Natasha Lyonne Talks Growing Up, Making Autobiographical Art And ‘Russian Doll’ for Oyster #116

In conversation with Carrie Brownstein.

Oyster Issue 116 is available at the Oyster Print Shop

Natasha Lyonne is a very singular type of woman, one who channels a particular hardness and softness at the same time. There is a staunchness in her presence, her body language, her unbroken cleverness and tough-guy vocal cords, but a romance in her expression, her palpable output and her lived life. Perhaps an unintentional — yet now purposeful — result of a tumultuous relationship with her own self. With the lightness of loving herself in the non-sarcastic way that people who sort of hate themselves usually do, Natasha has found room to eagerly vault into career tangents that facilitate her brilliant storytelling. Very recently she created, starred in and executive produced the Netflix series Russian Doll, in which she deliberately surrounded herself with smart and safe women to unpack the very tender and very real parts of her narrative. And, in launching her production company Animal Pictures with Maya Rudolph, she plans to do it over and over and over again. In salute of this power harnessed, we asked Natasha’s friend and collaborator (and comparable sensitive punk), Carrie Brownstein, to ask her questions and let us eavesdrop.

Carrie Brownstein: You started acting so young, at a formative age — were there any roles that informed who you are?

Natasha Lyonne: I will always be Opal from Pee–Wee’s Playhouse. And Opal didn’t even have a last name, do you know what I mean? That’s the character that I most identify with. Happy to say, that as a semi-healthy adult, I feel like that’s the person who I’ve been most restored to — that Opal essence self. And my grasp on reality is slim enough, that I often confuse the two and think, maybe, in a hopeful sense, that it was my real childhood. But in fact, I know it was darker and that was just my happy place. With Slums of Beverly Hills — I think because I was playing Tamara Jenkins’ [autobiographical character] Vivian, and because of how much I loved Alan Arkin, and David Krumholtz, and Marisa Tomei, and Carl Reiner, and Rita Moreno, and then how much I fell in love with Kevin Corrigan — I always confused that [character] with my actual real life experience of who I was as a teenager, which [involved] a lot more bullying and outsiderness. Once more, that [character] was sort of a happier place — in my Charles Manson t- shirt. Then there’s a movie I did called The Grey Zone, which was a Holocaust movie that sort of never really saw the light of day… it lived a little bit, but it was very close to 9/11 and, for obvious reasons, show business was the last thought on anyone’s mind. Yet that movie was significant to me because my grandparents are Holocaust survivors. Most of my work had been often comedic and that was the most deep into something that I’ve ever gone. It was so close to home. I remember being on the phone with my grandmother every day.

Right.

And then with Orange Is The New Black, I can turn up in any mood — on a good night’s rest or two hours sleep — and just slip right into Nicky Nichols.

As an adult who has found ways of being healthy and present, do you find that there’s more differentiation between you and your characters now? Is that its own freedom?

So much of the reason I look up to you is that you’re a stellar all round human being, but also you’re one of the true creators in my life who I really look to as someone who can touch an idea and pluck it from the ether and make it tangible — whether it’s musically or in prose, or making a scene in a TV show. I think, oddly, that distinction in this chapter of my life, with Russian Doll and even after making that short film with Maya Rudolph [Cabiria, Charity, Chastity for Kenzo], understanding myself as a writer, a director, and a producer, it oddly was more grounding for me than acting. It created a new layer of different slivers of self. I don’t know if this is the same for you, but I am thrilled to be an adult. It’s such a graphic experience, like coming of age as a woman, and coming of age as a woman who is othered, and trying to process what that means. And then to be celebrated for exposing the thing closest to my truest self is very freeing. Like an albatross lifted, I can finally relax and not wear make-up or high heels ever again. This is who I am and it feels more concrete and grounded than ever.

And true to that, in terms of the provenance of Russian Doll, how did that start?

It definitely was always my brainchild from its inception. It has always been crafted to be something that is really my creation. The origin story — because that’s a term people enjoy these days — of Russian Doll, is Amy Poehler called me out of the blue and said, ‘I wanna let you know that as long as I’ve known you, you’ve always been the oldest girl in the room.’ I said, ‘Is this some sort of an insult? I don’t have to take this kind of abuse!’ And she said, ‘Don’t hang up, what if we made a TV show about it?’ I said, ‘Do go on, I’m listening.’ Then we made a show called Old Soul and I played a character called Nadia, Ellen Burstyn played Eileen, and Marla Gibbs was in it, and Rita Moreno. It was a great show that we made for NBC, and NBC did not pick up the show.

I remember that.

By then we’d become closer as friends, and we’d had a lot of deep dive conversations about what it means to be a person. She said, ‘What is the real thing we would want to say with a show, without any limitations of network television?’ And that conversation became the early days of what would become Russian Doll — a title that she gave. It became a choose your own adventure approach to life and that was quickly infused with my favourite approach to storytelling, which is a kind of All That Jazz approach to a life story. I had so much of a self-destructive youth, dancing so close to death, that I often experience things in that sort of narrative structure. I’d lived in an apartment exactly at the location of Russian Doll, on that corner. I’d been cataloguing a list for almost a decade, of the songs that would be in the show and which art would be hanging on the walls. I really had a sense of what it was, and when we brought in Leslye Headland it was like a third part of our brain trust. Our triangle was very kindred, it always felt like we all were trying to tell the same story — the existential adventure that would become Russian Doll.

When you’re drawing so closely from life, what moments were you struck by when you’re dealing with simulacra and all this recreation?

A definitive moment for me was directing Burt Young — who is an actor that I’d loved from childhood, when he was in Rocky, and later in life in one of my favourite movies, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America. There’s this great scene where Burt Young is eating a pastrami sandwich, which is really indelibly imprinted onto my psyche. And the fact that he accepted this role, and having to wrangle him — he’s kind of an interesting creature; a flattering way of putting it would be he’s almost like a John Cassavetes character. He sort of had a sense of what was happening, but everything was night shoots, it was dead of winter, and it ended up evolving into this scene that was almost psychedelic when we filmed it. We would roam around the dialogue and then come back to it, and then I would have to call cut and action in between it, and I’d also written it. It was the final episode and we were shooting it out of order, the neighbours were screaming because it’s the middle of the night and lights are glaring and nobody likes that. It was in the East Village and the whole thing had an indie movie feel to it, where it’s just by the skin of our teeth that we got this scene.

Right.

I remember walking home with my little director’s binder after directing one of my heroes, Burt Young, and also being on this acting adventure with him that was like a roller coaster that I really enjoyed. As the sun came up over these familiar East Village streets I was reminded how often in life, under different circumstances, I’d seen this sunrise before. It was a very unpleasant internal world of hopelessness that I was experiencing back then — a sense of being so uncomfortable in my skin, and not knowing what I was doing with my life, sort of wasting it. And now I’ve created this show around the street signs of my old neighbourhood and Chloë Sevigny my old best friend is in it, and here’s the sun rising. It was just a very surreal feeling — holy shit, I managed to make a movie out of this corner, didn’t I? That feels really good.

As someone who’s doing things based on life, and sometimes dealing with your own self and personhood, or with people who you sometimes have conflicted relationships with, did you find that you reached a place of empathy for yourself?

That’s been a lot of the process of growing up in general. In the excavation catharsis experience of making something that is effectively autobiographical, if only in a dreamscape sense, is the forgiveness component. Also, on a sillier level, ‘Hey mum, thanks for the material!’ But in a deeper sense, the healing — that’s why I wanted Chloë, who is my best friend and my sister and my closest person, to play my mother. I think there was something very safe for me in that. It was far enough removed, it was entrusting it to someone that I felt I’d be able to love through the process. Because of how much I love Chloë and how much I recognise Chloë’s smell in a sisterhood way — I’ve had so many weird nights with her in all kinds of different countries, in all kinds of weird bedrooms, I’ve seen us both cry so often. Watching her in the editing room and seeing her with the music — and the watermelon scene is directly lifted from a real story from my childhood — there was something about it that just fucking broke me. I really wept.

***Carrie loses connection, Natasha is placed on hold***

Sorry, Natasha, I didn’t want to hear your answer so I just hung up.

You know what, Carrie? I get it. I get it.

This is only apropos of the fact that my technology just failed me — Mercury is in retrograde, which I don’t really know anything about, but I’ve noticed that a lot of people keep telling me that to explain phenomena… As someone who is mostly logical and a pragmatist — but yet you made a show about the interstices between pragmatism and reality — I was wondering if there’s anything in life that you believe in or take stock in that might be irrational?

I think in some ways, quite a few things. I’m reminded of Hermann Hesse’s Demian — there’s something in that that really resonated with me as a teenager when I read it. I can’t even articulate it to you now because I’m too old to remember, but there is something to the ether. Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day addresses it in a way that also works for me. I don’t know if it’s the teenage LSD user in me, I don’t know quite what it is, but I do think it’s worth noting that it feels like there are different levels in the air at any given moment. I can remember when you were directing me in your Kenzo short, we were sitting inside the house on the last day, and the scene wasn’t quite clicking. Then you took me outside and you said, ‘Hold on, just let me say a bunch of stuff real quick to you.’ And you weren’t even looking for feedback, you just wanted to say them out loud. And then we walked back into the living room and somehow the air in there had changed and we did the scene. It was the weirdest thing. That was your imagination that I was playing in, and it’s almost like you were able to move me like a chess piece, but internally. Emotionally, I returned in a different state and the scene changed. It’s obviously the mark of a great director, what you did in that moment.

I do think there is something ineffable, something special, about being able to embrace stillness or the unknown, momentarily, in order to notice something that we wouldn’t be able to notice before. But it’s so hard to take one’s self out of a pattern, or out of a way that we habituate to an environment, and to perceive it anew. It takes a certain amount of vulnerability, which I think you have to have as an actor or director or writer. So, what have you been learning from writing?

I’m starting to almost understand the language of transmitting the story to a third party, an audience or something. I don’t think that’s something that I understood before I entered the writers’ room on Russian Doll. There were incredible teachers in there for me, quite intentionally: Amy Poehler, Leslye Headland, Allison Silverman, Jocelyn Bioh, Tami Sagher, really experienced and brilliant women. It was also that thing of knowing I could trust women, and those were the ones I wanted to learn from. And understanding how to go from a feeling to something that can be articulated — not only in scripts but also to the crew, to other actors, let alone to the audience at home watching it — has been really interesting. I definitely understand when someone says how hard writing is, it’s much harder than telling a story. I often think about Carrie Fisher and how she figured out how to catalogue a life and reframe it: in this medium, and now over here as a one woman show, a memoir, or a screenplay based on a memoir. She’s a fascinating figure to me in that way, somebody I’ve really been looking at now that I’m writing more.

What’s next in terms of that? In some way I feel like we’re always telling the same stories and that’s not a bad thing, it’s just finding new ways to tell them and new colours in the palette. Are you going to continue with Russian Doll? And is there something else you’re embarking on?

I’m really excited. I just left my friend Nichole Beattie’s house, where I was writing with her. We were multitasking with some other projects that she’s working on for Animal Pictures — my production company with Maya Rudolph. We’re working on that as well as a separate screenplay. This is a two-part answer, but yes, it was a curiosity to see that people were interested in the real me, or something. It’s good news, it’s very encouraging to keep digging deeper. If this is what you guys want, I have an endless reservoir of this stuff. I just thought you guys wanted me to be a totally different person, because I thought I was garbage. But this is a very exciting development.

You’re nearing your 40th birthday. It’s so cliché, I’m sure every woman speaks of these freedoms of embracing ageing instead of trying to deny it, but is that part of it?

It’s really pretty relaxing. The thing about ageing, of course, is that it really crystallises that we’re going to die, right? It’s a very motivating tool. Your teenage years are defined by wasting time, because it feels like time is this endless fog, this murky mercurial concept of ‘When will it end?’ and ‘Get me out of this uncomfortable body,’ and ‘Why do I have a body, why am I a person?’ And you just sit around trying to make the days disappear. Then, all of a sudden, looking down the edge of 40, you don’t want to fuck around anymore. The idea that I’m being met by people being, at least, temporarily receptive to it, is great news. Now I don’t have to wear high heels and make-up — there are certain things I don’t even fuck with anymore, on a daily basis. Being concerned at all with my outside was the domain of my 20s and my teen years. And now the thing that stresses me out is, fuck man, am I smart enough? Do I have the information I need? I always really identify with that Twilight Zone episode — and I’m sure it’s very Carrie also — of the guy who needs time to be alone to read and then his glasses break. That really is like a dream slash nightmare scenario. All I do is surround myself with all the books and movies and music that I want to read and watch and listen to. And I’m just like, where is time and what if I can’t get the information inside of me quick enough?

But you have such an encyclopaedic knowledge, which I am endlessly impressed by. So, since you do have so many interests and you’re so good at retaining information, among all the things that light your curiosities, is there anything in particular that you are obsessed with right now?

[Clears throat] Let’s see. So right now, I am very obsessed with the films of Lina Wertmüller and um…

I think I saw… maybe you posted something about them on social media, which is a good place to learn about other people’s obsessions.

I think I posted something about Love and Anarchy. And I think I continue to be obsessed with Richard Pryor’s Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling, Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz, and Fellini’s 8 1/2… What are you obsessed with?

I just finished this book by Sigrid Nunez, which I loved. But as your friend and someone who loves you, I think that, in a way that is just about admiration, I am obsessed with the work you’re doing. I speak for a lot of people, there’s a lot of fondness and a lot of rooting for you. I’m very happy that I can kind of embody a really healthy obsession with somebody who is just really killing it on all fronts right now.

Thank you Carrie, I love you too.

words Hayley Morgan, interview Carrie Brownstein, photography Ben Rayner @ Bernstein & Andriulli, styling Paul Bui, hair Tetsuya Yamakata @ Artlist NY, makeup Deanna Melluso @ See Management, manicure Dawn Sterling @ MAM NYC, fashion assistants Ebele Anueyiagu and Amber Nicole Alston. Shot at The Williamsburg Hotel, Brooklyn. Special thanks to Rebecca Sides Capellan and Erica Goldish at ID-PR. 

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