The Many Lives of Natasha Lyonne

The cocreator, executive producer, and star of Russian Doll takes on her most glamorous persona yet.

by Lynn Hirschberg
Photographs by Lea Winkler

Natasha Lyonne wearing a large brown furry coat
Natasha Lyonne as Audrey Landers from 'Dallas.'

For W’s third annual TV Portfolio, we asked 21 sought-after names in television to pay homage to their favorite small-screen characters by stepping into their shoes.

Natasha Lyonne is the cocreator, executive producer, and star of Russian Doll, which is in its second season on Netflix. The show is dark and funny and plays brilliantly with time—in season one, Nadia Vulvokov, played by Lyonne, relives the same tragic night again and again. Each time, she dies at the end of a tumultuous evening in a horrible way, only to be transported back to the beginning of the same evening every time.

Similarly, Lyonne has lived many lives: She began her career as one of the kids on Pee-wee’s Playhouse and became an indie darling for her role as a misfit teenager in Slums of Beverly Hills and But I’m a Cheerleader. She went through a dark period of drug addiction, and in 2006 checked into a rehab center—and hasn’t used drugs since. Lyonne reemerged in Orange Is the New Black, which was eventually followed by Russian Doll. Throughout her career, her raspy, tough-girl voice mixed with her tiny frame and masses of copper-colored ringlets have given her a unique street urchin sophistication. “My aesthetic was so enmeshed in a tomboy mood,” she told me. “I really understood the boys’ club—the Pacinos, the De Niros. But with writing and producing Russian Doll, I was surprised how well received I was relative to the struggle of being an actress. It seems like I’m a centerpiece kind of character, but I’m not. I love being a silent observer: I’m such a believer in the idea of the arts.”

Why did you pick Audrey Landers in Dallas as the character you wanted to embody for this portfolio?

So here’s what happened: I wanted to do Ida Lupino in The Twilight Zone because she was the only actress who both appeared in an episode and then directed one. I was picturing a lot of double images and me jumping inside the screen, but it proved to be too complex. So we were styling my hair along Ida Lupino lines, and my publicist said, “Oh my god—is it Audrey Landers from Dallas?!” And in that moment, we decided to celebrate this woman who was comically great. So another blonde gets the role!

Natasha Lyonne as Audrey Landers from 'Dallas.'

Do you watch a lot of TV?

My brain really works in movies. It’s so funny to even end up in the TV world at all. I only understand TV through movies. But I do love The Wire, NYPD Blue, and Twin Peaks. I don’t think I spent as much time as a kid developing a flavor—an aesthetic—from television like I did from films. Although I really loved Carol Burnett and Tracey Ullman. And Ab Fab. Those ladies are great.

Did any person in show business have a particular impact on you?

Yes, [the writer-director] Nora Ephron was a very significant figure in my story. My very first acting gig was as a glorified extra in her film Heartburn. That was [inspired by] Nora’s marriage to Carl Bernstein. I was 5 years old and I am sleeping on some guy’s lap at a wedding. And then when I was coming back in my phase two, post-junkie dump, I auditioned for Nora again. I wanted a part in her play, but I was having a really hard time with a boyfriend, and I said, “While I have you—if you could just give me a little advice here. It doesn’t matter if I get the job; I see this as a free therapy session.” That’s really what I’m doing in showbiz; I’ve gained access to people who are tremendous thinkers and I’m trying to crack this case.

But Nora Ephron gave you the part!

Yes! She was always looking out for me. I had to have open heart surgery and she made sure I had the best room at Columbia-Presbyterian and the greatest surgeon. I woke up to roses, and she and Chloë [Sevigny, Lyonne’s best friend] were determined to see me through this thing. And then Nora gave me my first gig back. She had me stay at her house in Los Angeles, and I was like, “Are you crazy?” And she said, “Everybody has problems.” She really helped me understand that I was okay.

Nora Ephron was supportive of other women. Sadly, that is not always the case.

It’s true. I identified with the guys. My trip was everyone from Orson Welles to Lou Reed to Robert Mitchum. Those were my people. Tough talking. And then Orange Is the New Black was a very seminal change for me, because suddenly I was friends with women like Uzo Aduba and Taylor Schilling. We were all in these uniforms and we were a girl gang! And then I started moving to writing, directing, and producing. It was so organic. Now every beautiful, incredible woman I meet, I want to support. Before, I would think, I wish I were her. Now I think, Let’s work together.

Hair by John D and makeup by Tracey Levy.