Natasha Lyonne on Highlighting the “Chaos and Horror” of 2020 in Sarah Cooper’s Netflix Special

“We’re all on high alert because it feels like there’s a direct attack on humanity happening,” says the director and producer of Sarah Cooper: Everything’s Fine.

Natasha Lyonne Interview
Photo: Demetrios Kambouris/Getty Images

In a year when the real news often feels like satire, it’s no coincidence that Netflix decided to drop a sketch variety show that parodies 2020 mere days before the presidential election. The first project hailing from Natasha Lyonne and Maya Rudolph’s Animal Pictures production company, Sarah Cooper: Everything’s Fine, stars TikTok’s Trump lip-synching sensation Sarah Cooper as a morning news show anchor delivering the latest headlines with a smile, despite the crumbling world around her. There are Karens, there are QAnon conspiracies, and there are even fire hurricanes — plus, there are cameos from guest stars like Helen Mirren, Jon Hamm, Megan Thee Stallion, and Ben Stiller.

Although it’s meant to bring laughs, the hour-long comedy special was a chance for Lyonne, who also served as director, to connect with an audience on a deeper level.

“We wanted to make something that would resonate with people in this moment, and when Sarah Cooper suddenly appeared and came out with that bleach video, it was shocking how she connected with people in such a resounding way,” says Lyonne. “She’s so unique in that her art and jokes can provide some comfort right now, when the meaning of time has disappeared along with what we, as a society, formally understood as plans for life. With this project, we were able to externalize the doom-scrolling that we’ve all been experiencing and that sinking feeling where you’re slowly falling into your bed because it’s all too much. And I’m thrilled if people who watch it get even a second of relief or feel a little bit less alone during this crazy year.”

Natasha Lyonne Interview

Read our full conversation below.

InStyle: What was it like to film something like this in the middle of a pandemic?

Natasha Lyonne: We had these great Covid safety officers and Covid protocols, and we had to take a 20-minute oxygen break after two hours of being on set. But we were also shooting during the climate fires in California, and one day when we were filming on a golf course, we actually had to take the breaks indoors because the quality of air outside was so bad due to the fires. It was just the surrealism of this sort of mercurial existence that is 2020. It’s funny because people have called the special “dark,” but it’s not the special that’s dark — we’re just reflecting the baseline of reality, which is pretty insane right now because a large part of the country is living in an alternate reality. So when we have Aubrey Plaza crushing it with a QAnon QVC [sketch] or Maya crushing it as a crazy weather lady, it’s not even that surprising. Like, yeah that really is the map that we’re looking at!

Natasha Lyonne Interview

There are a ton of celebrity appearances in the special. How did it feel to get so many big stars to sign on?

NL: It was sort of like a Covid family special. [laughs] But a lot of these actors Maya and I happen to know, just because we’ve been around for like 20 or 30 years. There are movie stars and the cinematographer, Polly Morgan, and the production designer, JC Molina, did such an incredible job, but we didn’t even have any money for a music budget, which is why Fred [Armisen] and Maya [Rudolph] do all the music in it. Fred wrote one of the songs for me as a gift because we couldn’t afford the Cat Stevens song that we wanted to use. [laughs] We pulled it off, but it was five days of shooting total. It was like two months from the moment we met Sarah until it was completed because we had to get it out before the election.

And it’s no coincidence that this premiered right before Election Day. Why did you want people to see this within days of heading to the polls?

NL: As a company, I think Maya and I are really interested in the human experience beyond politics, in terms of what is the impact that all of this chaos has on us as human beings? It was Sarah’s great idea to never say Trump’s name in the special. It was more of speaking to this paranoia and claustrophobia that we’re all experiencing right now. My ideal relationship with politics is that I don’t have to pay attention because the captain is on deck and people other than me who are actually interested in politics are taking care of it. But this administration has proven to be such an attack on human rights that it’s been hard not to become activated for everyone. We’re all on high alert because it feels like there’s a direct attack on humanity happening. It’s really terrifying to live through—maybe that’s how all generations have felt and I’m just finally old enough to pay attention. Although, this generation of young people is doing a great job paying attention.

How were you able to look at these serious topics facing our nation through a comedy lens?

NL: As [executive producer] Paula Pell and Sarah and all of our writers got to work, the idea came together for this morning show conceit where the anchor was trying to stay positive as the news keeps hitting. From there, it was just finding silly ways to highlight the absurdity and chaos and horror that have been the experience of this year. It’s really insane to be sitting at that news desk and be asked to report on these things just to maintain ratings. Everything hits like, “Oh this is a big top story,” as opposed to focusing on the horror of the actual content of that story. As a society, we have to assimilate that information and carry it with us, but after hearing it, things should have just come to a screeching halt.

Natasha Lyonne Interview

In one sketch, Sarah and Helen Mirren recreate the infamous Access Hollywood tape in which Donald Trump bragged to Billy Bush about grabbing women by their genitalia. What was it like to direct Helen Mirren as she lip-synched Bush’s lines?

NL: It was definitely surreal. It was a dream to work with Helen Mirren in any capacity, but I never thought the context of our big acting rehearsal would be us on a Zoom doing lip-syncs. It was important to me that Sarah was in charge of the TikToks and lip-synching since she is the master of that domain. But Helen has the greatest sense of humor of all time. She has this humility and perspective of not taking herself or anything too seriously. She was very game and clearly delighted to be working with a female creator in Sarah, a female director in me, a female cinematographer in Polly, and a female producer in Maya. She really had that spirit to her of like, “I’m going to shine for these girls.” We were immensely grateful to have such a queen step into that role. We didn’t want to just put someone kooky in there; we wanted someone who could nail the underlying gravitas of how dark that moment in history was for women and for this country.

Natasha Lyonne Interview

How do you feel right now, going into the election? Are you hopeful?

NL: I’m somebody who inherently believes that the good guys are going to prevail. This year, so many people have started to accept the truth about harrowing injustice in the conversation of race in this country. And the passion around the Black Lives Matter movement was obviously a very delayed but necessary reaction on the part of the world, and I’m very passionate about anything that brings truth to light. People need to understand that we all have to become participating members in reflecting the world that we want to live in. Nobody gets a free ride. The idea of the end of autonomy for women and our own bodies is devastating; it’s horrifying that that’s even in the conversation. I certainly don’t have a crystal ball, but I know that even with the best outcome [of the election], there’s still so much to keep fighting for. Personal freedom and equalities are at stake, and it’s a real shame that those things are still up for grabs at all. It seems like they should be such a given. But hopefully, this moment signifies a new birth and then we’re onto new things.

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