In the first episode of Russian Doll, Natasha Lyonne’s character Nadia dies at a house party. Then she comes back to life again. Then she dies again. Nadia’s life becomes a labyrinth of death traps at every corner but she keeps getting a second chance, sort of like a cat with nine lives (only over 20 in this case).
Anyone who has had a near-death experience can relate to this show, which debuts on Netflix February 1. Co-written by Amy Poehler, Leslye Headland, and Lyonne, the new series is a “heavily autobiographical” look at Lyonne's life, following one redhead in a pantsuit who swears like a sailor and parties like a college freshman.
While Lyonne is best known as Nicky Nichols on Orange Is the New Black, the native New Yorker has been onscreen since the age of 7, first acting on Pee-wee’s Playhouse in 1986. Since becoming an indie cinema queen in the 1990s, Lyonne made headlines in the early 2000s for her raucous lifestyle; ranging from DUI to landlord issues, as well as drug addiction—which is at the core of Russian Doll. Lyonne spoke to us about working with an all-female ensemble for the show, bringing her BFF Chloë Sevigny onscreen, and what she learned from Michelle Obama’s book.
BROADLY: How did Russian Doll come about?
Natasha Lyonne: Amy Poehler and I created a show based on my life for NBC called Old Soul. When it didn’t get picked up, I started thinking about a "Choose Your Own Adventure" kind of party where you take home each different person from the party. You know? Take them home for the night. I would still end up feeling hollow at the end of it, somehow. I’d still be stuck with myself. This idea that we are starving to death with limitless choices but are stuck with our own broken selves until we kind of resolve what it is to have a meaningful life. What does any of it mean?
Your character Nadia is non-committal bachelorette who does drugs, parties hard, and has a “bad” attitude. How does she break the mold in terms of typical heroines?
It feels as though a woman has to be actively fixing something or searching for the guy but rarely is she searching for her own soul. That’s usually of the luxury of straight, white men on film. It’s very Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces. In my experience, we don’t get to explore that as women, but universally, we’re all stuck with ourselves.
Why are you always wearing a pantsuit in the show?
It’s important in life to have a uniform. Nadia’s look is the perfect combination of Marisa Tomei and Joe Pesci’s character in My Cousin Vinny. She is a blend of female and male looks, in my opinion. A genderless character I find deeply female but also deeply human. She is more about existential conundrums and less about a need to settle down. Searching for “the one” is a false concept put on by society.
Why is being a commitment-phobe typically framed to be a male trait?
We’re raised with the idea that settling down is relevant, but that has no longer become our priority. For me, the priority is to find a meaningful, happy life. More and more, we’re coming to see that life doesn’t have to be a one-lane solution, it can mean many things.
Is there any direct connection to your own personal life in the character you play?
This show is heavily autobiographical. It’s also heavily fictionalized. It’s almost like a superhero version of me, a person I’d like to be. The person my character is at the end of the show is closer to who I am today. Who she is at the beginning of the show is closer to who I was 15 years ago.
What do you mean?
It’s like Richard Pryor’s autobiographical film, Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling. It touches on his post-freebase fire, where he’s in a hospital bed looking back at his life. It’s about being so close to the end and saying “I’m going to get another round, what would I do differently?” But also “What are the things that got me here in the first place?”
In the early 2000s, the media followed your private life closely. Do you think they’d be as harsh on you now?
Luckily, I spent a lot of those years pretty underground, I wasn’t spending it clubbing. I’m grateful there was no social media [then]. Lord only knows what I would have been tweeting and Instagramming back in the day. It could have been really off the charts. It was definitely a challenging and harrowing time, not something to experience in the public eye.
What is the core message in the show?
We’re all doing the best we can. I’m reading Michelle Obama’s memoir where she felt like “I’m not enough.” It’s easy to look at someone from a distance and say “Michelle Obama, you’re the ultimate of enough.” The reality is that we know it’s a universal feeling. It’s OK to be each other’s allies, instead of ripping each other to shreds. That’s the core of Russian Doll.
Why did you want to work with an all-female team on the writing and directing of Russian Doll?
Having never created my own show before and it being so personal, I wanted to work with people who speak my own language. My voice is stronger when I don’t feel like I’m the other in the room.
Your BFF Chloë Sevigny stars in the show, am I allowed to mention it?
You’re allowed to mention she’s in it, but her role is a spoiler. It was the most personal and vulnerable episode for me. Chloë is more of a sister than my best friend. Over the years, she has walked me through the most intense moments in my life. I couldn’t think anyone safer I would feel trusting her role to. Seeing someone you love act out things that are such a deep part of your wounded psyche is surreal and beautiful.
Speaking of surrealism, your 40th birthday is around the corner. I heard you’d like to throw a costume party based on Salvador Dalí’s Surrealistic Night in an Enchanted Forest?
That’s what I want my birthday to be. But it’s 2019, you can’t have Bob Hope opening a tray of hopping frogs. How to make sense of the party without the animals? If you have any ideas, I’m taking commissions.