Natasha Lyonne on Importance of ‘Quantum Consequences’ and Connection in ‘Russian Doll’

Natasha Lyonne Portrait
Dan Doperalski for Variety

Natasha Lyonne has worked as a child star (“Pee-wee’s Playhouse”), a teen star (“The Slums of Beverly Hills”) and of course as an adult (“Orange Is the New Black”), but her wealth of acting experience also fueled a desire to create. Teaming up with Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland, Lyonne executive produces, directs and stars in “Russian Doll,” an eight-episode series about finding human connection after death that is streaming on Netflix.

How closely connected do you feel to your character of Nadia in “Russian Doll”?

The character of Nadia is somebody who’s been sort of my, and I hate to use this reference because I’m somebody who’s pushing 40; I’m no longer a tween, but remember how [Charles] Bukowski always had Henry Chinaski? I always had Nadia in everything I would write, and it was based on Nadia Comaneci, who was my favorite gymnast from the ’80s. It was a name and a character who has been following me at attempts and stabs at writing for the better part of a decade. … And then, speaking as an actor, how incredible to get to craft a role from a lifetime of experience followed by three months in the writers’ room? Each moment on set, you know exactly why you’re doing the things you’re doing. By the time we stepped on set, Nadia is not me, and her life is not my life. As much as any of us draw on personal things in the arts, I knew who that person was and why she was making the choices she was making on a deep, deep level, even from things that had been omitted.

What did you want Charlie Barnett as Alan to bring that would be different from Nadia?

Ultimately, Alan’s journey was to be able to hit at Nadia’s heart and Nadia to hit at his, and the architecture of who would these people be, in early drafts he started as a JPL character based on this guy I had met at en event and he was going to be Nadia’s love interest, but he morphed into something that transcended. … The goal was to talk about the fact that we are all going through something similar, and there is a very simple odd-couple pairing to us in that he is into classical music and wants to lead a very planned and organized life to kind of get it right [while] Nadia wants to live what she considers a life of lawlessness, making her own rules. But the fact is, they’re both stuck in a similar trip in a way that we all are kind of saddled with our own albatrosses and boogeymen in this life, and it’s a question of how we shake them.

Why is the theme of connection important to you?

My personal belief is that so much of the discomfort that we endure as a society is our unwillingness to admit our own inherent brokenness at an individual level and as a species –and the fact that we put on a pedestal certain kind of idealized perfectionism is a real waste of energy and serves absolutely no one and makes us all suffer needlessly and is not the truth and has devastating consequences. … By Episode 8 I started to realize this was a show, in many ways, about “Don’t take yourself out.” I don’t think any of us were writing it intentionally that way, but of course we were because that’s why we’re kindred as a team, and there has to be another option.

What was most important to you about how you evolved the visual style, even as the deaths repeated?

I have a friend who said, “Everybody gets a certain amount of chances with getting high in this life. Some people use them all up really quickly, and then they can continue to get high, but there will be consequences.” So there are quantum consequences for each time they use up their allotted runs, and that might come in the form of all of a sudden your face looks f—ed up or you have Hepatitis C or they take your kid from you. … You can keep doing it, it’s just that different aspects of the world as you know it will start falling apart, which of course in turn will change your perspective of, “What is my world?” So we were playing with the idea of those quantum consequences emotionally and therefore in the physical manifestation of things disappearing in the world, whether it was objects or furniture or actual people. And then by Episode 7 when the stakes are highest, physically there had to be consequences [to Nadia]. There would be these blank patches or mental blind spots to things as the very nature and the fabric of the universe was falling apart because they weren’t getting to the heart of the matter.

Do you welcome comparisons to “Groundhog Day” or “Happy Death Day” or are they reductive?

“Groundhog Day,” of course I’ve seen — I love that movie — and I do think that’s probably a much more wholesome version, still within the realm of a morality tale. [This] probably has a more clear cut, one-to-one addiction metaphor, as far as the idea is deeply personal to me of going from a very disconnected, removed life [where] self-destruction makes the only sense because my behaviors don’t impact the world around me to a character who is by circumstance forced to look at this other idea, which is she accidents into a more connected life [and] realizes people are real, including herself. This is, of course, a much more vulnerable place to be at than this pseudo-punk rock idea of, “Nothing means anything and I don’t care. No one can touch me and I can’t touch them.” Just as soon as it crystallizes that we are of this world, then we have to be participating members — including the discomforts of the injustices that are a part of the daily news cycle that will rock you with their horrors and make you not want to go on because it all seems like to much, to the realities of life’s arbitrary nature and fragility. … Life is full of these moments and I think it speaks to the universal themes of discomfort and curiosity of the experience of what it means to be a thinking, feeling person who’s having these kinds of colliding thoughts. … It’s a very human experience, as well, to wonder what it’s all about. And so in that sense, for me, I think it has closer bones to things I loved as a teenager like “No Exit,” “Exterminating Angel,” “All That Jazz,” “Jo Jo Dancer Your Life is Calling,” “The Singing Detective.”

What made this the right time in your life, personally, to tell this story?

I’m finally so relaxed. I feel really far from strum and drang of questions about the industry and “Is there a place for me here?” I’m thrilled to be older — I’m thrilled to be done with being a child actor or a teenage actor or a round two, comeback actor. I’m so glad there are so many battles I’ve done in this industry that are now over, and I think I just feel such a relief and, in an artistic community, I think I feel really, deeply moved and supported. [Before] there were so many torturous dark nights of the soul, “What does it all mean? What’s my place here?” I dropped out … and nobody wanted me back, frankly; it was not like Robert Downey Jr. and everybody cared — nobody cared. And the great thing about being a New York character actor is [that] there was a space for me if I put the work in.

When were the moments you felt like you were back on the upswing?

Scott Elliott, who ran the New Group, was doing this Mike Leigh play called “Two Thousand Years,” and I spent like a month just getting the dialect right. And every Mike Leigh movie — David Thewlis in “Naked” is one of my all-time favorites and definitely kind of a sister-brother to Nadia in “Russian Doll,” although no more or less than Elliott Gould in “The Long Goodbye,” but these were all strains of ideas that were being played with of the male-female dynamic and can she just be a person that we’ve seen in movies, even if we’ve never seen [it] in women? So doing that Mike Leigh play slowly got me back on my feet. It took me longer than I think it takes most people. I didn’t have a 28-day drug problem; I had to do a complete reassembly. … And yet, on the other side of that, from where I’m sitting now, I’m deeply moved by my peers and pretty often in a state of “Holy s—, I can’t believe it.” It was a very hand-to-mouth operation on the back-end of my shenanigans and antics. But also, Nora Ephron and Delia Ephron — I’m so grateful Delia is around and I’ve been able to share my Kenzo short film with her. People that know the journey I’ve been on are really speaking my version of English with me. And I just got my DGA card, and Nora is on the card. I cried more when Nora and Lou Reed died than I did my own parents. I like to think they were who should have been my mother and father, if we could claim them. And the way that Nora and Delia put their faith in me and was like, “Come on, kid, start writing, start thinking about directing,” and the way [Amy] Poehler took me under her wing.

You and Amy previously teamed on a pilot for NBC, how did that experience inform “Russian Doll”?

“Old Souls” still had the godmother character of Ruth and had Greta Lee as my best friend and had me as a character named Nadia, so it was like the early days, but this was a deeper dive. And it was the idea that that experience was not wasted and was not in a vacuum and actually led us to the thing that we should have been making. So it was actually thank goodness that NBC didn’t run with that show because “Russian Doll” was what we were meant to make.

Do you also feel like your experience on “Orange is the New Black” influenced this at all?

Jenji Kohan having me direct in the final season, I think that was a real way of putting her arm around me and saying, “Hey kid, come play with us. You can write, you can direct, come bring your brains with you to the table.” I don’t want to in any way minimize the power of acting. I think even more now as a writer and a producer and a director [too] I understand. I think I had self-minimized acting because my experience had not been Juilliard; my experience was completely self-taught — I was just a massive movie buff who just, all day, read books and sat at the film forum. I dropped out of [NYU] Tisch, where I was a film major, so I didn’t really put the appropriate respect to acting that I now have. Because I can see, when I’m at the monitor, the power of the actor. If you don’t have that, you don’t have anything. If an actor doesn’t have something deep going on, everything else can be magic and the thing’s still a bust.

All this being said, did wearing so many hats on “Russian Doll” provide ultimate control or unexpected challenges?

My brain was able to hear the click in a way. … Somewhere in my brain finds white noise and it’s busyness but it’s actually occupied correctly, and I’m watching all of the things. … There’s something about being on my own set, that’s my own creation, and all of the characters are people from my own life and everything that’s on the walls I put in scripts because they were real things — every song that’s playing is a specific thing. So there’s something very calming about watching it all happen. I think so often the actor’s experience is having to defer to someone else for a sense of self-worth or “Did I do OK?” Or, as Michelle Obama beautifully puts in her book, “Am I enough?” The actor spends a lot of time gently checking in with various producers, directors, makeup artists, costumers, and it’s a heavy run, or as Bette Davis would say, a lonely life. But there’s something about actually knowing all of the elements that’s actually calming because you know what the vibe is and you know where it’s coming from.