Natasha Lyonne may be done beating herself up and schlepping the heavy psychological baggage that’s been dogging her since childhood.
“Russian Doll,” an eight-episode original series premiering tonight on Netflix, stars Lyonne as Nadia, the hard-partying guest of honor at a seemingly inescapable birthday party, who relives her death over and over in a never-ending loop in her head. Death by stairs is a popular downfall.
Nadia’s falling and spiraling downward may be a metaphor for Lyonne’s sometimes reckless youth. The former “Orange Is the New Black” actress says, “Having danced so close to death so many times, it seems that it comes for you when it comes for you.”
She adds that she imagined Nadia as a tough kid with a kind heart who may share some of the darker tendencies of performers such as Richard Pryor, who in 1980, high on crack cocaine, poured rum over his body and set himself on fire.
Lyonne developed an edge that started in the “Eighties with me being nine years old and watching movies like ‘Rocky,’ ‘Scarface’ and ‘The Godfather.’ My father was a boxing promoter and we fled to Israel for tax-evasion reasons. With Nadia being vaguely autobiographical, I [wanted her to] look like a mix of Marisa Tomei and Joe Pesci in ‘My Cousin Vinny.'”
Cristina Ehrlich, a stylist who’s worked with Lyonne over the years, says of the actress, “She’s really articulate and super-specific. We watched this movie, ‘Stage Door’ with Lucille Ball and Katharine Hepburn.” Lyonne was to find references in the 1937 film that would inform her wardrobe for the “Russian Doll” press tour. “We broke the whole movie down. She’s super-intelligent. You can’t pull the wool over her eyes. I feel like we approached it in a very editorial way. She doesn’t like fashion, she loves it.
“She doesn’t want to look like anybody other than herself, and her best self,” says Ehrlich, adding, “She loves Proenza Schouler and is obsessed with Chanel and Balmain. She wore Ralph Lauren to the premiere. She loves to play, and really likes to push it. It’s a real collaboration and conversation and I always learn something.”
Lyonne is work. Simply talking to the actress can be by turns exhausting, exhilarating and maddening as she layers one obscure reference over another or veers off-topic to slip down a rabbit hole of different tangents. It all happens fast and attempts to refocus her can be futile.
She’s not afraid to take a contrarian position, even if it’s throwing darts at a darling and icon of American cinema. “I’m not a huge Audrey Hepburn fan,” she says. “She’s not my vibe. Everybody’s obsessed with everything about Audrey Hepburn. Katharine Hepburn is sort of bending the rules a bit more. She’s also wearing clothes like a man, unintentionally…the silk pajama suits Katharine Hepburn was coming out in in ‘Stage Door’ were amazing.
“I recently rewatched the pilot of ‘I Love Lucy,’ and thought, Lucille Ball and Katharine Hepburn are pulling off this modern twist that we take a lot of credit for about transgender and [nongender] that the two of them in that movie started.”
Another source of inspiration is the German actress Hanna Schygulla, who starred in films by the mercurial director Rainer Werner Fassbinder. “She had some of the greatest looks, but I wouldn’t be able to pull [them] off,” Lyonne says, hinting that they were too masculine. “Read ‘Tales of Lavender Hollywood.'”
Gender politics notwithstanding, Lyonne is sympathetic to Schygulla, who’s worked on films about the Holocaust. “My grandparents are Holocaust survivors,” the actress says. “What’s so crazy was growing up in a home where Hitler was a topic of conversation. My mother created a sense of fear of discipline. The echoes of it in ‘Russian Doll’ are the themes we grow up with as children that are connected to our lineage in which we have no interest.”
By her own account, Lyonne’s parents were an “odd combination of Auschwitz and Brooklyn. My mom was born in Paris, my dad in Brooklyn. They became these wild expats from their own family dynamics. My father had a long, white pony tail, and my mother drove a red Alfa Romeo, just like the one Chloë Sevigny, who’s my closest person in this life and plays my mom, drives in my show.”
Lyonne has always been attracted to strong women: “I dreamed of being a Golda Meir-type figure,” she says, harking back to her time in Israel. But before she had the chance, her father’s dream of being the Don King of the Holy Land never materialized, and “my mother packed us up and we fled the country under the cloak of night. The next thing I knew, I was living as a Ramaz [Yeshiva] scholarship kid on the Upper East Side.
“Later, I was expelled for selling weed,” she says. “The only way to gain vengeance was that I got a Woody Allen movie, ‘Everyone Says I Love You’ at 16 years old, and when I went on ‘Letterman’ when I was 17, [Ramaz] invited me back.”
While at Ramaz, she received an education in Honors Talmud that she didn’t appreciate at the time. “I spoke Hebrew,” she says. “Everything in the Talmud is in Aramaic. Deconstructing constructs is a very fun way to shape a mind. There were 93 ways to pick the world apart — or myself. Later, when I found myself in the Writer’s Room with ‘Russian Doll,’ I thought, ‘This Talmud stuff wasn’t a waste of time, after all.'”
Amy Poehler, who is something of Lyonne’s godmother, spearheaded the “Russian Doll” project by asking Lyonne to conceive of a project after their “Old Soul” project that never moved forward. “Amy says I’m the oldest soul she knows,” says Lyonne, who cocreated “Doll” with Poehler and Leslye Headland. All three women served as executive producers, with Headland and Lyonne the writers for the series.
“I have the internal organs of a much older man,” Lyonne says, repeating a line her character says in the show. “I’m lucky I came out with my life. Nadia is not at all a junkie, but living through the emotional bottoming out of my life feels like a relief. Now, I can enter adulthood.”