Natasha Lyonne Reflects on Her ‘Russian Doll’ Journey and ‘SNL’ Triumph

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This story about Natasha Lyonne and “Russian Doll” first appeared in the Comedy & Drama Series issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

Natasha Lyonne’s entire career is defined by an infectious sense of unconventionality, even when agreeing to chat with a journalist just before midnight on a weekday. “I think only Abel Ferrara does interviews at this hour,” she said in her unmistakable, rim-shot comic argot.

The “Orange Is the New Black” vet drew in part from her own grandmother’s experiences escaping the Holocaust for the more intimate but no less mind-bending second season of her Netflix comedy “Russian Doll,” which returned after a three-year hiatus and proved as ambitious as ever. Lyonne also wrote and directed much of the season.

The action now places her extroverted Nadia (who thankfully doesn’t die on a daily basis, the way she did in Season 1) in a 1982-era 6 train in New York City. It eventually leads her to the planned retrieval of precious lost family Kruggerands, which she often accomplishes in the body of her own mother (played again by Chloë Sevigny, a close pal of Lyonne’s). The New York native with a whipsaw wit recently made a triumphant debut as the host of the latest “Saturday Night Live” season finale—which, she effused, was “probably the greatest week of my life.”

Jill Greenberg for TheWrap
Jill Greenberg for TheWrap

One very cool thing about the second season of “Russian Doll” is that it’s actually shorter and more intimate than the first. Most shows after a successful first season tend to go big and bold, whereas yours went thoughtful and contemplative.

Well, thank you. The idea behind the show has always been sort of in the title, right? We were starting, in a very literal sense, with the biggest doll as a spiritual or theological exploration and going from there. It’s constructed as a type of glass onion. The first season is about mortality and problems of the nature of time for all of us universally. So, for this second season, we wanted to go a little bit deeper into what’s behind that.

You’ve had all-female writers for every episode of the series to date, and many female directors as well, including yourself. How has this changed the overall process?

I remember being so struck as a kid watching “Apocalypse Now” and seeing Martin Sheen just, like, stare at a ceiling fan. And I thought, “Oh, women never get to do that.” We never want to see women sit around and think and that’s enough. The best part is not having conversations eat up a lot of time about how a woman can have a classic hero’s journey. Or you know, “Why is she wearing black clothes” or “Why aren’t we seeing her shower?” That’s disturbing. You would never ask that of, like, Elliott Gould’s portrayal of Philip Marlowe. Suffice it to say that it was sort of a happy accident that both seasons ended up being an all-female writers’ room, and it’s awesome. I’m always trying to assemble the Avengers obviously, you know, (creators) Leslye Headland, Amy Poehler, Allison Silverman, true blue-chip geniuses. And they’re fucking hilarious.

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Do you think that TV needs a strong renaissance of Jewish stories told from the perspective of funny women?

Not as a blanket statement, no. But you do have your Lenny Bruce, your Larry David, your Albert Brooks, ’70s Elliott Gould. I don’t think anyone is buying me as a WASP anytime soon, but I do think all good stories that have a specific point of view are always going to be worth telling versus something inherently watered down and therefore less interesting. I do think stories with an original point of view are always needed and all forms of counterprogramming should always be encouraged. It’s a dangerous idea to get into assembly-line propaganda as concepts for how to architect the future of entertainment-slash-what we now call “content.”

You’ve acted, written and directed many projects since you were very young. Is there anything you’re really gunning to do? Or something you’d like to explore further in “Russian Doll?

I’ll be pretty mad at myself if I’m sitting on my death bed and haven’t written and directed a few features. I think that’s always where my heart really was. But “Russian Doll,” it’s a huge part of my life, and I don’t know that I’ll ever be done with it. It’s just such a special thing to get to make. As a young person, literature and music and movies were something that I could hold on to as a way out and were so crucial. And I’m always just trying to give that back to the kids today. We’ve talked about where we could take it (if there are more seasons). My whole trip is just to try to tell the truth. And I’m really grateful that these people underwrite it. That’s a very rare thing.

Congratulations on hosting “Saturday Night Live.” Your enthusiasm was infectious, especially on what must have been a very emotional night with all of the departures (of Kate McKinnon, Aidy Bryant, Kyle Mooney and Pete Davidson) and it being the season finale to boot.

I’m just sick enough to think it’s the happiest experience I’ve ever had, it was so much fun. I love high stakes, and the air just becomes really funny in there. I know I project a real Joe Pesci-type outside, but I’m kind of a softie. I really love loving people. And I really love the arts. I don’t know what to say, I’m just a ridiculous person that way. And I love a night shoot up against (the clock), especially when it’s a block from your house.

Read more from the Comedy & Drama Series issue here.

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