09/07/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT
Playing a teenager in the new film comedy Slums of Beverly Hills was no beach blanket for Natasha Lyonne, who at 19 was just putting her own adolescence behind her. But there was a perk: Her character, Vivian, is virtually defined by large breasts—which meant that Lyonne got to wear prosthetics. "I was the happiest girl in the world," she says. "Here I was playing the chick I always wanted to be—and I didn't even have to get surgery."
Lyonne is likely to get lots of what she wants. After breaking out as Woody Allen's daughter in 1996's Everyone Says I Love You, she manages to steal Slums from costars Alan Arkin and Marisa Tomei. And she realized her biggest dream of all when she bought a Manhattan studio apartment earlier this year. "The only thing I ever wanted is to own a home in New York," she says.
Of course dreams don't come true overnight. The Great Neck, N.Y., native began acting at age 6, landing the role of Opal on Pee-wee's Playhouse. When she was 8, her father, Samuel, a former boxing promoter, moved the family to Israel, where Lyonne helped out by "walking around the ring as a card girl in a little skirt and tights and little boots." Her parents soon divorced, and Lyonne returned to New York City with mom Ivette, a product licensing consultant, and brother Adam, now 25. But she was miserable wearing long skirts and praying three times a day at her Manhattan yeshiva. "I wouldn't mind burning down the school," she says.
Fortunately she chose to burn up the screen instead, landing a spot on As the World Turns and making her film debut opposite Meryl Streep in 1986's Heartburn. The unattached, self-proclaimed neurotic seems happier these days. "I'm testing the American dream," she says. "I'm just going to watch movies and make movies till I die—even if people don't want me to anymore."