Natasha Lyonne Like You've Never Seen Her Before
Natasha Lyonne is giving a partial Zoom tour of her new house in Los Angeles, a cigarette dangling precariously from the corner of her mouth. Bottles of Perrier and cans of Red Bull line the fridge. There's a framed poster of Peter Falk leaning against the wall, a housewarming gift from Knives Out director Rian Johnson (with whom Lyonne is collaborating on Poker Face, an upcoming Peacock series partly inspired by the Colombo star).
It's so dark that it's hard to see anything, but that is beside the point. Lyonne, a lifelong New Yorker who likens her vibe to that of Joe Pesci in My Cousin Vinny, is in her element. She jokes that the house is giving "big divorced-dad energy," which is her subversive way of pointing out that, while middle-aged bachelors are practically mythologized in popular culture, no one really talks about how life tends to click for women in their forties.
"I wish someone had told me that 40 is when you start peaking," she says. "We got to tell these girls, like, it is a mess before. I want to be a divorced dad swathed in Gucci with good hair and makeup."
A child actor who white-knuckled her way through the highs (hit films, industry clout) and lows (drug addiction, family estrangement) of fame during her youth, Lyonne, 43, has settled into a version of herself that she seems genuinely happy with. She'll be the first to tell you that female camaraderie has played a big part, including the ensemble from Netflix hit Orange Is the New Black. She still counts her co-stars among her closest friends. Following this interview, Lyonne and her "lovely boyfriend" (model and musician Matthew Avedon) have a double date with Uzo Aduba and her husband, Robert Sweeting.
That sense of community, including being entrusted by OITNB creator Jenji Kohan to direct an episode, inspired Lyonne to put all of her chips on the table.
In 2019, her next Netflix series, Russian Doll, a dark comedy co-created with Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland, obliquely addressed Lyonne's own questions about morality, mortality, and family through the prism of her character, Nadia Vulvokov. The wildly inventive show (with a killer soundtrack) received 13 Emmy nominations after the first season, winning three, and allowed Lyonne to ascend to her rightful place in showbiz history. Now, with a new production company with Maya Rudolph with its own a full slate of projects coming out this year, and Russian Doll returning on April 20, Lyonne is in full boss mode.
You seem to have a busy brain. What goes on in there?
I am an incredibly disciplined workaholic, but I am not impressed by structure or how things are meant to be done. I spent the first half of my life really beating myself up and being very self-destructive around that idea. In general, I really believe in truth and I really believe in jokes. Both of those things are very important to me.
What else is important to you?
Discipline! To show up when you say you're going to show up. I am very challenged by space cadets, I don't enjoy them. There's nothing about me that is airy-fairy or hippie-dippy or space cadet-y. [Although] I am deeply fascinated by the concept of space, futurism, and also the potential to become a cyborg so I can live longer. I finally found lust for life after so many years of wanting to be a dropout. I'm terrified of my bad choices catching up with me.
The first season of Russian Doll was pegged to death. What would you say is the theme of the second season?
The first season is, "How do I stop dying?" And the second season is, "Now that I've stopped dying, how do I go about living?" That's really the question, but hopefully in a more fun way.
[This season], Nadia is 40 and she's never unpacked the root cause of her nihilistic, defiant attitude. It was too painful to look there. She's trying to show up for life and be a better person [... but] she's finding herself to be a chaos junkie. Age just kind of comes on you, and it's sort of a surprise to be expected to show up as an adult.
Adulting is no joke.
Right? Now I know exactly what I want to wear, and I'm out of the house in fucking 20 minutes. The only trouble is that I'm in my 40s and I don't have the energy to be anywhere. I think that's what's happening to Nadia this season. But there are always two levels that this show is trying to play at: There is the very grounded, [director] Abel Ferrara's gritty New York. Then, at the same time, it's a philosophical, epistemological, metaphysical show about spiritual concepts. When we try for an escape hatch, we find ourselves still being forced to walk through whatever is bothering us if we're going to get anywhere. Such is the nature of life.
You're bringing some of your friends back for the second season, like Chloë Sevigny, who plays your mom.
I present as a real tough guy, which, to be clear, I am. But the truth is that I've always been a softie, and I get very emotional. Chloë is my safe person in this life. The way her skin feels and the way her hair smells is so familiar to me. I've been through so many dark moments, like, on the brink of not being sure if I was going to make it, and it was like Chloë's skin there; my head was in her neck.
I come from a family life that was pretty challenging. My mother's dead now — and I loved her a ton but it was very challenging, as it is for anybody with a mentally ill parent. Those dynamics are very intense and often feel unsafe. The gratitude that I experience being able to process all that in such a safe way, as a fully embodied adult woman who is safe and healthy: it's as close as someone like me can get to a spiritual level.
And all of that goodness has been channeled into your production company with Maya Rudolph, Animal Pictures.
Maya is another one of those 20-years-plus friends. That's mostly what I do now, walk around like [takes a drag of her cigarette], "20 years!" [Laughs] Animal has been exactly what we dreamed of. We wanted to create a space for other people to do their stuff in a great way. I have an office [I love], and all of the walls are whiteboards so I can write my ideas all over the place. It's just books and ideas. I make spreadsheets where I write down all of the songs [I want to use] and play whack-a-mole trying to decide which ones can make the budget work.
The soundtracks are solid.
It's like a real sickness that I have. I need it. It's like Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I need to hear the click or I can't stop. Last year, I was doing so much battle with the music budget that this year I just put [songs] in the script, right away.
In some ways, Russian Doll is a bit of a musical. We need these patches of silence that have a song on them, [so] you can stop and process what you just saw in a relaxed way. I don't want it to be a heavy show. I want it to be a good time. You sort of hit these points in the show where the only thing to do at that moment is to break into song.
Everyone always remarks about how your cultural references run so deep.
I think it's because I'm self-taught. I'm a high school dropout in the sense that I skipped my senior year [to go to] Tisch at NYU, and then I dropped out of there because the tuition was too high. It's this autodidact shit where you're terrified that you're not going to have enough information.
I would watch movies [at the Film Forum in NYC] or I would go to the New Beverly Cinema [in L.A.] and I would watch all of the Cassavetes movies while drinking a 40-ounce from a paper bag. I'm an expert on very few things: just the human condition, drugs, and movies of the '70s. That's all I actually know, but you can go far with that, because it's very niche.
It all seems to be working. It must feel like a dream to get to this inflection point in your career.
It's pretty amazing. It feels like everything is growing into itself. You see all of these seeds we've been planting for the last four years growing. As I said, I'm getting soft, so these are the things that make me very emo.
How are you managing with so much going on?
I always think of that Lucille Ball quote, "If you want to get something done, ask a busy person to do it." I used to be so attached to every aspect of logistics, and now I'm much more relaxed in my bones. I have experienced that fear manifesting as anxiety and made it through the other side. To be honest, for the second season of Russian Doll, I felt like I had to be Linda Hamilton in T2 every day, in every direction. It's definitely been the hardest thing I've done in my life artistically and maybe altogether.
I'm a bit more Zen now. I know it will work out. I'm so grateful to Netflix and Universal, who are giving money so I can put together this team of hardcore, brilliant women, so we can crack an idea. Last season it was death, and this season it's time and meaning: What is it to have a meaningful life?
That is a big question to tackle.
I always find science so helpful. It's like Bill Bryson writes in A Short History of Nearly Everything: If there's one thing I can be sure of, it's that life has happened without me for so long, and it will be just fine when I'm gone. It takes a bit of the edge off. Let it be clear, I'm an obsessive perfectionist and it's gnarly, but this idea of every exchange has to have a perfect outcome — does it really? I need to leave some space for it to tell me what it's going to be. Everyone is in a state of discovery; there are no great authorities, so it's just about showing up and being as clean as I can in the moment as opposed to thinking that my essence is so broken that I'm going to mess it up.
You've rewired your thinking.
Kind of. Maybe I'm no more or less broken than anyone else I'm going to interface with, and that's OK. Somewhere, there is some kid, a little weirdo like I am, who is going to get this show, which is made in the true spirit of making sense of a life. And, hopefully, it might make them feel a little bit less alone. That's the entire point of the whole endeavor. That's what I believe we're supposed to be doing.
This photo shoot was inspired by '90s supermodels. It's quite a departure from what we're used to seeing you in. Did this more relaxed approach to thinking help?
It was really wild. I trust Laura [Brown] implicitly, and I just want to be in service to other people's visions. I want to show up for them. So she put together this great team, and it was a great day. On this other level, I was scared because I'm so used to hair and layers and blazers. I'm usually covered from my neck to my fucking toes. I don't even wear open-toed shoes, and if I can, I wear gloves. Only Diane Keaton is doing it right.
It took me a second to let go of this terror, but once I got a playlist going, it ended up being pretty fun.
Photographs by Daniel Clavero. Styling by Sean Knight. Hair styling by Ted Gibson. Makeup by Fiona Stiles. Manicure by Vanessa Sanchez McCullough. Model: Zach Rogers.
Lead image styling: Versace clothing and accessories.
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