Natasha Lyonne on breaking all the rules
‘I have no idea who I would be without New York City. We're inextricably intertwined’: The actor, writer and director on the best city in the world.
To say that Natasha Lyonne (she/her) is in a lifelong love affair with her home town would be to underplay the depth and breadth of their relationship. ‘I have no idea who I would be without New York City’, she explains, a towering five-foot-nothing, self-styled ‘tough guy’ with an immediately identifiable rasping voice. ‘We’re inextricably intertwined.’
So the fact that, when we sit down to speak, she and her dog Rootbeer are fresh off a plane out of the city and into her adopted part-time home of Los Angeles feels, somehow, relevant. Does she look upon it differently from a distance? ‘I take this route quite often, but I'm never not struck by New York's immediate coolness and LA’s…well…’ she trails off, laughing. ‘New York is the best city in the world. It just is. I guess I'm not gonna get voted for mayor of other cities. Too bad.’
‘Our stories shape our world and our understanding of each other. Obviously, when you have a very narrow viewpoint of the world at large, there's a problematic fallout to that.’
Not coincidentally, New York plays a starring role in Russian Doll, the award-winning comedy drama Natasha Lyonne co-created and starred in, which launched a second season on Netflix in April 2022. In it, cynic Nadia Vulvokov finds herself stuck first in a time loop, and then travelling through 80 years of history, a funny and wild and irrepressible experiment in what the small screen can do.
It’s one of the latest in a series of roles that have seen Natasha push out of the ‘actor’ box once ticked for her and into the realms of writer, director and producer. In this new incarnation, she’s eluding the qualifiers so often assigned to her – they’re outdated and limiting. Instead, she’s making films with young people, outcasts, in mind, and she’s keen to show them that there’s nothing she, or they, can’t do.
ON NEW YORK CITY
‘Everything is so New York. My advice for people is to always leave the house in business casual. You should always have a day-to-night look, so you can let the city take you where it wants. Walking in the city is one of the greatest things, so you want to be sure that you can be a part of that great adventure, should the mood strike you.’
ON HOW TO SPEND A SUNDAY IN THE CITY
‘I don't really think about life in terms of spending Sundays, because I think that's weird. I loathe brunch as a concept. And I'm ultimately utterly confused that it seems to be such an international agreed-upon bonanza. So my worst nightmare would be Sunday brunch, I guess. My favourite place in New York City is Film Forum, so I guess my dream Sunday, which hopefully would be a Tuesday, would be walking into the Film Forum and catching some old black and white double feature, and then getting up to some antics and walking back home.’
ON HOW THE CITY HAS CHANGED
‘I always think of the Elaine Stritch quote where she says, “Everybody's always complaining that the city is changing. The city has always been changing. Get over it.” Now granted, I'm paraphrasing, but it feels like people love talking about that. Ultimately, life is change, depressing though that may be. But certainly the thing that really does happen is that as you get older, the city gets younger.’
ON HER STYLE
‘My style is consistent. I like twists on uniforms. I hate summer; I love fall and winter. I think it's important to always have a blazer– that's where I put stuff, in my pockets. I like a blazer, where I can have my prescription glasses, and then also my prescription sunglasses, and my cell phone. My keys are hooked to my jeans, and that should have my lighter on it. In my back pocket, I always have: a MetroCard, ID, credit card, twenty-dollar bill and my COVID card. A pack of cigarettes, some lip liner, that should pretty much do it. I’m good to go. I want to make sure I have the pocket space for that.’
‘I don't love the moniker of “female filmmaker”... That doesn’t feel like a suit that fits.’
ON HER EARLY INFLUENCES
‘I’ve always loved the movies. My parents really liked a lot of tough guy movies, like The Godfather, Scarface, Rocky. I really liked Sylvester Stallone and Rambo and A Fish Called Wanda. Of course you can't tell that I like those things at all by my personality or accent.’
ON WRITING OUR OWN STORIES
‘Our stories shape our world and our understanding of each other. Obviously, when you have a very narrow viewpoint of the world at large, there's a problematic fallout to that. Because there's a false belief that things are only one way. The story of humanity is far more complex than a limited viewpoint, where you only see the world through a single gaze. That just seems weird. And boring.’
ON HOW CATEGORIES LIMIT US
‘I don't love the moniker of “female filmmaker”. I don't even know that I identify with that so much. It's just everybody else's baggage that I have to carry along with me. I don't think anybody likes having their work defined by their Otherness. It feels minimizing. Let's do away with these qualifiers. Why can't #femalefilmmakerfriday just be #filmmakerfriday, you know? There's something a little bit insulting about it – like, oh, girls can have these things too. That doesn't feel like a suit that fits. Speaking for myself, as a person who is writing and directing, I would rather see the work on its own two feet, rather than through a prism qualifying it as Other.’
ON HOW SHE RECOGNIZES A GOOD IDEA
‘For me, it usually keeps coming back in flashes. I find that I keep making notes about a certain subject; I'm starting to do deeper dives into worlds around it, to familiarise myself with the 360-degree view of what it is that I'm trying to say. I want to go into that draft, I feel pulled back there, I'm thinking about it a lot. For season one and two of Russian Doll, it was very fun to be walking around, constantly writing down notes. I would try to trigger bizarre conversations, just to see what people are up to, because people are so endlessly weird. The things they talk about are funny and fascinating, and they're very serious about very strange things, or very strange about very normal things. So I'll try to capture their voices.’
ON THE IMPACT SHE HOPES HER WORK WILL HAVE
‘I hope it helps to contribute to cracking open, just a little wider, another point of view. To abandon our limited framework around what we think the stories that we center are supposed to be. I think it's for the kids. I love young people; I always identify with the young weirdos in the back of the class, or the outcasts. I want them to know that there's a space for them. That they don't have to make things one particular way that's already been done 100 times before. And I guess, despite all this, it's important that they know that women get to do that, too.’
What’s the last book you bought and loved?
‘Exhalation by Ted Chiang.’
What's your most treasured possession?
‘Can you own a dog? If so, it’s my dog Rootbeer.’
Where do you go to escape?
‘The Film Forum in New York City.’
What do you collect?
‘I collect books. I have tons and tons of books.’
Natasha Lyonne (@nlyonne) wears the Autumn Winter 2022 collection for COS.
Photography by Mario Sorrenti.
Styling by Camilla Nickerson.
Words by Maisie Skidmore.
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