Natasha Lyonne achieved her highest acclaim with Russian Doll, a TV series based on her own near-death experiences. Here, she opens up about that low point in her life, how she maintains her female friendships, and “spiritual mathematics”
“I HAVEN’T DONE one of these BUST interviews in almost 20 years!” says Natasha Lyonne, star and co-creator of Netflix’s Russian Doll, as she settles in for our chat in a Los Feliz studio following her BUST cover shoot. Exhausted from being fluffed and painted up all day, she changes into a gray athleisure top and bottom and takes a much-needed smoke before scooping up her constant companion, her Maltipoo pup Root Beer, and plopping on the couch. She’s still in full makeup, which she’ll later confess she may leave on for a couple days. “I’m just so busy, y’know?” Any concern that she might not be up for an interview including questions about her childhood, struggles with addiction, and the emotional toll of her work, dissipate once she begins talking.
There is no one else who talks like Lyonne. It’s not just the raspy voice and peak New Yorker use of “y’know?” to emphasize her points. It’s also that she talks in long bursts, relates most points to a larger picture, doesn’t laugh even when you’re certain she’s joking, and speaks with a kind of plain, direct honesty this interviewer has never encountered from a celebrity of her stature. She is truly singular.
The interview Lyonne is referencing is her Summer 2001 BUST cover story, which came out during a period of her life she describes as “much darker.” Though at the time she was in her early 20s and in the midst of a thriving film career, Lyonne now sees with hindsight’s clear vision that she’d been sold a lie. “The patriarchal fabric of what we consider the truth tells us at 21, ‘Be a skinny actress and it’ll all make sense, Honey.’ But it’s so deeply untrue.”
It’s a gross understatement to say a lot has happened since Lyonne last graced our cover—she’s been through hell and back. Lyonne and her iconic strawberry curls began their career on Pee-wee’s Playhouse in the mid-’80s, and she seemed to transition seamlessly from child actor into teen dream, stealing the show in 1998’s Slums of Beverly Hills, and as part of the cool kid ensemble cast of American Pie the next year. But after becoming addicted to heroin and facing a series of legal troubles, it all seemed to be over for Lyonne when she was hospitalized with a collapsed lung, and Hepatitis C, in 2005.
Work was slow to come over the next few years, but Lyonne has credited the time off with helping her recover from her addiction and maintain her sobriety, telling Vulture in 2013, “I didn’t have a 28-day drug problem. I had a take-five-years-off drug problem.”
Tenacity, hard-won sobriety, and undeniable talent prevailed when Lyonne, defying the predictions of every snarky Hollywood gossip columnist, solidified a full-fledged comeback with her portrayal of inmate Nicky Nichols in Netflix’s Orange is the New Black in 2013. For those of us who grew up “with” Lyonne, and surely for the generation that came of age looking up to her, the emotional response to seeing her on screen looking healthy and turning out an Emmy-nominated performance was pure joy and relief. And, in a case of art imitating life, Lyonne’s character’s story arc also included her becoming sober. Then, after seven seasons on OITNB, Lyonne turned her near-death experience into a television masterpiece, co-creating and starring in Russian Doll, her best and most personal work yet. Lyonne sat down with me three days before her Russian Doll writers room reconvened to begin writing the show’s second season, ready to fully own her new place at the head of the table. “I’m thrilled to be 40 and to be in a seat of power. I’m starting to understand that that’s a real thing and that it’s OK to know it. Because I really am a boss.”
The first season of Lyonne’s time-bending, surreal dramedy found protagonist Nadia stuck in a time loop, repeatedly dying and coming back to life again on her 36th birthday. Lyonne calls the show, which she created with Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland, “weird,” before walking that back. “It’s not weird for weird’s sake. I guess, by weird I just mean…more honest, which, in an era of mendacity, is its own eccentric act.”
Russian Doll was praised by critics and fans and nominated for 13 Emmys, including acting and writing noms for Lyonne. (The show won three Emmys for costume, production design, and cinematography.) The response far exceeded any expectations Lyonne had. “Netflix, NBC Universal, and Amy Poehler really set me up with this opportunity to tell my story right. It was a relatively low-budget affair, so it wasn’t too huge of a risk at the time, but it was still very humbling that we actually got to make the show we wanted. It’s wild to me. I think nobody was anticipating that it would actually connect on this level. I am just delighted. I’m thrilled to discover that people are so similarly deranged.”
Lyonne’s Nadia dies more than 20 times in Season One, coming back each time determined to rewrite her fate. “With my own experience,” explains Lyonne, “my addiction really nearly took me out for good. I was quite literally immobilized by it and just left with my thoughts and trying to make sense of how I got there. So that became this show where in the first few minutes of the first episode, she’s dead and still trying to live, still trying to fight her way back to life. For me, that was highly autobiographical. It feels very literal. It’s so fun that, through the arts, we get to share these examinations that are universal, and also deeply personal; fictional and real.”
Much of the filming and production process of Russian Doll proved to be cathartic for Lyonne. Take for example, a scene from Nadia’s childhood that was lifted directly from her own experience. “My mother taking me in her Alfa Romeo Spider to buy up all the watermelons in town and me just being confused about why this was happening—that’s just a real story from my life,” says Lyonne, who was raised by her mother in Manhattan after her parents’ divorce. In Russian Doll, the role of Nadia’s mother is played by Lyonne’s best friend, Chloë Sevigny. Lyonne says, “To have Chloë, who’s like my sister and the safest person in my life, inhabit the role of my mother, who felt like this very unwieldy character—it was this bizarre exercise. It was very surreal, but it was also very healing.”
Lyonne says making Russian Doll’s first season, particularly moments like “being in the darkness of the editing room with the footage of my best friend in the role of my mother, talking to a young me,” was also painful at times. “It was all very, y’know, meta, the whole thing. It’s like brain-breaking, soul-harrowing work.”
The semi-autobiographical nature of the material made Lyonne that much more grateful to be “arriving on the other side of the process and seeing that people didn’t ridicule me for it, but instead embraced me. Had people been like ‘Oh, this is stupid,’ or something, it would’ve felt very shaming because it was so personal.”
“I’ve always thought about young girls out there who, like myself, didn’t fit into whatever assembly line propaganda it is we’re told to adhere to.”
Much of Russian Doll’s majority female cast and crew—including friends like Sevigny, High Maintenance’s Greta Lee, and her OITNB co-star Dascha Polanco—came directly from Lyonne’s Contacts app. “I really am a big text messenger for work,” she says. “I like to be able to just text people. It’s a lot easier to ask your friends to show up for something you’re working on.”
Opposite coast moves, growing families, and professional obligations have changed the way Lyonne and her community of creative women friends spend time together. These days, work is often the way she’s able to see some of the people she loves most—like Clea DuVall, her co-star in 1999’s But I’m a Cheerleader, a cult classic satire about conversion therapy. “Clea’s a mom and everything so I think that, selfishly, I am always trying to seduce her into writing something together just so I can spend time with her.”
The same endearing ulterior motive was behind the formation of Animal Pictures, her production company with Maya Rudolph, which has signed a first look deal with Amazon Studios. “I remember in the ’90s and the early 2000s, Maya and I would just be out ’til three in the morning all the time. And then we’d be running around getting brunch and shopping all day just killing time—always trying to find ways to waste time together! Then, all of a sudden, grownup life happens. She’s got some real kids! So the idea of this company became such a joy in my life because it became this way to get to spend time with Maya. Now we have this space together with this gorgeous portrait of Maya and magnets on the fridge with clippings and stuff for all these plans we have. It’s like this second wave of a life together.”
In the last year, Lyonne has also directed episodes of Russian Doll, OITNB, and Awkwafina Is Nora from Queens, the Comedy Central series created by another former BUST cover star, and she plans to direct her own feature in the near future. When deciding which projects to undertake, Lyonne keeps one thing in mind, “I like to be in communication with us, directly—those of us who’ve felt like outsiders. I’ve always thought about young girls out there who, like myself, didn’t fit into whatever assembly line propaganda it is we’re told to adhere to through advertising, peer pressure, and society’s implications.” She traces the origins of her own outsider feelings to a pivotal event from her childhood, right after her parents divorced and she and her mother were having money trouble.
“Suddenly, I had a single mom and was on scholarship going to this private school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan,” recalls Lyonne. Although little fifth-grade Natasha was accepted by a group of kids immediately, once a popular mean girl who’d missed the first few days of school returned, things took a turn. “She was like, ‘Who is this girl who doesn’t brush her hair?’”
Things only got worse when the girl (“I think her name was Rebecca, in case she’s reading this. She was a real piece of work!”), ended up on a playdate in the one-bedroom apartment Lyonne shared with her mom. “We had this antique wood furniture leftover from when we had a big house and my parents were married. She was like, ‘What is this shit-stained furniture?’ She went back to school saying, ‘Her apartment is so small and she sleeps with her mother.’ She really blew up my spot. I thought I was special because I was a child actor. I didn’t think I was some freak. She made it really clear that there was something wrong with me. This seminal shift just kinda happened.”
That shift, Lyonne speculates, is a universal experience we can all relate to. “Long before I got into drugs or any of those shenanigans, that experience was the start of a really warped sense of self that I think a lot of young women experience. At some point, there’s this seminal, seismic event in their life that just totally rocks their sense of self, where they go from being a perfectly strange creature happy in their little imagination with their hopes and dreams and their little weirdo outfits, to having a keen awareness or feeling that there’s something wrong with them. We then spend a lifetime in dysmorphia and bad relationships and bad late-night situations and confusion in the workplace and there’s just this warped sense of self. It’s just this endless litany of imposter syndrome until we get through to the other side of it.”
Reporting from the other side, Lyonne thinks society has recently made great progress on this front. “I’m so proud of all of us and what we’ve been able to accomplish as a team,” says Lyonne. “What women have done over these last maybe three years of reclaiming our space and sort of saying that it’s OK that we’re all shapes and sizes. It’s OK that we have all kinds of different personalities—you can be shy, talk a lot, or do whatever you want to do. There’s been this palpable, tangible shift. It took a while, but people are getting on board, and I don’t care if it’s trendy, I’m just like, ‘Let’s keep going! Let’s go all the way!’”
“The younger generation is declaring all these things unacceptable—and they’re correct. Whether it’s ideas on gender, race, status, our bodies—they’ve said, You don’t get to tell me my sexuality, my gender, my otherness.”
That tangible progress, helped along by shows like OITNB, created an environment in which Russian Doll, and a character like Nadia, who is unlike any TV character before her, could shine. In one scene, Nadia says she is what would happen if Andrew Dice Clay and “the girl from Brave” had a baby.
“I wrote that because I really do think that’s my shtick. It could also be a little Joe Pesci and Carol Kane—I could play this game all day! There is this sweet spot of masculine and feminine that I really love. Nadia’s also based a lot on Elliott Gould’s portrayal of Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye. There are certain tentpole schticks I really identify with, and they’re often male. Which is cool because now that so much of this acceptance is happening, I can find all the blazers I always wanted. I love that, like, women don’t even fuck with heels anymore. I feel like we all just decided, It’s a wrap on that, and it’s great. I’m very much into being female, I just want to do it on my terms.”
Lyonne credits young people for the shift she’s noticing in popular culture and society. “I really adore young people,” she says. “I like to think of myself as an ancient millennial but I love when there are 25-year-olds in my life, because they’re so cool. They have all these ideas and the younger generation is declaring all these things unacceptable—and they’re correct. Whether it’s ideas on gender, race, status, our bodies—they’ve said, You don’t get to tell me my sexuality, my gender, my otherness. It’s all correct and it’s very cool to see.”
Lyonne jokes that as a child star, she thought she’d peaked at 16, and that having a flourishing career at 40 was almost unfathomable. “I think that I was sort of trained to think that 40 was a wrap. I mean, I will say that the last BUST cover I did, my knees were in better shape and I wasn’t complaining about my neck quite as much. So, there are those kinds of things to be concerned with.”
Some things change, and others don’t. The issue Lyonne covered back in Summer 2001 was dubbed the “Living Single” issue. She told us then that she hated going out to meet new people, refused to play the dating game, and that she’d never give up her own apartment. “My level of commitment to someone else is going to be very much like in the movie Annie Hall, you know? It’s like, ‘This is my island. Always keep your island.’ And my apartment is my island in a lot of ways,” she said at the time.
Today, she’s been in a relationship with SNL alum and co-creator of Portlandia and Los Espookys, Fred Armisen, for five years. The two co-starred in 2015’s dark comedy Addicted to Fresno together.
“My boyfriends have usually been, like, one-night stands that turned into years. I’ve never really done well with trying to chase someone or manipulate them. I’m not that person who knows how to get someone in my clutches and I’m not really into playing hard-to-get and being coy and whatever—the eyelash fluttering from across the room,” she says of her general approach to romance.
And she still has her own place. “Fred and I have been together for five years, so it’s pretty grown up and official. But I’ve never given up having my own place in New York. I don’t know if I’d ever be able to really move in with somebody all the way and not have something of my own in a shoe box somewhere else. We live together in New York and in Los Angeles—my place in New York and his place here (in Los Angeles). So, we definitely have keys to each other’s places. But I think I just like knowing that I have a pair of keys to my own place. I’m very much an independent creature who still really loves having good people in my life.”
She also believes in being a good person in others’ lives. Raised partially in Israel by parents who were religious, though not as religious as their own Orthodox families, and attending private Orthodox Jewish school in New York, today the guiding principle in Lyonne’s life is, as she calls it, mathematical.
“On the most basic level, I believe in a principle that is a mathematic truth. A spiritual mathematic truth. One plus one equals two. It’s not subjective that what you put into the world is what you get. Karma is a fact, it’s not a concept. So a good policy is to see what you can put into the world instead of what you can suck out.”
For her part, Lyonne’s just happy to still be here, putting art into the world that us outsiders can relate to. “I definitely was convinced I’d be dead at 27,” she says. “No one’s more surprised than me and Root Beer to discover that I’m still here.”
By Sabrina Ford
Photography by Ramona Rosales
Styled By Turner @ The Wallgroup
Hair By Caile Noble @ The Wallgroup
Makeup By Molly Greenwald @ SWA
Set Design By Natalie Shriver
Nails By Vanessa Mccullough @ Tracey Mattingly
header image credits: MARC JACOBS SHIRT AND PANTS; DAN CASSAB COAT
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2020 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!
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