Natasha Lyonne on Her Hollywood Ride to ‘Russian Doll’ – The Hollywood Reporter

When Natasha Lyonne was a recovering child actor, making her way through late-’90s Manhattan, she didn’t just use Film Forum as her cinematic education. The landmark theater in Greenwich Village was how she got dates.

“Back when I used to drink, I would go to bars with the calendar sheet, walk up to guys and try to pencil them in based on a showing,” the quintessential New Yorker recalls to The Hollywood Reporter, over Zoom in early April, of her time spent watching movies on Houston Street. “I would write down their name and say, ‘Double Indemnity Tuesday, I’ll see ya there? You like Stanwyck, right?’ Of course, that was before cellphones.”

Lyonne, after all, grew up onscreen. At age 6 she landed her first TV role. By 16, she was Woody Allen’s onscreen daughter in Everyone Says I Love You. Then, instead of finishing film school, where she wanted to study to become a director, Lyonne says she built her own curriculum at the Film Forum and went on to star in Slums of Beverly Hills, American Pie and But I’m a Cheerleader. Following that ascent, drug addiction sidelined the actress until she sobered up and landed roles on Weeds, Portlandia and a breakout part on Orange Is the New Black.

Now, it’s with Russian Doll — the Emmy-winning self-referential Netflix series she co-created with Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland — and her production company, Animal Pictures, with pal Maya Rudolph that Lyonne is finally the one telling the stories. Russian Doll’s second season, out April 20, again sees the showrunner writing, directing and starring. The first season followed her character dying and coming back to life, and the second poses an even bigger existential question: What does it mean to be alive? Her next project, meanwhile, will be starring in and executive producing Rian Johnson’s first TV show, Poker Face.

“I think I’d probably be a pretty shitty writer if I had only been a child actor who segued gracefully into adulthood,” says the Russian Doll star about tackling trauma through her time-travel romp. Below, Lyonne opens up about settling into her multihyphenate role (and being bicoastal, following a split from Fred Armisen over a swimming pool) and why she’s ready to shed some of her tough-guy demeanor: “It’s a new era.”

What does Film Forum mean to you?

It’s my favorite place in New York. And it’s a very big achievement in my adult life that I’m on the board. That was one of my lifelong New York dreams. I’ll know I’ve really made it when I own a chair-back plaque. When I dropped out of film school, my logic was, “Why do I need Tisch when I’ve got the Film Forum? It’s much cheaper.” And I do think it was the correct decision when I see [how I was able to] build my own version of understanding the movies. It was like its own curriculum. I experienced the roller coaster of coming of age in Manhattan there — in the back row, by myself, in the middle of the day, seeing sometimes four movies a day.

You’ve said Russian Doll was a three-season pitch. When people reacted so strongly to that first season — and, knowing how hard it is to recapture success — were there any conversations about not doing more?

No. For myself and Amy and Leslye, it’s very moving that everybody enjoyed the end of the first season so much. It’s nice that became like a groupthink. But that was never the end of the show. As a lover of movies, I do like a sense of some kind of resolution or closure. Season one is the Nights of Cabiria ending. The whole thing is architected around being a little bit of a love letter to a Giulietta Masina kind of ending, or [Frederico] Fellini in general. So that [ending] is not really a deviation from when we originally pitched it to Netflix. We always saw this show as being somewhat anthological. It’s not like we felt like we were out of story to tell. I certainly don’t feel that. I feel like I’m, in general, overwhelmed by information that I’m curious to dig into.

The first season set your character on a high-concept time loop. What did you set out to accomplish with season two?

Netflix and Universal allow me to assemble sort of the Avengers of the best lady writers that we can find. It’s the second time we’ve had an all-female writers room. They’re knockouts — such cerebral hotshots. So I come in with this pile of books and questions: “Oh, thank God you guys are finally here because, what does this stuff mean?” A lot of it is a reference to the books that were with us from season one, Doug Hofstadter’s I Am a Strange Loop and Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Because it’s a show where we can philosophically wonder: What does it mean to be alive?

I come at it from a first person, Fosse-esque All That Jazz or Richard Pryor Jojo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling-level that I’m always trying to infuse. The idea in season one was, what does it mean to be self-destructive? [The main characters] Alan (Charlie Barnett) and Nadia (played by Lyonne) can’t stop dying until they find a connection. In season two, it’s about: “Now that I’ve stopped dying, how do I start living?”

Obviously, on a personal level, that’s a very tangible problem. So that was the itch I was trying to scratch with this room. To just ask those questions — not really to answer them — but to build story around that, because I’m personally curious.

You speak about the show like it’s a love letter to movies in general.

I’m one of those sick people who loves the movies like it’s church. That’s the language I understand. I love addicts; I understand where they’re coming from. And I understand movies. But it’s funny, I’m definitely experiencing a softening. I really trained myself on a lot of tough guys — literary figures, movie figures, music figures; the Norman Mailers of the world. Now, it’s a new era.

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“I think it was the correct decision,” Lyonne says of her choice to drop out of film school to watch movies at New York’s Film Forum.
Photographed by Amy Lombard

How has your relationship with the industry changed since the first season — are your offers different?

Janicza Bravo just did a Miu Miu short film and she wrote a part for me in it. And then, of course, Rian Johnson with the new show we’re about to start, Poker Face. And I’ve started to reach out to people I’m curious about, like Sharlto Copley [who co-stars in season two of Russian Doll]. I feel like it’s such loving gestures to say, “Hey, let’s go do this thing together.” On Poker Face, I’m an executive producer and I’ll write and direct an episode. Alice [Ju, Russian Doll writer] is with us, as well as [hair designer] Marcel Dagenais and [makeup artist] Amy Forsythe. I really try to extend that tight circle and, more than anything, really appreciate that I’ve been able to successfully move behind the scenes.

Where I really see the change is with Animal Pictures. We had our first documentary go to Sundance, called Sirens. And now we have our first narrative movie, a very sweet, teen queer rom-com coming out on Hulu called Crush. Alia Shawkat and I co-created a show that we’re working on. We just finished Maya [Rudolph, Animal Pictures partner]’s new show for Apple with Alan Yang and Matt Hubbard. We’re doing this adaptation of that great Irish movie Extraordinary. It’s like all these seeds we had been planting are starting to bloom.

How do you look back on growing up working in Hollywood?

There’s something about being more settled and like a journeyman who grew up in this business where you really start to understand the players on a more individual, human basis. When I was younger, especially when I would be high for all of these things, people and places would just kind of whoosh by you as if you were driving in a car quickly. Now, you start to understand that you’re going to run into the same cast of characters as their careers morph over a 10-, 20-, 30-year span. Assistants become managers and agents and network executives. Somebody with a weird indie movie that had no budget, five years later is directing Star Wars. You can’t process that journey until you’ve been through the other side.

I’m just happier now. The resentments I had against this business, I’m over them. I almost see them as weird family members. And hopefully I don’t have to see those people at the reunion. It’s cool that I’ve been allowed to sort of grow up in this business and even have dark years and be brought back.

So how would describe your career in this moment?

It feels like a much better use of the way I’m wired. I’m much more relaxed. I’m less on edge because I don’t feel like I’m constantly being asked to play this game that I’m just not very [good at]. I was always a terrible ingenue. It just was not my trip. I feel much more comfortable here. More than anything, I’m so in love with directing.

I knew as a teenager what I was going to do. It’s a very jazzy time to drop this name, but I was just coming off of playing Woody Allen’s daughter, so I was like, “OK, I’ve now peaked. I started with Paul Reubens in PeeWee’s Playhouse at 6, and I’ve ended with Woody Allen. Now I’m ready for film school to start making my own things.” And then, of course, I got waylaid by a separate curriculum that included lots of stints to places like the Tombs in downtown New York instead. But, along that way, I was gleaning more life experience. Now that it’s decades later, I can see that — as painful, shameful and scary as it was — it cumulatively gave me a lot of information that wasn’t strictly educational and literary. I had a lived in experience of a lot of different walks of life; much more access to the full spectrum of human experience.

Is there any role from which you’ve had a particularly hard time separating yourself, in terms of how the industry looks at you?

There’s definitely a bit of confusion about where I end and the characters begin. If I had started this whole business older, I maybe would have tried to be more of a Sam Kinison character the whole way through. But, what’s nice is — does it matter? Do we care if Joe Pesci is the real Joe Pesci? When I get very nervous, my accent gets much thicker. When I’m doing talk shows, suddenly, I’m fully just taking a taxi ride to the Bronx. The part that I’m still confused about that never came to pass is Janis Joplin. That’s the project I’ve been chasing for 30 years. Now that I’m older, everyone says Stevie Nicks.

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“I’m definitely experiencing a softening,” says Lyonne, pictured in season two of Russian Doll.
Courtesy of Netflix

Of your many famous friends, why did you decide to go into business with Maya Rudolph for Animal Pictures?

When Maya and I met, I think it was her first week in New York on SNL. I had no idea who she was. Maybe she had an idea who I was, because I was Slums of Beverly Hills guy. We had this long power-walk back from a weird fitting in Midtown, and we were just inseparable for the next five years. In those tricky years, I would say that Maya and Chloë [Sevigny] were the two pals who I stayed in touch with. You have to remember that there’s a nice five-year stretch where I had nothing to do with this business.

The thing that people might not know about myself or Maya is that we’re both [Robert] Altman obsessives, for lack of a better term. We have this aesthetic of ’70s cinema as a state of mind. I just think we have a real shared perspective on the things we love or want to give our attention to. Maya also had several kids. How do I hang out with my favorite person other than becoming the nanny? This felt like the closest way in and it’s really worked. We get to have a dream together in adult life. It’s not so different than why I’m so grateful to get to work with [Russian Doll co-star] Chloë all the time. Poehler is definitely a workaholic as much as I am. When you work this much, gosh does it make a difference to be able to do it with the people who you want to spend time with. It’s a way to almost steal that time.

Speaking of Chloë, you are some of the last icons of an era of New York cool that has otherwise faded.

The greatest compliment that I think I’ve ever gotten was from Chris Rock. Chloë and I went to see his play, Motherfucker With the Hat, and we went backstage. Chris turned around and was like, “Oh my God, the two most intimidating New Yorkers. Everyone looks at you guys like when me and Jerry [Seinfeld] walk in the room.” Holy shit, that is a fucking compliment. Chloë is so cool that it was like water off a duck’s back. But I carry that with me. What I like about it so much is the idea of getting older. I’m having a real love story with aging. I’ve been doing this for 38 years. It’s a long fucking time. I feel it in my bones. When I’m in situations now, I’m not so overwhelmed. When I’m walking in the streets of New York I’m like, “Ah, what a small town.” Things start to shrink. The road kind of narrows.

But you’re based in L.A. now, right?

I’m not. I had been there living with Fred [Armisen] and during COVID. I honestly think we broke up because I wanted a swimming pool. We love each other just about as much as two people can love each other and we’re still talking all the time, but Freddy doesn’t like a swimming pool. It might seem like a mundane reason for a breakup, but during that pandemic, you’ve got to get your laps — I’m like Burt Lancaster in The Swimmer. So, I got myself a house with a pool out in Los Angeles. So that’s the real scandal. I guess I finally am an actual bicoastal.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

A version of this story first appeared in the April 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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