A three-time Emmy nominee with a 33-year screen career, Natasha Lyonne has wanted to employ her talents behind the scenes for as long as she can remember, finally doing so with her Netflix hit Russian Doll. Today, the series earned 13 Emmy nominations in its first go-round, demonstrating to the actress beyond the shadow of a doubt that “life has its own timing in store.”
A dark comedy co-created by Leslye Headland and Amy Poehler, Russian Doll took the path today that Barry took last year, jumping into Outstanding Comedy Series in its first season. Earning 11 noms overall—with two for Lyonne, including Lead Actress in a Comedy Series—the show centers on Nadia (Lyonne), a woman who dies on the night of her 36th birthday and gets caught in a time loop, reliving that evening over and over in Groundhog Day-like fashion, as she tries to figure out just what is going on.
For both Lyonne and Headland, seeing the seven below-the-line nominations Russian Doll earned was one of the most exciting aspects of the Emmy nominations morning experience, this time around. “More than anything, as the creator of the show, I was just so moved that so many people who had worked so hard were being acknowledged. I think that that was a very pure feeling,” Lyonne told Deadline today, while taking a small spoon to a large cake that read ‘Congrats.’ “It’s a delight for me to discover that [the show] ended up resonating with a very real audience. I think I was perfectly content to just get to make my little thing, and all this is a very real icing on the cake.”
While Lyonne was overwhelmed by the success of Russian Doll, speaking to “a deep feeling of ‘Holy sh*t’” she was experiencing, Headland, too, was shocked by the extent of the TV Academy’s embrace of the show. Working on the series, there was no assumption that Russian Doll would become the pop culture phenomenon that it now is. “I was so mired in the nitty gritty of everything that I just never thought that it would catch on in the way that it has,” Headland shared. “I’m absolutely blown away by people’s response to this show, and I think we’re in outstanding company, too.”
For Lyonne, the journey of Russian Doll began with disappointment. Originally, the actress had developed a separate project at NBC, also with Amy Poehler, in which she also would play a character named Nadia. Ultimately, that show did not go to series, “and it was something that, at the time, was not great news,” Lyonne admitted. “But when I think about the home that we found at Netflix, and the freedom it gave us to really go all the way in, instead of merely scratching a superficial surface of existential dilemma and character, it really becomes pretty profound and life-affirming.”
From Lyonne’s perspective, there are a few major reasons why Russian Doll came about when it did, going on to see the response that it has. “As Jeff Goldblum says, ‘Life finds a way,’” the actress joked. “So, I guess it was really honing in on the right Jurassic Park moment.”
First, she came upon a number of key collaborators, including Poehler, who were dedicated to bringing her vision to life. Also amongst Lyonne’s supporters were Cindy Holland and Ted Sarandos at Netflix, who had seen the actress earn her first Emmy nomination for her turn on Orange Is the New Black, providing her subsequently with a creative home and safety net.
Secondarily, Russian Doll resulted from “a certain degree of lived experience,” which proved invaluable. “I think honestly, we’re all so afraid of getting older in life, and especially in the arts, for reasons that are actually quite unknown to me. It comes for each one of us, no matter how many nominations you get, so watch out Games of Thrones. But I think that in a way, it’s almost like we get older and it gives us the freedom to be less afraid. We’ve got less to lose, so we’re willing to go deeper and take bigger risks,” Lyonne explained. At a certain point, the multi-faceted talent felt herself approaching “a tipping point…of internalizing information, the way the mind collates and rolodexes information and movie references, and music, and all the books, and documentaries, and life experience,” pouring all of this into her show, with a strong sense of what she wanted to say.
Third, there was a certain sense of cultural urgency, on Lyonne’s part. “I think that things have shifted, as far as female creators, and even as far as the government, as it felt like rights were more at risk of being stripped away,” she observed. “It almost makes you want to grasp at the straws of freedom even more diligently. It creates an internal sort of energy, crying out to tell the truth.”
And as a female creator, who was burdened with an additional sense of pressure—feeling that Russian Doll might be “[her] only shot”—the sense of urgency was even greater. “If I get this wrong, I won’t get a second chance,” Lyonne reflected, “so there is an instinct to want to put it all in there.”
In the end, Headland says, Russian Doll is very much “a shrine” to Lyonne. “I feel like in a way, what we were attempting to do was really to serve to the audience not just her energy and a little bit of her autobiographical experience, but also just her worldview and the way that she is personally, which is equal parts a realist, but also very loving and kind, and kind of a downright spiritual person,” the co-creator said. “She is, through and through, in the DNA of that show.”
Reflecting on Season 1, Headland is proud of the comedy’s ability to deal with trauma and mental illness, “these kinds of things that are considered not comedic material,” with respect and dignity, feeling also that the series “elevates the idea of a female protagonist that isn’t necessarily the cookie cutter female protagonist.
“I think that’s the other thing that’s very cool also about all the nominations in the lead actress category,” Headland added. “They’re all very complicated women, and the idea that our peers are acknowledging that, and looking at that, and saying, ‘This is what we’ve discovered this year. We discovered that women are really complicated and funny, and they don’t have to be on one end of the spectrum or another. They can exist on a never-ending spectrum of human emotion and psychology,’ I think that’s really huge.”
In conversation with Deadline, Lyonne revealed where she’s at now with Russian Doll’s second season, and what fans can expect from it. “Amy and I were hanging out the other day, and it’s early days. We’re not in the room yet in any official way, but I will say that it does not become a show about dating in New York or anything like that—and no shade on those shows, but that’s not this show,” the Russian Doll quadruple threat said. “I’ve got something reminiscent of when you drink a slushy too quick and you’re in a little bit of a brain freeze. [But] getting to work and think with Amy on that level is the great gift of my life. She’s so brilliant, and her mind just kind of sparks for me in such truly inspiring ways.”
At the Primetime Emmy Awards in September, Russian Doll will compete not only for Outstanding Comedy Series and Lead Actress in a Comedy Series, but also for a slew of other awards, including those for writing, production design, cinematography, costume design, sound editing, sound mixing, music supervision, stunt coordination and casting.
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