Existential Questions with Charlie Barnett of 'Russian Doll'
The actor has learned to embrace his dichotomies for Season 2 of Netflix's headiest series.
Shortly before he started work on the second season of Russian Doll, Charlie Barnett was thinking about quitting acting. "I truly believed that I love and hate acting, all the same time at every moment of my life," Barnett tells me the morning before he'll be celebrated for his work as Alan Zaveri at the Season 2 premiere. We've just finished a photoshoot at Thrillist's offices, where he posed gamely and ate halal, the food he requested when I offered to bring him his favorite in the city. "It was the most complicated and destructive thing I've ever gotten myself into and the best gift that I've ever given. Fuck, it's so weird."
After the first season wrapped, he was definitely considering doing something else. Shooting the first batch of episodes in 2018 was "traumatic," he says. He'd been drinking, and decided to stop right after production, inspired by the fact that series creator and star Natasha Lyonne and a number of other members of the crew had embraced sobriety. He was playing a suicidal alcoholic stuck in a time loop and it was difficult going back to the condo where he was staying on 14th Street away from the communities he knew when he lived in the city as a Juilliard student right out of high school. "It was really hard," he says. "But this duality of love and hate of this industry and this craft exists in me all the time. I think even as a kid, I recognized that. And I wasn't sure if it was like, am I being pulled to this or am I pushing myself? I'm now addicted to it because I love and hate people too. I see the terribleness of all of us. I see it in myself."
It's really easy to get deep talking about Russian Doll, especially when you're as open as Barnett is. The series, which dropped its second season on Netflix last week, is the height of pop-culture existentialism, a wildly entertaining exploration of the cycles of trauma. "Russian is so interpersonal to our own actual individual lives," Barnett says. "Our stories are invested into it as much as we are playing characters." This season, Lyonne has abandoned time loops for time travel, a concept she had in mind for the first season premiere, but refined the idea in the years it took for the series to go into production, delayed by the onset of COVID-19.
While Lyonne's Nadia takes the 6 train back into the 1980s, where she inhabits the body of her mother, Barnett's Alan is transported to 1962 East Berlin where he lives as his grandmother Agnes (Carolyn Michell Smith), a student from Ghana studying in the Communist country. Barnett, an admitted "planner," dove into research about the African students who came to East Germany during the Soviet Era, historical context that he wishes the show had time to include. "This is my biggest complaint," he says. "If we had two more episodes, we could've gone a little deeper into that history."
Barnett immediately understood the appeal of connecting with the past the way Alan does. He's talked to Lyonne about his experiences as an adoptee, and the piece of himself he feels he will never be able to know, despite his affection for his adoptive parents. But he was and is still, however, nervous about how Alan's storyline would be perceived. "I just couldn't stop thinking about being in that woman's position and a man living in her body, taking over," he says. "It felt really wrong. I mean, as much as I hate to admit it, I leaned in on it. Like, 'Alan, you're a dick. You're taking advantage of this.'"
He was less frightened about the potential queer interpretations of Alan's journey this year where Alan, in the body of his grandma, has a flirtation with a fellow student named Lenny (Sandor Funtek), who wants her to help him escape into West Berlin to see his family. "The queer side of it was not as difficult for me," he says. "Maybe because I am queer and I was a little more fluid in my own thoughts. But I don't think Alan is queer. I don't think that he was even exploring those options." He's open to everyone else's opinions, though.
Raised with a father as a boat builder and a sister who was a "fucking expert sailor" in Sarasota, Florida, Barnett quickly learned that the water wasn't his natural home. "I was very bad and also really impatient," he says "I mean, I would jump out of the boat and swim to the shore at times." To occupy him, his mother enrolled him in his community's arts programs, and that was that. He wanted to move to New York after watching Sex and the City. "Fuck Broadway. I was like, 'I just want to go see Sex and the City chicks,'" he remembers. "This is like gay 10-year-old me, pansexual me. I didn't know it then." Now, with Russian Doll, he stars in another show that treats the city as part of its narrative. One which, this time around, filmed some sequences in Budapest as they follow Nadia's journey to restore her family fortunes. The city also stood in for East Berlin as well as certain underground portions of New York.
When Barnett is on location these days, he likes to find a food bank where he can work when he has time off. It's a pastime that was inspired by his father, who decided one day to start giving back by working with Meals on Wheels, that Barnett sought out in the early days of the pandemic. Volunteering wasn't possible in Budapest with COVID restrictions, but he would bring castmates along in Georgia as he was filming the NBC show Ordinary Joe. When he's in LA—he's been back and forth between there and Florida, helping his dad who recently had his leg amputated—he works at a women's shelter in Crenshaw and with another organization in the Valley.
"Working at food banks is one of those things I suggest to every actor I ever work with," he says. "I'm like, 'You want to go pick up some cool characters? Go work at a food bank.'" He'll sit and cut his carrots and observe the other volunteers, everyone from churchgoers to teens trying to complete community service requirements. It's another way to make sense of his chosen profession.
Maybe it's fate that Barnett landed on Russian Doll, a show that persistently asks the kind of questions in which he's interested. For now, he's decided to embrace dichotomies: "I'm biracial. I'm pansexual. I really believe in dualities of life. I really believe you can be happy and sad at the same time. This is a Chekhovian world, y'all. Let's accept it."