You’d be wise not to take everything Natasha Lyonne says 100% seriously. For instance, ask her about her first kiss, and she’ll recall a tale of kissing a boy on set as a teenager, and punctuate the sentence with an off-handed observation: “I do think it’s weird now, being a parent of six children who I’ve never met or seen. I do think that’s its strange to put a child in showbiz and then be like, “Now go make out with someone.” Lyonne, of course, is kidding about those kids. It’s all part of the actress’s charm, a dry and impossibly quick wit that she has both in real life and nearly all of her on-screen roles, most recent of which is Nadia on Netflix’s Russian Doll, for which the actress recently received an Emmy nomination. Here, Lyonne reflects on her first memories of Hollywood, talks about the long road to Russian Doll, and shares her unique celebrity crushes.
Are you named after anyone?
I am actually named after my great-great-great-great- grandmother on my father’s side, who was a famous Russian ballerina named Natasha, but the lineage and the proof has always been vague.
When was your first audition?
I must’ve been about five, maybe four. It’s hard to remember because of both the brain damage and the years that have gone by. I don’t remember it being great, but the mythology of the household is that I cried a great deal and that nonetheless they kept pushing, and here we are.
What was the first part you booked?
Probably a commercial. You know, my big childhood claim to mediocre fame is Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, which I was always deeply proud of. I still think is the coolest thing I have to contribute is that zinger. I played Opal on that show, so that was my big achievement by about six. But prior to that, I think I’d done a bunch of commercials: Minute Maid, Hershey’s, etc. You know, they didn’t all air, which is really what you’re after when you’re a child actor in the commercial business. You want them to get on the air if you want to get your imaginary Lamborghini, which is what I was hoping for. I didn’t get the Lambo.
When you started acting as a kid, did you immediately feel at home?
do think that I have a sort of vaudevillian bent. I think that I’m sort of built for a life of juggling emotions. I don’t know that I enjoyed carrying a briefcase and getting on the train and a commute, but I do think I always enjoyed a great deal the world of imagination. Pee-wee’s Playhouse, for example, was a great source of joy in my life. It was such a world of beatnik hepcats that kind of played jazz instruments. It felt more like an extracurricular activity. But sort of the fanfare around it was always disturbing and confusing, as it continues to be.
Did other people in your family act?
The only famous person that I’m related to is Al Jaffee, who is the cartoonist from the back of Mad magazines. He was not an actor, so nobody.
Was it your decision to become an actress?
It was the ’80s. You remember the ’80s. Crazy Eddie was huge and so was cocaine. People had grandiose fantasies of what they wanted out of life, and fame was hot. Those were the times. Grace Jones was big, David Lee Roth. Christopher Walken was a name I would hear often in my house as a sort of litmus test of achievement. I think that’s what my parents were after.
When you did Slums of Beverly Hills, was that like a watershed moment? Because it was a big deal.
Prior to that, the now less popular Woody Allen was also an achievement. I did Everyone Says I Love You was when I was like 15 or 16. Gaby Hoffmann always says I was 14, but I think she’s lying. She must’ve been about 12, though, and remains sort of my oldest friend as a result.
I auditioned for Slums of Beverly Hills and for Everyone Says I Love You. I think that I did not get the memo that you’re not supposed to reply to Woody Allen. I roller bladed in, in my very long khaki skirt because I was going to a yeshiva even though we were not religious, which is a Jewish school on the Upper East Side. I was on scholarship and I was stoned. I came into the office, and he said, “So what’s your story?” I launched into sort of an hour-long rambling monologue about my life up to that point, my dysfunctional parents, their attempt to salvage their marriage by moving to Israel in sort of a Zionistic fantasy of making it all work that was really masking tax evasion and so on. I think somewhere in this rambling tale, he became convinced I should play his daughter.
I was shocked every day that I didn’t get fired. I would hear so many rumors about how people would get fired for seemingly smaller infractions. I felt like I had so much rampant misbehavior. You know, I would only sometimes arrive. If I was wearing my Groucho Marx makeup, I would smear it somehow while sneaking a cigarette. There were all kinds of things, and I can remember I was doing a lot of listening to Portishead on a roof of a hotel in Venice, like sneaking cigarettes. I was bad but just learning how to become bad.
Natasha Lyonne, Michelle Williams, Billy Porter, and More Stars Bringing Television To New Heights
The working title of our show was not Fosse/Verdon—it was just Fosse, but then the producers got smart. They realized that Gwen Verdon and Bob Fosse were romantic and creative partners who remained entangled until the end of his life. It was the right time, in 2019, to make a show about a partnership. It was also the first time that I’ve had pay parity with a male costar and equal space to voice my thoughts. I’d never experienced anything like it. Since I felt completely supported, I could jump higher and take more risks.
You started acting as a child. Did you find that people treated you—and continue to treat you—in a diminishing way?
Absolutely. When you’re physically small, when men hug you, they pick you up off the floor. That doesn’t happen anymore.
What’s your favorite Fosse musical?
Cabaret. When I performed the song “Maybe This Time” [on Broadway, in 2014], it never didn’t get to me. I’m sad that I’ll never sing it again. Musicals are deep in me: When I did a tap dance for Fosse/Verdon, I realized it returned me to this very primal love, before anything negative was associated with acting, work, or identity. I felt like I was a little girl. It was a genuine moment of joy.
Williams wears a Louis Vuitton turtleneck, skirt, belt, and boots.
I started out doing stand-up comedy at U.C. Davis and then moved to San Francisco, which has one of the most interesting comedy scenes in the country. In comedy, we’re all mutants and we share these different superpowers. Early on, I learned that humor is a way to break tension. It’s a very powerful tool.
Is it easier for you to be autobiographical or political?
I came from The Daily Show, where you are steeped in politics and the news. It’s your life, day in and day out. But for me, as an Indian-American Muslim, I always felt this insider/outsider relationship with America. And because of my background, at this moment in time, the personal and the political merged.
Do your parents worry when your show takes on Saudi Arabia?
Sure. That episode was banned in Saudi Arabia, and my parents said, “We don’t want you causing international outrage and controversy.” They said, “Please just tell embarrassing stories about your childhood.”
Minhaj wears a Prada jacket, pants, and belt; Jil Sander shirt; Shinola bracelet; Dior Men boots.
I honestly didn’t know much about witchcraft before starting on Sabrina, but now I realize it’s just dudes being scared of women and their power.
You were a child on Mad Men. Have you finally seen the episodes you were too young to watch?
I have now seen Mad Men. I can say I’m a fan, but it’s weird to watch your 6-year-old self. Oftentimes, while I was watching, I’d forget that I was in the show. So many things happened to Sally on Mad Men before they happened in my real life: My first kiss was onscreen; I got my TV period before my real period. I was prepared for everything because on Mad Men Sally was a little ahead of me. She taught me the ways of the world.
Shipka wears a Chloé dress; Isabel Marant belt; Cartier ring.
Tell me about kissing Chris Hemsworth.
I was on the shoot for Bad Times at the El Royale, and I still hadn’t met Chris. He played a cult leader, and I was his devoted follower. I knew he was on set, and I wanted to meet him because we had a kissing scene that day. At the last minute—we still hadn’t met—we were about to make out, and I’m like, “How many kids do you have? Oh, you have three kids,” and then—“Action!” He was really nice, but it was super-awkward, and they ended up dropping the scene from the film.
You cut your hair very short for Devs. Is androgyny part of your character?
Yes. The show has to do with a tech company. Secret stuff. My character is really smart and knows quantum physics, so that’s kind of like a superpower. I was supposed to shave my head for the part, and I was always down for that. I think I’m going to shave it all off anyway: I’m so into being bald.
Spaeny wears a Bottega Veneta sweater; Sophie Buhai earrings; Tiffany & Co. ring (right hand); Cartier ring (left hand); Manolo Blahnik shoes.
My first part was in a film called Complicity. I played a boy who gets raped and then kills his rapist. I was 11 years old. It was baptism by fire.
In your TV projects, you seem to undergo torture or get killed a lot.
I love a good death, and I’ve had a few really good demises in my time. On Game of Thrones, I was killed at the Red Wedding. That was my favorite death: full of arrows and then they cut off my head. I was covered in blood and my limbs were hanging off.
Do you have any surprising secret skills?
No. I went to drama school to learn all those skills, and then I was like, “I ain’t going to sing or dance in films, so I’m not going to singing or dancing class. And I can’t be bothered with the fencing class, because I won’t be fencing.” Cut to: I have been sword fighting for half my life and now I’ve had to sing and dance. This is why you should go to class. Kids: Stay in school.
Madden wears a Givenchy jacket; Calvin Klein Underwear tank top; Dries Van Noten pants; Shinola bracelet; Dior Men shoes.
My agent called me and said, “They’re casting a show about a women’s wrestling television program in the ’80s.” I said, “I want that job!” However, I very quickly learned that the producers didn’t think I was right.
Why? Too petite?
Yes, but I’ve secretly been strength training for years. After four auditions, I wore them down. And yes, I’ve learned how to wrestle and throw women across a ring. It’s incredibly empowering.
Do you ever practice by beating up your husband?
I don’t ever beat up my husband. I’ve been known to wrestle our cat a little bit. He doesn’t love it.
Brie wears a Givenchy sweater and skirt; Balenciaga boots.
When I was 12, I was washing dishes at home and the Tony Awards came on. It was the year Dreamgirls was up for best musical and Jennifer Holliday sang “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going.” I was in shock: all of these beautiful black people in high fashion with gowns and hair and makeup. At that time, you didn’t see a lot of people of color on television, dripping in style. And Jennifer Holliday sang like I knew how to sing in church, except she was on television! The connection of money, style, and television launched me into this space where I thought, That’s what I’m going to do. I can be that.
How did Pose come about?
They called me in to play the dance teacher. I was like, “Well, this ain’t quite the role I want, but…” I told them at the audition that I felt I’d lived through the world of Pose. I said, “Wouldn’t you need a father figure in the ballroom world?” Because one of the things that’s so powerful about Paris Is Burning [which influenced Pose] is that it’s about a marginalized group of people who had nothing in a world where people were dying of AIDS. And they chose life anyway. I wanted to tell that story.
Porter wears a Thom Browne dress and shoes; Wolford fishnets; his own jewelry.
I moved to California from London because I wanted to be happy. My very first audition was for The Good Place, and it went great: I am now on a show opposite Ted Danson, my hero. As a young girl, I always fancied Ted! Is that creepy? Am I creepy? But, my Lord, he’s still so hot.
Were you on social media before the show began? You currently have 2 million followers on Instagram.
The Good Place asked me to join Instagram, and now I use it to scream at people [laughs]. In all honesty, I think I’ve found a genuine community of people online who are tired of being erased. I understand being challenged: The bravest thing I’ve done in my life was move to Los Angeles, even though I was told I was too old, too fat, and too ethnic. I had no contacts and no friends in L.A. But I got on a plane anyway and flew to California to have an acting career. This had to work: I’m not talented at sex, so I couldn’t be a porn star. And I have no upper body strength, so pole dancing was out.
Jamil wears a Sacai coat; Prada boots.
For my sweet 16 party, my parents knew I loved The Book of Mormon so they had Andrew Rannells, who was one of the leads in the show, come and perform. It was literally the best moment of my life.
You were named after the kooky octogenarian in the film Harold and Maude.
Yes. As a joke, my dad started calling me Maude when my mom was pregnant, and it stuck. I do love that movie.
Do you ever sing any of the Cat Stevens songs from that film when you do karaoke?
No. I sing “The Confrontation” from Les Misérables. I love musical theater. The first album I really listened to was Hairspray, and the first thing I auditioned for was Grease. I was Jan, one of the Pink Ladies. I got to sing in a musical, and I had never been happier.
Apatow wears a Dior jacket, top, and pants; Cartier earrings, necklace, and ring.
I had not listened to the Dirty John podcast, but I heard friends talking about it obsessively. Two days later, my agent asked me, “Have you heard of Dirty John?” That was exciting to me: I love things that are creating conversation in the culture.
Your character, Debra, is both intriguing and infuriating.
I never judge my characters. I looked at playing Debra as almost a women’s studies project. She was self-made and had raised a family by herself, but she had this Achilles’ heel: She needed to have a man in her life. As horrible as it got for Debra, she thought she could handle and change that man. As the show goes on, she becomes more and more aware. We reflected that awakening in her clothing: In the beginning, she wears pink and light colors. And as the situation with John becomes more and more extreme, we go darker. By the end, she’s in black.
You were in a happier marriage on Friday Night Lights.
Kyle Chandler [who played Coach Taylor, her character’s husband] and I really fought for that marriage. Right from the beginning, we said to the writers, “Don’t make one of us go and have an affair.” I think the audience really appreciated that.
Growing up, who did you have a crush on?
Tom Selleck in Magnum, P.I. The short shorts. The floral shirts. He was a sexual fantasy. I actually auditioned to play his wife in something. I remember thinking, No, Tom Selleck was a grown-up when I was a little girl. So that didn’t happen.
Britton wears a Stella McCartney shirt; Loro Piana skirt; Bulgari earrings; Tiffany & Co. wrap bracelet worn as necklace; Cartier ring; Tom Ford belt; Balenciaga shoes.
In The Loudest Voice, which is about Roger Ailes and Fox News, I play Laurie Luhn, who was a booker for the shows. To play her, we worked with very orange makeup and a look that was curated by Roger Ailes: the tight, the bright, the overly revealing. And legs. Lots of legs. There were no desks at Fox News, because with a desk, I suspect, you could get up to a lot of trouble underneath.
Do you have a secret skill?
I’m good with animals. When I was young, I wanted to live among animals. I liked sloths the best: That’s the animal I aspire to be like. A sloth just owns it. There’s great power in stillness.
Wallis wears an Isabel Marant top; Hermès skirt; Dior belt; Tiffany & Co. bracelet.
I am from Omaha, Nebraska, and I wanted to move to New York since the third grade. I had never been to New York, but I knew all about the city from watching television. I just knew New York was where I belonged. Later, I learned that most of those New York City shows like Friends and Seinfeld were filmed in Los Angeles. That was a bit of a mind fuck.
Was Girls your first part outside of theater?
No. I had another job playing a headless stripper in Sex and the City 2. It was just me in a Speedo grinding with another guy. On Girls, I played the ex-boyfriend who turned out to be gay and then became Hannah’s [Lena Dunham] best friend. My first nude scene was in season two. Suddenly, I would show up to work and there would just be a pair of underwear on a hanger. I was oddly comfortable with it.
Growing up, who did you have a crush on?
Maxwell Caulfield from Grease 2. He played Michael Carrington. He also played Miles Colby on Dynasty. Every day of my life is a hair tribute to Maxwell Caulfield.
Rannells wears a Dior Men coat and pants; Brioni turtleneck; Givenchy boots.
When I first read the script for You, I was not attracted to Joe, my character. I was like, “Oof—I don’t know.” He’s a villain, and yet he’s also an antihero. He’s seductive, but he’s a murderer. It’s fascinating that people—especially women—are drawn to this guy. The greatest challenge I have is not judging him. I don’t ever think of him as a killer. To him, murder is simply a means to an end.
Did you always want to act?
At the age of eight, I was in The Music Man, and I told my parents, “I want to do this for the rest of my life.” When I was 12, my mom and I went to L.A. and I started working immediately.
Was your first kiss on camera?
No, but starting out so young, you’re always having to display sexuality before you’ve had those experiences. For You, I was tied up in bondage rope for the first and, so far, only time in my life. Look [shows his wrists], I still have rope burn. First time, and it’s on camera.
Badgley wears an Alexander McQueen coat; Boss T-shirt; Jil Sander pants; Sophie Buhai bracelet.
My big childhood claim to mediocre fame is Pee-wee’s Playhouse. I played Opal on that show when I was around 6 years old. I’d already done a bunch of commercials, and they didn’t all air. You want the ads to get on the air if you want to get your imaginary Lamborghini. Sadly, I didn’t get the Lambo.
You always had a smoky voice.
Yes, but thanks to a lifetime of smoking cigarettes—which they recently discovered are actually good for you—my voice has become thicker and deeper over the years.
In Russian Doll, you are asking existential questions.
I am curious about what it means to have a life. I imagined being at death’s door, looking back and asking, “What happened here?” I also recognize that it’s a nice thing to move from a disconnected life to a more connected one.
Who is your cinematic crush?
Recently, I watched Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises, and Mamma mia! My boyfriend, Fred Armisen, was there. I took screen grabs of Viggo’s nude fight scene and told Fred the stills were for research. Usually, when I play this game, I think it’s best to pick dead people—to say, like, “Isn’t Peter Falk a babe on Columbo?” I’m also very disappointed to discover that Idris Elba and I did not get married. I think many women felt the same way.
Lyonne wears a Marni dress; Tiffany & Co. wrap bracelet worn as necklace, and bracelet.
Tell me about your character on Russian Doll.
In Russian Doll, I play a character called Nadia Vulvokov. I’ve always had this fantasy of playing a Philip Marlowe type. Specifically Elliott Gould’s Philip Marlowe in Robert Altman’s Long Goodbye as opposed to Jack Nicholson’s in Polanski’s Chinatown. Or a Humphrey Bogart Philip Marlowe. But the Elliott Gould Philip Marlowe always really appealed to me. He was a mumbler and he had a missing cat.
What she’s going through externally is really different than what she’s going through internally.
Over the years I’ve become increasingly curious about our universal existential quandary that is sort of a human problem. On the first day of the writer’s room I came in with Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, which is a great work. He’s a Holocaust survivor who was sort of trying to figure out what it’s all about. How to reconcile the aftermath of seeing such vivid and harrowing ongoing inconceivable injustice and horror. I think that I was sort of curious about that. What does it mean to have a life?
So the goal with Russian Doll and with Nadia was to find a way to sort of speak about that in a way that also felt exciting. I had always been so interested in Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz, and that sort of version of an examination from a hospital bed. Like on death’s door, sort of looking back and saying, “What happened here?” The exercise of Russian Doll was also to create a dialogue with the audience around embracing and losing shame around inner brokenness. And recognizing that it’s a nice thing to move from a disconnected life to a more connected one where we sort of become participating members of this trip that we’re on. Because what else are we going to do about it?
How long did it take you to write it?
Russian Doll was something I’d been imagining in various permutations for the better part of a decade. I’d written scenes here and there, and various stabs of it. Amy Poehler and I had done a different show that failed and never made it to the air at NBC, where I played also a character called Nadia. I always name my characters Nadia after Nadia Comaneci, my favorite gymnast. When that show did not happen, Amy turned to me and at that point we were sort of proper allies. She was like, “What’s a show that we’d really want to make? What’s that thing we really want to say? Leaving aside all sense of network or if somebody is going to like it or pick it up or whatever.” We came up with this idea that was sort of choose your own adventure, grounded in a sort of hollow man syndrome of what does it mean to go to the same party ala sort of a Boon Wells kind of exterminating angel. She named it Russian Doll.
What was your favorite Halloween costume?
Once in the 90’s, I found a brown wig, and said I was Rose McGowan throughout the night. I was just wearing jeans and a leather motorcycle jacket. And I kept this brown wig in my back pocket, I threw it on and said, “I’m Rose McGowan.”
Where was your first kiss?
It was actually on the set of Dennis the Menace, starring Walter Matthau and Joan Plowright. And Christopher Lloyd. It was with Devin Ratray, who is in Russian Doll in the second episode at the cash register. He’s also the big brother in Home Alone. I played Dennis the Menace’s babysitter. He came over for a visit, we made out. I had such a big crush on him, and we kissed on screen. I do think it’s weird now, being a parent of six children who I’ve never met or seen. I do think that’s its strange to put a child in showbiz and then be like, “Now go make out with someone.”
Who is your cinematic crush?
I’ll tell you this, and my boyfriend, Fred Armisen was there, and so I feel like it’s okay. I do have a crush on him. Fred, I have a crush on, but I’m also actively acting on that crush on a daily basis. And so I say that all as a long way of saying that recently we watched Viggo Mortensen together in Eastern Promises and mama mia! That sort of scene. I mean. And I sat there with Freddie and I took screen grabs and I told him that they were for research. I was researching a future picture I have not yet written. Again, I love my boyfriend, but Viggo in the Eastern Promises—really he looks good in and out of his clothes. And that’s something I really admire about his work in the movie. Usually when I play this game, I think it’s best to play it with dead people, to say like, “Oh, isn’t Peter Falk a babe?” Because it’s an easier game for people to accept. And yet, here we are. I was also very disappointed to discover that Idris Elba and I did not get married. It was a shock to my system, and I think many women felt the same.
I have so many crushes. The dragons on Game of Thrones. I would sleep with those dragons. I would sleep with the Night King, I would sleep with a good, healthy number of zombies; Dracula, Nosferatu, Gary Oldman as Dracula. That’s all my type, yes. I was working on an Off Broadway play at the time, and Conleth Hill who plays the eunuch on Game of Thrones, was in my Off Broadway bowling league and I had a major crush on him.
What about Jon Snow?
No, that’s not my trip. I like a weird scene.
How about Khal Drago?
Yes, but I like someone that’s a little more verbal. Also, definitely a little bit attracted to Lisa Bonet. So whatever they have going on there, I find a little bit sexy. Sign me up. Even just to hang out and generally be in the room. But if a Hieronymus bosch-type scene happens to take place, I would definitely love to be a witness. I would not complain. Maybe I would take photos, and look at them later, in private times. I would feed them both grapes in an instant if that’s what they were into.