When Natasha Lyonne made the Netflix series “Russian Doll,” she did so surrounded by people she knew, including co-creators Leslye Headland and Amy Poehler. “We’ll say that I’m very close personal friends with my own cell phone and I spend a lot of time with it,” she told IndieWire. “We spend a lot of time together playing crossword puzzles and what have you. Thanks to that phone, I think I was really able to assemble a team that was deeply personal and there was some incredible people that were willing to show up for this thing and make it.”
The existential comedy about a woman who keeps dying over and over again is a show that drew deeply upon Lyonne’s own life story. But it was a different life story that inspired her to consider directing — that of filmmaker Tamara Jenkins, who cast Lyonne as a younger version of herself in the 1998 film “Slums of Beverly Hills.”
Years after the two had worked together, Lyonne said, “I’d run into her in Tompkins Square Park — we were both in the East Village — and I have such a slim grasp of reality in the first place that I’d be like, ‘Okay. If I played Tamara in ‘Slums of Beverly Hills, and now she’s a happy person, clearly that means I’ll be okay some day.”
Lyonne cited Jenkins as a mentor figure, one who led her to getting additional directing gigs, including on the upcoming final season of the Netflix drama “Orange Is the New Black,” in which Lyonne has appeared since Season 1.
Headland told IndieWire that she’s always intrigued by a set run by a female filmmaker because “I’m always interested in, like, ‘Is there a big difference? Is this kind of prejudice that they have against us warranted at all? Like where did it come from?'”
But on the set of “Russian Doll,” Headland joked, day players would observe that “‘everyone’s really relaxed — everything’s kinda moving really smoothly.’ And it was like ‘Yeah, because it’s a female AD, and a female director, and a female showrunner and star.'”
Headland admitted that it wasn’t necessarily tied to gender, but that it was a special set, because of “the atmosphere of the particular people that were working together. I think that there’s something that was able to flourish in that scenario that I don’t see very often. Usually, it is pretty stressful, and it is pretty high-octane.”
Courtesy of Netflix
Instead, the creators created an environment where a positive working environment was possible. “While this was a quick shoot, and it was definitely down and dirty, and you’re shooting in New York and on location and all of the attendant suffering that comes with that, mostly, I had a really good time and really felt like everyone was in a position where they could create and make fun stuff and have a good time doing it,” Headland said.
Lyonne doesn’t take for granted that women are getting more directing work. “For so long, it’s been the purview of men and continues to be. The numbers just don’t lie. It continues to be headlines, because they’re anomalies. So I think that, while yes, it’s a trend and a very positive one, it’s still far into the future where we’re actually in a equal playing field and things are measured up,” she said.
She also noted that she’s been acting since the age of six, on “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse,” and that “from my perspective, it’s like 33 years later. So it doesn’t feel like ‘yesterday I was in a commercial and then tomorrow I’m directing my own series.'”
As she added, “I think the good news is that it seems to be finally happening, but I’m sure rivalry will get into it… I really feel very lucky and moved that I’m being given my shot and I hope people connect to it and I get to do it more. It does feel like a better use of where I’m at at this point, but to get to do it … And I’ll say that, I almost wish for every actor that they have the opportunity to direct — certainly an episode of their own show.”
One reason, Lyonne noted, was that by directing, actors get a chance to understand those they work with better. “I think sometimes when people think about actors as entitled assholes in a way, it’s like because maybe they don’t understand that the narcissism is so great that they don’t understand that every single person and crew member is real. Everybody is real,” she said. “Once you’re directing, you’re like, ‘Oh. That’s what time means.’ You start understanding the difference between coming out of your trailer 10 minutes before or after than knocking on the door. It really changes everything.”
Thus, when she’s been on set for roles that do not require her to work behind the scenes, “I’m so happy to just be there. I’m like, ‘Not my problem. Just tell me where you want me.’ As opposed to thinking I have a better idea.”
In the long run, she said, “Russian Doll” was “for me personally, the right time” to become a director. And that’s largely because of how personal a story it was. In fact, she said, “I find when I’m on airplanes, I’m less concerned. I’m like, ‘If I don’t make it, I feel like I definitely said what I needed to say for a minute.’ So now I can step back and take in new information all over again.”
“Russian Doll” Season 1 is streaming now on Netflix.