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How Natasha Lyonne Battled Her Demons — and Won

The ‘Russian Doll’ star took a painful childhood and brushes with death, and wrote herself the part of a lifetime

Heather Hazzan for Rolling Stone

“I feel like I haven’t used the bathroom at Veselka since the Nineties, but I’m going to go for it,” Natasha Lyonne announces from within an aura of red curls and cigarette smoke when she arrives at the Ukrainian eatery in New York’s East Village one night in December. She does an about-face, joins the bathroom line like any regular schmuck, and returns with this to say: “Well, it hasn’t changed. That’s my book report on the bathroom at Veselka. As harrowing as ever. But I bet the blintzes are still good.” She orders eight pierogies from a no-nonsense Eastern European woman wearing an ugly Christmas sweater and a strange, sequined protrusion on her head. “Great outfit. Ten out of 10,” Lyonne observes. “Do you have any applesauce?” Then she leans back in her chair and, primal needs accounted for, prepares to go deep. “I mean, it’s a problematic thing, being a person. Shame and the meaning of life,” she says with a shrug. “Let’s get into it.”

It’s these very topics, of course — along with quantum physics, addiction, death, rebirth, nostalgia, childhood trauma, religion, aging, mental illness, and the perpetual haunting visited upon us by our past selves — that Lyonne plumbs in her acclaimed Netflix series, Russian Doll (which she produces, directs, and stars in). And it’s preparing for the second season that brings her back to her hometown of New York. She arrived on a red-eye this morning, she tells me. “But then again, what is time? These are the kinds of questions I ask now. These are the things I consume my days with.”

The rhythms of borscht-belt vaudeville being her natural cadence, this sounds like a joke, but Lyonne means it quite literally. For the past couple of months, she’s been working in a writers room in Los Angeles — the city where she sometimes lives with her boyfriend, Fred Armisen — trying to figure out the future of Russian Doll and perhaps also of her character, Nadia Vulvokov, who in Season One was constantly dying and then being reborn in the fun-house bathroom of the apartment where she’s celebrating her 36th birthday. Nadia ultimately makes it her mission to discover the cause of this glitch in the time-space continuum and to probe the layers of reality — both conscious and subconscious — that have gotten her to this point. This involves many a campy romp through the East Village of Lyonne’s own youth, and a kind of pop existentialism that sometimes veers into something breathtakingly deeper. Developed by Lyonne, Amy Poehler, and playwright Leslye Headland, the show was nominated for four Emmys. It also created a new layer of reality for Lyonne, one of unmitigated success and wide artistic license.

Which wasn’t necessarily a layer Lyonne was expecting. In fact, Russian Doll was its own sort of reincarnation, born from the ashes of a show called Old Soul that Lyonne conceived with Poehler some years back, when she was still emotionally and professionally coming out of what she refers to as a “well-documented Keith Richards era.” As she tells it, “Amy called me one day out of the blue, and she said, ‘I’ve been thinking about you, and as long as I’ve known you’ — which had been about 20 years — ‘you’ve always been the oldest girl in the room.’ And I said, ‘Thank you for calling and insulting me on this day. Also, I agree.’ ” Poehler suggested they make a show about it. Lyonne considered. “I looked around the room. I found nothing but empty containers of food and a laptop: Sold!” When NBC passed on that show — in which Lyonne was to play an ex-gambler who runs a poker ring for her godmother, Ellen Burstyn — Poehler doubled down. “She turned to me in a car — I don’t remember where we were driving — and said, ‘Kid, I know this show didn’t hit, but if we could make any show we wanted to make, what is it we really want to say together? What is it we’re really after?’ ”

What Lyonne was after, then and now, was some sort of way of making sense of mortality. Though it’s decidedly Not Natasha Lyonne’s Favorite Topic, that well-documented Keith Richards era had included a well-documented heroin addiction that had not just landed the onetime star of Pee-wee’s Playhouse, Slums of Beverly Hills, and American Pie in the crosshairs of a massive public shaming (“As Taxpayers, We Ask That the City Please Do Something About Natasha Lyonne,” a 2006 Gawker headline once gawked), but had also put her in the hospital for five months with a collapsed lung and endocarditis, an infection — known colloquially as “heroin heart” — that eventually required open-heart surgery. In an alternate reality, she could have died. In this reality, she didn’t.

And because she didn’t, all of that “shame and the meaning of life” stuff made its way into Russian Doll. “I had taken cracks at some drafts early on where I was realizing that I was always perceiving life through the lens of a dead person, essentially,” Lyonne says. “That the closest version to my experience of my present-day life was as somebody who had already lived and died, and was for some reason doing it all over again, which continues to be a surprise to me.”

It didn’t surprise others around her, at least not the existential bent Lyonne was mining. “She’s a very profound person, and there’s nothing surface about her,” her best friend, Chloë Sevigny, tells me. “Just the way she looks at a problem or relationships, it’s always surprising, always really inventive, and just brilliant.” Being asked to play young Nadia’s mother — in what turned out to be some of the show’s most potent scenes — was a heady experience for Sevigny. “I don’t think people understand the gravity of that, how much of the show was based on things around her mother,” she says. “It was very emotional and upsetting and cathartic. On a human level, on a best-friend level, it was pretty deep.”

Lyonne’s Talmudic toughness can be traced back to growing up with a boxing-promoter father who created a “tough-guy ethos” in their unstable home. When Lyonne was eight, her father moved the family to Israel, where “his dreams were about bringing Mike Tyson to the Tel Aviv Hilton and becoming the Don King of Israel.” She grew up watching movies like Scarface, Taxi Driver, and The Godfather, and cultivating a clench-fisted, tomboy stance that she hoped would endear her to distant parents. She didn’t have many female friends. She thought she might grow up to be a spy, though she now realizes that the “hypervigilance I was experiencing was more about being a kid in an unsafe home. I was just developing this high emotional IQ, for better or worse, about the human condition.” After her parents divorced and she moved back to New York with her mom, things got only more precarious. Her pot-selling enterprises got her kicked out of the fancy Upper East Side yeshiva where she had been on scholarship, a have-not in a sparkling world of haves. She started NYU at 16, thinking she’d learn to be a filmmaker, then dropped out at the thought of having to dissect Apocalypse Now with a bunch of 18-year-olds from the suburbs.

In the many alternate realities she can create in her mind (as Nadia puts it, “Life is like a box of timelines”), she wonders what would have happened if she hadn’t been born to dysfunctional parents who inflicted the sort of wounds that made drug use “a solution before it was a problem.” She wonders what would have happened if someone had put a pen or a camera in her hand instead of, as she says, “a peace pipe. Let’s call it a ‘peace pipe.’ I just want to protect your gentle readers.” Probably, she thinks, she would have ended up in the same place she is now, but sooner, without “throwing 15 years in the toilet, which, to be clear, is the de-romanticized version of drug use.” She doesn’t want me to write about all of this, of course. It’s an old version of Lyonne, a layer of reality buried now beneath so many others. But it’s the layer that keeps bending the time-space continuum; it’s the layer that keeps coming back to haunt her.

The pierogies are eaten. The bill arrives. “It’s $400, which feels like a typo,” Lyonne jokes, deadpan, before gathering herself into a coat with hugely exaggerated shoulders (“It makes an entrance, but does it make an exit?”) and plopping on a black fedora she says she stole from a castle in Wales (“Fred was very mad. I thought it was an appropriate action at the time”). Outside, the air is clear and bracing, the right sort of air for this sterilized, gentrified version of the East Village overlaid on the grimier one Lyonne remembers well. “I mean, I’ve lived all over this neighborhood for the past 20 years, and the ghosts of the streets are real,” she’d said earlier. “It’s funny that you can walk through waves of them. It’s funny that memory is as Fellini experiences it.”

I’m seeing the ghosts too. We walk half a block to the first apartment I had in New York, a prewar walk-up with all the grungy charm of a Jim Jarmusch film. For a minute, I’m not sure it’s the right spot, so much has the block around it changed. “I like that you don’t recognize the apartment,” Lyonne says. “That’s not a ghost, that’s a boogeyman, if you can’t recognize it.” We peer in the window of the front door, down a long hall lined with crumbling hundred-year-old tile that I haven’t traversed in 17 years. Lyonne nods approvingly. “This is a real New York classic, what you got here,” Lyonne says. “This is the kind of apartment that’s fun to stumble into with a guy you don’t know from a bar, and then you wake up here in the morning, and you come out the other side, and you’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, I was there. I never got his number. Where does he live? Let me go find him.’ And then you try to find it, and you don’t know where it was.”

I tell her that my room used to look out on a mortician’s storefront. “Ah!” she barks. “That’s the New York I remember: Morticians on every corner!” In the spot where I think the funeral home used to be, there’s now a pizza franchise (“All their pizzas come embalmed”), which we glare at from under the light of Christmas trees being sold across the street. “They love putting Christmas trees here,” Lyonne observes. “I stole one of these Christmas trees once — on my life, I did. A New York Post van was delivering papers, and we stole the tree, tipped the driver, and had him drive it back to my place.”

We wander near Sevigny’s old apartment, where Lyonne says she spent many nights, probably never imagining that she would one day write a TV show in which her mother is incarnated by her closest friend. “It’s as surreal as it gets to write a part for my sister Chloë, my best friend for life,” says Lyonne. “And then to watch her say those lines, and to sit in a trailer that says the show’s name on it, and to know what we’ve lived through together on these streets and, in the edit, to watch her re-create a moment playing my mother and just privately cry in the dark. It’s very meta. I can’t believe I’ve been given license to explore it.”

In fact, Sevigny is a large part of the reason Lyonne got the chance to do so. When she was still “on the mend,” as Sevigny puts it, Sevigny talked the director Scott Elliott into giving Lyonne a theater debut. The next year, Nora and Delia Ephron cast her in a play with Tracee Ellis Ross, Tyne Daly, Rosie O’Donnell, Samantha Bee, and Rita Wilson. “And they really kind of took me in,” Lyonne says. “I had gone so far from what’s standard practice of being a dropout in this town, that I was forever surprised when someone like Nora Ephron would give me the keys to her house and say, ‘Go stay there. I’m out of town.’ I would be, like, very confused, because I didn’t understand why she wouldn’t think I would steal her stuff, you know? And I guess she could see in me, long before I could, that I wasn’t in that place in my life anymore. And that was the type of stuff that started rebuilding my sense of trusting myself, of wondering what I could do. There was a sort of sweeping power of sisterhood that washed through me and created an engine in me.”

That engine propelled her into the part of Nicky Nichols on Orange Is the New Black, where Lyonne was again “taken into this community of women who really rebuilt me.” The show finally gave her the type of role she had grown up idolizing, yet felt had eluded her in a career in which she was once offered the lead in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. “I mean, I’m somebody who’s been in fucking a hundred movies for 35 years, and there’s like three things that I can remember that I’m in,” Lyonne says. “I think that in Orange Is the New Black I was really allowed to be the sort of New York, male, Seventies actor that I wanted to be, with an arc, a storyline, and a fully animated thought life.”

Nadia has all those things, over and over and over again. She thinks, dresses, moves, acts, and talks like few women we’ve seen onscreen. And now that Lyonne is in New York to bring Russian Doll back, she finds herself in an interesting moment, one in which her success stems inextricably from going down the wormhole and reanimating those ghosts of her past. “Of course, it’s a fictionalized show, but it was scary for me to be so honest and autobiographical,” she tells me. Then again, it’s good to control the narrative, to “envision something from dust,” she says as we head east. And it’s good to be reminded of who we no longer are, so as to also be reminded that we would not choose to be that person again. “I like getting older,” says Lyonne. “My main pitch to young women is to stick in the fight, because it’s a total lie that it’s great as a teenager and in your twenties.”

Eventually, we make our way to Lyonne’s block. Armisen is on Saturday Night Live tonight, and she needs to get ready, to decide whether the dramatic sleeves will make an entrance or not. Sevigny will be there, as will Maya Rudolph, a friend of Lyonne’s from the Nineties who introduced her to Armisen, and who runs a production company with her called Animal Pictures. They’re currently working on nine projects, which will allow Lyonne to continue directing and producing. “The writing-directing-producing stuff is really, for me, the joy of my life,” she says. “I can’t believe I’m getting paid to sit with these brilliant women every day just to think about things. It’s my fantasy.” Rudolph recently covered the fridge in their office with photos and clippings from their many years of friendship. “I started crying,” Lyonne continues. “It was just like, ‘Holy shit. I have a home base in this.’

This is the family Lyonne has built, the ones who’ve put a pen and a camera in her hand and helped her see what to do with them. In the meantime, life goes on, with all its ghosts, all its wormholes, all its wonderful, frightening absurdities. “I can’t believe we’re this far into the future,” Lyonne says. “It’s crazy.” Then she tips her stolen fedora and disappears into the East Village night.