She Contains Multitudes

She Contains Multitudes

Natasha Lyonne’s work spans decades as an actor in some of our favourites like Slums of Beverly Hills, But I’m Cheerleader, Orange is The New Black and of course, Peewee’s Playhouse - but it is only now, at the dawn of a new decade in her life, that she is receiving the critical acclaim she deserves for the work she not only stars in but also creates. Russian Doll, her semi-autobiographical Netflix show, is a blackly comic tale of rebirth and redemption in New York’s East Village, which is winning plaudits for its honesty and its heart. Natasha talks with rapper and actress Awkwafina about women, work and creativity.
Violet Issue: Violet Book Issue 11
Published: 2019/06/13
Updated: 2021/07/05
Annabel Mehran
Turner Turner

Awkwafina: Hey, Natasha! How’s it going?

Natasha Lyonne: I’m so sorry, dude! I was sleeping! [Laughs.] So sorry. I’m awake. I’m awake now.

[Laughs.] But, I was like, when you were late, why don’t I just go take a nap?

I took it too far.

I was like, is this bed time? [Laughs.]

[Laughs.] Oh, no.

It’s all good. You’re here, we’re here. It’s good.

In the future, they’ll be able to record us in a dreamscape. And then, it’ll be a much more interesting interview because it’ll be like our subconscious communicating. The only thing they’re going to miss is our voices… they sound so lovely together, because it’s like one person talking.

I know. We do really sound like the same person.

If I ever want to drop out of society, I’m gonna call you in. What’s that movie where the twins flip-flop roles, with Lindsay Lohan?

Look Who’s Talking? The Parent Trap?

We could do that. We should remake Look Who’s Talking, for no particular reason. [Laughing.]

And it’s a two-picture deal. The next one is The Parent Trap. Okay?

I really like it. Okay. We need to get started. Natasha, you’re the fucking best.

You’re the best.

Let’s talk about Russian Doll.


I binged it. It’s so funny. Tell me about the process.

Well, Nora, thank you for asking. In life, it’s important to explore one’s innermost-self, because what else are we doing here?


And then it’s important to shellac it, in a bunch of things, because you want to bury it. You want to bury yourself. You know? That was really the aim of the project. I think we just wanted to tell my story and the way I see things. And I’m surprised that people are finding it so identifiable because I thought it was pretty eccentric.


So, it just goes to show, nothing makes any sense. That’s the revelation.

For my shows, they came together as all-female writers. And you have all-female directors, which is very, very rare. Was that intentional or coincidental?

Yes! Like you, we also had all-female writers and all-female directors.

Oh, my gosh! That’s awesome!

We were looking for the best people for the job.

How long has Russian Doll been an idea?

First of all, it’s kind of an alter ego. I’ve always called my character Nadia, after Nadia Comaneci, my favourite gymnast from the 80s. It had been kicking around in various formats and drafts that I had tried. I wanted to tell a story from my point of view of life. The most similar example of it I’d seen was Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz (1979), which is a person on their deathbed, looking back at their life and trying to make sense of it. So that was what was always in play.

Richard Pryor had also done it with Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling (1986). And I think it’s because of my own kind of crazy journey through life. That was what I found to be a very identifiable experience when I saw it captured on screen. Most of the characters are based on my real friends. The songs are the songs that I’ve been building on a playlist for like, seven years. All the art that’s hanging on the walls, I’ve been acquiring.

Amy Poehler and I had done another show together at NBC that didn’t get picked up, called Old Soul, that had strands of this. After that show didn’t happen, she said, ‘What’s the show we would really want to make with no restrictions?’, meaning effectively a cable show.

"I feel like men get away with just kind of experiencing the human condition. I always think of Martin Sheen looking at the ceiling fan in Apocalypse Now. We’re content as audience members to be just like, man, he’s probably got a lot on his mind. Let’s just watch him think for a while. We get it. Whereas with women it seems like they always have to be activated and doing stuff. We always need her to be running around. Like, look at her, she’s a working girl, she’s got her sneakers, her phone is ringing, but she also wants to have kids, but also, she’s got to get the account and the boyfriend and the lipstick. More of the state-of-existence and internal world stuff is something that I’m very excited to see." - Natasha Lyonne

What was the first day on the Orange set like? You know, when you were first meeting people. Take us into what that looked like. 

I remember the first day seeing Danielle Brooks, who plays Taystee, and she was doing this shower scene with Taylor [Schilling] and the one with the TV titties. 

Yup, yup, yup.

I watched some of the rehearsal and I was like, holy fuck, this is some good acting. These are some great actors. 


And then I talked to Danielle after. She seemed so tough in that rehearsal in the bathroom, like, ‘What are those fucking TV titties?’ And I was like, oh my god, this show is hardcore.


And then I talked to her after and she was a giggling 22-year-old who just graduated Julliard. A giddy, girly girl who could not have been further from her character. And I just remember being so in awe of her, like, holy shit, these are real fucking actors.  

It was wild in that first year because you have to remember that Netflix didn’t exist. So it was effectively like a job on a web series and, well, you know, nobody knew what it was. It was a bunch of women in prison and, like, none of us were famous, it wasn’t like Julia Roberts on Amazon. Nobody even knew what it meant. So, we were really in a vacuum—we didn’t know that anybody would watch it, you know, and so it was very, very precious.

This year, what was the very last day of filming like?

God, I don’t remember. I remember that first year though. The prison was in Rockland, it was [semi-abandoned] Rockland Children’s Psychiatric Center. There was asbestos and displaced limbless teddy bears that had been left behind and like, a swing set with a broken chain, you know? 

Oh my god.

And then they would hand you a screwdriver and say, ‘Action.’ And, you’re like, what the fuck is this show? 

What the show did on a bigger scale to illuminate the prison industrial complex… I think that really will have an impact. Piper Kerman is such a serious activist and is really making changes. So it was also very wild to be a part of a show that forced you to question the fabric of society beyond personal gain.

100%. So, let’s go back to Pee-wee. You’ve had an amazing career. Slums of Beverly Hills (1998) and everything. Do you remember when Pee-wee was taken off the air? 

I don’t remember because we lived in Israel for two years. I did Pee-wee’s Playhouse when I was still in New York and a kid—and then for tax evasion reasons, my parents moved to Israel from like, ’87 to ’89, and like, ’88 to ’90, or something. 


By the time I came back to New York, I was just dealing with being, you know, a middle school kid or whatever, fifth grade in Manhattan—


And trying to adjust to these weird kids because I was on scholarship and it was on the Upper East Side. It was just a very strange dynamic where I’d gone from being a child actor with big curly hair and thinking it was okay to take up space and then suddenly having that crushing, homogenised reality of Upper East Side children, who were kind of vicious. 

Oh, yeah.

So, I think the last thing on my mind was Pee-wee getting taken off the air. But… acting is my little secret escape, that’s my way out. 

But I’m a Cheerleader. That was high school, right? 

Yeah. I was 17 by then. Nobody really talks about Woody Allen much anymore, but it was that Woody Allen movie, Everyone Says I Love You (1996), that kind of was, like, my way out. I was 16 when that was happening. And then by the time that was done, I already had early admission at Tisch, at film school. Then dropping out of that, just going off to do movies like Slums of Beverly Hills and But I’m a Cheerleader instead of, you know, graduating. And so by then it was kind of like the ship has left the station, which is not what ships do because they’re on the water. 

[Laughs.] Okay, yeah. I know that a lot of your close friendships are with other actresses, Chloe [Sevigny], Maya [Rudolph], Amy [Poehler] and the Orange crew. What are your thoughts on… Why are people always trying to pit women against each other and create cat fights among women? Why do you think that is? 

Well, first of all, I think that’s sort of an old idea. I think we’re all sort of hip to it as women now, and realising that, actually, our strength is in collaborations with each other. I think we’re really saying, you know, hey, I’m happy to have my romantic life, and there’s so many amazing men that I can’t wait to work with, but essentially, it’s so awesome to find equals. The women I work with, they’re just elevating my mind to such a higher level. And it’s profound because it feels very sacred, you know? 

I think my experience on Orange is the New Black and then in the writer’s room with Russian Doll was like, oh, these are my people. I’m not ashamed to be myself in those environments. When I’m surrounded by other people who are so fully realised as themselves, it encourages me to be my own complex self and bring all of my aspects to the table. And that’s very liberating. I think that we all have a similar goal now of wanting to tell the truth.

Also, the joy of getting to work with so many women is that, by virtue of the fact that it hasn’t always been the popular choice, we’re getting to tell more original stories in more original ways.

"When I’m surrounded by other people who are so fully realised as themselves, it encourages me to be my own complex self and bring all of my aspects to the table. And that’s very liberating. I think that we all have a similar goal now of wanting to tell the truth." - Natasha Lyonne

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