How Natasha Lyonne's Movies & TV Shows Prepared Her For “Russian Doll”

 
PHOTO: COURTESY ASSOCIATED PRESS

PHOTO: COURTESY ASSOCIATED PRESS

 

There is never a wrong time to watch a Natasha Lyonne movie. The 39-year-old actress has been churning out iconic performances in films and television shows for over two decades now and seems to show no signs of slowing down.

Old-time films like “American Pie,” “Scary Movie 2,” and “Dennis the Menace” are still considered essential to the American comedic canon. “But, I’m a Cheerleader” and “Slums of Beverly Hills” are cult classics with legions of loyal fans. Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black” is one of the most popular and long-running original series that the digital platform offers. And who is at the heart of all of this work you may ask? Natasha. Freaking. Lyonne.

Natasha Lyonne’s work in the entertainment industry has had a long track record of inclusivity and female empowerment. In “But, I’m a Cheerleader,” Lyonne plays your classic teenage suburban girl who is sent away to gay conversion camp by her hyper-religious parents. There, she ends up befriending an openly gay camper and exploring the limits of her own sexual identity.

Although laced with corny jokes, the film has managed to become a favorite amongst the LGBTQ+ community. In “Orange is the New Black,” her most popular role and first time as a series regular, Lyonne plays a loyal, loving, and maddingly sarcastic inmate named Nicky Nichols. Her performance is so illuminating, it earned her an Emmy nomination back in 2014.

More often than not, a Natasha Lyonne movie or television show is a promise of a good time. Her characters are strong, edgy, resilient, and unafraid to speak their minds. Her newest role as Nadia in Netflix’s “Russian Doll” is no exception. Since its release in early February, “Russian Doll” has been making waves online. Perhaps, you’ve walked by a roommate’s bedroom and spotted it on TV. Perhaps, you walked by that bedroom again a couple hours later and saw the same characters in the same clothes in the same frames and the seemingly same situations. Welcome to the world of “Russian Doll.”

The plot of the new critically acclaimed drama is simple enough. Nadia, our protagonist, dies on her 36th birthday. Then, she wakes up on the same day and dies again. And again. Rinse and repeat. This happens several times over the course of the series as Nadia, and therefore the audience, strives to discover what will put a stop to the recurring loop.

There are several films, “Groundhog Day,” “Happy Death Day,” “Naked,” that follow this circular narrative of dying everyday, but the specific genius of this Lyonne-led production is that it is not trying to reinvent the genre wheel, only bring new life (no pun intended) to it. The show actually gets off on being a bit simple, opening itself to more intimate moments in Nadia’s life. Watching “Russian Doll” also requires a bit of engagement. Characters are not always given a concrete introduction, and previously dropped storylines are picked back up along the way. And then picked up again. And then again. And...well, I think you get where I’m going with this!

On top of the show being led by a badass actress, it is crafted by an all-female writers room and a female-led production team which includes comedy legend Amy Poehler. According to Lyonne, this decision “was not intentional: The best people for the job just happened to identify as female. The result was bringing a character to life whose gender didn’t matter, because it was never explicitly talked about. In turn, Nadia became “a 360-degree version of [her]self.” -Variety

While increasing female representation in film and television continues to spark conversations across media and popular culture channels, this representation is rarely mirrored on the other side of the screen. Female executives, showrunners, writers, production assistants, and operators are also needed to prolong our success and prosperity in this massive and multi-faceted entertainment industry. Other popular television shows such as the Ava DuVernay-helmed “Queen Sugar” on OWN, HBO’s “Insecure” and Starz’s “Vida” have been doing this necessary work for years and we should all be thrilled to see “Russian Doll” carry the torch a step further.

Because Ms. Lyonne is already such a boss bitch in her everyday life, it’s no surprise that she is able to tap into this when playing any character. In addition to starring in “Russian Doll,” she is credited as a co-creator, executive producer, and director. The creative control that she has over the project likely explains why the two, Nadia and Natasha, appear to be very similar. The show is even set in the East Village of Manhattan, the area Lyonne resides in in real life.

 
 

And like Natasha, Nadia is far from perfect; in fact she almost seems to revel in her flaws. She can be selfish and chaotic and dismissive of the fact that her friends just want to take care of her. As a person, it would be easy to hate her, but as a character she treads a line of redemption that I find completely inspiring.

With every death, Nadia learns a little bit more about her seemingly impossible situation. She learns what to avoid or who to help out. Over the course of one repeated day, she embarks on a journey and comes out on the other side (again, no pun intended) a much stronger and more self-assured person. There isn’t much more we can ask from our heroines, or from ourselves.

Like Nadia, I also live in New York City. And while I may never have had the misfortune of being hit by a taxi cab while chasing my cat or falling down a metal grate, there are a million specific ways living in New York can really feel like a punch to the gut. Whether your issue is overcrowding, faulty transportation lines, or the impressive variety of rodents that scurry across the streets, it’s fair to say that living in this city is not easy. Still, we hunker down and keep stepping because the creativity, diversity, and freedom of expression New York affords will always outweigh its faults (and peculiar smells). If anything, New York builds warriors just like Nadia who use a healthy mix of grit and humor to get through the day. It’s that same mixture that we all possess; it continues to make us strong and continues to make us resilient.

If dying every day has taught our heroine anything, it’s that she wasn’t living her life to the fullest in the first place. In fact, many critics of the show consider pre-death Nadia unlikable and cite her aggressive attitude and abuse of certain vices like alcohol, cocaine, and cigarettes (two packs/day) as reasons why. While I n-e-v-e-r consider “likability” to be the required trait for a character on television, I know I like Nadia a whole hell of a lot. I love seeing a woman above the age of 35 who still does not have everything all figured out. I love that Nadia is still learning. When she messes up, she mirrors our own mistakes. When she succeeds, we get to share in that triumph.

Rachel Paige for Forbes magazine writes, “You want to yell at her when she makes a stupid mistake, and you cheer her on when she manages to get everything perfectly aligned. And you just want her to to live. Nadia isn’t a bad person — she’s a lost and confused person, sure. “Russian Doll” is able to weave all of that together in such a way that literally any of us could find ourselves in Nadia's position or hopeless and lost one day, just hopefully without the added twist of constant death.”

In my opinion, we are all a couple of decisions away from life going askew. And while the likelihood of you, dear reader, dying every day is pretty slim, I would bet that there are moments when you feel like you are just going through the motions of your life as opposed to actually living it.

The monotony of routine does not compare to death, but it can certainly drain you of all your energy. “Russian Doll” actually morphs its main theme of existential dread into inspiration; posing questions to audiences that are absolutely necessary. “What would you change about your life if you were granted a do-over? What would you keep exactly the same?”

If you haven’t had the chance to watch an episode of “Russian Doll” as yet, I highly recommend you grab some popcorn, your best friend, and start! If the psyche-bending plot and feminist characters are not enticing enough, Natasha Lyonne’s strong New York attitude and absurdly voluminous red curls (with bangs!!) should do the trick.

Since the launch of her career twenty years ago, Natasha Lyonne’s movie and TV roles have celebrated strong women in all of our mighty forms. Whether playing a prisoner, a cheerleader, or a woman leaping through time, her performances are rooted in honesty and grit. If you’re anything like me, you can’t wait for twenty more.

What’s your favorite Natasha Lyonne movie? Have you watched Russian Doll yet? If so, let’s chat all things Nadia in the comments!