie, and that comes from a very brief, but entirely unexpected cameo.
Roy McBride's journey in Ad Astra takes him from the earth, to the moon, and then to the planet Mars. When McBride arrives he goes through processing, as one would when entering a new country on earth. However, this processing is surprisingly low tech. It's handled by a single secretary at an old wooden desk. However, what's even more humorous than the setting, is the secretary herself, as she's played by Russian Doll and Orange is the New Black actress Natasha Lyonne. According to director James Gray...
I’d met [Natasha] a few times and liked her enormously. She’s great. She’s also incredibly talented, and I begged her to do this part for a day. [I wanted to cast] the funniest, most interesting person [I knew to] inject a little bit of weird humor. ...The movie is pretty heavy and dark, so it was a flash of humor. All of a sudden on Mars, you’re hooking up with a 1950s New York secretary!
Natasha Lyonne doesn't have more than a couple of lines in Ad Astra, and the character never reappears after the first time we see her, but for fans who recognize her, it seems that's part of the point. That moment of recognition where you realize you recognize the secretary at the desk gives you something of a mental break from the otherwise "heavy and dark" movie.
The character, whose name is Tanya Pincus, checks in Brad Pitt's Roy McBride from the shuttle that arrived, and tells him where he needs to go. That's pretty much all that happens on screen, but James Gray tells EW that things went a bit deeper on set. The movie wanted to conjure the idea of a cliched secretary character from classic movies, and went the extra mile to make everything feel that way, even in way the audience never sees.
It’s never mentioned in the movie, but we had stationery [on her desk] made up with her name: Tanya Pincus. We wanted to conjure a 1950s New York secretary, like a clichéd, Hollywood-movie secretary in old movies.
You can't make a movie as serious as Ad Astra without the production itself becoming a fairly serious affair, but James Gray says just having Natasha Lyonne on set made that single day of filming a bit more fun. Apparently Brad Pitt thought Lyonne was quite funny. Even the cinematographer was taken the actress, and apparently tried to make her part larger himself. Gray continues...
There was a lot of laughing going on that day. She’s a riveting actress, so the cinematographer operating the handheld camera kept panning over to her,” Gray explains. “I kept saying, ‘No, we love her, but the scene is about [Brad’s] entrance into this base,’ but she was doing all of this cool stuff!
For a film with a comparatively small cast, so much of the film is Brad Pitt alone, every other role is important, and Natasha Lyonne's appearance in Ad Astra is a welcome one. The film had a decent opening weekend, opening in second place at the domestic box office.