When nanoparticles interact with cellular or organelle membranes, the coating ligands are known to affect the integrity of the membranes, which regulate cell death and inflammation. However, the molecular mechanisms of this modulation remain unresolved. Here, we use synchrotron X-ray liquid surface scattering and molecular dynamics simulations to study interface structures between phospholipids and gold nanorods (AuNRs) coated by surfactant and polyelectrolyte. These ligands are two types of widely used surface modification with different self-assembled structures and stabilities on the surface of nanoparticles. We reveal distinct mechanisms of the ligand stability in disrupting membrane integrity. We find that the cationic surfactant ligand cetyltrimethylammonium bromide detaches from the AuNRs and inserts into phospholipids, resulting in reduced membrane thickness by compressing the phospholipids to align with the shorter ligand. Conversely, the cationic polyelectrolyte ligand poly(diallyldimethylammonium chloride) is more stable on AuNRs; although it adsorbs onto the membrane, it does not cause much impairment. The distinct coating ligand interactions with phospholipids are further verified by cellular responses including impaired lysosomal membranes and triggered inflammatory effects in macrophages. Together, the quantitative analysis of interface structures elucidates key bio-nano interactions and highlights the importance of surface ligand stability for safety and rational design of nanoparticles.