While she was making Russian Doll, the critically acclaimed Netflix series she created and starred in, Natasha Lyonne had an epiphany.
She realized that making art in Hollywood didn’t have to be a competition between herself and her peers. It could be collaborative.
“It could be a team sport,” Lyonne says. “You need all your pals to make things.”
Russian Doll was the first time in Lyonne’s career that “I had any real power to bring in my people, and that was across the board,” she explains.
That career has been a long one. Lyonne got her start in 1986 at the age of 6 on Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Though there were a few blackout years in her mid-twenties, Lyonne might now be at a career peak with the hit show Poker Face on Peacock and her own production company.
As Lyonne spent time behind the scenes with Russian Doll, she realized that it wasn’t all about her. She found great fulfillment in supporting the friends and colleagues she was collaborating with to make really good work. “To see someone crush it and know that they did it, that’s a win for me and a win for them,” Lyonne says.
She’s since tried to infuse that dynamic into the rest of her life with more directing and producing. There’s The Second Best Hospital in the Galaxy, an animated series Lyonne produced with Maya Rudolph about a pair of alien doctors, created by Cirocco Dunlap, a writer Lyonne worked with on Russian Doll. It airs on Amazon Prime starting in February, featuring additional voice talent from the likes of Sam Smith, Kieran Culkin and Keke Palmer, “and the show’s fucking amazing,” Lyonne says. “But to see Cirocco get her own show over the course of a few years? It’s just so satisfying.”
This month, Lyonne is shepherding another talented friend to fame and fortune, this time on Netflix. Lyonne directed the filmed version of comedian Jacqueline Novak’s one-woman show Get On Your Knees, an autobiographical deconstruction of oral sex that was an Off-Broadway hit in 2019.
Lyonne saw it live several times and fell for both it and Novak. (It was directed for the stage by another funny guy, John Early.) “I was just a massive fan, and I wanted to produce the Netflix special,” Lyonne says. “You’re so in it with her brain. She stalks across the stage, just dropping gem after gem after gem.”
There’s not a ton you can do with a standup special, admits Lyonne, but she tried to give the piece some texture. “We tried to give it the feeling of shooting on film,” she says. “I prefer a feast for the eyes and the mind all at once. It makes me happier.”
Among the references Lyonne brings up when discussing Novak’s Netflix special: 1982’s Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip; 1979’s Town Bloody Hall, the famed documentary by D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus of a panel discussion between feminist advocates and Norman Mailer that took place on the same Town Hall stage where Lyonne filmed Get On Your Knees; 1974’s Lenny, Bob Fosse’s Lenny Bruce biopic starring Dustin Hoffman; and even The Red Shoes. (The reference to that 1948 fable came from her cinematographer, Sam Levy, who also worked on Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird.)
Lyonne, as you may have guessed, has an encyclopedic brain and a thirst for knowledge. “My teenage years, I was like a sponge,” she says. “I had such a love of cinema and for books.”
She also has a love of puzzles. She’ll occasionally contribute a crossword to The New York Times—as in, write one. And even if she’s the busiest now that she’s ever been, “the one thing I make time to do,” she says, is complete the newspaper of record’s daily games, including Spelling Bee, Connections and Wordle.
Lyonne is also a big reader. She ticks off just a few of the books she’s currently reading that are floating around in her Los Angeles bedroom, including but not limited to: Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, about sustainability, by the American architect Buckminster Fuller; The Comet, by W.E.B. Dubois; Labyrinths, a collection of the writings of Jorge Luis Borges; Celestial Heirs: A Space Age Interpretation of the Bible; and the intense-sounding Putting Ourselves Back in the Equation: Why Physicists are Studying Human Consciousness and AI to Unravel the Mysteries of the Universe.
This isn’t pretension or a put-on. Lyonne is really into all this stuff.
“Is my brain atrophying in Los Angeles?” Lyonne asks. “I don’t think so. For better or worse, I’ll always be wired the way I am. I’m always wanting more information. I’m always gravitating to new ideas and new music and new thinkers.”
But it’s not all work and intellectual pursuits. Surprising even herself, Lyonne says she’s started surfing. “It’s a real get-it-while-you-can kind of thing,” she says. “It’s fun and it’s hard and I think I’m too old to be scared. Plus, I love the ocean and swimming and I have very good balance.” (At some point in her youth, Lyonne was a gymnast, she says.)
She splits her time between New York and L.A., which, she says, automatically “eliminates the conversation of ‘Do you prefer L.A. or New York?’ since I knew I would be in both for the rest of my life.”
Still, she adds, “Every time I land in New York, I feel immediately energized. The city is still in my bones. It’s insane to live anywhere else. New York has intellectualism. Los Angeles has road trips.”
Part of reaching this point in her career, with multiple stops and starts along the way, has been figuring out how to meet her needs and wants. “I had a really good run as an actress between 6 and 16. I started with Pee-wee Herman and ended with Woody Allen, who was a very popular figure in 1995,” Lyonne says. After filming Allen’s musical Everyone Says I Love You, she transitioned to NYU Tisch’s filmmaking program. Though she dropped out, she always knew she’d find her way to being a producer or director somewhere down the road. It also provided a solution to the age-old-Hollywood fear of, well, aging and not getting work because you’re getting old.
“The next generation comes up,” says Lyonne, who will turn 45 in April, “and time doesn’t go backward. It is what it is.”
Lyonne has found it’s much easier to “wake up at 5 a.m. for someone else than myself,” she says. “Over time, we lose interest in ourselves and gain interest in other people. I find it much more satisfying to see Jacqueline alive and getting to sing her song.”
“I’ve hit a lot of personal markers of achievement. I feel spoken for,” Lyonne adds. “In my golden years, the thing that brings me the most happiness is watching other people realize their dreams.”
Hair: Coree Moreno
Makeup: Molly Stern
Manicure: Sreynin Peng
Set Designer: Evan Jourden
Digital Tech: DJ Dohar
Photo Assistants: Danya Morrison, Ricky Steel
Fashion Stylist Assistant: Victoria Cameron
Shot on location at 1034 North Orlando Avenue in Los Angeles, represented by The Fridman Group at Compass