Talking NY Moments With Natasha Lyonne
The East Village is Natasha Lyonne’s neighborhood. It is the backdrop to her own personal New York story, and now in a somewhat surreal twist, the setting for her darkly funny and philosophically poignant show Russian Doll, which Lyonne not only co-created, wrote, and directed but also stars in as Nadia, the story’s protagonist. With the second season in the works, the native New Yorker reflects on the making of the show, her close-knit friendship with Chloë Sevigny, the New York moment she’ll never forget, and more.
You based Russian Doll in the East Village; what does the neighborhood mean to you? Why did you feel it was the right setting for the series?
Natasha Lyonne: I love the East Village. I like that you can walk around in your pajamas with dirty hair and somehow here it’s a look. I’ve spent a lot of years living here so it’s a very autobiographical location. The very first draft of Russian Doll took place more literally at the Christodora, where I used to live, but even so, we kept all that neighborhood [in the series]. Tompkins Square Park is a place I would walk through every day with my dog who became Oatmeal [the cat in Russian Doll]. The East Village is my area, and now it’s become very surreal. Now, when I go by Odessa, it’s actually uncomfortable because I directed television that takes place there, even the way the door swings open has become very surreal.
In the process of creating Russian Doll, were there any films or series set in New York that were a source of inspiration for the show?
NL: We would talk about After Hours, the Scorsese movie, a good deal. Another movie that is not a New York film but helped paint a picture was Ladies and Gentleman, The Fabulous Stains. Nadia’s character is very much based on Elliot Gould’s portrayal of Philip Marlowe in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye.
The soundtrack is wonderfully eclectic with this haunting, driving tone; how involved were you in the track selection and what was the mindset behind the music you chose to feature?
NL: Basically, I’ve been compiling a series of playlists that I would call “Dead” or “Russian Doll,” “RD,” or “Tonight’s The Night” after the various incarnations of Russian Doll over the years, so pretty much everything you’re hearing are hand-selected songs. There is a scene in the second episode that I wrote with Amy Poehler, where Nadia decides that there is no way out—in a way, it’s the most no-exit moment of the show—and it was always connected even in the script to the Anika song “I Go to Sleep,” which is a Pretenders cover.
Mae West’s “My New Year’s Resolution,” which features later in the script, has always been one of my favorite songs. I chose Harry Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up” because I’ve always been a fan of his, but that documentary on him [“Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)?] really hit home for me and connects to a sort of lineage of darkness. And then the song in the finale, “Shallow Tears,” is my friend Shannon Funchess’s band, Light Asylum. I knew I really wanted to get her in the show. I actually met her through my friend Lizzi Bougatsos of Gang Gang Dance who kind of pops up for a minute in the finale episode as one of the gutter punks in Tompkins Square Park. Gang Gang Dance is also in the show at the end of episode five.
John Maus is another person that I’m really obsessed with….Pussy Riot I wanted to get in there. I woke up one day and was like holy shit, it’s a Russian band, and so I reached out to Kim Gordon and Chloë Sevigny to connect me with them, and they were generous enough to give the song “Organs.” The Love track, “Alone Again Or,” that plays at the end of the series has also been one of my alarm clock songs now for the past, like, three years; I’ve just always loved that song and the lyrics in it as well—“I heard a funny thing that I could be in love with almost anyone”—I think are really on theme for Russian Doll. Ariel Pink is somebody that I know and I like his music a lot, so in general, there’s an awful lot of kind of keeping it in the family that’s happening out of the show’s playlist.
Your friendship with Chloë Sevigny dates back many years. How did you meet?
NL: Chloë and I have been more like sisters really than friends because of the amount of decades that we’ve moved through together….There’s something about Chloë’s skin and hair; her scent is my calm space—she’s as close as I have in real life to family. I don’t remember the first time I met Chloë, she’s just always been there.
Why did you feel Chloë was the right person to play your mother in Russian Doll?
NL: Having Chloë playact my mother was, I think, a safe way for me to be that revealing and that vulnerable around my real and problematic mother….There was this kind of safety in being able to watch her act out this psychodrama: I chose the person that I trust the most in the world and that is the closest to what I have as a family member to act out the trauma of my childhood in a way that I would be able to process because it was once removed and on film….I think she did such a beautiful job.
Do you have an all-time favorite New York film or show?
NL: The movie that I chose to screen at the Roxy Cinema was another Scorsese movie, The King of Comedy. That’s another one that I would say is always an influence, not directly on Russian Doll or anything, but certainly a great New York movie. Once Upon A Time in America is also one of my all-time favorites. I lie and say that I’m related to [director] Sergio Leone, even though our names are spelled differently so that it seems like I have some sort of nepotistic connection to Hollywood. Also, Burt Young is in Once Upon a Time in America, so it was very satisfying for me to get to direct him in Russian Doll.
If you could choose one person to show you “their New York City” who would it be and why?
NL: Spike Lee.
What are your favorite NYC restaurants? What do you order there?
NL: Chloë once took me to that Oyster Bar in Grand Central. I don’t know that I would ever put in the effort myself of going there but I’m glad that she took me. I’m big on sushi. In the ’90s, I used to really love going to Angel’s Share in Saint Marks because they had the little bar and you’d go up the stairs. The older I get the more I’m like, well this isn’t sushi this is just fried Japanese food, so now I’ve yet to find a place that has that vibe that I’m after. I can only find it at places that are kind of douchey so I won’t name them—I eat at them, but I’m ashamed. I know a lot of lame sushi places with good sushi and I know a lot of cool Japanese restaurants with bad sushi. As a New Yorker, send help.
What are some of your under-the-radar must-do recommendations for NYC visitors?
NL: I always take everyone to the Film Forum because it’s my favorite place. I don’t think it’s particularly under the radar. Film Forum is one of the most important places in New York City. Go there, see a feature and stay and see a quadruple feature. Live your life.
What music are you listening to these days?
NL: Shannon Funchess and Light Asylum I really like; I like Solange, I love Gang Gang Dance, I love John Maus, I like Old Dirty Bastard, and The Wu-Tang Clan.
What would you consider your personal soundtrack to NYC?
NL: Biggie Smalls.
Who or what has inspired you recently?
NL: The Lower Eastside Girls Club. I recently hosted an event for them. They’re an incredible foundation and they also have this amazing Planetarium that I like to sit in and look at. I find what’s happening over there very inspiring. Jenny Dembrow who runs it is a very inspiring figure to me who is really doing something meaningful with her life.
When you think of NYC, are there any particular emotions or memories that come to mind?
NL: Reading Lou Reed’s Coney Island Baby at his memorial on a rainy day at Lincoln Center was a very heavy New York moment for me.
WORDS Edwina Hagon
PHOTOGRAPHY Celeste Sloman