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Stories, Weekly Interviews, things to see and footnotes.
Stories, Weekly Interviews, things to see and footnotes.
Stories, Weekly Interviews, things to see and footnotes.

June 13, 2019

Stories

She Contains Multitudes 15 minute read

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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.

Awkwafina

Interview Awkwafina

Photography Annabel Mehran

Styling Turner Turner

A Hey, Natasha! How’s it going? 

N 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

Okay. 

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? 

Right. 

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.

Yeah.

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.

Ahhh.

So I started working on drafts of what would become Russian Doll. Then we brought in Leslie Headland. It really started crystallising into the show that it ended up becoming that was like, you know, very dense and layered. And then we had amazing writers, you know, Jocelyn Bioh, who wrote that great play School Girls. We kept building it and building it. But the idea had been percolating for a long time. 

That’s a great way to have the show… Like, you have to evolve. You know? I feel like that’s definitely when you get the best product, when it’s evolving a lot. And you directed it yourself, too. What was that like? 

I only directed the finale. But you’re really in charge of all the elements, you know? It’s kind of the big kahuna to take that on I think. I think the show is sort of challenging aesthetically. It wants a cinematic look. It’s not really like a point-and-shoot indie. 

No. Not at all. 

Which I think would be easier to self-direct. It was heavily story-boarded and we were very systematic, because you don’t have a lot of time to prep when you’re kind of in every shot. It made most sense for me to just direct the finale. I knew that by then I would be familiar enough with everything, that it would be a realistic undertaking.

Yeah. 

And then the other episodes were given to Jamie Babbot, who I knew from But I’m a Cheerleader for 20 years. The idea was to keep it in the world of people that I was already friends with, who knew me almost as well as I know me. So that way it would all feel of a thing. It was really fun to direct, just because it’s about being in control of the frame. I’m so happy I did it. It’s a really satisfying feeling. It’s a huge trophy. 

Yeah. I mean, it should be. And that doesn’t happen often at all. I think in general, like all this shit is about collaborators that you really trust, because then things get easier. I think it’s like when we try to take things on completely on our own, that things become—

—Uh, insane. 

I want to go back to your career. I have some Orange is the New Black questions. What was that like? 

Yeah. I will say, one thing that’s nice is that it’s like the longest relationship of my life. I mean, I’ve never had a boyfriend this long…

[Laughs.] Yeah.

Pee-wee’s Playhouse was my only other series. I was only on there for one season, when I was seven.  

You were so fucking good on Pee-wee’s Playhouse, too. [Laughs.] 

It means a lot to me, that you respect my work on Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Thank you. It’s my best work. [Laughs.]

I think that it’s really good to have a positive experience that lasts almost a decade and that you walk away from feeling sad about the loss of it, but not like you’re leaving behind burnt bridges. In fact, Uzo [Aduba] and I are about to go on vacation together. 

Ah, that’s awesome.

We’re on FaceTime all the time. We’re all very tight still. And then being able to direct this year, really felt like, Wow, these guys really know that I’m a piece of work, and they still want me to take on more responsibility. So, from Jenji’s [Kohan, creator of Orange is the New Black] point of view, or even Netflix and Cindy Holland [VP of Netflix] saying, ‘Here’s another show’, it feels very kind of warm and positive. The only thing is the crippling sadness of saying goodbye to that routine. You know? My poor dog Root Beer loves Kaufman Studios [Astoria, Queens] so much. She runs down those hallways, and she’s very sad. We have a whole life there. 

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. 

Yeah.

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.

[Laughs.] 

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. 

Whoa.

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—

Wow.

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.

Yeah, for sure.

So, it just feels more alive.

Yeah. It’s good women are being integrated now and a lot of that obviously depends on some changes in Hollywood recently, specifically the #MeToo movement. What do you think is truly the impact of that in Hollywood right now?

I think it remains to be seen what the true impact will be. Crazy Rich Asians is fucking changing the world. Black Panther is changing the world. We’re seeing these stories from female artists and filmmakers for the first time, they’re really changing the world. By ‘the world’ I mean the world of entertainment, because at the same time, we’re living in a very bipolar moment where of course we have a government in power that, you know, is aggressively trying to quash all of this constantly. It’s so bizarre that those two truths are existing simultaneously. 

How incredible is it that Laverne Cox is on the cover of Time and bringing awareness to the transgender movement? And yet at the same time we have this guy trying to kind of, you know, [ban] transgender people from the military. It’s so fucked that that duality is existing in this moment. I think that we’re seeing giant steps forward. I think this is a great time to be a female filmmaker, producer, writer or actor. 

Suddenly, I’m not worried about the fact that I’m pushing 40, because it’s like, who gives a fuck? I’m finally getting to make stuff, you know?

Women tapping out at 40 and no longer being, you know, desirable—it’s like, well, I’ve never been given more creative freedom in my life, so it’s just fine by me. And that’s a brand new idea. However, I think it remains to be seen how much we’re going to be able to get away with. You can’t ignore the statistics that these are still things that are in the [public] conversation because they are anomalies, not because they’re usual, you know.

I think that we’re going to make things that are of high enough quality that they are going to be undeniable, and people are just going to be hungry for this new lens of entertainment that they haven’t seen yet, because why wouldn’t they be? And then other things will begin to seem outdated. 

You mentioned that you’re entering this new era, your forties. You’ve just completed Orange is the New Black and you’re starting a production company. Is this how you saw yourself at this age? What’s gonna come up next? 

I mean, first of all, I definitely am an unlikely suspect for any of this excitement. It’s a surprise to me as much as anyone else, I imagine. And I’m very grateful that things turned out so good. But then, I think it was a lot of really hard work. I think for young women, it’s worth noting there were also a lot of dark nights of the soul where you really just have to keep pushing through even when it feels like nothing’s going to happen. I definitely am pleasantly surprised and thrilled. It seems like I’m going to be able to continue to tell good stories that haven’t been told before. And with Maya and our new production company, Animal Pictures, it feels very exciting that we’re also going to be able to tell other people’s stories, you know? 

We’re just starting, we’re just looking for office space and everything, but we have like this whole slate of projects that I’m very, very excited by. And selfishly, it’s just fun because it means I have to talk to Maya every day. 

Yeah.

We’re sitting around and watching the classics and on Wikipedia together and there’s books. Textbooks are open and it’s very—

—It’s awesome.

I mean, it’s a good time. It’s a good way to work. I think also what’s so incredible about a production company is that you get to move away from yourself. So much of the story of Russian Doll is incredibly autobiographical. Of course, it’s heavily shellacked with fiction and a sort of magical realism. But ultimately at heart it’s very much an autobiographical story.

Yeah.

So what’s so amazing about getting to collaborate with other writers and creators we’re working with is getting to widen out and start telling other people’s stories, to try and help facilitate that. It makes me very excited, it makes me want to get to be very old. I’ve been reading a lot of these books by Yuval Harari, like Homo Deus and Sapiens and I feel like maybe there’s a world where we could get to being at least 150 years old. 

Maybe you’ll have a better chance because you are younger than me. Now I finally feel like—for so many years I was like, ah, fuck it and get me out of here. I can’t handle this life. And now I’m like, holy shit, there’s some shit I want to do around here. 

What parts do you want to play? What kind of shows do you want to create?

I’m dying to work with you. 

But growing up, Pacino, De Niro, Harry Dean Stanton and Warren Oates, Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman—those were the guys. Jack Nicholson, you know, Albert Brooks—they were telling stories that were close to how I identified my experience. 

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.

Right, right.

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. You know? I’m excited to see what our version of that is going to be. It would be so much fun to see, ten years from now, the body of work that we will all make as women. It’s like jumping into the unknown. 

Okay, the last part here, just telling us some of your favourite things. Songs, artists, paintings, places, hotels? 

These are the books that are in my bed right now: Educated by Tara Westover and Homo Deus by Yuval Harari. Then the last album I downloaded, it’s very, very fem heavy. It’s an album inspired by the works of Maya Deren. It really doesn’t get much more ridiculous than that as far as on-the-nose activities you would think I would be into.

[Laughs.] You’re killing it. That’s awesome. 

I’m just here to crush. Do you have any recommendations for me? 

Um, I just got the Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse movie.

Ooh.

[Laughs.] It was very good. I love you Natasha.

Thank you so much. You’re the coolest.