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.
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.