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Natasha Lyonne On Being A 'Tough Guy' And Finding Herself Inside 'Russian Doll'


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The Emmy Awards are coming up soon - Sunday, September 22. This week we're featuring interviews with some of the nominees. Our first interview today is with Natasha Lyonne, who's nominated in two categories - Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series and Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series. Both are for her work on the Netflix series "Russian Doll," which she co-created.

When the series begins, she's at a party for her 36th birthday, drinking and smoking cocaine-laced marijuana. A little later in the episode, she leaves the party. And while crossing the street, she's hit by a taxi and killed. But then she finds herself back at the party. And a few minutes later, she dies again. Here she is describing the situation to a family friend who's a therapist.


NATASHA LYONNE: (As Nadia Vulvokov) Last night I died.

ELIZABETH ASHLEY: (As Ruth Brenner) What do you mean?

LYONNE: (As Nadia Vulvokov) Last night was my birthday.

ASHLEY: (As Ruth Brenner) Correct.

LYONNE: (As Nadia Vulvokov) All right. I went to Maxine's. We got into a fight. I tried to leave. I fell down the stairs. I broke my neck. And I died.

ASHLEY: (As Ruth Brenner) OK.

LYONNE: (As Nadia Vulvokov) OK. So then I'm back at the party. I try to leave, you know, fall down the stairs, break my neck again - right? So I died, I died, I died, I died - that's four times. Also - also, my cat just literally disappeared.

GROSS: As we'll soon hear, the idea of dying and coming back to life has personal resonance for Lyonne. She started acting as a child. When she was 6, she was a recurring character on "Pee-wee's Playhouse." She was the narrator in Woody Allen's "Everybody Says I Love You." She co-starred in "American Pie" and starred in "But I'm A Cheerleader" and the "Slums Of Beverly Hills." In 2014, she received her first Emmy nomination for her role as Nicky Nichols in "Orange Is The New Black."


GROSS: Natasha Lyonne, welcome to FRESH AIR.

LYONNE: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: We've all had experiences that nearly killed us - the car crash that was narrowly avoided, the stairs we almost fell down. I'm sure you experienced those. But you probably also experienced the kind of near-death from drugs and being hospitalized, and I'm wondering how that fed the premise of the show.

LYONNE: Yeah. You know, I mean, certainly my very real experiences wildly informed the things that felt topical to me, you know, that felt very tangible, that might otherwise feel esoteric or out of reach, kind of these questions about life and death. And these questions and riddles, I guess, consume me and, ultimately, also the things I find funniest because they're so dark.

GROSS: I'm wondering if you gave certain of your own characteristics, your personality traits, to the character or perhaps certain characteristics that you've outgrown. For example, like, your character is determined not to have connections to other people. She doesn't want to be in a committed relationship until she's in her 60s and preparing for a time when she'll need someone to help take care of her. She sees relationships as impinging on her freedom and pushes people away. Did you go through that kind of phase yourself and give those characteristics to the character?

LYONNE: You know, partially. I think that's definitely a philosophy that I have almost more as a feminist stance of sort of, who are you to determine my timeline? You know, like, why is that legal? I mean, my father was a boxing promoter. His big dream was - he wanted to be like a Don King figure and bring Mike Tyson to the Tel Aviv Hilton when we lived in Israel.

I grew up with a lot of boxing in my life, a lot of these kind of tough guy sort of Pacino and DeNiro figures. And the thing I would keep noticing in them is that they weren't limited by time or this need to reproduce that society kind of puts on as the woman's burden. Oh, now I'm a worthy member of the species because, look, I've got a partner. I've got my plus-one who can get me in the room. From Adam's rib, here I come.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LYONNE: You know, it was a sort of [expletive]-all-that mentality.

GROSS: So did you want to be a tough guy when you were growing up?

LYONNE: I don't know that that's really changed, Terry...

GROSS: (Laughter).

LYONNE: You know...

GROSS: Seriously, did you...

LYONNE: ...Go about it a little less self-destructive...

GROSS: Yes. Right.

LYONNE: ...Now I'm just a tough guy at all you guys, you know...

GROSS: (Laughter).

LYONNE: ...Not you, of course, because you're a giant...

GROSS: Not me, of course. Right.

LYONNE: ...But, yeah. I think - yeah, for a long time I think I thought being a tough guy meant being tough at oneself. Like, how much can I take? And now I think I see it, you know, quite differently.

GROSS: Yeah. How much can I take is really modeled on a boxing model, right?

LYONNE: A little bit. And I think it's, you know - deeper than that, I think I'm sort of, you know - my lineage is dark survivors. I mean, I come from real Auschwitz stock. So, you know, Hitler was a big player in my childhood, and it was this kind of, you know, mentality of surviving. And that, you know, no matter what sort of horrors life throws your way, you know, that was something that had been endured by my grandmother and my grandfather. And, you know, therefore it was kind of the litmus test of, you know, a human experience.

GROSS: So you were preparing to be the tough guy because your father was the boxer. And, like, enduring in the ring and taking it was part of the ethic you were exposed to, but also the larger ethic of, like, you have to survive on your instincts to survive the Holocaust. Most people die. But, you know, maybe you can survive. And, you know, it's a dangerous time, it always will be because you're Jewish. Sounds like a very frightening environment to...

LYONNE: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...Grow up in where you're always, like, bracing yourself for something horrible to happen...

LYONNE: Well, you know...

GROSS: ...A physical blow or just, you know, people, like, finding out who you are and killing you...

LYONNE: Terry, the headline is everything's fine now. You know what I mean? People love "Russian Doll," so it's - the good days are upon us. You know, I certainly think it made me very curious to sort of, like, see what else was out there and kind of being like, oh, what's this? LSD. Let's see where this takes us.

GROSS: So when you took LSD, did you have, like, good trips in which you thought, like - that seemed like transcendent experiences? Or did you have, like, nightmarish...

LYONNE: You know, it's a funny thing to talk about because, from where I'm sitting now, I'm so glad for all of these experiences. You know, they really are the things that, you know, shaped a very specific point of view. My - I mean, I'd done enough sort of psychedelics that - I like to get very Jewish when I say that. I'd done enough...

GROSS: (Laughter).

LYONNE: ...Sort of psychedelics that - what can I tell you? Sometimes we're up and sometimes we're down, Terry. What can you do? You got a good batch of acid...

GROSS: (Laughter).

LYONNE: ...You get a bad batch of shrooms. Who knows where it takes you? That's what my rabbi always used to say.

GROSS: I'm sure. (Laughter). So you studied Talmud pretty seriously because...

LYONNE: Yeah...

GROSS: ...When you were young, you were in Israel...

LYONNE: Yeah. When I wasn't dropping acid...

GROSS: When you weren't dropping...

LYONNE: ...I was studying Talmud. That's what I always say.

GROSS: Well, maybe the two went together nicely for you?

LYONNE: Nobody knows.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LYONNE: I'm going to do the rest of it like this.

GROSS: OK. OK. So - I'm sorry, this is another addiction-related question. But...

LYONNE: Oh, sure. Why stop now?

GROSS: No. I've spoken to...


GROSS: ...I've spoken to people who had, like, opioid issues. You know, like, they had been addicted to opioids, but then they ended up, like, in the hospital or - with a broken arm or something. And they - the doctor wanted to put them on painkillers. And they, like, didn't want to go on painkillers because they knew they'd have a problem with it. So when you had, like, your heart surgery, did the doctor know that you had been addicted? And was it an issue yet? Were medical people thinking that way yet? Like, maybe you shouldn't be on a painkiller, but after heart surgery, you probably kind of have to be. Like, how is that handled?

LYONNE: Yeah. You know, interesting subjects. You know, my heart - that was from endocarditis, which is sort of a junky staph infection. And, you know, at the time they said, you know, you're going to have to deal with this kind of in the next 10 years. Like, essentially your valve is now sort of flipped and not operating properly, which can lead to terrible things, namely sudden death. It's not something you want to have happen. Luckily, the heart seems to be the thing they've really cracked, as far as mechanics go.

So when I eventually went in to deal with this kind of, you know, I had already been off of drugs and kind of living a very, you know, clean life for probably a decade. And that was part of what made it so additionally absurd and complex. You know, having to - in many ways, I think it would've been easier to kind of get open-heart surgery, you know, while OD'd or something against - sort of against my will, just, like, waking up and having, you know, some sort of zigzag staples down my sternum.

Instead, as it was, I had to sort of, like, walk in stone-cold sober. And I remember holding my best friend Chloe Sevigny's hand. You know, I'm not a big family person. I just kept being like, so I don't understand. You know, you don't get to - is there, like, a Valium involved here, or how does this work? And they'd made me quit smoking. So I think they were highly alarmed when I pulled out my vape cigarette as I laid down on the table.


LYONNE: And I was like, but this is terrifying. They were like, what are you doing?

GROSS: (Laughter).

LYONNE: And I was like, I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm nervous, you know. And, yeah, I made it through somehow. And then on the other side of it, yes, you know, I was heavily monitored. As you can tell by today, it doesn't seem like it's a big mystery or secret to anyone, my drug history. So it's not something I really have the option of lack of transparency around in this life. And that's A-OK because hopefully it's of use to someone somewhere. And it helps me to not have to, you know, lead a double life. It can be very forthcoming and honest and whatever.

So certainly, all these top surgeons and everybody knew about my opiate history. And it was heavily monitored. But, no, you can't really get through the recovery process of, you know, having your rib cage chain sawed open and stapled back together without the use of some pain medication. It's not something I would recommend recreationally to do - the opioids or the open heart surgery. Both are bad ideas, as far as if you have an option to not do those things, don't do them.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Natasha Lyonne. And she co-created, co-writes, she's directed episodes of and stars in the Netflix series "Russian Doll." She also is one of the stars of "Orange Is The New Black." We're going to take a short break and we'll be right back.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Natasha Lyonne, and she co-created and stars in the Netflix series "Russian Doll." And she's one of the stars of "Orange Is The New Black."


GROSS: You've mentioned that you lived with your parents in Israel a couple of years. You went to Yeshiva, which is a Hebrew school. And you studied Talmud there. So were your parents Orthodox?

LYONNE: Well, they were both really the black sheep of these highly Orthodox families. But even still, you know, they were pretty religious. And I would say that, later in life, you know, it became a real source of questioning. You know, I'd effectively felt like I'd been almost, you know, brainwashed or kind of, like, in a propaganda machine.

I remember when my parents left to - from New York to Israel in the '80s, I went there with this kind of fantasy of becoming, you know, the next Golda Meir. She was my big childhood icon. And, you know, the truth was we hadn't gone there for Zionism at all, it was actually tax evasion...

GROSS: (Laughter).

LYONNE: ...And so as - I began to sort of understand the world I was really in versus the one I was sort of being led to believe I was in. And, you know, I would see, like, the, you know, alcoholism and ego and self of run roughshod over my family life.

GROSS: When you were a child, your parents got you a deal with the Eileen Ford Modeling Agency. How old were you?

LYONNE: I'm trying to remember. I mean, I was probably 6, 7, 8 - whatever - 6. By 8, I think I was - no. By 6, maybe, I was on "Pee-wee's Playhouse." So maybe I was younger. Maybe I was 4.

GROSS: So it was before "Pee-wee's Playhouse" that...

LYONNE: I think so. I think I was - you know how it works, Terry. I was a model first, then I segued into acting. So...

GROSS: (Laughter).

LYONNE: ...And now, you know, I'm segueing - directing, writing, producing, what have you.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LYONNE: That's the life of a child model, baby.

GROSS: So what did you do when you were 4 and you were signed to - did you get commercials?

LYONNE: Yeah. I did so many commercials. I remember I did, like, 60 commercials, all of which I had a fantasy would go into my Lamborghini that I wanted to buy - my Lambo. But nope, they just went into the family money supply. So I did these commercials, one of them was Minute Maid. Mamma mia, the amount of concentrated cans of Minute Maid I drank would make you sick. I can still taste it.

You know, being a child actor is - altogether it makes no sense. You know, it really - like, I remember "Pee-wee's Playhouse" as a very positive experience because it was sort of closer to imagination land, you know. Just the idea of Chairry and Jambi and that there was, like, a dinosaur hole - the whole thing was sort of such a happy place to work.

But by and large, kind of, you know, cattle calls, and weird auditions and having, you know, a strange parent kind of bringing you around Manhattan, and then getting lost by yourself in Times Square trying to find your parents and not mess up the shot, even when you're exhausted. It's a very weird gig and one I was definitely sort of exhausted with by the time I was 16, I would say.

GROSS: So were you doing this 'cause your parents saw it as a payday?

LYONNE: Yeah. I think - you know, I think they had their own sort of grandiose fantasies. Which is, I think, something that I really rebelled against, you know, as I became a teenager with kind of self will. I sort of saw acting as my parents' dream, which is how I ended up going to Tisch to study film and not to study drama.

You know, I think I thought of that as something that was their fantasy, not my own. I think I always - you know, and again, at this point in my life, I'm so grateful for the experience because, you know, I love having a life in the arts, and it's my whole trip. So how lucky is that?

GROSS: I want to talk a little bit about "Orange Is The New Black" because we talked before about, you know, having an addiction problem earlier in your life. And in "Orange Is The New Black," which, for anyone who isn't aware, is set in a women's prison. And the main character in it is in the prison for having been involved with selling heroin. And your character in it is someone who's been addicted, and even in prison, she's involved in a scheme to sell heroin. But I'm wondering what it was like for you to get the part in the series and play somebody who'd been an addict and who was now in prison.

So how did you get the part? Did they know your past, and did that contribute at all to them thinking of you?

LYONNE: Definitely spent a few nights in holding cells. I got a call out of the blue, an offer to be in the finale of "Weeds," this two-part finale of Jenji Kohan's show, "Weeds." And I was so excited. In it, I was going to play Kevin Nealon's piece of the week, or something, and had a big orange spray tan, a little leopard dress, big frosted lips, teetering in heels. And while I was in that trailer, I got the script for "Orange Is The New Black." And it said Jenji's name one more time. So it felt like a bizarre coincidence that I can now see was no coincidence at all. I think that she already had Nicky Nichols and "Orange Is The New Black" in mind. So it was - sort of came that way.

You know, I auditioned for it, and all those things. I was so eager to be in it. And in my seven years at "Orange Is The New Black," you know, it was a huge gift, and kind of healing and a way back to life for me, that show.

GROSS: In what way was it a way back to life?

LYONNE: You know, it was just really a safe place. It was not shame-based. You know, when you talk about the sort of stereotype of femininity, it wasn't something that I felt like I had to, you know, hide a pockmark, or something. You know, you get those from picking at your skin under certain conditions. They make you look like Ray Liotta. Love Ray Liotta.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LYONNE: Anyway, you know, this was not a show where that was going to be a problem, a cast of women that were just all so exceptional in their own ways that it was sort of realizing that, you know, we'd been sold a false bill of goods through advertising and certainly a life in showbiz, where there was only space for a certain number of women. And those are your enemies. Here was the opposite. You know, it was the idea that these are your allies, this is your community.

GROSS: I want to get back to "Russian Doll," your new series on Netflix. So your character in "Russian Doll" says the line, I have the internal organs of a man twice my age.

LYONNE: Yes. Like that, for example, is a very me line, let's (laughter) say.

GROSS: You wrote that? I was wondering if you wrote that.


GROSS: Yeah.


GROSS: And I think it's so interesting that you said of a man twice my age, as opposed to the internal organs of a woman twice my age. So tell us about saying of a man.

LYONNE: Yeah. I mean, like, those speeches, those are really - those are the ones who are really - that about the one impractical application, or this, the - you know, I have the internal organs of a man twice my age. And let's smoke, you know, an Israeli joint laced with cocaine, just like the, you know, the Israelis do it. These are all sort of my mini zingers, you know, that I bring along for the ride. You've spent much time listing all the things my organs have been through.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LYONNE: And so I think we know where that line comes from. I think I often say it because, you know, I'm so cherubic in the face. And so it's funny that people tend to forget that there's nothing but, you know, blacked-out organs in here.

GROSS: (Laughter). Sorry for laughing.

LYONNE: And I associate that with - I don't know. I just - enough. Enough with all the he, she, what have you. Come on. It's 2019, I think. And yeah, I like the idea of a character that kind of refers to themselves as a man. Why not? I mean, when I say that line, that's how I say it. So it was a kind of discussion of, like, shouldn't it be a woman twice my age? And I was like, I've never said it that way, and I wrote the thing. So...

GROSS: (Laughter).

LYONNE: It just - these are the things you fight for.

GROSS: Well, Natasha Lyonne, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

LYONNE: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: My interview with Natasha Lyonne was recorded in May. She's nominated for Emmys in two categories for her work on "Russian Doll," outstanding lead actress and outstanding writing for a comedy series. After we take a short break, we'll hear from Christina Applegate, who's also nominated in the category outstanding lead actress in a comedy series, for her performance in "Dead To Me." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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