Natasha Lyonne: Directing 'Is The Single-Minded Focus Of My Life At This Point'

One of Natasha Lyonne’s greatest qualities is she’s a talker. And, more importantly, unlike some other people who might ramble on for too long, she has a lot of incredible things to say. So, when we jumped on the phone last month to talk about the fantastic second season of “Russian Doll,” it became increasingly clear I was going to just sit back and listen. And, no, I’m not complaining.

READ MORE: “Russian Doll” Season 2 review

Co-created with Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland, the first season of “Russian Doll” became one of the must-watch binges during the initial pandemic stay-at-home period. Besides playing the lead character, Lyonne co-wrote two episodes, another by herself, and directed the season finale. Two years later, her creative touch is even more apparent. She wrote the first episode, co-wrote three others, and directed an impressive three of the season’s seven installments. Listening to her discuss the show on “TV’s Top 5” podcast, I couldn’t help but hear the passion in her voice when it came to sitting in the director’s chair.

“I mean, you’re not wrong to pick up on it. It really is the single-minded focus of my life at this point,” Lyonne says. “And what was so meaningful for me about the second season and getting to do it in this way is I’m so grateful that we’re kind of in this era where that’s even legal. And because certainly, it’s a big swing. I think I was joking often even in the writer’s room that you have such a narrow window to actually say what you want to say and show the world how you see it. I take a lot of comfort in the fact that Dennis Hopper went from ‘Easy Rider‘ to the ‘Last Movie’ and survived. Because that’s the kind of game I appreciate. I think that’s sort of the name of the game. You’re supposed to challenge yourself and push your limits.”

The New York City native slyly jokes she has a sickness where movies are almost a religion to her.

“I just think the idea that they’re able to have that impact and soul-soothing effect on me personally, especially as a teenager and kid in my 20s, I think just it’s got everything to do with what I want to do as an adult,” Lyonne reflects. “And I’ll take as much leeway as they give me to try to do it and go for it all the way.”

Natasha Lyonne, Russian Doll

The second season of the Netflix series finds Nadia (Lyonne) jumping on board a Manhattan 6 train only to discover she’s traveled back to 1982. And unlike the first season, where she was in a continuous-time loop, her four-decade jump into the past finds her inhabiting the body of her mother Lenora (Chloë Sevigny). Barely freaked out about what’s going on (I mean, did you see the first season?), Nadia decides to recover the gold treasure her mother lost at that time in her life in hopes of changing both her and her family’s history. She’s somewhat assisted by her friend Alan (Charlie Barnett), who is trapped in his own time jump with his grandmother in 1962 East Germany. Over the course of the season, Nadia and Alan take an even more surreal journey than Nadia experienced the first time around.

Considering the success of the inaugural season (12 Emmy nominations and two wins, among other honors), I wondered whether Lyonne and her cohorts were intimidated in trying to recreate that unique and unexpected magic.

“I mean, I think it’s such a funny thing being on the other side of it because now we talk about season one with the rose-colored glasses of yesteryear and that’s a very convenient game to play,” Lyonne says. “But having been there, I can tell you for a fact that everyone was terrified. Nobody knew what it was or that it was going to hit. It felt super eccentric. It felt as radical as we could be at the time. And it also felt like when it came out, yes, there were so many glowing compliments and everything, but also there was a lot of disruption about the end of it. And was it good or was it bad or was it satisfying? Was it too satisfying or did it complete it? Or we have questions and we don’t like that we have questions. So it was actually quite divisive.”

It appears her experience with season two, has been quite different.

“This year has been this game that I just have to sit back and laugh like some elder states thing,” Lyonne says.
“It wasn’t ‘How dare these people think they have the right to do it again!’ [It’s] ‘We liked what they did so much we want them to never work again.’ I’m like, ‘Are you guys all f**king insane?’ Way to be encouraging. I mean, just f**king ease up. I’m a human being. And so it’s pretty psychedelic to watch the way we communicate around creation altogether. It just feels like surely there is a nicer vibe we could engender as a team sport here as opposed to I love what this person does. Please never work again. It’s a really, really eccentric way to operate as a society but I accept that it’s global. Because I take a look at how we talk about all kinds of other things, thankfully, and I’m like, ‘Oh, O.K. So this is just everybody’s fucking nuts across the board.'”

The “courage” to keep going, Lyonne says, came from the love the creative team felt after season one. Oh, and well, the fact they had pitched numerous seasons from the beginning. I mean, the show is titled “Russian Doll.”

“This year, if there are enough sickos out there that they actually get what we’re trying to say, I wonder how far that goes and how willing they are to go on a journey? And let’s really go for a ride here. Let’s go deep,” Lyonne says. “I mean, for Christ’s sakes, the show is called ‘Russian Doll,’ so, of course, I now realize that’s a problematic title. I mean, believe me, if I had known then what I know now. But unfortunately, I’m not actually a time traveler despite the fact everyone wants to explain to me all day just how autobiographical this is. But I think that inherently baked into the theme and the conceit of even the title of the show is this ever-deepening quest and hero’s journey towards resolving some sort of philosophical, psychedelic self and search for meaning. So I think that that is the DNA of the show and I knew for sure that it wanted to be somewhat anthological in terms of being able to stand on its own.”

When it comes to hunkering down with the work itself, Lyonne is committed. And, the more you hear her reflect on it, it’s obvious she’s a bit of a fighter. Maybe in the best way possible when you’re both a producer and director on a project. Take, for instance, shooting key scenes in Hungary.

“So this whatever, liminal space that you see Alan and Nadia in, I remember was an image that was sent to us from the Royal Budapest Company who was the physical production company out in Budapest,” Lyonne recalls. “And I saw this image and I was like, ‘Oh, this is great. This is like neural nets. This thing looks great. And we’ve got to get these guys in there at the end.’ And they kept telling me that, oh no, it’s actually impossible. We shouldn’t have sent that image because you can’t shoot there. And I was like, ‘Well, certainly if it ended up in our deck, somebody got a camera in there. Right, guys?’ And so I kept explaining to them that I was going to rewrite it later and rewrite it later until finally, we were in Budapest. And again, they explained to us now because of COVID there’s no way. We’re never getting in there and it’s really just too bad. And I was like, ‘Gosh, I really think we should shoot there though. I really do. And it really would be, it just seems like it really makes sense in the show and it should be in there.’ ‘No.’ And so I’m always very satisfied when I see it on screen because it was just that sheer will of a game of chicken with a location photo. And the fact that it panned out, I find deeply satisfying in my soul. It’s like a white noise thing because it’s a little bit like as soon as I saw the picture, I knew that its destiny was to make it into ‘Russian Doll.’ And so the fact that it’s in and it had these acoustic problems. So it necessitated some rewriting and reconfiguring, but I find it very satisfying when I see that. I know that the show’s destiny was on its own path and that we were able, if we just stood by it and walked alongside it, it would be worth it. So I find that pretty great.”

Throughout the second season, it turns out Lyonne’s personal touch is almost everywhere.

“I love seeing the shale drawing behind the rabbi. Ever since I saw ‘Brewster McCloud,’ I’m just, I’m obsessed with a very busy chalkboard and it makes me so happy when I see it,” Lyonne says. “And listen, I mean, I’m raised a Jew. I’m a nothing, clearly, I’m just a chain smoker floating in the wind over here. But I had never even heard of this bizarre, liminal space in that religion and it involved this circle train space. And so the idea that that’s hanging out in the rabbi’s chalkboard when the idea that that place had been Yeshiva, that makes me laugh. And those little Yeshiva kids in one, and just this extended, practical set padded cell game that we did.”

The dreamlike moments are some of the more compelling parts of the series. At one point, Nadia walks through different subway cars where she meets her mother, and different aged versions of her friends both past and present. Lyonne says pulling off that “circle train game” gave her joy.

“It really makes me laugh that the show is called ‘Russian Doll,’ and she’s there with her daughter, who’s her mother, who’s her daughter makes me laugh on a ‘Chinatown’ level because it’s just so specifically weird. And when the daughter and mother is dancing in the grandmother’s house, there’s a lot of s**t that just is very weird that really makes me laugh that it made it in. And I find it very relaxing that it’s there now.”

Overall, Lyonne admits you’re always inviting comparisons to Scorsese when trying to recreate early 80s New York. That was a starting point for those scenes, but her goal was to infuse it with some of the “macho-ness” of Michael Mann. And, frankly, she might have put her own spin on it too.

“I definitely feel like, when I’m with it in the edit and then later in the mix watching it down I feel a great relief with it that it’s out of my head and on a screen now, and that I’m freed up to do new things,” Lyonne admits. “We have a lot of great ideas and who knows if they’ll ever let me make anything again. So we’ll see.”

“Russian Doll” is available on Netflix.