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Natasha Lyonne On Being A 'Tough Guy' And Finding Herself Inside 'Russian Doll'

Natasha Lyonne stars as Nadia, a woman who keeps dying — and coming back to life — on the Netflix series <em>Russian Doll</em>. She co-created the series with Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland.
Courtesy of Netflix
Natasha Lyonne stars as Nadia, a woman who keeps dying — and coming back to life — on the Netflix series Russian Doll. She co-created the series with Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland.

Natasha Lyonne is a survivor. On the Netflix series Russian Doll, which Lyonne co-created and stars in, her character Nadia keeps dying and returning to life. Determined to figure out what is happening to her, Nadia relives the same day countless times, each time trying to steer events toward a different outcome.

It's a premise that strikes a chord with the actor; Lyonne herself nearly died of drug-related problems in 2005. Now recovered, she says her past near-death experience helped her connect with Nadia's struggle.

"My very real experiences wildly informed ... these questions about life and death and what's it all about," she says.

Lyonne says her work on Russian Doll has given her a new perspective on her own past: "It feels like quite the opposite of something painful or vulnerable or terrifying," she says. Instead, "that pain or that fear is a type of touchstone to ultimate growth, release and relief."

She laughs, then adds, "Terry, the headline is 'Everything's Fine Now,' you know? I mean, people love Russian Doll, so the good days are upon us!"

Interview Highlights

On why she always identified as "a tough guy" and a survivor

For a long time I think I thought being a tough guy meant being tough at oneself. Like, how much can I take? And now I think I see it quite differently. ... My lineage is dark survivors. I come from real Auschwitz stock [Lyonne's grandparents are Holocaust survivors]. So Hitler was a big player in my childhood, and it was this mentality of surviving and no matter what sort of horrors life throws your way, that was something that had been endured by my grandmother and my grandfather and therefore it was kind of the litmus test of a human experience. ...

For a long time I think I thought being a tough guy meant being tough at oneself. Like, how much can I take? And now I think I see it quite differently.

I certainly think it made me very curious to sort of like, see what else was out there, and kind of push at the edges of this thing called reality, and to start pushing in a little bit on the time-space continuum, and being like, "Oh what's this? LSD? Let's see where this takes us." I think it was an interesting setup and foundation for curiosity, because a lot of the big ideas about the human condition were woven into the very structural fabric of my formative years.

On whether she relates to her character in Russian Doll, who sees relationships as impinging on her freedom

My father was a boxing promoter. His big dream was he wanted to be like a Don King figure and bring Mike Tyson to the Tel Aviv Hilton when we lived in Israel. I grew up with a lot of boxing in my life, a lot of these kind of tough guy sort of [Al] Pacino and [Robert] De Niro figures, and the thing I would keep noticing in them is that they weren't limited by time, or this need to reproduce, that society puts on as the woman's burden.

So I think this idea that ... I'm better off waiting until I'm in my late 60s to settle down is something that comes from kind of that spirit of: You don't get to have a one night stand with me and think that I need you for some reproductive, societal purpose of, "Oh, I'm now a worthy member of the species because, look! I've got a partner. I've got my 'plus-one' who can get me in the room! From Adam's rib, here I come!" You know, it was a sort of f--- all that mentality.

On what shaped her outlook on drugs and alcohol

I remember when I was 16, back when Woody Allen was quite a popular figure, I was doing his film Everyone Says I Love You and I'd been pulled out of yeshiva in order to do the job. I had this wonderful tutor, Karen Cooper, and she sort of explained to me what surrealism was, and she would make me do these interesting activities like watching Apocalypse Now and [reading] the book Heart of Darkness. And so I think all of those things similarly shaped a very specific outlook to drugs and alcohol, and also idolizing certain figures. Whether that was a Hunter S. Thompson or [Charles] Bukowski or [John] Cassavetes, or Lou Reed — I think all of that went into a melting pot of how I would feel in the face of why drugs and alcohol felt like such a good soundtrack to my experience.

On her deep, raspy voice

You should see my organs! ... I don't know that it bodes well for a long life that my voice is changing, but it also depends what time of day you catch me. I haven't done much speaking yet today, as I warm up, it kind of rises. Sometimes I notice when I'm really under pressure I end up being full Joe Pesci. It sort of depends. I kind of have to check out the lay of the room and then decide how much I'm going to give.

On why she was excited to join the cast of Orange is the New Black

[The show] was not shame-based. When you talk about the sort of stereotype of femininity, it wasn't something [where] I felt like I had to hide a pockmark or something. ... Anyway, this was not a show where that was gonna be a problem. It was a very "come as you are" dynamic. ...

It was a cast of women that were just all so exceptional in their own ways. ... It was realizing that we'd been sold a false bill of goods through advertising and certainly a life in showbiz where there was only space for a certain number of women — and those are your enemies. Here was the opposite. It was the idea that these are your allies, this is your community. Like, as much room as there is for as many of us in all of our differences to shine, that is for the good and the benefit of the show.

Heidi Saman and Mooj Zadie produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.