Entertainment

How Natasha Lyonne Turned a Failed NBC Pilot Into 'Russian Doll,' Netflix's Latest Hit Show

lyonne
Netflix

One day Amy Poehler called Natasha Lyonne randomly and told her that she's always been "the oldest girl in the world." From there, the two women -- one best known for playing the dedicated Leslie Knope on Parks and Recreation and the other as the acerbic Nicky Nichols on Orange Is The New Black -- began working on a new show together, an NBC sitcom that never went to air. The lack of a pickup ended up being a blessing in disguise: They took bits and pieces of the spiked project and transformed it into Russian Doll, a high-concept comedy with a Groundhog Day-esque structure that is "vaguely autobiographical" for Lyonne.

In Russian Doll, she's Nadia (named for Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci), a denizen of New York's Alphabet City who works as a software engineer and hangs with artists. It begins at her druggy 36th birthday party hosted by her friend (Greta Lee), where, over the course of the night, she gets wasted, goes home with a guy, and ends up near Tompkins Square Park looking for the cat she shares with her local bodega. And then she gets hit by a car.

But that's not the end for Nadia. She wakes up in the same eerie bathroom with its vaginal door and must figure out what's going wrong. Lyonne describes it as a "choose your own adventure" approach towards life, and indeed, it ends up exploring issues of free will better than Netflix's actual choose your own adventure show, Bandersnatch. It also, at least in a metaphorical sense, ends up mirroring Lyonne's own (very public) experiences with addiction. Ahead of the show's Netflix debut, Thrillist spoke with Lyonne over the phone about how Russian Doll came together, and how she's already thinking about framing a second season. 

russian doll
Netflix

Thrillist: What was the genesis of Russian Doll? What were the conversations that led you to come up with this premise?
Natasha Lyonne:
I've known Amy for, I don't know, 15 years. She called me out of the blue one day and said, "As long as I've known you, you've always been 'the oldest girl in the world.'" I said, "Is that a compliment or an insult?" She met me when I was, like, 21. She said, "I was thinking about a show for you, it would kind of do something in that vein." That ended up becoming an NBC show that David Wain directed that never made it to air called Old Soul. Ellen Burstyn played my godmother Ruth, who was based on a real character, who is the one who always says, "Nothing in this life is easy except for pissing in the shower." In Russian Doll, she says the same line and is played by the incredible Elizabeth Ashley. Greta Lee [who is also in Russian Doll] was in it as my roommate. All my characters are always Nadia named after Nadia Comaneci, the great gymnast from the '80s I was such a fan of as a kid.

There were a lot of strings of what would become Russian Doll already in that show, and at the end of it, Amy and I were talking and were like, "What's a show that we would really want to make if there were no restrictions and no network? What is it that we're really trying to say here?" That second idea became the early versions of Russian Doll and we discussed this choose-your-own-adventure concept towards life. Even if you could go down every road and try every possibility amid your indecision about your life choices, you will still be stuck with self at the end of the day and would have to make sense of that.

What was it about the structure, which obviously gets commonly linked to Groundhog Day, that worked for you?
Lyonne:
Well, I think that because I was the hero and it's sort of vaguely autobiographical in a way that it has been very close to my experience of daily life. I had so many experiences that were, unfortunately, pretty harrowing as a result of my addiction, and so I think I started to see life a bit through that lens, almost similar to Bob Fosse's All That Jazz, or whatever, from a hospital bed seeing life and considering decisions and so on. Metaphorically, it started to make a lot of sense that that would be the way it would manifest for this character.

How deep did you get into the rules of this world?
Lyonne:
I think that we're in pretty deep, I got to say. The rules were always crucial and developing them was very specific. Early days involved a lot of thinking about it from a coding perspective that was more mathematic. I think as time went on, we were moved to focus more on the emotional repercussions of the rules of the world. The ways in which the things that tether us to our sense of reality, like the fabric of that so-called life was slowly disintegrating around her as she was struggling to reconcile what her actual demons were.

How were you thinking about balancing the questions of how the world works and with the emotional revelations? How were you thinking about approaching, as you said, the actual demons in the series that Nadia's facing?
Lyonne:
 I think for all of us, inextricably our past and present are deeply linked. In a third way, completely linked to the real-time world that we inhabit. I think very much Nadia's journey is one of disconnection to connection. She's somebody who thinks that she's an other, and doesn't have to be a participating member in life, and then realizes that when the stakes are high, she very much has to get on the bus and become a participating member. If not for herself, then for Alan [played by Charlie Barnett]. I think Alan is going through a similar journey of realizing that while he wanted to check out, he actually has to find out if Nadia's going to make it out alive. I think together the way that their worlds converge, their path and their decision to show up for each other is the crux of the show from both a high concept level, and from a very grounded, emotionally tethering level.

russian doll
Netflix

I wanted to ask about just having Chloë Sevigny play your mom in those flashbacks. Was that always sort of in the back of your mind?
Lyonne:
For me, Chloë's been really more like a sister in this life than just my best friend. I think that it felt like such a personal cliff to jump off of, that there was something about Chloë that, for me, represented a real safety in that decision to expose self in that way, potentially. By watching her do it on set on the monitors, and then later spending time with her footage in the edit, was really heavy for me. There was a lot of just me crying at the absurd harrowing beauty of life, the way things come together, and my love and respect for Chloë as an actor and as a human being is so deep and real. I've spent so many nights crying in her hair that I can really smell her skin from a distance. She's the one that will come to my house, and put the Woolite in the bathtub and clean my pantyhose for me, and explain to me that that's how you wash your pantyhose. She's always been that person who's like, "Well, Natasha, I don't think you should ever be straightening your hair, because I love your curly hair. If you're going to straighten it, then you have to brush it once in a while." I'm like, "What's a hairbrush, Chloë? It's going to ruin the blowout." She's like, "No, you have to brush straight hair," and I was like, "Alright," and then she'll brush it for me, braid it or something.

I have this very long-standing familial connection to her, and her brother, and then beyond that, as far as these really dark nights of the soul, Chloë's always been the one that's been there for me. All the various chaos of my drug years, it was always Chloë who was showing up for that. She was my rock through all that. I mean, I always knew it was her. The fact that she actually did it, and that she's just so good at acting, makes it extra fucked up and extra emotionally incredible. The idea that that's something that we get to do in the art, explore things in this sort of third party way, is very healing. It was pretty awesome. In no way is it exactly my mother, by any stretch, but certainly there's -- like, Alfa Romeo Spider was my mother's car, and the red hair, and the watermelons. The thing that wasn't there was Tina Turner, which was my mother's favorite thing to play in that car. We couldn't afford it [for the show]. She would also often play "Nights in White Satin" by The Moody Blues.

How do you see those final moments of the show? What did you want to have the characters come to?
Lyonne:
It definitely is an emotional journey and emotional roller coaster, this show. It's almost funny to hear people talk about Groundhog Day. I love that movie so much, but it's a very different species. The first few episodes [of Russian Doll] slide you into this experience in a way that may feel vaguely familiar. I don't think that's where it was ever going, emotionally, or the story that we're trying to tell. I'm trying to remember Groundhog Day... I know there definitely is a feeling of this man had to figure himself out. I think here, in a way, it's a bit darker, I would say. It occurred to me as we were cutting it all together that, unbeknownst to ourselves, we'd really made a show about not taking yourself out. That's a very tempting thing in this life, is that when it all gets to be too much, there's this idea: Should I just drop out and exit my own life? There's a lot of reasons, big and small, why that sometimes feels like a reasonable option to consider.

You look at the world, there's so much injustice, it's hard to make a living, people have minds full of colliding thoughts, there's breakups and aging and health concerns, people have fucked up childhoods, addiction. There's a lot of very real reasons in this life where it becomes a tempting concept to stop participating. I think, especially in putting together these final episodes, it started to crystallize in a way that the show is commenting on just that. From the end of six through the end of eight, it almost becomes a show saying, "Hey, kids, don't take yourselves out. Give yourself a chance." Emotionally, Nadia and Alan were two characters who were very self-destructive in very different ways, but find this common ground in each other of a reason to continue to show up for life, if not only for themselves then for each other. I think that that was very much not even something that necessarily we set out to get to, but that the show revealed itself to be.

That image of Nadia taking up the torch, is that to you part and parcel with this idea of not taking yourself out? Of participating in whatever strange parade life sends your way?
Lyonne:
I think so. In a vague sense, sure. It's a way of saying, "And on we go." And so we march forward into the next unknown, even if it is a second abyss, we continue. You know? Now we sort of do it together. So, sure.

russian doll
Netflix

That ending is so wonderful and so moving, but it is a TV show... you could get another season. Have you thought about where you would want to take these characters, what more you would want to explore in this universe where you have created so much structure for these occurrences?
Lyonne:
Yeah, I definitely think there's some exciting ideas percolating. I think the good news is that it works all ways. I think first things first is just getting it out there and hoping that people connect with it. On a personal level, I feel relieved that I've told my story from my point of view and this is how I see things, aesthetically and emotionally, what I'm all about as a creator and a person. For better or worse, whether people like it or not, I do feel like it's a fair estimation of my personhood, in a way, and what I'm into. I feel relieved that it's out there, and certainly there's additional things that we would love to explore if it makes sense to do it. Some of my ideas veer pretty wildly from exactly this world, some sort of stay in it. It'll be exciting, but it's also a nice thing that I don't know that I feel a deep pressure in any way. I think the making of the thing itself, its existence, is kind of its own win and relief. Now the rest is kind of none of my business until somebody tells me that it is.

I loved everything in that early episode with the Yeshiva. There is a lot of spirituality in this show, but not in necessarily a specific ideology. How were you thinking about that?
Lyonne:
Well, you know, look. Obviously, it's very much a "write what you know" in the sense that, on my mother's side, they're Hungarian Holocaust survivors. On my father's side, they're black hat Russian Jews who live in Flatbush. My parents are both the wild child '70s kids of those people, so I was not raised in that way. I lived in Israel for two years with my parents for tax evasion reasons, and when we came back to the States, it was just me and my mother in Manhattan. Her parents insisted I go to an Orthodox school if they were going to pay for my tuition. Even though I was on scholarship, it was too much for us. I think there are a lot of jokes that are drilled into how I see the world that's very much from the point of view of somebody who was raised studying the Talmud and all these Aramaic texts, reading so much about the Bible all the time. I think Leslye [Headland] has a similarly very intense Catholic upbringing. But the architecture of the Yeshiva itself and the rabbis and questioning that is very woven into the fabric of a personality of mine that was sort of accidental, just the way I was raised. It was always this heavily questioning, hyper analytical, sort of Talmudic way of looking at life's essential riddles.

There's certainly not an underlying religious principle to the show by any stretch. I'm definitely not a practicing anything, nor can I tell you anything concrete in which I believe, other than a basic sense maybe of karma as a spiritual principle. Like, if you're a fucking asshole, expect asshole shit to happen, and vice versa. Sometimes even that's not true, but I think if anything, that was the bigger concept that has something to do with how things shake out for these people.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.