Awards Daily talks with star, writer, producer and creator of Netflix’s Russian Doll, Natasha Lyonne, about her experience with the show and her creative process. She also gets into many aspects of what she sees in the show and what she wants to promote and express through it and acting in general.
She actually has a lot to say, so we’ll jump right into it.
Awards Daily: I’ll get this question out of the way, is there anything at all you can tell us about Russian Doll season two?
Natasha Lyonne: So many rabbits, rabbits everywhere. Ah, no, I don’t know what to tell. You know it’s going to be a deeper dive, where I like to live deeper dive, belly of the beast, see what happens. I can tell you that we accidentally watched Apocalypse Now as a sort of joke. I don’t know how that kind of affects things. Same idea, something dies, Season two. It is a Russian Doll. A lot to do there without being cryptic is to be honest to the title. Without speaking in riddles, it’s going to be a Russian doll. If that means anything.
AD: Hey, it’s what you can give me now.
NL: Which means it’s going to be a shot for shot remake of season one, but slightly smaller. A little bit of a different babushka.
AD: Either way, it sounds fascinating.
NL: All I know is, I am reading too many books with titles like The Ambidextrous Universe and books in that vein, particle physics, and jokes.
AD: So got a lot of material to work with here. Are the books inspiring you, so to speak?
NL: No, I’m just reading them miscellaneous of anything. I just love to read. My headset isn’t working so it is making it all the weirder, so I’m just going to lean into the weirdness. How else can I help you?
AD: I’m just going to say one of my favorite scenes from the first season is when you’re telling Ruth that you’re losing your mind. And the love and concern that’s on both of your faces is really just palpable. Did you have any connection to that scene in particular?
NL: Yeah, I had a deep connection to all the scenes. As a writer it’s very helpful because I can really think over the truth of the matter, in a first-person way. For me you know the show is in many ways a not so thinly-veiled metaphor to my drug addiction. I never quite literally died, only just a little bit. It’s never quite a one-to-one, which is what makes it so fun. It’s high concept and fictionalized, but the well I’m drawing from, including the real Ruth, my godmother who loves chain-smoking, lives in Murray Hill, New York City. It is a very safe place for me, and has a fridge full of chickens for me.
So it’s very personalizing as an actor and an extraordinary gift to know so intimately the ins and outs from the writer’s room into the elements with the life experience. As an actor, you’re always obsessively trying to figure out the back story of the character. So you try to find the ins-and-outs, what their childhood was like. You’re always desperate to be clued in and asking the director and the writer for insight for where was I the moment just before the scene, where am I going the moment just after, what happened to me earlier that day, what would make me speak in this way. You are desperately searching for context and subtext, history, and back story. So what’s miraculous about the experience of Russian Doll for me is to finally have answers.
And I would say separately as somebody who potentially and remains other than this show a character actor, no different than Peter Falk in Columbo. This is just a very different animal. My point is simply in modern times if you’re a male character actor you tend to get really meaty stuff. As this hyper female character actor I’ve been in the course of my career, I’ve been relegated to sort of filling in the blanks, doing something funny or quirky, using my personality in not often most complex honest places because frankly the professional wasn’t called for. It just wouldn’t make sense. Even as a producer I would know that it wasn’t required of me to do that much. I would see Ben Gazzara character acting, having more to do or Dennis Hopper would get more to do. I would get the same lines, not many people asking me to beef it up if I could, or just do whatever I wanted. Not always, I mean to be clear, there have been some obvious stand outs, I’ve had some extraordinary roles and opportunities: Slums of Beverly Hills and Orange is the New Black come to mind specifically, where it really was great writing and a great character. But by and large it has been an interesting ride, and I’m just deeply grateful to finally have the answers.
Actually, need to be asking the questions. if only to myself. Where is this thin line between where my reality and the audience reality begin and end moment-to-moment. What am I using as my own touchstones from my own memory versus what am I fictionalizing here and substituting. Sort of acting 101 stuff except for the added and, for me, revolutionary specificity of I’m the guy that has the answers. I’ve been on set since I’ve been 5 years old, I’ve been at this thing for so long I’ve always been curious about the inner workings of a show or a movie or whatever it was I was doing. Part of that for me is also the release of having information, like being a student in a weird way, I am a nerd, I like to know what’s happening on a very detail-oriented level.
So, for example, oftentimes I would see things being done, both as a director over the last few years or as an actor over the last 30 years, or as a producer and I would see another actor or a costume designer or anybody through questioning why this line, it doesn’t makes sense, or feels like a scene is missing here, how do I get from here to there. People flipping out on set and rightfully so that things are omitted for any number of reasons: budgets, location, actor availability, you can’t say the name of the brand because legal hasn’t cleared it. Whatever it is to know on a micro-level conjoining tissue one scene to the next, what those omissions were and why they’re there, and still be able to play the spaces in between it is such a gift. You never get that suddenly from a showrunner standpoint. How it came to be that Nadia is now at Maxine’s apartment, even though it’d be nice to see Nadia back home for a few minutes in between. Suddenly I could play the space in between, which comes up when there’s tons of great writing flying around in your day job. So in my moonlighting activities I was finally able to touch it and it was really, really fun to finally be able to do. Thirty-five years later my entire life has been this career, this gig.
AD: You talked about your writing, and writing for this show. Is there a different process for that versus your acting?
NL: Well, we have a brilliant writers room. I can’t believe how brilliant the women are who I’m going to get to collaborate with on the show. I chose to put together an all female writers room. It’s very enjoyable for me. I do think that they are sort of a shorthand like when women are in private or just the way we speak that allows a female character to make decisions where that would be viewed traditionally as male. We do all of it as a team in the room. We’re writing the second season right now so we’re in there everyday and that’s my job. First one there, last to leave.
I think the gift for me is, I surround myself with people who are more experienced at this. I like being the sort of person in the room with this experience because, obviously. I’m the keeper of the tone and the truth of that show due to my personal experience. So many of the characters are based on real life people from my life, slightly modified. The music is the soundtrack that I put together over the year of what song is going to be in which scenes. The art that hangs on the walls are my friends’ art. I try to be deep and specific so what I try to do is assemble the joy or creativity of collaboration at its best, taking my ideas and realizing the ways that they can be and will be and the how.
I can write down on cards the kind of art that will be on Maxine’s apartment, what the production designer does with that information is mind-blowing to me. It’s like the great joy in my life, to watch our production designer take those ideas and then build it into something beyond my wildest dreams. Seeing the expertise and experience is one of the funnest things in the world to see in all these arenas. Leslye Headland is brilliant. Amy Poehler is brilliant. Allison Silverman is brilliant. Chris Teague is brilliant. Jen Rogien, our costume designer, is brilliant. Not to mention Greta Lee, what she does with that role as Maxine where effectively, in less of a Master Class pair of hands, that could be an entirely different role and performance. Lee is basically there repeating the same performance on loop, and she makes it riveting each time. She makes it the funniest, most Lynchian, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas routine you have ever seen somehow. And that that’s all Greta, her brilliance exceeding anything we could have dreamed of.
You know you hear all the time of the best elements coming together, and I think Russian Doll is the case of the little show that could, really it has so much heart and a desperation to tell a version of the truth that hasn’t been told yet. So much, narratively and historically, it is a very male journey to be on an existential ride, of what is the meaning of life and death. I say it as kind of a joke, but really i mean the Joseph Campell Hero with a Thousand Faces traditional male journey, going into the jungle, going down the river looking for Kurtz. I mean I say that kind of referencing my teenage self of fantasies of what I was going to do, I don’t say it with a completely straight face of like a 40-year-old person. It does remind me of so much as I am pinching myself that the pseudo-intellectual desperate teenager in me was responding to I now get to touch on a daily basis with such great people around me.
The character’s based on Elliott Gould’s performance of Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye by Robert Altman, so that’s why she’s looking for her cat and the whole routine. You know the lazy kind of private eye. We love it when Jack Nicholson does it, Humphrey Bogart does it, Elliott Gould does it, and Peter Falk does it. But it is a joy to bring that person to center stage without acknowledging the traditional tropes of gender in that way. It’s a really good time over there. It’s very heavy too. I experience it on hard days as very Kafkaesque, very All that Jazz because it is very meta. I have a standard for what I want it to be, and I don’t want to disappoint myself or anybody else and I really want to tell the truth.
I think about women watching it more than the industry. The industry is kind of a weird thing with trends, and I’ve been around for three decades and often not very seen in it. I’m grateful to be having this moment all these years later, it blows my mind. What’s always important, remembering the ways seeing otherness made me feel when I was struggling, and that there may be women benefiting by seeing experiences that mirror their own instead of what they are traditionally spoon-fed as a normal experience in this life. I do think the majority of us are paralyzed asking the big questions and that lie around society is what makes it so parasitic. It is dangerous for everybody to live on a series of lies and so it’s kind of fun to be involved in a show that’s trying to examine that. I wouldn’t say anyone is trying to answer that, I don’t think the show has solutions.
But I think overall it’s just philosophical in just acknowledging that life is inherently problematic dilemma by virtue of the whole death part. It’s sort of a weird game and the stakes feel so real, yet so clearly imaginary and the idea that there’s so much injustice, horror and suffering that we do to each other for no apparent reason is utterly insane. Organically skews surreal and comedic as a coping mechanism because what else is there to do? So to be part of a show that investigates all that while also doing my favorite thing: walking to set with my binder, doing night shoots in the dead of winter in New York City, it is really a very lucky time in my life.
AD: Well, you have covered a lot already, including questions I had and answering things I didn’t even think about. But a question I still have is, I read that the show was originally pitched to Netflix as a three season run. Is that still your plan, or is more fluid and just a general idea?
NL: Yeah, it is funny. I was reading our original pitch document the other day. It made me laugh thinking about it. So much of it stayed, and I’m amazed by how much we actually were able to do. That people responded to it is very moving for me, but other times it’s like it’s just insane because there are some very silly ideas in there as well that were just not as well thought-out. You know we hadn’t even broken in the season the real way–just me, Leslye (Headland) and Amy (Poehler) riffing and putting it down, and it is a very complete document, very official. We worked hard to get that show on the air, believe me. It is just funny how things naturally change over the three months of writing it, three months of shooting it, and three months of editing it, it changes quite a bit.
So it’s not what it was but thematically the things that did stay in make me happy. That was what we were after, the questions we wanted to ask in the show. That’s a long way of saying anything could happen, I still see that way for some reason, I am not even certain why. I just naturally see it being that. But who knows, maybe I should just see it as a two season show, how about that? That way I won’t be setting myself up. But it is so funny to look at everything from Twin Peaks and Mad about You; maybe 20 years from now we can do season three if we are all still alive, where I’m not in it because Nadia’s dead so they will say, “Ah, ha, they knew where they were going from season one!”
So I don’t know but it is funny to think that with so many iterations of media, what does seasons mean anymore? They are essentially free-standing bodies of work and people watch them in such a specific way. It’s an interesting time to be making things. Assuming we were lucky enough to get a third season, who knows how people would be watching things by then. Maybe it would be a 3-minute Google Flash show, I don’t know what’s going to happen. Who am I to say? I’m captain nobody.
AD: Well, we will just have to wait and see then, so I have one more question. Our site deals with a lot of award material, so can you tell us what it is like to be nominated for an Emmy?
Natasha: Oh yeah it’s a real trip! I remember the first one, I actually thought that my manager was making fun of me. It was for Orange is the New Black, and I thought it was a prank because it was such a foreign concept to me. You know there are people that just hit that sweet spot for voters so every time they do something they got to get nominated. And then there are other people making big money in this business, certain people are rolling in it, other people can’t make it past go. So I genuinely thought it was a prank and I was going along with it because I thought it was funny. So it is very surprising and your humanity gets the best of you and it is pretty delightful. You feel a sense of relief that somebody is seeing what you have been working so hard on. It is a very deep feeling. It is such a human thing.
In the case of Russian Doll, it was different than Orange is the New Black. For me the joy of that day was getting to celebrate all the people that had worked so hard on the show. It wasn’t just mine. It was this unbelievable next level sorta joy. When we were at the Creative Emmys and Chris Teague, Jen Rogien, and Mike Bricker won, I was like “This is as good as this gets,” sitting here and getting to watch somebody else that is a part of something that I made and that they are the ones being celebrated was like a deep clean pure feeling like I can’t tell you. Because it’s not all convoluted with self and panic of public speaking. It’s such a clean warm thing.
Russian Doll is available for streaming on Netflix. Season 2’s premiere date has yet to be announced.