Natasha Lyonne has a message for people who see “Russian Doll,” the time-trippy dark comedy on Netflix she co-created and stars in, as a kind of television memoir: The show is personal but not autobiographical.
For the record:
5:41 p.m. April 27, 2022A previous version of this story misspelled an actor’s name, a character’s name and a writer’s name. The correct spellings are Charlie Barnett for the actor, Lizzy for the character and Allison Silverman for the writer.
“One of the stories about the show is how much it’s me, personally,” Lyonne says, alluding to her chaotic childhood and history with addiction. “It has been my life experience that there’s a lot of stuff that we don’t talk about or that we’re ashamed of, family histories, stuff like that, and it’s actually not as rare as we like to pretend. The only thing I could tell you about my family is that there’s such extreme character studies that I think, as a writer, as a director, as an actor, as a producer, it’s given me a huge window into the human condition more than I think I’m exorcising personal demons through my work.”
In other words, as she later quips: “No, my mother did not give birth to me on the subway tracks at Astor Place station while I was time traveling.”
Created by Lyonne, Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland, the series spent its first season pivoting around Lyonne’s Nadia Vulvokov, a scraggily East Village video game engineer who is fatally struck by a cab the night of her 36th birthday party and gets stuck in a “Groundhog Day”-like time loop, reliving the night in new and more bizarre ways — and meeting a fellow time-loop pal, Alan (Charlie Barnett), in the process. Time is still on a loop in Season 2, but it takes the 6 train to the past. The new season picks up four years later, days before Nadia’s 40th birthday. Before long, Nadia — and eventually Alan — find themselves traveling back in time, bouncing among decades and coming up close with their family histories while delving into mortality, existentialism and inherited trauma.
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“I want the kids to have it,” Lyonne declares, in her sandpaper voice, about finally releasing the new episodes after a three-year gap.
She is sitting in the glow of her laptop in a dimly lighted corner of her home in upstate New York. At different points in the conversation, she apologizes for her shaggy mullet (“It’s for a job”) and her own train situation: “It’s a freight train that goes by my house about 20 times a day, so that’s what you’re hearing. I woke up the first morning I was here to birds chirping. I was so confused. I was like, ‘What’s that sound?’ As a New Yorker I was like, ‘Oh, my God, it’s birds. That’s awful. Who would ever want this?’ And then the next thing I knew, I heard a loud horn at 5 in the morning, followed by coo-chug-coo-chug-coo-chug and the house started rumbling, shaking. But everything is fine, you know?”
With the second season of “Russian Doll,” the actress and director makes her debut as a showrunner, taking over the role from Headland. Her vision and decision making became a multifaceted operation; she also wrote four of this season’s seven episodes and directed three. She discusses her full-throttle creative dive into this season, avenues the show didn’t go down, and the prospect of a third season.
‘How are we going to break time?’
A catalyst for Season 2’s action is the ailing health of Ruth (Elizabeth Ashley), who become a surrogate parent to Nadia when her mother died. Ruth’s condition — and Nadia’s avoidance thereof — lead her to try to heal her past, and in turn those of her mother, Lenora, and grandmother, Vera.
It sends Nadia on a mission to find her family’s storied treasure, a bag full of South African gold Krugerrands. One has been passed down from Nadia’s grandmother — a Holocaust survivor who exchanged her savings for the coins, only to have them stolen — to Nadia’s mentally ill mother to Nadia. Traveling through time to prevent their theft, Nadia’s past collides with the present as Ruth ultimately meets her fate.
If we’re talking about early pitch days to Netflix — when Amy and Leslye and I went in — there was definitely a sense that Season 2 is going to have a lot of Mom in it. And the question was if I was going to be playing her as almost this Cookie Mueller type who was walking around Tompkins [Square Park] as the neighborhood was getting gentrified. And in some ways, that’s all that we had. We were just kind of riffing to try to get the show sold. It’s funny, I don’t even know how much of that I was really even thinking about, because it felt so clearly that that was not going to be enough, just to have me walking around saying I’m my mom. Also, Chloë [Sevigny] had played that part so iconically, even if it was brief, that it would have been crazy if suddenly I was like, now I’m her.
It also felt like, “Nadia and Alan and Maxine and Ruth and Lizzy and Horse — these are our people. I don’t know that we want to just throw them away.” I think that would have felt pretty lame. I just started thinking about this idea of root cause or inciting events. If Season 1 was a meditation on mortality in a very direct way, how could Season 2 be a more nuanced meditation on the nature of time itself, which is really one of the primary problems of mortality? Of course, if you get hit by a car, or jump off a roof, you sort of definitively ended that dilemma. But for most of us that make it out alive into middle age, this deeper question of what does it mean to make the most of the remaining time here really comes up. What I am drawing on is a more holistic, philosophical or even spiritual worldview — that’s the personal part of the show. Yes, my grandmother was also a Holocaust survivor, that is true. But no, my grandmother has nothing to do with Vera, and no, my grandmother doesn’t dress like that or act like that. She didn’t have those conversations with my mom, and no, she never put my mom in a mental hospital in the ’80s. And no, my mom was not pregnant with me when this happened.
Near the end of the season, as Nadia gets deeper into trying to undo the turning points of her family history, she breaks reality by bringing her own infant self back from the past — 1982 — to the present.
It makes me laugh — the idea that you would just kidnap your inner child to fix you. I always called it a kidnapping. I just liked the idea that she was in this overcoat with leather and f— sunglasses and smoking at night being like, “I got baby me, I fixed it. I fixed it.” Because, like, what’s the plan from there? But on a deeper level I guess I’m asking a question about regret and why we spend so much time doing it. And boy, what a bummer. I hate that. It breaks my heart that, for me and all my pals, and all the people I don’t know, that we all seem to share the basic thematics of: This is what a life experience feels like — you’re going to have regret, you’re going to have fear, you’re going to have shame. That sucks. That blanket sucks.
I’m always curious about that. You experience it in life as, “Oh, my God, why did I send that text message? They didn’t write back. Oh, my God, I’m such a f— idiot. Oh, my God, I suck so high.” You’re in the car, you’re walking down the street, you’re like, “Why did I do that?” It’s so loud with how much you suck, and then 20 minutes go by and they text you and it’s over. What the hell is that? Is it really worth a full reset? How does one catalog a life? More than that, how does someone rejigger a point of view around to: OK, with the time I’ve got left, this is what I’ve learned, so I’m going to try to do things a little bit differently. And that’s really what I want for Nadia and Alan.
The season ends with Nadia finding herself back in the apartment bathroom of her friend Maxine (Greta Lee) as Harry Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up” plays.
I think it was really important for us because, on a budget level — I remember that the question before the Christmas break in the room was like, “F—, how are we going to break time?” We’ve seen multiverse of madness, or whatever, Marvel movies do it, we’ve all seen the Chrysler Building in a tidal wave and Godzilla comes through, but I don’t think this show has that kind of budget. And then it was, like: “The party!” And I remember I was very, like, “Oh, my God, oh, my God.” That was our place. It felt like, for Nadia and Alan, what would be the worst case scenario of broken time. It would be the events of Season 1. I was so relieved when it came to us because we had games we were thinking about — a horse carriage, DeLoreans, spaceships — and it was like, “No, no, no, we can’t do this.”
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‘It’s important to understand these things to better twist them around’
Lyonne supplied the writers with a seven-page syllabus of texts and visual work she found useful and informative in thinking about the themes, tone and aesthetic of the season.
It was not so much like, “Oh, this is required reading” or anything; it was more like, “Here’s some stuff that helped me to ‘blue sky’ this season.” I’m always a back pocket paperback reader, so in Season 1, I remember walking into the first day of the [writers] room, really apropos of nothing, with Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning.” Also, I was big at the time on Ellen Ullman’s “Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology” — she was one of the first female coders. There was also this Douglas Hofstadter book, “I Am a Strange Loop,” which we sort of dived into more directly [this season] in the introspective camera scene in Crazy Eddie’s in [Episode 3], and you see it again with Ruth on the staircase in the finale — more globally, that book is everywhere in the show. This year, also, I got very into this book by Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli called “The Order of Time.” It really just sparked my imagination. “When Einstein Walked With Gödel” I really loved. And Allison Silverman brought in “Kindred.” There’s just an endless list of these books. I’m always reading these things that, to be clear, I don’t understand them, I just I love them, the way they make me think.
If the purpose of blue sky is to crack it wide open and you’re playing a sort of sci-fi game, it’s important to understand these things to better twist them around — at least a surface understanding of things like the “double-slit experiment” and “spooky action at a distance,” which is the reason why these two characters [Nadia and Alan] are connected. And this guy Michio Kaku, who writes all these books called, like, “The God Equation” and “The Future of Humanity” — he’s one of our foremost string theorists and futurists. I’ve had the writers over to watch “Apocalypse Now,” “The Taking of Pelham 123,” “Jacob’s Ladder.” Obviously, Season 1 is more of an “Exterminating Angel” season. That shot of me at the end of the season is a direct shot from “Nights of Cabiria.” And this season, there’s a fair amount of “Persona” happening, visually. We’re always playing with those different games — “Touch of Evil” sort of comes up in Episode 5 a bit.
‘People come by their damage honestly’
In Season 2, the series swaps its circular understanding of time for a more linear one — in part, Lyonne says, to explore the perspective that comes with age, rather than simply being frightened by it.
We’re quantum leaping matrilineally this season. It just really feels like these are the people that give you that unconditional love and understanding that is really important in a life. I liked this idea of chosen family and the idea of family characteristics skipping a generation. That’s something that Nadia and Alan are both finding — that they might have more in common with their grandmothers than their mothers, in a way, even if they’re so aiming to please their moms and to satisfy their needs, or correct some guilt injury. I’m always fascinated by defects as assets and assets as defects as a character study. Everybody is always so horrified with the concept of aging, but they don’t tell you about the beauty of that perspective. We come to see our own stories, or our family’s story, more truthfully, or with forgiveness — because we understand that people come by their damage honestly.
There is a real Ruth in my life and she definitely said, “The only thing easy in this life is pissing in the shower.” She also said, “Jersey — it’s free to get in, but you got to pay to get out.” My Ruth is a chemist, this Ruth is a shrink. So they’re quite different. But the essence of the idea of like, in Manhattan, you can scramble through a whole hectic day of being a troublemaker and then just show up at some safe haven and there’s chicken in the fridge; that’s definitely a direct pull from my life.
But of course, life is just a bitch, right? Life just has this way of saying, “OK, you missed [Ruth dying]; there are going to be karmic consequences to the choices you make in this life. You may not see them on their surface right away, but you just might end up missing out on something you really wanted to be there for.”
Far from a calculating retread, Season 2 of Natasha Lyonne’s Netflix sensation is similarly ingenious, radical and deeply felt.
‘Oh, so this is a spreadsheet?’
For Lyonne, stepping into the role of showrunner came after encouragement from Jenji Kohan, the creator and showrunner of “Orange Is the New Black,” in which Lyonne starred as a former drug addict and inmate at a women’s prison.
I didn’t want to do it. We tried getting other people and, eventually, I was eating in some weird hole-in-the-wall Thai food joint with Jenji and I was asking her, “Do you know anybody?” And then she was like: “Walk me through your jobs in Season 1, walk me through what you’re doing this year, what you’re bringing into the room with you as far as ideas.” And so I started walking her from inception through whatever it was — hiring department heads, shot listing, and casting and getting our aesthetic all the way dialed in, shooting and editing, getting all the songs in and getting the color right, and then going through the whole marketing adventure, making sure that all the materials work and this kind of thing. All this research that I’ve been doing and ideas that I’ve been writing down for what I thought Season 2 was. And so she was like, “So, what part do you think is not showrunning?” And I was like, “Oh, I don’t know, spreadsheets?” And she was like, “I think you just need to do this job, kid, because you’re already doing it.”
This year, I had an extraordinary partner in Alex Buono, who is the producing director in Season 2 ... the difference was that it was me with the spreadsheets. I was like, “Oh, so this is a spreadsheet?” I would say that I’m not the first ex-drug dealer to do OK in the history of show business. I sort of looked to some other known ex-drug dealers in the showbiz community and I always have my eye on them, like: You know what it was like selling dime bags in the park. I’m not suggesting that anyone should do that, I’m just saying it gives you a very high school sense of business.
It’s funny the way we want to describe this as so many different jobs, that I’m wearing so many hats, because I really experienced it as just wearing one hat — and it is globally holding the show. My job is to see this show from its idea all the way to the finish line. I’m like meticulously and obsessively in the details of all of it, and experience almost a real relaxation around understanding all of the elements of the day because I know what we’re actually concerned with: Somebody didn’t make their flight, and therefore we’re going to be screwed for our schedule tomorrow with the COVID testing cycle, lose that location. ... As opposed to, sometimes when you’re an actor on set, you feel a murmur at the monitors, and you’re not quite sure what it is and you can think like, “Oh, is it about me?” Here, I would know very easily, no, this is about Delta Air Lines. So we’re going to stay focused in this scene, because we can’t control Delta Air Lines.
‘There’s so much more I want to know — not just about Nadia’
A common refrain about the first season of “Russian Doll,” at least among critics, was that it told a creatively ambitious story that had a satisfying conclusion that functioned perfectly as a stand-alone entry. But a new season was commissioned anyway, and many critics found it to be a well-executed endeavor, including Times critic Robert Lloyd. So has the warm reception made Lyonne open to the idea of a third round?
I would say I’m so in love with the team that makes “Russian Doll” that the idea of getting to work with them more is very, very inspiring. Also, ’cause now we’re really starting to get a handle on what it is. And by the way, that whole narrative around it [in Season 1] — I was there. I don’t know if anybody else remembers, but everybody kept being like: “I was so confused by the end.” So now, I’m like, “Oh, now all of a sudden, it was perfect? Jesus Christ, choose a lane!” I’ll take it. It’s better than people being like, “I hated the first season!” I mean that all as a bit of a joke. It’s always good to be in the conversation. The truth is, now we’re in the pocket of, like, we know how to play this game and we’ve appropriately reset expectations in terms of: This is not going to be a Season 2 of this girl falling down stairs at Maxine’s apartment. It does feel like there’s no shortage of story to tell when you have these very rich characters. There’s so much more I want to know — not just about Nadia. There’s quite a lot that I’d like to still find out. So we’ll see. I’m not the arbiter of these things. I wish I was, but that’s not the name of the game.
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