'Russian Doll' Is Natasha Lyonne's "Autobiography Wrapped in a Mind-Bending Concept"

The co-creator and star speaks to The Hollywood Reporter about the truths in her life that inspired the Netflix adventure series. "Thematically, it feels very true to my experience around deciding to become a participating member of life," says the 'Orange Is the New Black' actress.
Courtesy of Netflix
Natasha Lyonne in 'Russian Doll'

There is a well-crafted level of mystery surrounding Netflix's Russian Doll.

The less viewers know going into the genre-bending series from Natasha Lyonne, Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland, the more layers there are to uncover as the eight-episode adventure unfolds. The high-concept series stars Lyonne as Nadia, a game coder who keeps dying and re-living her 36th birthday. And at the core of Russian Doll — underneath the existential twists and turns that await Nadia as she embarks on her journey of self-exploration — is a version of Lyonne's personal story.

"I like the way you put it, which is sort of an autobiography wrapped in a mind-bending concept," Lyonne tells The Hollywood Reporter. "I'm 100 percent in there and most definitely the architect of the whole thing. At the same time, the question became — how do we cloak it in something? It's not a one-woman show, so what would be the most fun way to tell you this story?"

Seven years ago, shortly before Lyonne debuted her inmate Nicky Nichols on Netflix's Orange Is the New Black, she and Poehler began to plant the seed for Russian Doll. "Amy called me and said, 'As long as I have known you, which is 15 years at this point, you’ve always been the oldest girl in the room' — I couldn’t tell if that was an insult or a compliment, but I said, 'Keep talking,'" Lyonne cracks. Then Poehler suggested, "What if we made a show about that?"

That show was the NBC sitcom pilot Old Soul starring Lyonne as Nadia ("I always name my characters after Nadia Comaneci, my favorite gymnast from the '80s," she says), a reformed wild child who finds she has more in common with the elderly clients she cares for than people her own age. And there were other Russian Doll similarities, too: the character of Ruth, Lyonne's real-life godmother of the same name, was played by Ellen Burstyn (Ruth is played by Elizabeth Ashley in Russian Doll), and Greta Lee, who co-stars in Russian Doll, also played the role of Nadia's best friend in Old Soul.

But the pilot never went to series. "After that didn’t happen, Amy said, 'What do we really want to say? If there were no limitations and we just wanted to get to the heart of the matter, what do we want to make a show about?' And those were early days of Russian Doll," says Lyonne. 

Poehler came up with the title as a literal idea of what the protagonist would represent. In those early days of brainstorming Russian Doll, Nadia was conceived as someone who "has an external presentation that we all put out into the world and, once you take the deep dive, has this whole other person working in there," Lyonne explains. "The idea that we had come up with was choose your own adventure style, where you could make a choice to try every person out at a party, but who would still be stuck with themselves at the end. And that’s the person you were really going to have to look at."

Three years later, the pair brought on writer/director Headland, and the trio worked on the concept for two and a half years before pitching Russian Doll to Netflix as a three-season series. Headland describes that creative process as a "total mind-meld session" where she, Lyonne and Poehler would discuss their personal histories and collective dreams for telling a story about a female protagonist without having to worry if she is "likable" or if the story would sell. "We pitched Netflix three seasons of the most bonkers, heartfelt, passionate, this-is-what-we-truly-feel-like-is-our-story-to-tell idea," Headland tells THR. "And they said: 'Great, the more of that, the better. The more you guys this can be, the better. Here are the resources and the support — take off.'"

On the first day in the writers room in late 2017, Lyonne arrived with a copy of Viktor Frankl’s best-selling Holocaust memoir Man's Search for Meaning. "I remember everyone looking at me like, That’s not how you make a comedy," she recalls, crediting Headland for helping to steer her vision. "Leslye became an incredible partner for me in that we were able to somehow get something that just scratches the surface of that, which felt very much like an autobiographical truth to my experience." She elaborates, "Wanting to take yourself out, wanting to self-destruct, and when that doesn’t happen, you’re left with this person you’ve got to face. And the ways in which we move from a disconnected life to forming a real connection, if only accidentally."

Lyonne adds, "Thematically, that feels very true to my experience around deciding to become a participating member of life."

While Russian Doll may seem like a Groundhog Day story, the idea that the Nadia character keeps dying and starting over with the same night will reveal itself to have deeper meanings. And for those familiar with Lyonne's story — which includes battles with addiction and a life-threatening hospital stint in 2005 after an early Hollywood career — other recognizable parallels appear as Nadia's self-searching escapades progress.

"It was sort of terrifying and the greatest thing that ever happened to me," says Lyonne of living in the headspace to play Nadia while also running the show behind the camera. Lyonne and Headland led an all-female writing and directing team that included Jamie Babbit and saw Lyonne, a New Yorker, helming the finale at the end of a three-month shoot in Manhattan's East Village neighborhood.

"The experience I had on Orange Is the New Black, of living in that ensemble and feeling there was space for our individual otherness to be celebrated, and then bringing this show to [Netflix's] Cindy Holland with Amy, it started to feel like there was this incredible support system happening where I was being told, 'Hey kid, tell your story the real way — it’s going to be OK,'" Lyonne says. "That was never lost on me, as such an unlikely dark-horse scenario from just a few years ago, to find the way and the voice and the support to do that. The acting as a result was this wild experience of something I imagine is a rarified space."

The support from her cast also included real-life close friend Chloe Sevigny appearing in a key role and saw Lyonne reuniting with OITNB's Dascha Polanco onscreen. Behind the camera, Lyonne had reassembled even more OITNB collaborators. "I’ve been accidentally having this special road through show biz where, maybe it's just that no men were hiring me, but I was getting to work with these really inspiring women," says Lyonne. "Of course, society has been a mess for a long time in so many ways; I consider myself ultimately, incredibly privileged. It’s certainly really exciting to see where we’re at and the conversation that’s happening."

Headland, whose wife, Rebecca Henderson, also co-stars as Nadia's close friend on Russian Doll, says that the result of having such artistic freedom was authenticity. "Your autobiographical or personal experience is going to seep through, just as a female person in the world," says Headland of their collaborative process. "This would go for people of color and trans people and people of different sexual orientations, like myself, where you immediately start speaking from a place of, 'This is my experience and this is what I see in the world, and this is how I experience the world.'"

Those experiences are born in the character of Nadia. Recalling the feedback Headland initially received for her cult female-led film Bachelorette — "When I wrote that script [in 2008] and started doing meetings, everyone said, 'No one wants to see this movie.' What they really were thinking was, Women don’t want to see this movie" — and 2015's Sleeping With Other People — "The character played by Alison Brie was a queer character originally in the script, a girl that was sleeping with women and men. This was something that, in 2014, everyone was very confused by" — she says the difference with Russian Doll's all-female team was trust.

"You have people who trust your experience a little more, because they may have had it or they get that you’re coming from that place. So they say, 'OK, let’s keep going with it. Let’s not kill it at the beginning. Let’s try to flesh this idea out a little bit more.' They come in to say: I validate your experience and your point of view," says Headland.

As a result, Nadia — like many male protagonists before her — doesn't fall into a predictable storyline trope and is someone Lyonne has described as genderless. "What you see is a character that’s going after a spiritual or an existential goal, as opposed to one that has to do with something external that’s within the world or defined by someone else," Headland explains. Nadia has two romantic interests (played by Jeremy Bobb and Yul Vazquez) and is a talented coder in a male-dominated field. But when her journey of self-exploration begins at age 36, it doesn't revolve around men, her career or a quest for motherhood. "Those are worthy topics and goals for a female protagonist to have, but like you see with a lot of male-driven shows, she's a character that wants something that doesn't fall into those categories," Headland says. "She really is asking, 'What’s wrong with me?' and 'What is my life?' And to truthfully ask those questions is just something that women I do not think have access to."

And for all of those reasons, Lyonne — who will also be saying goodbye to OITNB later this summer and who directs one of the prison dramedy's anticipated final episodes — says she feels a sense of relief upon releasing her deeply personal (and highly binge-able) Russian Doll into the world on Feb. 1.

"I can walk freely," she says, adding, "If this is all I got to do, at least it would be a relief that my whole experience had not been for naught so far." After growing up on the last seven seasons of OITNB, Lyonne describes the transition from one show to another as a "human roller-coaster of becoming an adult," a ride she says is headed for the second act of her adult career. "There’s a healthy dose of self-loathing that lives in me and that historically was deafening," she says. "And the idea that it is now being quelled in some way, and to be held in safe space of acceptance by my peers — the idea that Jenji [Kohan, creator of OITNB] let me direct an episode of her show means everything to me."

Before signing off in her very signature way, Lyonne reflects: "I can’t even believe there’s a format for something like Russian Doll and that art is at a place where you get to put your trip through the blender and have it come out as something that, hopefully, people want to watch and go on the ride with. It’s a very deep and special thing to get to do — a helluva way to make a living!"

Russian Doll releases on Netflix Feb. 1.