Variety Streaming Room TV
When “Russian Doll” returned for its long-awaited second season, the Netflix series aimed to pose bigger and more intimate questions with its characters. The Emmy-winning series revolves…
When “Russian Doll” returned for its long-awaited second season, the Netflix series aimed to pose bigger and more intimate questions with its characters.
The Emmy-winning series revolves around Nadia Vulvokov (Natasha Lyonne), a woman who repeatedly encounters bizarre time-related phenomenon. In Season 1, that manifested in a time loop where Nadia repeatedly died and got sent back in time to the night of her birthday, and in Season 2, she explores her family history by leaping into the pregnant body of her mother Lenora (Chloë Sevigny).
During a Variety Streaming Room conversation, presented by Netflix, Lyonne — the show’s star, co-creator, executive producer, writer and director — discussed the inspirations for the season, from “Quantum Leap” to Michio Kaku’s “God Equation,” and the questions the new episodes pose with its time travel storyline.
“Season one’s question is ‘How do I stop dying?’ and season two’s question is ‘How do I start living?'” Lyonne explained. “And for Nadia and Alan (Charlie Barnett), that’s a big thing. And they represent, in this odd couple way, just a large swath of humanity.”
Lyonne was joined by her “Russian Doll” co-stars Barnett and Greta Lee (who plays Nadia’s best friend Maxine), as well as series cinematographer Ula Pontikos for a discussion about how they executed those lofty aims, both in front of and behind the camera. In a conversation with Variety senior entertainment reporter Angelique Jackson, the group discussed the show’s increasingly existential focus, navigating the time-hopping shenanigans of the main characters and their takeaways from the emotional and complex material.
“Just the fact that we have something like ‘Quantum Leap’ being tagged as a source of comedy is something that is so unique and inherent to this show and to the massive female brains that came together to make this show,” Lee noted. “That is something that has always been so special about this group and the story of how to balance the darkness and some very emotional, larger questions with comedy.”
In this season, Barnett’s Alan, Nadia’s partner in time-travel, begins to inhabit the body of his grandmother, Agnes (Carolyn Michelle Smith), who is living in Berlin during the 60s. Barnett felt particularly connected to this material about Alan figuring out his life through his grandmother due to his own background as an adoptee who never met his birth parents, which made acting out the story incredibly powerful.
“I’m sure everyone feels this in their own right, but I feel like there’s been a puzzle piece missing in my life to educate me on who I am and how I can help be a better me by not having this relationship, this connection from my mom, by not having this informational through-line into understanding myself,” Barnett shared.
“That was a big jumping off point when I got the script and saw where we were going in the second season,” he explained. “Throughout, it was incredibly triggering — and in a beautiful artistic way, I don’t want to say triggering in a negative — to explore the desire of filling those holes and also realizing that everything is kind of there, and it doesn’t need as much exploration or answers as you think.”
Pontikos explained how she and the crew used camera techniques, like Texas Switches, and worked with the VFX team to capture Nadia and Alan’s journeys in a way that would be understandable for the viewer, but also presented a reality for the actors to work inside, giving them the freedom they needed to inhabit the trippy (and tricky) concept.
“Most of the effects were done in camera, whether we were in the train carriage or in the virtual studio or in the mirrored bathroom that was built the same way [on each side],” Pontikos revealed. “It actually supports the ‘now’ for actors, so that it doesn’t pull you away from the story.”
“Russian Doll” is currently streaming on Netflix. Watch the full conversation above.