“I’m not like, ‘Fuck it, who cares?’” says Natasha Lyonne. “I’m more like, ‘Fuck it, let’s burn it down. Come on!’ I have big ‘Fuck it, why not really go for it? What else are we doing?’ energy.”
Photo: JJ Geiger

A Russian doll and ballplayer walk into a theater. Pretty soon, one has opened up and the other has knocked the interview out of the park. At Vulture Festival this year, Natasha Lyonne sat down to be interviewed by her friend Abbi Jacobson. Lyonne, whose career has spanned more than three decades, is starring in the upcoming TV series Poker Face, Rian Johnson’s new detective procedural, and is coming off of the second season of Russian Doll. Jacobson recently developed and starred in a series adaptation of the 1992 movie A League of Their Own, following the women of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, in which she centered the players’ queerness. Together, Lyonne and Jacobson discussed the thrills of writing, directing, and producing their own work — which, for Lyonne, is a particularly transformative experience. “I get very Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin,” she says. “I start moving differently.”

Abbi Jacobson: I have a notebook with notes, because I get very nervous. But mostly it just says, “Remember, have fun with Natasha!”
Natasha Lyonne: Let me ask you a question. Do you resent when people walk up to you and say, “Are you having fun?” Do people ever do that to you?

How about when someone’s like, “Aren’t you having so much fun?”
It’s super-weird! Who here is having fun in their life? [Crowd cheers.] Okay, I guess that’s why. The other one that really stresses me out is “How are you?” You don’t need to know all that! That’s a crazy fucking question! It’s as crazy as everyone having children! I mean, “How are you?” “In a general sense, going kind of well. We’re gonna die, so it seems hectic that we’re this stressed out.” Anyway, you have a notebook.

I do have a notebook. We just got yanked into a bunch of rooms backstage — which is why we’re late. I’m just gonna say: It wasn’t us. But it did remind me how we met. We met at this comedy show in New York. Kevin Corrigan’s comedy show in …?
No sense. Could have been ’97. Like, literally! My grasp on spacetime is low.

I think it was 2014.
Okay. So a decade ago.

It was almost a decade ago. Not quite 2024, but we’re close.
Well, I feel like I’ve sort of known you forever and will know you always.

That’s a really nice thing. I am really attempting to segue into a thing, but I just love that you said that.
Abbi and Ilana were writing Broad City in the same offices I was writing Russian Doll.

We had the same production company: Amy Poehler’s Paper Kite Productions.  
So after this Kevin Corrigan special, we would see each other at work a lot. I remember I was writing the first season, and you guys were in what season?

We might have been in season five. Four or five.
There was a lot of Russian Doll co-creator Leslye Headland and I trying to grab you guys, throw you in an edit bay, and be like, “So how does this go? What’s this company like? How does this work?”

But when we first met, you were on Orange Is the New Black. I have known your work forever and have been such an admirer. You were mostly an actor, but with Russian Doll, you are at the helm. You’re wearing all the hats — you’re writing it, you’re showrunning it, you’re producing it. Did you direct in season one too?
Season one, I only directed the finale. Then in season two, I directed about half of it.

At the beginning of Russian Doll, was that a conversation you were having with Amy?
It’s so crazy. I’m sure there’s people in this room that are working on their shows and stuff. But that shit takes so long. It breaks your spirit. It really makes you think, This is never gonna happen. The truth of Russian Doll was, like, it took maybe five years to get that first season on the air. Of course, in back of that is a whole lifetime of cataloguing information and being a person. Nothing is wasted. But you constantly feel a very common and real artistic feeling, like, “I’m missing this moment. I’m ready now.” But life is busy doing its own thing. It’s almost like it’s breaking you down to be ready for when the real heat is going to hit. You’ve got to be so rooted in your personhood.

It’s such a personal thing that you’re making.
I’m sure you feel the same way with A League of Their Own. You’re doing a similar thing, where you’re the creator and the star, and you’re doing all the jobs, you’re wearing all the hats. There’s just so many weird little divots and tangents that it takes to actually get something on the air. There’s the emotional weight of that.

And I don’t mean to be gendered about it, because it’s a bummer that we’re still talking about it, but there is a sense of Gosh, how does she do it all? If you look back, certainly, at like the ’70s or something, there’s no shortage of male auteurs who had been writing, directing, producing, and starring in their own stuff since time immemorial. Charlie Chaplin. Buster Keaton. They’re like, “I have a vision for this thing, and now I’m gonna see it through top to bottom. Then I’ll be in the editing room and the marketing meetings. Then I’ll talk about it, because I really made it.” It’s almost like the real question is How could you do it any other way?

Do you feel that way moving forward? Like, I agree. I can’t not be in the marketing meeting. But do you feel like you can go do another project where you’re not as on top of all the things? You are doing a new show, Poker Face, and you produced that.
I love what you make. [Turns to the audience.] If you go to Abbi’s house, it’s like, you don’t even know a tenth of the actual artist she is. You’re like, Oh yeah, she’s literally this motherfucker. [Turns back to Jacobson.] So if you say, “Hey, I kind of had this idea, and I was thinking about us, and maybe we should do this thing, but I’m writing it and everything. I just want you to play this part,” I’d be like, Oh my God, I’m making something with Abbi. You know what I mean? Even though your drafts of the scripts, your edits, and the marketing meeting are none of my business, I can’t wait to be of service to your vision. It’s a little bit like being a session musician, acting. I want to help you play your song.

The thing with Rian Johnson and I and this new show we have coming out called Poker Face in January — I didn’t really know him. I know his wife, Karina Longworth, who I’m very fanned out on. She’s brilliant. I was sort of flattered that this major auteur who I love wanted to actually make something with me. But ultimately, it is very much his. You know, I have a production company with Maya Rudolph called Animal Pictures, and we produce the show, so of course, I’m watching cuts and reading drafts, and I write and direct an episode of it and stuff. But Russian Doll is my baby in this very different way.

The beauty of the thing is, like, I do often stop and think, Holy shit, this is really fucking happening. It took 35 years to become somehow in the Zeitgeist, so I’m keenly aware and deeply moved that it finally happened. I’m 43, so it’s a weird kind of delay. But anyway, the point being that I wouldn’t want to be doing just Russian Doll at that intensity level year after year. And to answer your earlier question, Amy and I made this other show prior to this called Old Soul.

I remember this. I saw Old Soul.
You saw it?

Yeah, I saw Old Soul. 
What do you mean?

I think Amy let me see it.
Wild! Greta Lee was in it.

Great!
It’s not bad, that show!

And Nick.
Nick Thune is in it. It was an NBC-sitcom version of Russian Doll. I play Nadia, and Greta’s my roommate. And Ruth, who’s played by Elizabeth Ashley in Russian Doll, is played by Ellen Burstyn. David Wain directed it. Marla Gibbs is in it. Fred Willard. But it was an NBC sitcom that failed. After that, Amy and I were sitting in the car being like, “Oh shit. Shouldn’t we do something for cable, where we say whatever the hell we want?” So the failure set us up for what would become this thing. Then we brought Leslye in the mix, and she’s so brilliant, and it really just started to take shape.

I’m so happy that Old Soul didn’t work out, because Russian Doll is so much more you. Like, you’re such a cinephile. For your 40th birthday, you rented out a theater and invited friends to come watch a film. What was it? It was like a Nazi German. Maybe it was Mussolini?
It wasn’t Mussolini, baby. It was Lina Wertmüller’s Seven Beauties, the first female director to be nominated for an Oscar. Or maybe she even won. Anyway, they just gave her an honorary Oscar. Lina Wertmüller, for those who don’t know — I’m mansplaining — she was Fellini’s No. 2 for a long time and would help find all those weird little Fellini faces and so on. She wore little white sunglasses, and she directed a ton of great movies — this being sort of the big one.

Listen, it’s a beautiful film. It’s just so Natasha to ask people to come celebrate her 40th birthday and it’s a three-hour Mussolini black-and-white film that’s kind of slow to get into.
It’s anti-Mussolini, to be clear. I’m not a monster!

You were talking about collecting moments in your life that have led up to the creation of Russian Doll. And it’s not that Old Soul doesn’t have this in there, but Russian Doll is so filmic. Did it feel like, finally, you’re infusing you and all those experiences into this thing?
So Seven Beauties was in L.A. See now, what you guys didn’t realize at the time was in New York …

I saw the invite to the New York version of the party, which was The King of Comedy
Yes. I read the room. I said, “Seems like people don’t react well to foreign films at 40th-birthday parties!” So in New York, I screened The King of Comedy, and it was a big hit. They loved it. Really, I was showing the two sides of what Russian Doll season two was going to be. It was going to be like ’80s New York (The King of Comedy), then we were going to go full Lina Wertmüller Seven Beauties. I was really just doing research with friends.

I wanted to talk more about season two, because it feels a little bit like an anthology. Same characters, but you dive so much deeper. It feels very personal in a deeper, richer, and more exploratory way than season one.
I was very moved that season one was well-received, and some of you may know my story. I was a real drug addict, then I cleaned up my act. In many ways, season one was the question that I had then, which was How do I stop dying? That was really the thesis, and in that sense, it was deeply personal. Then you have, of course, Alan having his own version from a very different side. He’s dying on the inside softly, but a lot of people forget that Nadia’s first death is getting hit by a taxi, and his is killing himself. When we went into the writers’ room this year, we went, “Oh shit, that’s a big thing!” This idea that a way out of self-destruction is human connection and buying into the idea of I’m gonna get on this ride, even though it’s uncomfortable to be a person.

Right, that’s so early and you forget that.
In season two, it’s in the title: Russian Doll. It’s begging for a deeper question. It was really like, “Now that I’ve stopped dying, how do I go about living?” People will talk about life when you’re a wild thing — you’re throwing everything in the backseat of your car, and you’re driving 100 mph. Then you stop getting high, you slam on the brakes, and it all comes crashing forward. It’s like, well, now I gotta deal with some hectic shit for real. What is the story I think I know about who I think I am? And what if it’s not true, or what if I developed a wider sense of empathy around what I think my experience of my life is and the deficits I think that I have as a person? What if I had a window to be able to resee those? Would I be able to look in the mirror? Maybe I would be able to see that person just a little bit differently. Maybe I’d be able to have a little bit of peace of mind, such that I would be able to start having a life.

It’s so clear that you are expressing your own experience of being a person, and I’m feeling your expression and taking what I need.
It felt like there’s so much stuff Russian Doll is organically kicking up about untreated mental illness. For me, I had so much shame around this weight of a mom who had untreated mental illness, and I was just like, “What a fucking bummer. You’re telling me I’m gonna have to carry that around my whole life?” Hopefully in removing the veil, Russian Doll is unloading some of that shame for me personally and hopefully for somebody else. I very badly wanted to take the success of the first season to communicate with a few people who needed it and say, “Hey, a lot of us have that stuff, and it’s okay to talk about this shit freely.”

I feel like that’s something we really have in common. I feel like your MO going into League is Okay, but are we not going to tell the story? The actual story of this thing? It’s 2024. No! It’s 2022. Let’s not get into it! Let’s just be here now, in this moment, on January 3, 2024. But isn’t that a little bit how you felt too? Like, “Fuck it, why not?”

Some might think from the black clothing that Natasha has a “fuck it” mentality. But I think the work that you do is actually the exact opposite. There’s such care. Like, fuck what? I like thinking about you being like, “Fuck the notes you have, I’m gonna make what I wanna make!” Fuck the mainstream, formulaic version of a half-hour comedy, you’re gonna make exactly the kind of artful, a little bit more abstract version of a half-hour comedy that you want. Does that feel more right?
Yeah, it does. I hadn’t really thought of it that way, but it’s true. I’m not like, “Fuck it, who cares?” I’m more like, “Fuck it, let’s burn it down. Come on!” I have big “Fuck it, why not really go for it? What else are we doing?” energy.

I know you’ve directed a ton of TV. You did Shrill. You’ve done Awkwafina. I tried to get you to do League
You did.

I just know you throw yourself into directing. You have such a clear vision as an artist.
I do love it. I love it the most. It fits like a glove, and it’s really the thing that makes me want to get old. I want to be like shriveled Lena Wertmüller with white glasses being like, “Yeah, now you stand over there.” And in Italian.

You’re remaking that movie, right?
I am. I’m making a shot-for-shot remake of Seven Beauties. That thing we all need!

But anyway, I really love directing. On Russian Doll season one, the directors were Leslye Headland (who’s a brilliant writer-director), Jamie Babbit (who directed the pilot of A League of Their Own and who I worked with on But I’m a Cheerleader), and me. It was just us three. I knew Leslye and Jamie so deeply that it was very safe and beautiful. Then in season two, the only other director was Alex Buono, who you guys know as the guy who co-created Documentary Now! He was the cinematographer at SNL for a long time, so I really knew him from Fred Armisen and that whole family. The first time I was ever able to visually think an idea all the way to the end was because Alex wasn’t afraid of any sort of budget restrictions. It was really moving for me.

On Poker Face, I got to direct Nick Nolte. I mean, when you’re just at the monitor watching fucking Nick Nolte and going, Holy fuck, wow. Rian works a lot with a zoom gun, so he had sort of established the look in directing the pilot of Poker Face. You know when they talk about an Altman zoom? Like, a slow zoom in a lot of ’70s movies. Or if you think about Spielberg. Your friend Spielberg! He directed the pilot of Columbo.

I think he’s here tonight.
What a guy. We love your pictures! Can’t wait for The Fabelmans!

Anyway, there’s that long shot out the window in the pilot of Columbo, and they’re looking down on the street, and the car goes by, and they’re getting closer and closer. It’s very moody. As a director, there’s a zoom lens on the camera, this gun, and you’re slowly moving it. Imagine, here is Nick Nolte, and I’m watching the monitor, and I’m getting tighter and tighter. It’s fun as shit! I was so hot for this zoom gun! If I just had Nick Nolte and a zoom gun, that’d be my personal heaven!

When I’m directing and I’m in it, I get very Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin. I start moving differently. I’m over here with the monitor, and we’re fixing this, and we’re talking. I’m like, “The budget! Everybody shut up!” You’re fully plugged into the matrix at that point. When you’re doing that many things, you’re like, “I’ve never been so awake!” And I’m usually like Garfield. Ideally, I would sleep 19 hours a day and just look at cats. I’m fine to drop out of society for years at a time. But when you’re doing that much, it’s very much like you have tentacles.

Besides directing, what are you most excited about right now?
I recently decided I’m a surfer. I think my old personality sucked. The person you’re seeing tonight is not bad, and it’s because I’m a surfer now! Prior to this, I was too stressed out. I was clinging too tight. Now I’m reading this new Stephen Hawking book on the beach, surfing. I got up three times. I’m very excited to be that new person. I’m relieved the old person is dead and buried!

That sounds pretty incredible.
Well, you know, I wouldn’t say I’m fully pro yet.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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By OngkyF