Natasha Lyonne Reveals Original ‘Russian Doll’ Season 2 Plans and Why She Kind of Digs ‘Bizarro Duality’ of Fan Reaction

Photographs by Dan Doperalski

During production on the second season of Netflix’s “Russian Doll,” Natasha Lyonne become obsessed with filming a pivotal finale sequence at a location that was her “kind of kink” — the underground cisterns in Budapest.

“I have two churches in my life: science and the movies. And what I love about science is that it is so conclusively bigger than me,” Lyonne told Variety during an interview on the upstate New York set of “Poker Face,” her upcoming Rian Johnson-created Peacock series. “I have a real intuitive understanding of the language of cinema and literature and music. That is my very organic love language, for lack of a better word. I can really see the beauty and horror of life, the magic of life, I can see it so clearly there. And then with science, I was able to really to start latching my brain onto ideas that were so much bigger than anything that I could conceive of. In many ways, [‘Russian Doll’] became sort of a theological journey for me, that I was able to only process through science, as opposed to through our various ideas of organized religion. Those ideas have always been more challenging for me to accept as a reality. I like something that I can touch and have evidence of, but that is still so much bigger than my comprehension.”

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Science nerd that she is, the “Russian Doll” co-creator, star and director was inspired by how much the cisterns looked like neural networks. An architectural representation of computing systems with interconnected nodes that work as neurons in the human brain is likely something Lyonne’s “Russian Doll” alter ego, coder Nadia Vulvokov, would see as her kind of kink, as well — if Lyonne could get approval to make it happen.

“They told me, ‘Oh, no, that’s never going to happen. It’s absolutely impossible. You can’t shoot in there.’ I said, ‘Well, surely, if they sent us this picture, you can, because someone took it.’ They said, ‘No, you should probably switch.’ I said, ‘Let’s just wait. We’ll just wait and see.’”

Eventually, her wait-and-see approach worked out when a producer told her, “You’re never going to believe it. Not those cisterns, but another one came up and we can shoot.” She responded, “You’re right. I wouldn’t believe it. That is sensational news.”

This example of Lyonne’s unwillingness to budge on her vision is just one of many, according to Alex Buono, who executive produced “Russian Doll” Season 2 and directed three installments of the seven-episode season, and director of photography Ula Pontikos.

“What I learned from working with Natasha is a great lesson in demanding of yourself that every decision is meaningful,” Buono says. “She is tireless and relentless when it comes to re-working the script, re-working the shot, re-work- ing the edit until the scene reflects the larger thematic. It’s always a challenge to hold onto those big lofty subtextual ideas when you’re against the clock, and it was inspiring to watch how Natasha always kept sight of the bigger picture. It’s a trippy sci-fi show but I swear it’s all very carefully mapped out and it all makes sense, and that’s because Natasha insisted that there would be no magical cheats; it all had to track and it all had to lead back to the core story.”

Pontikos adds: “It’s that feeling that when you’re tired, you just can’t give up, you just have to fight at finding the creative solutions. And I never want to give up, but there’s this inspiring sort of survival pattern which Natasha has that is just constantly creative and helping in that. Her mind is pretty extraordinary, I’ve never met anyone like her. Her mind goes and veers in such interesting places.”

In “Russian Doll” Season 2, which dropped in April, more than three years after the first season, the core story of “Russian Doll” was once again about Lyonne’s Nadia and her time-loop soulmate Alan Zaveri (Charlie Barnett). But for the second go, the pair weren’t stuck in “Groundhog Day”-style hell and instead found themselves “Quantum Leap”-ing into their dead relatives’ bodies decades prior. Season 1’s storytelling device was broken through in a divisive finale that left some “Russian Doll” fans screaming for more — and many of those same viewers complaining when it arrived.

“It seems like such a bizarre and specific way to approach a viewing experience — but I’m almost kind of into it,” Lyonne says. “I like that there is such an aggro-punk rock attitude from the viewing public of like, ‘I love that thing. I never want to see another thing that person makes.’ It just seems like a bizarro duality.”

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Lyonne’s good friend Michaela Coel was among those who were happy to see “Russian Doll” — and Lyonne/Nadia’s quintessential walk — return, with the two having met via Twitter because of the show.

“I was watching the first season of her show and a poem came to mind; George Herbert’s ‘The Flower,’ so I sent it to her, hoping she would understand [essentially the fact our creative souls were interlinked] which she did,” the “I May Destroy You” creator told Variety of the beginnings of her friendship with Lyonne, who “deeply” admires Coel’s own work.

But that first season that Coel, and so many others, loved wasn’t “Russian Doll” as originally conceived by Lyonne and co-creators Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland, with two major changes made.

First, the ending was completely overhauled at Netflix’s request.

As previously revealed by Headland in post-Season 1 press, the streaming service told the “Russian Doll” team that the ending of its Jonah Hill and Emma Stone-led limited series “Maniac” was too similar to “Russian Doll’s” for their liking, and asked the producers to rework it.

“The ending had Alan and Nadia more directly involved in the events of each other’s death in a way that I guess, looking back, would have been bleaker,” Lyonne says. “It’s kind of just like the magic of movies or TV or whatever you want to call it, that it kind of forces itself to happen. But I remember Leslye on set furiously writing episode 7, and me on set furiously writing episode 8, and we were in the middle of production.”

Secondly, Alan was not a character in the original “Russian Doll” series pitch.

“Part of Alan’s invention came from a place of, are we going to believe that this woman’s journey is real and valid in a high-concept story? Are we going to trust her as a reliable witness? And that intuitively, for some reason, we will trust a man’s journey of, ‘It is the world gone mad, not our hero?’ But for a woman — and obviously the show plays with it in so many ways — we assume that she must be having some sort of a crackup, if the world has fallen to shreds around her, as opposed to the other way around,” Lyonne says, noting that Barnett’s character appeared around “midway through the process of the first season writers’ room.”

While breaking out the first season’s tentpoles, Lyonne noticed the importance of having someone else there.

“We needed this other person who could validate her experience for the viewer to say, ‘If you don’t identify with her defiance and Evel Knievel mentality and intensity level — all these things that you might find not palatable — then perhaps you will identify with that experience a little bit more if you see it in a strait-laced guy who kind of seemingly keeps it together. Therefore, by proxy, you will now have more empathy for her journey, as well, and believe her reality is indeed real.’”

In Season 2, the “device” wasn’t as necessary, as Nadia takes a magical subway trip that transports her into the pregnant-with-Nadia body of her mother, Lenora “Nora” (Chloë Sevigny), in the East Village in 1982. There, she avoids Nora’s mother, Vera (Irén Bordán), hunts for her family’s lost fortune of krugerrands and hangs out with the younger version of Nadia’s godmother and maternal stand-in Ruth (Annie Murphy).

Nadia is avoiding older Ruth (Elizabeth Ashley), nearing death in the present day, and the constant reminders of that fact from friends Maxine (Greta Lee) and Lizzy (Rebecca Henderson). Later, Nadia becomes her grandmother Vera in World War II-era Budapest while continuing to try to change the past, as Alan is inhabiting his grandmother Agnes (Carolyn Michelle Smith) in East Berlin during the Cold War. In between their jumps, the two keep each other posted on their shared re-living of inter-generational trauma.

“By Season 2, the revelation is that their worlds are not quite as far apart as this ‘Odd Couple’ setup may seem,” Lyonne says. “In fact, they’re quite inextricably linked with all this sort of quantum physics game of spooky action at a distance, and that they are somehow bound in a way that’s saying, ‘Are any of us so different from one another when you get down to our guts and our essence of instinct in a life which is survival?’”

The sophomore season concludes with Nadia giving birth to herself while inhabiting her mother’s body and bringing the infant Nadia to the present day, only to see reality crumble around her until she finally returns herself and sets things right. Like the first season, this installment underwent changes from its initial storyline, which Lyonne says, “had Nadia playing her mom anthologically and she was a sort of Cookie Mueller figure in Tompkins Square Park that was dealing with the gentrification of the neighborhood.”

“It was this idea that life is a form of a haunting, and that the characters were going to play different roles, I guess almost like an ‘American Horror Story’ or something in a way — the same cast, but in different iterations. Once through that journey of making that show, you also have Chloë iconically playing the mother, you’re in love with Maxine, you’re in love with Alan, you’re in love with Ruth, you’re in love with Lizzy, you’re in love with Horse. I don’t know that I want to suddenly have them in caps and wigs. What is still the same is Nadia does end up inside her mother in the ’80s in that neighborhood. But the physical execution of that idea shifts radically around the build of Season 1.”

Additionally, the second season lost a dual-timeline plot that would have followed both the “Alpha” and “Beta” versions of Nadia and Alan that are shown in the Season 1 finale. By eliminating the other timeline, “it changed the scope of a lot of the Nadia and Alan” story.

“In many ways, the achievement of Season 2 and the litmus test is that it’s its own thing that’s an extension of the thing, so that it really kind of makes ‘Russian Doll’ be allowed to be what feels current to us in that room. It allows us to be the owners of it, who can take the most care of it.”

Producer Poehler has the utmost respect for the love and attention Lyonne has shown the series.

“In Season 2, Natasha truly carried the baby. She wrote, produced, directed and starred in a very complicated and deeply beautiful show during a pandemic,” she told Variety. “I’m always impressed the most by her big brain. Her big ideas. The places she is willing to go to create her art.”

As for a potential Season 3, Lyonne says they “have some very big and clear ideas,” though she doesn’t yet know if she’ll get the greenlight to bring them to fruition. “But if we’re lucky enough to get to dive back in, then I think, more than anything, I’m so excited to watch those ideas shift and morph and become what they’re destined to be.”

At the moment, she’s focused on Peacock’s highly guarded series “Poker Face” from “Knives Out” director Rian Johnson, which Lyonne and Maya Rudolph are producing through their Animal Pictures banner.

“’Poker Face’ is a case-of-the-week mystery series, anchored entirely by Natasha as the ‘detective,’” Johnson told Variety. “The show was created around her, and the whole thing is tailored to Natasha like a bespoke suit. It could only exist with her charisma and presence at the center of it.”

He describes the “Russian Doll” co-creator’s style thus: “She’s got a very Fellini-type sensibility, where the funny and absurd is a way into the dark and personal. It’s inspiring to me, seeing how unafraid she is to push further and further in that direction.”

Per Lyonne, she and “full-blown humble genius” Johnson are “living the dream out in the middle of nowhere in Newburgh [N.Y.]” working on “Poker Face,” which “somehow feels both incredibly modern and a perfect throwback to all our favorite things.”

Still, “Russian Doll” is and always will be a favorite of Lyonne’s — and is a project she says she doesn’t think she’ll ever be “done” with. Somehow, she says, she could even find a way to revisit it decades from now.

“It’s sort of baked into the title of it, that it has this endless series of deeper and deeper dolls,” Lyonne said. “I make all these jokes about how old I am because I’ve been doing this since I was 5 years old, so I feel about 3,000. But in the reality of a lifetime, I don’t think Nora Ephron directed her first movie until she was 40. So, in many ways, I’m right on track. And I think it’s important for young people to remember that, that life is not the race that they tell us it is.”