To many people who watched it over the weekend, Netflix’s Russian Doll — about a video game designer who keeps dying while celebrating her 36th birthday only to be repeatedly reborn at the start of the party — will play like science fiction. To the show’s co-creator and star, Orange Is the New Black‘s Natasha Lyonne, this crazy-high concept is purely autobiographical, a way to convey the feeling of constant death she went through during her years as an addict.
The series, which Netflix released last Friday, is already one of the year’s best shows, and a showcase for Lyonne so perfect that only she (with help from co-creators Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland) could have written it. Here, she speaks about the ways that this surreal art imitates her difficult life, the show’s parallels to Groundhog Day, potential plans for a second season and more. (Warning: Spoilers ahead.)
When actors write for themselves, they often say they did it because they weren’t getting scripts that showed the full range of what they could do. Was that the case for you here?
I think that’s very true. I was like, “If they’re going to keep asking me to play Joe Pesci, I may as well play my own version that I write for myself.” I often [wish] I had the acting options that a Joaquin Phoenix or Nicole Kidman does. As it stands, this role is certainly more exciting [for me]. If you’re going to be typecast as an Andrew Dice Clay spinoff character, you may as well write the best version of that, which I think is far more complex and wasn’t getting its full due. I’m essentially pretty excited about the roles I get to play. I just don’t know that they do the deepest dive into how a person comes to speak and act and think that way in the first place. It’s a very independent road that would lead a person, and a woman, to behave the way I often do.
Where did the premise of the show come from?
Amy and I had been working on this show for a few years before Leslye came on board. When she did, it all came together in the most exciting way. It’s probably something closer to an autobiographical journey on my many dances with death, and skating around it in such a real way in my actual life, that it didn’t feel like a high concept, you know? This was based on my personal experiences, the rocky road I was living on. The early days of conceiving Russian Doll, I didn’t even realize [the stories were] in any way supernatural. They were just based on my personal experience of nearly dying very often as a result of addiction. The real genre I was trying to get at was this Fosse-esque idea of All That Jazz, the way he third-parties his experience from his own hospital bed and the lines become blurred between autobiography and fantasy and fiction. That was something I had only really seen otherwise from Richard Pryor, in Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling. More than this idea of a Groundhog Day, or a looping death thing, I was inspired to explore a No Exit, or Exterminating Angels, something in that vein. The book I brought into the writers’ room was Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. From that spirit, we came to this very exciting way of showing that aspect of that experience. I often think I’m the All That Jazz part, and Leslye is The Shining, and Amy Poehler is Defending Your Life. That created the sum total of Russian Doll. Another thing we explored early on in the process was this book by Ellen Ullman, Life In Code, which was about a female coder’s experience. It was a very exciting thing to be creator of a project and watch its many variations until it becomes the thing it’s meant to be. It’s almost like it has its own life. The show feels vaguely like a golem. It’s been waiting all this time in the back room to come alive.
Nadia’s not being very good to herself when we meet her. How closely does she resemble you and the things you went through back in the day?
It’s definitely a fictionalized version of me. In many ways, she’s the character I wish I was. It’s almost a romanticized version of reality. She’s also based on Elliott Gould’s portrayal of Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye. There’s a lot of mumbling in general. But there’s certainly a lot of stuff that is very me. Where we meet her is maybe me 15 years ago, and where she ends up is closer to me five years ago. I’m an open book and not ashamed to be, and I think my personal journey is a lot darker than Nadia’s in many ways. We kind of skim the surface, in a montage sequence in the second episode, of the darkness, and it almost has a Hunter S. Thompson-esque quality — Fear and Loathing, the fun side of things in the darkness, that are striking visually. But as anyone who’s actually been through addiction knows, it’s significantly darker and more boring. It’s a lot sadder. That said, I do think that metaphorically, the show is very honest to the experience in a way that I felt very proud of, and that Leslye feels very proud of. As a standalone, indirect commentary on that experience, it feels like the dark nights of the soul where you feel like you’re dying again and again, and there’s no way out, and you’re forced to come up against yourself and interface with other people, and move from a disconnected, selfish, belligerent experience into a connected one, against your will, if you want to make it out alive. In many ways it’s quite literal — emotionally, at least.
Nadia and some of the other characters are very literate, pop-culturally. Was there any thought of having her come right out and compare her situation to Groundhog Day?
I feel like I saw that in somebody’s Twitter comments or something and thought, “That’s a great idea, we should’ve done that!” We went with Michael Douglas in The Game, which for some reason was funny to us. But I’m a huge fan of Groundhog Day, and it’s a pleasure to be even vaguely connected to that lineage. Sometimes, I would describe the show if I was in a rush as “Groundhog Day meets No Exit.” But having lived that experience and written it and created it and lived through the four-month fucking editing ride of putting every song in there, I don’t know that I really think of it as quite that. I definitely think of it as its own animal entirely. But I’m a fan and happy to go in and loop that [Groundhog Day] line, if it’ll do it for people, at a later date.
How did you settle on Harry Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up” as the song playing every time Nadia reboots, and what else did you consider?
I had this playlist going. Somebody that was really in play for it was Ronnie Spector. I wanted somebody who was connected to a lineage of a certain kind of difficulty, or who gave you a certain effect. The sound of their voice would in and of itself be a reminder: a juxtaposition of the unpleasantness and the grandeur of the human experience on a daily basis. Harry Nilsson, specifically, encapsulates that. If you’ve seen that documentary about him [Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)?], it’s really harrowing, and it resonated with me emotionally. It’s a typology I greatly identify with as an experience. There were other people that were in play — even Lil Kim, oddly, and things in that vein that weren’t hitting the exact note that Harry Nilsson could speak to. Lou Reed’s “Crazy Feeling” was in there. There was a desire to hit that double note of deep sadness, personal darkness, married to an upbeat sound.
There are parts of the story that are just ridiculous slapstick and other parts that are terribly sad and dark, like when Elizabeth Ashley’s character mistakes Nadia for an intruder and shoots her. Did you have a sense of how far you could safely push in either direction without throwing off the balance?
I don’t think we troubled ourselves too much with that. Leslye and I thought of it as a four-hour movie, knowing the way people watch these things. And more than anything, a Seventies movie. They don’t concern themselves too much with tone or genre. They’re a little bit more “all things at all times,” and once you’re on the ride, you’re kind of with the character and willing to go with them. In reality, there is an underlying darkness to all things funny, and often vice versa. The real place that laughter often comes from is when it’s all too much and there’s nothing else to do. I think we were more concerned with the character’s overall journey and what the experience would be for the viewer rather than if it was skewing too dramatic. In a greater sense, it’s an interesting thing that we’re moving away from these categories more and more all the time as creators of streaming content. There’s a curiosity about where those lines are. Certainly in the world of cable it’s not as clear as “I Love Lucy is a comedy and Twilight Zone is a genre.”
The season ends in a place that could very easily be the conclusion of Nadia and Alan’s story. Do you have plans for a Season Two, or is this meant to be one and done?
I definitely have some ideas that are pretty out-there that I’m excited by. Also, from where I’m sitting, from whence I came, it’s all so clearly gravy at this point that I feel not too concerned either way. It’s similar to a relationship: When are you getting married, when are you going to have a kid? But then: When are you going to get divorced? Jesus Christ, one thing at a time. First things first, you want to get it out there, see if people connect with it and see where inspiration strikes. But I’d be happy either way. On a personal level, it feels almost like an albatross unloaded from my personal experience and point of view. I just feel a lot lighter in general that this is going to be out there. I’m not too concerned [about] the fate of the future of the show. It’s a ton of work, making these things. It’s wild how deep into the belly of the beast you get. It becomes your entire world and life. It’s something that I would really look forward to doing again, and we’ll see. I do have some funny ideas for it.
What details, besides the song, was it important to show repeating — or, at a certain point not repeating — over the course of the season as the nightmare gets stranger?
We discussed, in a way that’s not too dissimilar to the addict’s experience, where you can continue your lifestyle, but there are going to be almost quantum consequences. Even if you don’t die, your life will totally start falling away and disappearing, until the fabric of your life is no longer recognizable as an actual human experience anymore. The biggest idea in the physical execution of it was this idea of the disappearance of objects and people. You might be physically walking and talking, but are you really? Early variations of that were the idea of a building collapsing in on itself and Nadia coming face to face with her younger self. There were some ideas like that that were more CGI than we could afford. But in general, there was this idea of the fabric of her reality collapsing around her until she faces the things she needed to reconcile.
You said you didn’t view this as a genre work. But anytime you do a story with a premise like this, at least some of your audience will be made up of people who are very into answers about how things work. Do you and the team have answers about what is causing this constant death and rebirth to happen to Nadia and Alan?
We definitely spent a lot of time talking through the concept of coding. Early days of the show had a lot more of that happening in the writers’ room — multiverses and quantum physics and dark matter. In many ways, it wasn’t a question of being out of our depth so much as: Why are we sidebarring this story when the one we want to tell is [about] the emotional manifestation and consequences? We’re all here in this life — which is kind of a weird-science experiment in the first place — going through the motions of why we’re here anyway. We have no choice but to deal with this world as a reality, and so we do. That’s more interesting. But this is something Leslye is excellent at: [managing] plenty of drafts and guidelines and all of our outlines and script breakdowns… which loop and which timeline we were in. “Now we’re in A1; now in A1, Part 4.” There was a lot of that happening. So by the time I got to directing the split-screens and the quad-screens, that was certainly in play. I just hope that the logic of it will check out for people. I look forward to them letting us know how we did.