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Natasha Lyonne on the "Nightmare" That Is Mike Pence

Natasha Lyonne

You’ve probably never seen a show like Russian Doll which was created, written and sometimes directed by Orange Is the New Black’s Natasha Lyonne. The series, co-created by Amy Poehler, features Lyonne as Nadia Vulvokov, who keeps reliving the same night over and over — the night that she died.

Russian Doll premieres February 1 on Netflix and ahead of the premiere, Out spoke to Lyonne about Doll, what it means to have a Netflix show in 2019 and the enduring queer favorite … But I’m a Cheerleader, a cult classic film that tackled conversion therapy two decades ago.

What has it been like to be a part of something like this where you have so much creative control — directing, producing, writing and starring?

Yeah, I mean, it’s a lot of work, the work is no joke. And it’s an incredible experience, especially since it’s highly personal to me and in some ways deeply autobiographical though it’s highly fictionalized. Metaphorically, I feel like I’ve lived through many loops, though no one can make a case that I literally did, depends on your philosophical leanings.

Conceiving of this with Amy Poehler was like, really, deep, I mean it’s just so meaningful that somebody of her caliber would want to take that shot with me. And then being able to have those deep meaningful conversations with her about what it is we would really want to say. You know then finding Leslye [Headland] to help further articulate it was just a really thrilling way to work, and getting this all female writers room. Then bringing in Jamie Babbit, who did But I’m a Cheerleader, was also just very kind of like safe exploration of like — if you’re going to take a deep dive into self, do it with these people.

Nadia, like so many of the characters you play, deals with the themes of mental illness and sanity. What did you want to explore with Nadia?  

I think I’m often exploring the concept what we consider reality, or sanity, or reasonable more than playing necessarily characters who are unhinged. I think they are often pretty grounded but deeply questioning of the situation they’re in as a so called “viable reality” because they feel unjust or absurd to grounded characters who are not willing to participate. Similar to Hunter S. Thompson in Naked or in this case, it was heavily based on Elliott Gould’s portrayal of Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye. They are these witnesses and detectives of absurdity that often become so kind of overwhelmed with the unpleasantness of it all that they decided to check out or cop out or self destruct.

I think there’s irony in the fact that I play such pseudo-tough guys when in reality it’s a deeper vulnerability I‘m after and really exploring, in that, this is the only way we know how to move through life because it’s all too much. As I’m getting older and getting to make my own work, that exploration and end of shame is what I’m most wanting to connect with people on.

Did you think when you started acting that creating your own show, writing and directing, was always something you wanted to do?

Yeah, you know, it’s a funny thing, I’m not sure if it’s a chicken or the egg situation but my very first gig was in Nora Ephron’s Heartburn when I was four, and later I would get to work with her again in a play and spent a lot of time with her, and that was a very encouraging force for me. Tamara Jenkins was a real singular and strong figure and that was how I even ended up making a mark in this business, thanks to her. And then Jamie Babbit, and more recently Jenji Kohan and Orange is the New Black. By the time it was Amy poehler ... all along all those strong female figures had been encouraging me to write and produce and make my own material.

Oddly, I was having this rarified experience and I’m not sure if it was because I was alienating other people or if it was as happy coincidence, but I saw myself surrounded, and my most important projects were structured at the highest level by incredibly powerful women. And so I think in many ways I've slowly been going where it's warm instead of this other area that didn't understand me, that was never going to cast me as somebody’s cutie pie girlfriend, no matter how skinny or blonde I was. … On the set of Blade: Trinity, I had straight blonde hair and was a blonde anorexic version of this 90s kinda Hollywood ideal for the ingenue and you know, Kris Kristofferson was there …  I was playing a blind scientist and he said, “You have a real Janis Joplin quality to you.” I can't shake this kind of thing that is coming through against my will of like not really ever knowing how to fully concede or hide well enough.

This year is the 20-year anniversary of ...But I’m a Cheerleader. This year we saw two films about conversion therapy: Boy Erased and the Miseducation of Cameron Post. But this film came 20 years ago, talking about the same thing. Why do you think it took so long for this subject matter to come back again?

You know, first of all, Mike Pence and his wife are a pair of nightmares and I think the thing that breaks my heart is 20 years later, we’re still even having this conversation. It feels impossible to reconcile that anybody thinks they ought to have the right to tell somebody else their basic human existence in this life just does not make any sense and it’s a despicable aspect of this so-called society. It’s graphic and impossible and the idea that it kinda continues to be something that’s even in discussion makes me sick and makes me furious.

I do think that back [Cheerleader] was meant to be a John Waters-esque absurdist commentary on just how surreal the concept of it is even by virtue of the concept that [conversion] doesn’t exist. There is no such thing! There is no problem that needs to exist in the first place. So just how crazy is the language of the thing we’re even discussing and yet here we find ourselves in a world that wants to engage in that and actually wants to torture people and children in an effort to do something that isn’t even a problem to solve in the first place. It’s torturous to think of, especially the real life accounts of it over the last 20 years. Your brain can’t process it. I love Desiree [Akhavan], the filmmaker of Cameron Post and I love Lucas Hedges, so I’m certainly like glad that they’re making great films and yeah, it would certainly make a lot more sense if they were works of sci-fi fiction, not the reality that they're lining up with anything that happens in our world. That’s what so hard to reckon with.

When Orange Is the New Black premiered, it was kind of like the second or third big show to premiere on Netflix and felt so new. Obviously, Russian Doll is coming at a much different time in Netflix’s history. What is it like to release a show now versus the climate back then?

One difference is that the time we were making Orange was so special and sort of like a snowglobe in that we had no idea what Netflix was. We thought we were making a web series that no one would even watch. Especially because the subject matter had so many women in it. We were this ensemble in our uniforms doing our own thing and creating this new language. I’m so proud to be a part of that show. On a personal level, there was this experience of getting to be around all those women and in that environment and a home that Netflix provided as a safe space and really seeing me for who I was, and Uzo, and Samira, and it was something specific about that show that created a space where —  now I just submitted the episode I directed in the final season — letting me direct and they gave me a second show!

To be so tight with our core crew of women on that show and feel like that — Dascha Polanco is in Doll, you know from a crew level there’s so many people from Russian Doll’s crew, from the costume designer Jennifer Rogien to the script supervisor Melissa Yap-Stewart, there are so many people that came along with us from Orange that it was a beautiful and meaningful way to be connected to the lineage of Orange Is the New Black at Netflix, to keep all the pieces together.

If Nicky Nichols of Orange Is the New Black and Nadia met, what would they talk about?

Why they seem so similar and yet they have different hair colors would come up. Nadia’s journey starts with me 15 years ago and ends with me 5 years ago and I don’t know where Nicky was in all that. But they definitely both have a philosophical streak, I would say. They have a way of looking at things as to say, “Who are you to tell me that this is logic?” I think they both kind of have a bit of a cock-eyed perspective. I think Nicky would try to sleep with Nadia and Nadia would be like, “All right.”

Russian Doll is now available to stream on Netflix.

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