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

Mar 27, 2019

Natasha Lyonne is a survivor. On the Netflix series Russian Doll, which Lyonne co-created and stars in, her character Nadia keeps dying and returning to life. Determined to figure out what is happening to her, Nadia relives the same day countless times, each time trying to steer events toward a different outcome.

It's a premise that strikes a chord with the actor; Lyonne herself nearly died of drug-related problems in 2005. Now recovered, she says her past near-death experience helped her connect with Nadia's struggle.

"My very real experiences wildly informed ... these questions about life and death and what's it all about," she says.

Lyonne says her work on Russian Doll has given her a new perspective on her own past: "It feels like quite the opposite of something painful or vulnerable or terrifying," she says. Instead, "that pain or that fear is a type of touchstone to ultimate growth, release and relief."

She laughs, then adds, "Terry, the headline is 'Everything's Fine Now,' you know? I mean, people love Russian Doll, so the good days are upon us!"


Interview Highlights

On why she always identified as "a tough guy" and a survivor

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 quite differently. ... My lineage is dark survivors. I come from real Auschwitz stock [Lyonne's grandparents are Holocaust survivors]. So Hitler was a big player in my childhood, and it was this mentality of surviving and no matter what sort of horrors life throws your way, that was something that had been endured by my grandmother and my grandfather and therefore it was kind of the litmus test of a human experience. ...

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 quite differently. - Natasha Lyonne

I certainly think it made me very curious to sort of like, see what else was out there, and kind of push at the edges of this thing called reality, and to start pushing in a little bit on the time-space continuum, and being like, "Oh what's this? LSD? Let's see where this takes us." I think it was an interesting setup and foundation for curiosity, because a lot of the big ideas about the human condition were woven into the very structural fabric of my formative years.

On whether she relates to her character in Russian Doll, who sees relationships as impinging on her freedom

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 [Al] Pacino and [Robert] De Niro 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 puts on as the woman's burden.

So I think this idea that ... I'm better off waiting until I'm in my late 60s to settle down is something that comes from kind of that spirit of: You don't get to have a one night stand with me and think that I need you for some reproductive, societal purpose of, "Oh, I'm now 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!" You know, it was a sort of f--- all that mentality.

On what shaped her outlook on drugs and alcohol

I remember when I was 16, back when Woody Allen was quite a popular figure, I was doing his film Everyone Says I Love You and I'd been pulled out of yeshiva in order to do the job. I had this wonderful tutor, Karen Cooper, and she sort of explained to me what surrealism was, and she would make me do these interesting activities like watching Apocalypse Now and [reading] the book Heart of Darkness. And so I think all of those things similarly shaped a very specific outlook to drugs and alcohol, and also idolizing certain figures. Whether that was a Hunter S. Thompson or [Charles] Bukowski or [John] Cassavetes, or Lou Reed — I think all of that went into a melting pot of how I would feel in the face of why drugs and alcohol felt like such a good soundtrack to my experience.

On her deep, raspy voice

You should see my organs! ... I don't know that it bodes well for a long life that my voice is changing, but it also depends what time of day you catch me. I haven't done much speaking yet today, as I warm up, it kind of rises. Sometimes I notice when I'm really under pressure I end up being full Joe Pesci. It sort of depends. I kind of have to check out the lay of the room and then decide how much I'm going to give.

On why she was excited to join the cast of Orange is the New Black

[The show] was not shame-based. When you talk about the sort of stereotype of femininity, it wasn't something [where] I felt like I had to hide a pockmark or something. ... Anyway, this was not a show where that was gonna be a problem. It was a very "come as you are" dynamic. ...

It was a cast of women that were just all so exceptional in their own ways. ... It was realizing that 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. It was the idea that these are your allies, this is your community. Like, as much room as there is for as many of us in all of our differences to shine, that is for the good and the benefit of the show.

Heidi Saman and Mooj Zadie produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Natasha Lyonne, co-created, co-wrote and stars in the Netflix series "Russian Doll." 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, alive, and a few minutes later in the episode, she dies again. Here she is describing the situation to a family friend, who's a therapist.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RUSSIAN DOLL")

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, so 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, all right? So I died. I died. I died. I died. That's four times. Also - also my cat just literally disappeared.

GROSS: Reviewing "Russian Doll" in The New York Times, James Poniewozik described it as, quote, "acerbic, wittily profound with a richly satisfying ending. This is a show with a big heart but a nicotine-stained heart that has been dropped in the gutter and kicked around a few times" - unquote. 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." She was nominated for an Emmy for her portrayal of Nicky Nichols in "Orange Is The New Black."

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 what's it all about, and, you know, what it means to kind of go on living and what it means to have the sort of instinct to take ourselves out. These sort of - these questions and riddles I guess consume me and ultimately also the things I find funniest because they're so dark.

It's a curiosity because in the sort of triumph of having a kind of a green light, a writers' room, collaborators, let alone the on-set experience or the sort of picking each song kind of, like, painstakingly to sort of place - to be the sound of the moment, and, you know, certainly now in the aftermath of such kind of positive reinforcement for sort of putting it all out there, it feels like quite the opposite of something, you know, painful or vulnerable or terrifying. I think early days surely were harrowing and, you know, yet that's sort of I guess a concept is, you know, that that pain or that fear is a type of a touchstone to ultimate, you know, growth or release and relief.

GROSS: I think one of the questions that, like, "Russian Doll" poses is, like, when you come back to life after a death experience, does it make life seem any more or less precious? Does it make you behave any better or worse?

LYONNE: You know, listen; maybe this is a sideways answer, but the one book that I brought into the writers' room on the first day was Viktor Frankl's "Man's Search For Meaning," you know. And I think that sort of a childhood and a lifetime of studying the Talmud and sort of these threads that kind of shaped me almost influenced in a way the way I would come to look at things.

You know, I remember when I was 16 back when Woody Allen was quite a popular figure, I was doing his film "Everyone Says I Love You," and I'd been pulled out of yeshiva in order to do the job. And so I had this wonderful tutor Karen Cooper (ph), and she sort of explained to me, you know, what surrealism was. And she would make me do these interesting sort of activities, like watching "Apocalypse Now" and the book "Heart Of Darkness."

And so I think it - kind of all of those things similarly sort of shaped a very specific outlook to drugs and alcohol, you know, and also idolizing certain figures, you know, I mean, whether that was a Hunter S. Thompson or a Bukowski or a Cassavetes, a Lou Reed. I think all of that kind of went into a melting pot of how I would feel in the face of sort of why drugs and alcohol felt like such a good sort of soundtrack to my experience and how each survival felt. I don't know that I truly had, you know, such a black-and-white thing as a kind of like a will to live or a - you know, I think a lot of these ideas are kind of very tidy in a way.

The way we like to look at things and process them are kind of - we like to sort of simplify. And I don't think that's actually very true to the experience. And in a way, also, the simplest aspect of addiction is, you know, addiction. Drugs are very addictive. So that often - the kind of, like, desire to continue them doesn't really account for, you know, an existential riddle, a will to live or the soul - that's sort of been robbed of you once you're in that deep.

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: Eh, 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, a lot of these kind of, you know, figures that I named are sort of intentionally macho. Like, I remember Norman Mailer, "Executioner's Song." (Laughter)

You know, like, these - 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 guys, sort of Pacino and De Niro 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.

So I think this idea that the one impractical application just means that the one I'm - just means the one I'm going to die with, so I'm better off waiting until I'm in my late 60s to settle down, is something that comes from kind of that spirit of, you don't get to have a sort of one-night stand with me and think that I need you for some sort of, you know, reproductive societal purpose of, 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, you know?

GROSS: (Laughter) Did - seriously, did you...

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

GROSS: Yeah, that's right.

LYONNE: Now I'm just the tough guy out of all you guys, you know. Not you, of course, because you're a giant.

GROSS: (Laughter) 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 a 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, human experience. So when everything is kind of weighed against that, it's - becomes a real curiosity.

GROSS: Did you grow up with stories about how your grandparents survived the Holocaust and how terrified they were of the Nazis? I mean, I grew up with World War II movies, and I had Nazi nightmares (laughter). So I wasn't told, like, personal stories of my family because my family that died in the Holocaust, like, I didn't know them, and my parents didn't know them, so - but did you grow up with those kinds of stories?

LYONNE: Oh, yeah. That was a big feature of daily life in my household. And on my father's side, they're kind of these Orthodox, black-hat Jews who were garment district, Flatbush. The only famous person I'm related to is Al Jaffee, who used to do the back of Mad magazines, you know, those fold-over sections. And there was a lot on that side too of kind of, you know - it's sort of, like, a survival-type narrative, you know, of the Jews as a sort of a put-upon people and the need to persevere. And then there was a heavy education around that, you know, of - those were the schools I was in as well. So, yes, there was Hitler in every nook and cranny of my childhood.

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 died, 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...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...To 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.

(LAUGHTER)

LYONNE: Terry, the headline is, everything's fine now, you know what I mean?

GROSS: Yeah.

LYONNE: 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 push at the edges of, you know, this thing called reality and to start kind of, like, you know, pushing in a little bit on the time-space continuum and being like, ah, what's this? LSD - let's see where this takes us. You know, I think it was an interesting sort of setup and foundation for curiosity because a lot of sort of the big ideas about the human condition were woven into the, you know, very structural fabric of my, you know, formative years.

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

LYONNE: This is probably what they put Dennis Hopper through when...

GROSS: (Laughter).

LYONNE: ...After he directed and starred in "Out Of The Blue." "Out Of The Blue" - what a great movie. Linda Manz's in that movie, mamma mia. 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, a way to kind of, you know, let certain things slide water off a duck's back. Other things, you know, take very seriously. 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. 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 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. I'm going to do the rest of it like this.

GROSS: (Laughter) Well, while we're on the subject of you speaking, I love your voice. And, like, your voice has really changed over the years. It's gotten, like, much, like, deeper and a little rougher. So I guess it's...

LYONNE: You should see my organs.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LYONNE: You know - I mean, Terry, for me, this is one of the great voices. Now we're just complimenting voices. I mean, I don't know that it bodes well for a long life that my voice is changing, but it also depends what time of day you catch me. I haven't done much speaking yet today. As I warm up, it kind of rises. Sometimes I notice it when I'm really kind of, like, under pressure. I end up being full Joe Pesci.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LYONNE: You know, it sort of depends. I kind of, like, have to check out the lay of the room and then decide how much I'm going to give.

GROSS: OK. OK. So we should take a break here. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Natasha Lyonne. And she co-created, she co-writes, she's directed episodes of "Russian Doll," which is streaming on Netflix. And we'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And in this time when there are so few TV shows and streaming shows that a lot of people seem to be watching at the same time, "Russian Doll" is apparently one of the exceptions. And that's streaming on Netflix. And my guest, Natasha Lyonne, is the co-creator, co-writer, the star of the series. And she plays someone who starts off at a - at her 36th birthday party, smoking a cocaine-laced joint. And she gets hit by a taxi and dies and then, like, comes right back to life again. And that keeps happening - that she's, like, dying and coming back to life. And that's the underlying metaphysical mystery of the series.

I'm sorry. This is another addiction-related question, but...

LYONNE: Oh, sure. Why stop now? Yeah.

GROSS: No, 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 'cause 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 people, like, thinking - 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, which is sort of what it sounds like - i.e., you just sort of dropping dead in the street mid-pace, which is bad. 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'd 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.

(LAUGHTER)

LYONNE: And I was like, but this is terrifying. They were like, what are you doing? And I was like, I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm nervous, you know? And 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 'cause hopefully it's of use to someone somewhere, and it helps me to not have to, you know, lead a double life. I 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: My guest is Natasha Lyonne, the co-creator and star of the Netflix series "Russian Doll." After a break, we'll talk about growing up in an Orthodox Jewish family, becoming a child actor, watching "Taxi Driver" when she was 8 and co-starring in "Orange Is The New Black." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JESSICA WILLIAMS TRIO SONG, "LITTLE BIRD SONG")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Natasha Lyonne. She co-created, co-wrote and stars in the Netflix series "Russian Doll." She plays a woman celebrating her 36th birthday who dies in an accident, only to find herself alive again and at the party again. She keeps dying in various ways and keeps coming back to life at the same party and has no clue why this is happening. Lyonne started her career as a child. She had a recurring role on "Pee-wee's Playhouse." She co-starred in "American Pie," starred in "The Slums Of Beverly Hills" and "But I'm A Cheerleader" and co-starred in the Netflix series "Orange Is The New Black," set in a women's prison.

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 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, you know, alcoholism and ego and self sort 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, and I segued into acting. So...

GROSS: (Laughter).

LYONNE: And now, you know, I'm segueing - directing, writing, producing, what have you. That's the life of a child model, baby.

GROSS: So what did you do when you were 4 and you were assigned 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, estranged 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 always 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, you know?

But - and even as a kid, I mean, I was equally fascinated when I would watch, you know, "Taxi Driver" or something, which was - you know, we only had a handful of movies in Israel that we lived with, and they were pretty much just Scorsese's oeuvre and maybe "Rocky," "Scarface" - you know, tough guy movies - "It's Alive." And so I think that I was always kind of obsessed with, how did they make this? You know, how did Scorsese kind of get these shots? And also, how did De Niro do this performance? But in general, I think that it was their sort of coked-up '80s fantasy to kind of get fame in the picture, and that's what I ended up rebelling against so hard in an attempt to kind of extricate myself from the fame game of show business.

GROSS: Wait. So you were 8 when you were watching "Taxi Driver," thinking, how did De Niro do this? How did Scorsese do this?

LYONNE: Yes, this is why I talk this way.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LYONNE: I think that all - like, those guys, that kind of - you know, Pacino, De Niro, Chris Walken - like, those, yeah - Sylvester Stallone - I mean, those guys were really my guys as a kid and sort of always what I was aping in every way, you know? And later those lines would get sort of colored in - you know, Cassavetes, Peter Fox and Ben Gazzaras and Harry Dean Stantons and Dennis Hoppers. Like, they were - kind of become sort of new guys to mimic. But as a kid, it was sort of, like, the big - those were the big guns.

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. In fact, why don't we hear a clip from that?

So in this scene, you've found a way to sell drugs even though you're in prison with the help of one of the prison guards, and you've told him that the stash of drugs was stolen. But in this scene, you're confessing that that's not actually what happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK")

LYONNE: (As Nicky Nichols) All right, listen. Remember when I said the heroin was stolen?

MATT PETERS: (As Joel Luschek) Yeah.

LYONNE: (As Nicky Nichols) OK, well, I'm the one who stole it, all right? But now - and now the meth-heads have it, and we need to get it back. Look, man; I'm sorry, all right? I couldn't say goodbye. I'm an addict.

PETERS: (As Joel Luschek) How convenient.

LYONNE: (As Nicky Nichols) Well, it's not actually for me or anyone around me.

PETERS: (As Joel Luschek) Didn't that [expletive], like, kill you? Like, didn't your heart stop?

LYONNE: (As Nicky Nichols) Man, it's not a rational thing, you know? But I want it out of here. I really do.

PETERS: (As Joel Luschek) I can't trust you. And if you're going to [expletive] it up for both of us...

LYONNE: (As Nicky Nichols) I've made up my mind. I don't want to die again, all right? There was no white light for me. If we don't get this stuff out of here, it's going to find its way back to me, me to it, you know? I'm like a bloodhound for oblivion.

PETERS: (As Joel Luschek) Well, oblivion doesn't make a great business partner.

LYONNE: (As Nicky Nichols) It'll be different this time, all right? I swear. You just got to trust me.

GROSS: OK, that's Natasha Lyonne in "Orange Is The New Black." And we chose that scene in part because it has so many echoes of "Russian Doll," of, you know, like, nearly dying, of being a bloodhound for oblivion. But I'm wondering what it was like for you to get the part in this 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 to - 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 in "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, 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. It was a very kind of come-as-you-are dynamic of, you know, you in your sort of broken state - is the sort of beauty that we're after here. Kind of it was, you know, uniforms. It was 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. Like, as much room as there is for as many of us and all of our differences to shine, that is for the good and the benefit of the show.

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" - going to take a short break, then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: 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."

So "Slums Of Beverly Hills," which was made in 1998 - you play a 15-year-old in this. I don't know how old you actually were when you made it.

LYONNE: Maybe 17.

GROSS: OK. Your father's played by Alan Arkin, and he's raising you and your two brothers as a single father, but he's broke. And he really doesn't know how to deal with having a teenage girl who's developing physically, so he takes you to buy your first bra. And it's a little late to be taking you for your first bra 'cause you're already a C-cup. So on a maybe related note, I read that your mother tried to convince you to get a breast enlargement surgery.

LYONNE: Oh, yeah. I remember in the '90s, I'd kind of, like, turned down post-"Slums Of Beverly Hills" - a bunch of jobs on the CW. I think it was "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" and "Dawson's Creek" and kind of all those shows that were coming up then. And I remember that she was very disappointed in the way I was taking my career. And she was like, I - you really should get a boob job and get on one of these shows. And I did neither. But, you know, it's - you never know. Never say never.

GROSS: (Laughter) Did you think that was bad advice coming from a mother?

LYONNE: Yeah, I thought it was very in character for her. You know, I really think she was trying to look out for me as a kind of - whatever in this weird "Postcards From The Edge" scene we were having.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LYONNE: Yeah, ultimately I guess, you know, I definitely regret not taking off my clothes more when I look back at it now. But I think that was just never really my trip. I think I wanted to be in, you know, loafers and a blazer kind of walking around and doing my tough guy shtick. I think I like it there.

GROSS: You're kidding about whishing you had taken off your clothes more, right?

LYONNE: Not entirely, no. I just remember always being sort of shy in that way. But sometimes I can see sort of in my friends that are actresses that, like, that way, it gives you a certain liberty and a freedom to not be so attached to your body so you can use it as more of a tool 'cause it's already been out there in sort of various phases. So it doesn't feel so, you know, connected to self as, like, an exposure or vulnerability. It feels more connected to, let's say, your instrument as an actor. So you have kind of more to work with.

GROSS: I want to get back to "Russian Doll," your new series on Netflix. And your character's mother sees her daughter, your character, as basically an extension of herself. She even says to the daughter, the younger version of your character, you know, it's you and me. It's - basically she says, it's us against the world. Like, we're a team. And then she dispatches her to do something that she really shouldn't be asking her daughter to do. It's a very selfish act. And I'm wondering if that draws on your experiences with your mother 'cause you've made it clear that you're not a family person.

LYONNE: You know, I think there was definitely a boundarylessness to her. And it's a funny thing, getting older, you know, 'cause we find so much sort of forgiveness and a ability to see that, you know, everybody is just the sick and suffering. We're all just bozos on the bus. These are just people that are trying to do their best who ultimately were probably just not that equipped or ready to be parents. And in so many ways, my heart is really with her.

And it was so safe and heavy and, you know, healing or something - very heavy, very, like, profound stuff to see Chloe Sevigny, my best friend, sort of embody her and then put the soundtrack to her and see the watermelons and see the Alfa Romeo Spider and see the red hair, you know? (Laughter) It was kind of wild to sort of be in post-production, in the edit making sure that it felt like the truth and yet just always kind of, like, skim and dance away from the line of anything sort of too specific with the eye on the ball of really this is Nadia, and this is, you know, Nadia's mother. So it's like there was the heart and the nut of what is there is so real, you know, and then the specificity. The mirrors are not anything to do with my actual childhood as a - for example, and yet the watermelons completely are.

GROSS: Can you tell us the watermelon story that you refer to?

LYONNE: I'm sure that, you know, it's very identifiable for anybody who has a case for a parent, which it turns out in adulthood you discover as most of us. She was really on this kick of - that we were just going to be living off of watermelons. She really just wanted to eat watermelons. I assume that was some type of an eating disorder. So we would go around, driving across Israel in that Alfa Romeo Spider with her red hair blowing in the breeze, listening to "Nights In White Satin" by the Moody Blues or Tina Turner - just, you know, drive around and try to get all the watermelons that were available in town and come home and look at all the watermelons that we had got.

So how can you sort of get older and sort of do work on self and not forgive a sick parent? You know, it's - anyway, I would say I spent so many years not in that space that it's - you know, it's huge to have it all kind of end up making sense in a life, like, that it's OK, that I was able to process it. It gives me a lot of hope.

GROSS: Were you in the, like, anger-bitter space for a long time?

LYONNE: Well, I would just say I was in a very self-destructive-around-it space of not being able to understand it, you know?

GROSS: Yeah, yeah. 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 (laughter).

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

LYONNE: Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah.

LYONNE: Yeah.

GROSS: And I think it's so interesting that you said of a man twice my age as opposed to...

LYONNE: Yeah.

GROSS: ...The internal organs of a woman twice my age. So tell us about...

LYONNE: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Saying of a man.

LYONNE: Yeah. I mean, like, those speeches - those are really - those are the ones where really - you know, a lot about the one in practical application or this, then 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 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.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LYONNE: So 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: Natasha Lyonne co-created and stars in the series "Russian Doll," which is streaming on Netflix. She also co-starred in the Netflix series "Orange Is The New Black." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.