Natasha Lyonne Believes in Happy Endings

The wisecracking Russian Doll star and creator on why she’s hopeful for the future.

by Kate Dwyer
Photographs by Rosie Marks
Styled by Rebecca Ramsey

Natasha Lyonne, with her dog, Rootbeer. Lyonne wears a Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello shirt; Gu...
Natasha Lyonne, with her dog, Rootbeer. Lyonne wears a Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello shirt; Gucci gloves; J. Hannah rings; Fogal tights; stylist’s own sunglasses and shoes.

After a three-year hiatus, Russian Doll, the streaming series you cocreated with Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland and star in, just returned for a second season. It’s a unique project, structurally and tonally. What does originality mean to you?

Aggressively not following the pack, on instinct. So if you see everybody going one way, instinctually run in the opposite direction. In order for that to work, it’s pretty crucial to develop a strong sense of self.

What is your most original quality?

Teenage psychedelic brain damage that created a warped sense of humor.

Do you think it’s more difficult to be original today than it was 20 years ago, when we weren’t as inundated with images and points of comparison?

I’m guessing that it’s the other way around. We live in such a reply-all, email-chain, zero-attention-span society that the tricky part is getting enough focus to see your own thoughts all the way to the finish line. If you can muscle through the constant distraction and get there, you’re well set up, because everybody is doing such fly-by-night, surface bullshit 24 hours a day. Once upon a time, you had to actually read books and watch movies and listen to music and go to the museum and have life experiences in order to form an opinion. So anyone who’s still doing that is breathing rarefied air, unfortunately. They have a huge advantage.

Who was the first person in your life who made you realize that you could break the rules?

For better or worse, probably my parents. As a kid actor, I also had an on-set tutor named Karin Cooper. She taught me about Apocalypse Now and the book Heart of Darkness, and also the Surrealist movement, André Breton. That combo platter really shifted the way I began to see things.

What is your favorite recent purchase?

I bought a chess set from 1stDibs; it’s got hand-carved pieces, and it’s pretty wild-looking. I recently became addicted to playing chess against a computer on my phone. And boy, playing in the flesh, opposite a person, is a different thing. Nothing beats the humanity of the physical game.

Where in the world, and doing what activity, are you the happiest?

Possibly when I go to the Film Forum at night by myself to watch an old movie. It reminds me of who I was, walking the streets of New York and having ideas at night. In my bones, I’m like, This is who I am.

You play a key role in selecting the music for Russian Doll. How do you choose retro songs that still sound fresh?

There are certain songs that have this universal hug that lets us all feel cool and welcome, as opposed to this narrow sort of hipsterdom. I’m 42; I just don’t care anymore. I want to tell a story that connects with people and makes them feel less alone, and less ashamed of their existence. There’s something calming about music. You hear a certain song, and you can accept life as this multilayered, multifaceted rabbit hole. I wanted us to be able to have that together, so we could make those big ideas go down a little bit better.

Is there a message you’re hoping to communicate with your work?

I might wear black clothes and smoke cigarettes, but in many ways I’m an optimist and believe in this underlying good-natured, happy ending type of shit. There’s so much evidence to the contrary, in our society constantly, and yet I want to believe in us. This show has made a futurist out of me, because it was a global deep dive into epigenetics, and it’s awoken a curiosity about the future. I’m much more curious than ever about why the future is always presented as strictly dystopian, as if we are not participants in that vision of it. At some point in my life, it was time to abandon the idea of going to a party having this cynical attitude of, like, standing against the wall and being like, This party sucks. These people are stupid. It’s like, No, man. You’re at that party. Make it better.

Proenza Schouler coat and slippers; J. Hannah rings.

Hair by Ted Gibson for Starring by Ted Gibson at Tomlinson Group L.A.; makeup by Jo Baker for Bakeup at Forward Artists; manicure by ​​Elisa Wishan; photo assistant: Abdul Kircher.