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Natasha Lyonne’s Alternate Reality

The star of Russian Doll has outsmarted us all.

Gucci dress, $4,500 at gucci.com. Wing & Weft gloves. Photo: Director/Photographer: Steven Sebring
Gucci dress, $4,500 at gucci.com. Wing & Weft gloves. Photo: Director/Photographer: Steven Sebring
Gucci dress, $4,500 at gucci.com. Wing & Weft gloves. Photo: Director/Photographer: Steven Sebring

One of the first things you learn about interviewing is to save the difficult questions for the end, but Natasha Lyonne and I started our afternoon together at a planetarium, so What is the meaning of life? came up sooner than I expected. Reclining in the dark at the Lower Eastside Girls Club — secret home to “the best planetarium on Avenue D” — as our intergalactic narrator reassured us that we humans were not insignificant, just small, the byproducts of (possibly) endless explosions and reignitions that had eventually lead to the very knowledge of the vastness of the universe that may now be overwhelming us, Lyonne and I had already covered: astrology (“I don’t talk about zodiac stuff because I’m not a tween”); quantum physics (“not only do I understand it, but I’ve written so many books about it that are not yet published; I’m going to self-publish them all and explain it to everybody”); and apocalypses, climate-related or otherwise. (Their lack of preparation for doomsday is the main thing she and her boyfriend, Fred Armisen, fight about; she thinks they need a better plan.) I’d intended the turn to existentialism as a sort of joke, but to Lyonne, questions of life and its meaning aren’t abstract or hypothetical, things she’s been able to put off thinking about, so she approached the subject in earnest. Or her version of earnest, which frames the topics that most inspire platitudes with fuhgeddaboudit frankness and energetic gestures toward their overarching absurdity.

“The meaning of life is [blank],” she sang. “Have you ever read Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning? It’s a hot book, right? I think it really sums it up. You have to find something beyond self. If it’s all about self-propulsion, it’s going to feel really dirty at some point. On a smaller scale, we find the things we’re good at and have a natural interest in and see the ways in which we can help illuminate the human condition through those tools. Some people can do it with a greater scope and poetry — scientists and philosophers and doctors. That does not seem to be in my wheelhouse. We’ve essentially cracked polio, but certainly I wasn’t going to be a participating member in that solution. I might be able to help distract the scientists cracking it a little bit, or the person in the iron lung who needed a little bit of relief to fight another day.”

Lyonne, who turns 40 in April, is the co-creator and star of the recent hit Netflix series Russian Doll and the rare actress whose perspective on finding a purpose comes from actually having to find one. Her career in “show biz,” as she calls it, began when she appeared on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse as Opal at age 6, and she divides it into two phases. Her reason for doing this will be obvious to most people who’ve heard of her, particularly if you were around for the cackling rubber-necking that characterized New York City gossip blogs in the early and mid-2000s: After a series of plum teen roles, including the exasperated voice of reason in the cult classic Slums of Beverly Hills and Jessica in American Pie, Lyonne slowly but publicly began to “drop out.” She developed a heroin addiction and in 2005 ended up in the hospital with problems that included a collapsed lung and hepatitis C. In 2012, she had to undergo open-heart surgery due to related complications, and afterward she told Entertainment Weekly she’d figured she was done with acting for good. That sense was mostly pragmatic: She didn’t think she could get work again. “Nobody was eager for my return,” she said. “Let’s not mistake this for a Robert Downey Jr. scenario — nobody actually gave a fuck.” She had to be willing to take on “a couple lines here and there,” mostly to pay rent, and people close to her — especially Chloë Sevigny, Lyonne’s friend of 20 years — had to vouch for her ability to show up for longer projects.

What solidified her return, in 2013, was her role as womanizing inmate Nicky Nichols on Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black, which both allowed her to mine her past for material — Nichols is addicted to heroin, and after it’s revealed she also had to have open-heart surgery, Lyonne bares her real scar — and move beyond it in her work. The role enabled her to fully explore “a particular version” of herself, the one that attracts and is attracted to the “sort of male, ’70s typology, that kind of genderless sort of person” that, particularly when it’s a woman, often ends up an “ancillary player.” Her success as a beloved part of the ensemble comes from the serious consideration she brought to the role; when Nichols was shipped to maximum security for trying to sell heroin and not seen for the rest of season three, Lyonne told critics she was “excited” to see such a realistic development for the character. “It makes sense that a self-destructive person would end up where she did,” she said, before outlining the possible ways Nichols might respond to the experience. But she’s not at all resentful of spending so much time in that role, and I believe her when she says so. “I’ve never done anything for seven years,” she told me, referring to her time on the show. “I’ve never been in a romantic relationship for seven years, let alone one project, so it’s nice to have something with closure that’s healthy in a life. As sad as I am, it’s also kind of a nice, life-affirming event that something can go on for so long and end so positively.”

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I met Lyonne two days after the wrap party for OITNB — her hair unwashed since then — which will air its final season later this year, and about a month following the debut of Russian Doll. Here, too, Lyonne worked from life, but the relationship between her and her character, Nadia Vulvokov — a wise-cracking nihilist whose slyly impenetrable defense mechanisms begin to falter when, on the night of her 36th birthday party, she is hit and killed by a taxi while crossing the street to catch her lost cat — is more intuitive. Instead of moving on to the afterlife, Nadia reappears looking in the bathroom mirror at her party, consigned by a ripple in the space-time continuum — and/or, the show suggests, unresolved issues from her childhood — to relive her death over and over again, through scenarios that range from the ludicrous (pratfalls) to the genuinely harrowing.

Nadia is a version of the typical Lyonne character, particularly at first, but as she softens over the course of the show, the confusion and pain of her Groundhog Day non-existence wearing on her, Lyonne’s performance improves: it’s as if she begins by going through the motions of schticky irony in order to make an argument in favor of real emotion. The disorienting and increasingly upsetting cycle of death and rebirth mimics the highs and lows of addiction, while implying the constant near-deaths an addict experiences, and the translation from literal addict to figurative one allows for a more dynamic understanding of what it means to bottom out but survive. “I was like, you know what?” she said. “I’ll just write it for myself, because I don’t know if you guys are really grasping why I’m interested in these characters, what it means when you’re [saying], ‘It’s like Peter Falk or Columbo.’ What does that actually mean? Peter Falk is nobody’s second banana; this guy is a real motherfucker. He can really do some shit and make you feel some things.”

The show’s fans are calling for a second season, but Lyonne has a lot going on: her recent forays into directing — in addition to Russian Doll, she directed an episode of the final season of OITNB and a short, Fellini/Fosse-inspired film for Kenzo, “Cabiria, Charity, Chastity” — have revealed “the language that I’m interested in as a filmmaker,” and she’s excited to make a feature. Plus her new production company with Maya Rudolph, Animal Pictures, signed a first-look deal with Amazon at the end of last year.

Appropriately, our schedule for the day, devised by Lyonne, seemed peripatetic, but ultimately revealed itself to have a grand thematic cohesion. Our first stop, the Lower Eastside Girls Club, hosts a variety of programs for young women in the community, and in addition to the planetarium, we stopped by a couple of classes, where students asked for photos (“You want a picture? Oh, good. I thought [my visit] meant nothing.”) and taught Lyonne how to record other users’ Instagram Stories and save them on her phone (her request). The way the organization approaches the future from a rapidly changing location that can’t help but insinuate the past influenced Lyonne while she wrote Russian Doll, which features several of her real-life friends and frequent collaborators as characters — including Sevigny as Nadia’s mother — and is set in Alphabet City, around Tompkins Square Park.

“There’s something about this place existing in this building in this location, which was so much the world of that show,” she told me. “You’d never suspect that there’s a direct pathway to space — there’s kind of a quantum narrative about the haunting of buildings and the haunting of people within a certain geography.” The show’s uncanny, time-warped vision of downtown New York is at once contemporary — complete with drunk bros — and nostalgic; it comes across like the past’s somewhat realistic fantasy of the future.

The past, the future, and alternative histories and futures existing simultaneously in the chaos of the physical present: this may be why she talks so fast, interrupting and editing herself, and why her quotes work best as paragraphs. As we got in a car to go to Film Forum, where Lyonne got much of her education in movies, we saw an ad for Russian Doll. After ten years of being a “child actor,” she left home and at 16 enrolled at NYU’s Tisch as a film and philosophy major, which lasted “a few days.” “At the time it was a very big deal to be in a Woody Allen movie, and I’d been in one, and I felt like, good, this is the summation of ten years of work from the ages of 6 to 16; as an actor I’m done with this first chapter and now I’m going to become a director.” That sense of linear progression was soon proven idealistic. Lyonne describes her “grandiose thinking” as a teenager in a tone of self-effacement, but she was right to think of herself as on a different level than her peers, who, I’m assuming, had neither the determination of the “ragamuffin” autodidact nor people like Alan Arkin and Kevin Corrigan to tell them what to watch next. (Lyonne remembers binging Cassavetes on Corrigan’s recommendation while shooting Slums of Beverly Hills — she sat in the back of the New Beverly Cinema drinking a 40 from a paper bag.) In an introduction to film studies class, “they were watching Apocalypse Now and I was like, I know you all don’t think I’m going to give you 60 grand to watch Apocalypse Now and break it down with a bunch of teenagers.” She bought an apartment and continued her self-directed curriculum instead.

Last year Lyonne appeared in a Film Forum “New York Luminaries” video talking about her longtime appreciation for the storied cinema, but she hadn’t tried to milk her status as a VIP for a tour of the projection room until now. Upstairs, she asked awestruck questions of the projectionist and gleefully identified the scenes in a collage above someone’s desk. When we passed a row of metal canisters containing archival prints, she wondered if Scorsese’s house was lined with them — he founded a film-restoration foundation in 1990 — and then began to pile on jokes from there. “Can you imagine walking with your movie into a film festival or something? Can I lift this one? Can you take a picture of me with this movie? This is me pretending to be Buñuel. It’s heavy. This is why women didn’t use to make movies. That’s why Schwarzenegger’s a great filmmaker.” Before we met, she’d been at home watching Lina Wertmüller’s Seven Beauties.

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Throughout the afternoon, our conversation reflected a mutual understanding about her “past”; both she and what was deemed her “comeback” were covered in the press extensively, under headlines that slowly transitioned from “As Taxpayers, We Ask That the City Please Do Something About Natasha Lyonne” to “Natasha Lyonne, the original queen of the career capsize, comes up for air” to “Natasha Lyonne: ‘I was definitely as good as dead’” to those that now reference her “personal journey.” (The structure of Russian Doll might also represent the online news cycle.) At our last stop for the day — the Basquiat show at the Brant Foundation — I wondered if it was odd or uncomfortable that some of the worst moments of her life are common knowledge, and she said she figured it “makes my job a lot easier, to try to live truthfully and not have to be a chameleon when I’m speaking with you. I can just focus on being one person, the person I actually am.” Earlier, I’d asked her if she regretted dropping out of school, and she could only be equivocal. “I would’ve gotten to all this sooner, and I would’ve felt more confident and written better emails,” she said. “At the same time, I guess those are the same years I spent developing something to say. Having such a specific experience enabled me to have a specific point of view, even though it was a nightmare getting through so much of it. But I think of that often; if you had sort of made a deal with me then and told me, ‘This is what you’re going to have to go through’ … ” She cut herself off and began to talk optimistically about aging. When we passed Anthology Film Archives in the car, she posed a fantasy future in which she becomes a “Stan Brakhage filmmaker” who makes “movies to nap to, that I am making from my heart and soul for me, sir.”

Lyonne knows someone who used to date Basquiat — “That’s me bragging transitively” — and she ran into a few friends at the gallery, as well as a fan in the street. “I’m like an unfamous famous person,” she said after the woman walked by. “I might as well be that fire hydrant or something. I’m just a part of the East village — a fixture. Like, ‘Ah, yeah, that makes sense!’ but nobody cares.” Showing an artist like Basquiat in a sterile, wait-listed Instagram paradise might represent the devolution of the East Village and Lower East Side into a playground for corporate interests appropriating alternative history. But to Lyonne — whose leopard-print pants, double-breasted leather blazer, black nail polish, and accumulation of jewelry were also at home in the place–time continuum — the artist, along with Film Forum and the Lower Eastside Girls Club, exist in “the best New York.” “You’re going to be so exhausted if all day you’re like, ‘This is offending me aesthetically,’ meaning college students or whatever. It’s a little bit healthier to be like, ‘Look — the old neighborhood’ and see the version of it you want to see.”

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Such ease is hard-won, and Lyonne’s ability to take what’s good and joke about the rest is at the heart of Russian Doll. Though she’s eager to spend some time away from her own life as part of her new production company, her multidimensional perspective on the self offers something richer than the standard experience-followed-by-lesson format of autobiographical fare: She can joke about herself without letting herself become a joke, and this skill — transforming self-consciousness into self-awareness — is something many people can (or should) understand. Slums of Beverly Hills begins with a scene in which Lyonne’s character tries on a bra at a lingerie store, looking directly at the camera, an implied mirror, transfixed and a little scared of what she sees. The same image recurs more than 20 years later as Nadia looks at herself in the mirror at her birthday party, as if to ask the same questions: Who is this person, and how did she get here?

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Natasha Lyonne’s Alternate Reality