How Natasha Lyonne Found Her Voice on 'Russian Doll' (Exclusive)

By
sp_natashalyonne.jpg
Netflix/Getty Images

Natasha Lyonne delivered one of ET's Standout Performances of the season for her role as Nadia on Russian Doll.

"I guess this is just really my story to tell," Natasha Lyonne sums up her Netflix series, Russian Doll, during a phone conversation with ET. While the series, which was recently renewed for a second season, has earned her considerable Emmy buzz, she says it is more of a personal accomplishment. "It almost feels like an albatross lifted to kind of share the way I see the world."

As Lyonne will openly admit -- shrouded in a tone of half-sarcasm that naturally accompanies her instantly recognizable husky New York accent -- the way she sees the world has shifted greatly throughout her decades in show business. She started in the industry as a child actor, and 10 years later, earned a part in Woody Allen's 1996 film, Everyone Says I Love You. She seemed to be set-up for stardom over the next few years that followed with leading roles in indie features -- notably Slums of Beverly Hills and But I'm a Cheerleader -- and as part of the ensemble of the instantly iconic American Pie. Then came a downward spiral and a break from the spotlight. It wasn’t until 2013 that she popped back on the radar as inmate Nicky Nichols on Netflix's Orange Is the New Black, for which she earned an Emmy nomination the following year. It was then that she learned to shift her perspective: "It's not a business of me versus another actress, you know what I mean? There's enough space for all of us to kind of be individuals and [I learned] that my own specificity had its value," she says. That's the kind of thinking she applied to Russian Doll.

Co-created with Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland, the eight-episode comedy-drama centers on Lyonne's character, Nadia, who is stuck in a time loop, living out the same day -- her 36th birthday -- until her subsequent death by various means. It's not totally inspired by Lyonne's life, but it's clearly influenced by her attitude toward it.

The series is ultimately about conquering self-doubt and presenting women in a way that is universally relatable. Lyonne wasn't interested in portraying one part of femaledom; she wanted to take on humanity and the existential crisis -- something she's experienced. Almost every episode of Russian Doll begins with a shot of Nadia looking up at herself in a bathroom mirror, which does more than signal the repeating day to the audience.

Lyonne mentions Jack Nicholson in 1970's Five Easy Pieces as inspiration (these cinematic references are a crucial part of her stream of consciousness). "It's just the language of sort of the way we are willing to just watch people. It's not clear to us yet that what they're thinking, but it's immediately identifiable that that's what it's like, being in private -- then sort of putting on your armor to go face the world," she explains. The actress is also influenced by Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now, Martin Scorsese's After Hours and his 1980 film with Robert De Niro, Raging Bull. “[They get to feel] all the feelings," she says of those male protagonists. She wanted Nadia to do the same.

"I don't know that I really feel like I'm the perfect match to kind of write, produce and direct and star in all the things. I just think it was on this specific project because it was so much my heart and soul and life experience and sort of aesthetic," she muses. "And the music." (Lyonne's desire to have Harry Nilsson's "Gotta Get Up" as Russian Doll's reset song used a significant portion of the music budget.)

Lyonne, who wrote three episodes and directed the finale, crafted the show for years with an all-female group of writers and directors. Inspired by her past -- working with Nora Ephron on Love, Loss and What I Wore and with Tamra Jenkins on Slums of Beverly Hills -- she was prepared for the "two to five years" it usually takes to get projects off the ground, and she’s proud of herself for sticking with it. "We worked so hard in that writers’ room and worked so hard [during] all-night shoots in the winter,” she recalls. “Then, in the edit, we were so meticulous to bring to life what was ultimately just wanting to communicate how complex and funny and horrific it is to be a thinking, feeling person in the world."

Lyonne doesn't outright mention how her addiction struggles and drug-filled past -- which included several arrests and a long-term hospitalization -- led to her break from acting in the early 2000s. It's clear those things are in her rear-view mirror -- or at least, she'd like to keep them there. But considering how personal Russian Doll is to Lyonne, they found their way in.

In the second episode, which Lyonne co-wrote with Poehler, Nadia is dejected by her repeated deaths and gives up the idea that she can break the loop. That moment, Lyonne says, represents a "bottoming-out concept of realizing that she's between a rock and a hard place, and she's just slamming her head against the wall." Nadia deals with it in a way that Lyonne once did. What follows is a first-person body cam montage of smoking, drinking and snorting coke.

"Thanks to a lifetime of actually being a troublemaker, it's very fluid for me to use my real-life lighter leash and chain smoke and all those kinds of things that I wish I didn't know how to do so well, because I guess it's going to give me limited time on the back half there," she shoots out, nonchalantly, reaching the end of her breath. She breaks for a moment of honesty disguised as a joke: "I hope these years are good."

Lyonne then refers back to her troubled times, if only to point out that it's had a bit of a phoenix-like effect on her. She's risen from the ashes thanks to court-appointed rehab in 2006 and a role in the Off-Broadway Two Thousand Years the following year. "Of course, you know, I had about a decade in there that was just brutal. And now, on the other side of it, I think that's why I say it's such a relief in a way,” she says, finally adding: “I'm overwhelmed with gratitude.”

Lyonne goes on, likening Russian Doll to a manifestation of "the double-edged sword, the two sides of that coin, the horror and the hope that is true for all of us." She says it's like the actor's experience -- and also the experience of a teenager. "You're trying to figure out who you are and also fit into what you think is an appealing version of yourself," she notes.

russian doll
Netflix

The actress got her first big role at the age of six as a recurring character on Pee-wee's Playhouse; her parents signed her to the Ford Modeling Agency as a young child. Like her "brutal" decade, Lyonne doesn't talk about her childhood much. "I had sort of such a rough go of it as a young girl," she casually throws in while discussing the span of her career. "I think often of the other young women who are having an uncomfortable experience of being other."

It's Russian Doll that says more about Lyonne's feelings about her early life. The latter episodes of the series rehash Nadia's complicated, guilt and resentment-filled childhood. She's seen running errands for her mother (played by Chloe Sevigny), who sits in an Alfa Romeo Spider while simultaneously barking orders at her and seeking her validation. Lyonne's estranged mother drove the same car.

Nadia is haunted by her past in the series, and her final confrontation with her younger self comes as she realizes the only way to be "free" is to let her guilt over her mother's death -- and her childhood self -- go. Letting go is a big part of Lyonne moving on from her come-to-Jesus few years (though Lyonne was raised as an Orthodox Jew).

"It's so much less of a head trip," she says of her life now, and how it's affected her career path. "I've just been around for a long time, so I really enjoy my work now, because I think I finally understand that it's so lucky to be in this line of work."

Lyonne reflects on her recent milestone birthday; turning 40 in April. "I think now I'm sort of like, less concerned with making it, and more concerned with like, 'What do I want my life to be? What do I want the quality of my days to be filled with thinking about and working on, and who do I want to spend that time with?'" she postulates. The actress already has a lot of those answers.

"I'm not so afraid of what you think of me. I'm more like, 'Hey, I think I might have something to contribute here. Maybe it's different than other people. Maybe not everyone's going to like it. But that's OK,'" Lyonne concludes. "I get to have a voice too."

 

MORE STANDOUT PERFORMANCES OF 2019:

Emmys 2019: Connie Britton, Natasha Lyonne and More Standout Female Performances on TV

Finally, the Reign of Niecy Nash, the Dramatic Actress (Exclusive)

Connie Britton Explains the Challenge and Appeal of Bringing 'Dirty John' to the Screen (Exclusive)