In “Russian Doll,” Natasha Lyonne Barrels Into the Past

In “Russian Doll,” Natasha Lyonne Barrels Into the Past

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On a November evening outside a sound-editing studio in Chelsea, Natasha Lyonne was sipping a can of Red Bull Sugar-Free and puffing on a Marlboro Light 72, her brand of choice. “Short, like Robert Mitchum would have smoked,” she explained. She’d spent the afternoon doing a “watch-down” of new episodes of “Russian Doll,” her macabre Netflix comedy, in which she stars as Nadia Vulvokov, an East Village video-game engineer who in the first season gets hit by a cab on the night of her thirty-sixth-birthday party. The accident is fatal, but instead of expiring Nadia finds herself in a “Groundhog Day”-like loop of reliving the same night and then dying in increasingly gruesome and unlikely ways. Lyonne co-created the series with Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland, and for Season 2, which premières on April 20th, she has taken over from Headland as showrunner. She wrote four of the seven episodes, directed three, and had a hand in every aspect of postproduction. “Directing is this whole other third thing that came into my life, and I’ve never felt so at home,” Lyonne said. “It just turns all my defects into assets. Meaning, you know, being hyper-decisive and obsessive and tireless.” She pulled out her phone and ordered a Lyft, then decided that the wait was too long and strode to the curb to hail a yellow taxi. Before she could flag one, a group of young men in suits and ties recognized her and gave up theirs. “Thank you, gentlemen,” Lyonne said, and mimed the doffing of a cap.

Lyonne speaks in the rhythms of a Borscht Belt comedian. Her accent is outer borough, featuring rumbustious pronunciations (“cahk-a-rooch”) and the raspy “Ehhhh”s of a tired old rabbi settling into a comfortable chair. In front of a crowd or a camera, the effect becomes even more pronounced. “When I get nervous, I become Joe Pesci,” she told me. She is recognizable by her voice, but also by her Clara Bow eyes and her wild Titian curls, which lend her wise-guy mien a jolt of femininity. In Chinatown, she got out in front of a shabby walkup a block from Canal Street. Inside, at a secret outpost of a Japanese restaurant, she joined a table alongside the director Janicza Bravo, the playwright Jeremy O. Harris, the “Succession” star Nicholas Braun, and several others who’d worked on “Zola,” Bravo’s super-fuelled 2020 film about a pair of strippers on a road trip gone wrong. They ate green-bean tempura and lacquered lamb chops while Harris, a precocious dandy of the theatre world, held forth on being fitted earlier in the day for his outfit, a custom Thom Browne suit in red-and-blue gingham. Lyonne picked at the food and chatted with Braun about a bar in the neighborhood that he helped open. In the presence of other outsized personalities, she seemed content to cede the spotlight.

“I’ve been waiting for a New Yorker profile since I was twelve,” Harris said.

“See, that makes one of us, because I was always, like, this is for intellectual bullies who graduated high school,” Lyonne replied.

After dinner, the group piled into two cars and headed to the nearby Metrograph Theatre, where Lyonne moderated a post-screening panel with the “Zola” team in front of a full house. Back outside on the street, she bear-hugged the actor Colman Domingo and brought up a vacation they’d soon be taking together in Mexico. At about ten o’clock, the comedian and actress Nora Lum, a.k.a. Awkwafina, pulled up to the curb in a luxury S.U.V. to whisk Lyonne off to a taping of “Saturday Night Live.”

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Raised between New York and Israel, Lyonne entered show business as a child, and as a young adult she became a star of cult comedies such as “Slums of Beverly Hills” and “But I’m a Cheerleader.” Her family life was tumultuous, though, and by her early twenties she was receding from Hollywood owing to drug abuse. She’s been clean since 2006, but she returned to professional prominence only after playing a scene-stealing role in the Netflix prison series “Orange Is the New Black,” which premièred in 2013. Now forty-three, she is charging ahead through her life at full tilt. She told me, “I get panicky I won’t have enough time. I feel like I already blew so much.”

“Russian Doll” is, in a sense, a show about lost time. In the course of the first season, Nadia drowns in the East River, falls down a flight of stairs, chokes on a chicken wing, and gets stung by a swarm of bees. Each time, she ends up back in the eccentrically renovated bathroom of her friend Maxine as the peppy opening notes of Harry Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up” blare from the next room, where Nadia’s birthday bash is still raging. Eventually, she meets a man in the neighborhood named Alan (Charlie Barnett), who is having a similar problem, and together they set out to solve the mystery of their shared existential glitch. Season 1 was a showcase for Lyonne’s gregarious bravado and her world-weary one-liners (“Thursday. What a concept.”), but it also packed in philosophical musings and hefty themes of mortality and redemption. Its look channelled Lyonne’s favorite New York films, from the downtown grime of “Sid and Nancy” to the urban kookiness of “After Hours.” In a review for this magazine, Emily Nussbaum compared the show to such “arch, deeply emotional puzzle boxes” as “Fleabag” and “The Leftovers.” It won Emmy Awards for its costumes, cinematography, and production design, and was nominated in ten other categories, including Outstanding Comedy Series.

For Season 2, the “Groundhog Day” premise has been traded for a riff on “Back to the Future,” and the result is heavier than one might expect. In an early scene, Nadia discovers that she has teleported, via the No. 6 train, to 1982, the year she was born. This sets her off on a race to uncover a family mystery and its psychological reverberations. Through seven episodes, parts of which were filmed on location in Budapest, Nadia keeps barrelling into the past, connecting the dots between her own sense of dislocation, her mother’s mental-health problems, and her Hungarian grandmother’s experience of the Holocaust. (Alan, meanwhile, delves into his own personal history.) Lyonne admitted that an earnest exploration of inherited trauma might not resonate with every fan of “Russian Doll” ’s jaunty first season. “You don’t get a lot of shots to say what you want to say, so you may as well say what you want while they’re letting you,” she said, adding, “If people don’t like it, I’ll just sue them.”

Lyonne lives in a luxury condominium inside a converted synagogue in Manhattan. An Orthodox congregation still occupies the ground floor. One winter afternoon, she showed me around her three-bedroom unit, which is filled with a stylishly jumbled array of art and personal memorabilia. “This can all be yours for twenty-five hundred a month, in perpetuity,” she joked. “Hear me out, this is not a scam!” The bed was unmade. Framed movie posters were propped along the walls, some two or three deep. Lyonne was wearing her ringlets pulled away from her face in a lopsided bun. On her fingers were acrylic nails—red, white, and spiky—that she’d kept on with Krazy Glue since a photo shoot a month earlier. She pointed out a set of timbales from her ex-boyfriend Fred Armisen, and a Sonos speaker from the “lovely new man” in her life, whom she preferred not to name.

Lyonne is an autodidact and a film obsessive, who peppers conversations with references to silent cinema, Jewish mysticism, nineteen-seventies Hollywood moguls, New York City trivia, and Lou Reed lyrics. A single question sent to her by text message might elicit a waterfall of replies, plus a GIF of, say, a Pikachu with the caption “Haters Gonna Hate.” In her apartment, nearly every shelf, wall nook, and windowsill was crowded with books. She excitedly showed me a volume called “House of Psychotic Women,” about female neurosis in genre films, and a copy of Cynthia Ozick’s 1997 novel, “The Puttermesser Papers,” which she said she would be reading aloud for a new audiobook recording. Pointing to a beat-up biography of Rasputin, she said, “In my addiction I was always carrying this around. It was my safety blanket.” Lyonne was educated in part at a Modern Orthodox Jewish high school where students read the Talmud in the original Aramaic, and she runs “Russian Doll” a bit like a yeshiva study circle. A lengthy syllabus that she distributed to the writers of Season 2 included texts on Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning,” the Hungarian-American mathematician John von Neumann, quantum mechanics, and the history of the lobotomy. She told me that the show’s riddle-like construction was influenced by her love of word games. Hanging in her kitchen is a frame containing a crossword puzzle that she wrote for the Times, in 2019, and an accompanying article. “This for me is my favorite interview I’ve ever done,” she said. “Because it was about something I have very clean feelings for.”

Lyonne recalled that she has wanted to be a director ever since her first major film role, in Woody Allen’s musical “Everyone Says I Love You,” playing the Allen character’s free-spirited teen daughter. In her apartment she keeps a cramped “movie room” outfitted with a TV, a love seat, and dozens of vintage VHS tapes. On one wall hung a still photograph from the first project she directed, a short film for the Parisian fashion brand Kenzo, from 2017. Leaning against another was a poster of Linda Manz, a tough-girl actress of a previous generation, from a new restoration of Dennis Hopper’s “Out of the Blue,” which Lyonne and Chloë Sevigny, her longtime best friend, helped finance. In the living room, two huge stained-glass windows cast colorful shadows on the rug. On the coffee table was a copy of the script for one of Lyonne’s most beloved films, Bob Fosse’s semi-autobiographical musical “All That Jazz.” Boisterous and hallucinatory, it follows a pill-popping choreographer (Roy Scheider) as he burns the candle at both ends while being courted by an angel of death, played by Jessica Lange. Each morning, he tells his beleaguered reflection in the mirror, “It’s showtime, folks!” Lyonne told me, “It’s the closest approximation to what life feels like that I’ve ever seen.” Sitting on top of an old piano were the two SAG Awards that she received for her performance in “Orange Is the New Black.” “You always read about people who say, ‘I put my awards directly in the garbage, because I’m grounded.’ No! Put your awards where people can see them! What are you, a fucking dummy who wants to pretend like you didn’t do that work? Schmucks.”

Lyonne has been working since kindergarten. Born Natasha Bianca Lyonne Braunstein, in 1979, she is the second child of parents whom she describes as “rock-and-roll black sheep from conservative Jewish families.” Her mother, Ivette Buchinger, was the daughter of Hungarian Holocaust survivors who settled in Los Angeles by way of Paris and went into watch distribution. Lyonne described her mother as a “red-headed European prima-ballerina hot chick,” who hoped to become a professional dancer but never quite found an on-ramp. As a teen-ager, Ivette met Lyonne’s father, Aaron Braunstein, a loud-talking, ponytailed Brooklyn native, and they began a high-octane love affair. “They were both into fast cars, fur coats, Rottweilers, cocaine, drinking,” Lyonne said. Ivette moved to New York to be with Aaron, and they had Lyonne’s older brother in 1972. They bought a run-down mansion in Kings Point, Long Island, that they boasted had once been the home of Herman Melville. (It had not.) Ivette worked on and off for her parents’ business, but around the time Lyonne was born the company foundered, and the family struggled financially. “My father was always up to shit,” Lyonne said. “First he wanted to be a race-car driver, then a boxing promoter. So I got put into this business.”

Aaron and Ivette took a gimmicky approach to stage parenting. When Lyonne was five, they legally changed her last name. She recalled that at parties they would have her take sips of their beer and belt out David Lee Roth lyrics “to show off for their friends.” Riding the Long Island Rail Road to auditions in the city, Ivette would urge her daughter to read the Wall Street Journal stock trades aloud. “It was, like, my street-urchin trick,” Lyonne said. She landed her first film role at the age of six, a minor part in Mike Nichols’s 1986 adaptation of Nora Ephron’s novel “Heartburn,” and, that same year, got a recurring role on “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.” She auditioned for but didn’t get the lead role in “Curly Sue,” though the character, a frizzy-haired ham who assists her grifter father figure, may as well have been written for her. “When I go to Times Square I get nostalgic, because I think of myself as a little kid with a briefcase walking around, developing street smarts, wondering if my drunk dad is going to pick me up,” she said.

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