This interview contains spoilers for Russian Doll.
At the end of the Russian Doll’s third episode, Natasha Lyonne’s Nadia, who has been stuck in a death loop, meets an uptight guy named Alan in a broken elevator. As they plummet toward their deaths, they realize they’re stuck in the same loop. From there, Alan becomes an increasingly central part of the Netflix series: He’s anal and tidy and the polar opposite of Nadia, but like her, he’s refusing to deal with a central trauma in his life. Alan, as we eventually discover, committed suicide after his girlfriend Beatrice rejected his marriage proposal, which kicked off his time loop. With Nadia’s help, he’s eventually able to realize how depressed he was before he caught stuck in time, and he’s able to help her face some of her own trauma.
Charlie Barnett, who plays Alan, found a personal connection to the themes in Russian Doll, especially the way Lyonne used it to explore the experience of addiction. Barnett came into the series, he admits, expecting to play Alan like a character actor, and for more laughs, but as the shoot went on, he and the show’s directors and writers realized Alan was actually “the grounding force” of the story. “These tics that Alan has, he doesn’t want to show people his thing,” he told Vulture. “He’s been working his whole life to hide that part of himself, to change that part of himself, but he can’t.” Barnett admitted that he hasn’t actually gotten a chance to watch Russian Doll’s ending, nor does he know whether or how it would continue in another season, but he told us plenty else about the series, his time on Chicago Fire, and the bachelorette party that gave him three huge breaks in his acting career.
How much did you know about Russian Doll when you were auditioning?
I only got the first script and Natasha laid it out over the phone with me. I think they would admit this, too: They had the first five or six episodes laid out, but those last two episodes developed as we went. In the first one, I read Leslye’s script and it had me in tears. It also just resonated so personally with me.
What resonated personally with you?
I have had a huge issue with alcohol throughout my life, and it was great working on this, because it put that at the forefront and I had to face it. The depression element was a huge relationship for me — that your only solace would’ve been through a relationship was incredibly powerful.
Alan doesn’t appear until the end of the third episode. He’s the polar opposite of Nadia, living this totally pristine, rigid, very depressed life. What did you talk about as the building blocks of his character?
They need each other. I went, probably, into overkill on developing the character and finding out all my little twerks and tics. Jamie Babbit, who’s an incredible director, she pulled me inside and she’s like, You know, you gotta just kinda let go, too.
What did you think Alan’s history was? How did he end up living in the East Village? I know that setting was important to Natasha.
I imagined that he found this place and was trying to put himself out into a new environment with his girlfriend. But I imagined it as if it was this risk he had taken, trying to put himself out there for the first time ever. That’s why it almost hurts more that there was a giant failure. He’s stuck in this environment in this Lower East Side world that’s not really a part of him, that’s uncomfortable, but ultimately leads to this relationship.
What do you think of the show’s ending?
I have to admit, I actually don’t even know how it ends. I’m working on another smaller movie with Jamie Babbit right now, and it was also my birthday like two days ago — I was waiting until I got back home to Los Angeles to finish watching it because I’d only got to episode three. I’m trying not to ruin the spoilers, but we filmed it probably two or three different ways. I have no clue what they ended up using. I’m excited to see, but I don’t know if I can answer that question.
Well, I don’t want to spoil it for you. But which endings did you shoot?
There’s one that I really hope is in there. I shouldn’t even say it, but there’s one I’m hoping comes out that’s kind of unsolved and I love that. I love that whole element of the show, that you don’t get solid answers, that you walk away being like, Oh. Are they still there? Are they not? Have they solved it? It doesn’t seem like it. I don’t know where it could go from here, though, if that’s your next question.
Yes, I was wondering about that. Leslye and Natasha have said they pitched the show with a three-season arc in mind.
Yeah, I have no clue. I keep trying to piece it out of them and they won’t give me anything, so I’m no help. We talked a long time ago about possibly doing a — I mean, I don’t think this is a real conversation — but I would love to see an episode devoted completely to Oatmeal, in which you see everything through his lens. A Christmas special or something.
Alan and Nadia have to confront the central trauma in their lives to escape the time loop. For Alan, he has to realize he committed suicide, talk to Beatrice, and stop trying to do everything to please her. What was it like shooting that scene with Dascha Polanco?
I love Dasha and it was hard getting into the situation being like, Oh yeah. You’re also horrible to me. To a certain extent, I can see it from both sides. She’s actually stuck, as well — she’s stuck in her own situation that Mike is not the answer, but it’s an outlet. When you’re working on a project that has some danger to it, you have to just commit.
How many of Alan’s death scenes did you shoot? I know that a stunt double filmed a lot of Nadia’s deaths.
Each one of mine, I think I did. I’m trying to think if there were any crazy ones — oh, the air conditioner falling on us! Of course that didn’t happen. I thought mine were some of the coolest, except I really wish I could’ve fallen in the grate. My favorite was the mace [when Alan has an asthma attack], because it’s just such a crazy way to die.
Another key part of Alan is his very particular upright posture. He always walks very stiffly and he wears such muted, put-together outfits. How did you think about the way he holds himself?
So much of his physical identity is his character, I knew I had to start from a physical place. I was definitely extra when it first started. I had to reel back.
What changed as you reeled back?
In reading it, I started to realize that Alan was actually like the grounding force. He has a crazy and an anal energy, but it’s something that he tries to hide. These tics that Alan has, he doesn’t want to show people his thing. He’s been working his whole life to hide that part of himself, but he can’t.
There’s a scene near the end where Nadia convinces Alan not to jump, and he says “If I don’t jump, will I be happy?” She responds, “I don’t know, but you won’t be alone.” It’s such a crucial moment in the show. What was it like to shoot that scene?
This is one of those moments that I resonate personally with. A lot of the times I try and control my life, my career, my journey, and you just can’t. There’s something to be said about releasing that control and enjoying where you are and recognizing where you are.
Was that a lesson that took you awhile to internalize?
Oh, I’m still working on it. Yeah, hell yeah. Every day, all day. My parents, for years, were trying to convince me to just let go and shit. My dad has this saying where he’d be driving in the car and he’d be like, “Let it out the car door. Let it out the car door.” It pissed me off. I can’t let shit go.
That’s a very Alan approach. He doesn’t let go of anything in his life.
Even his connection with his mom. I think a lot of it starts there. I’m so glad that scene with his mom is there [when Alan lies and says Beatrice said yes to marriage]. You can see that so much of what he is built out and around of is not only impressing her and making her happy, but trying to make sure that he’s not a burden.
I was adopted, actually, and that is a huge thing for me. When I first talked to Natasha, that was a big connecting factor. Feeling like, I can’t be a burden on anybody because I already have taken so much by being adopted. I’ve already been given so much. She definitely utilized that, her and Leslye did.
I was looking you up on the internet and I saw something that said you grew up on a sailboat. Is that right?
Is that from the Wikipedia page?
That is true. There’s some shit in there that is very false. My family really enjoys it and we laugh about it all the time, but I made a joke at one of these interviews that my mom is a Swedish Mormon. My mom is not a Mormon. She finds that very funny, but not very true. But I did grow up on a boat! My dad’s a boat builder. He’s in the middle of retiring, but we — me and my sister, my mom, my dad — we lived on a boat for five or six years in the beginning of our lives until I was about 7 or 8.
I’ll make sure to note that people should update your Wikipedia page.
You can add anything to it. It’s free game, I don’t care about it.
You did one episode of Orange Is the New Black playing an inmate Piscatella falls in love with, but I think you were only in flashbacks. Was that still how you met Dascha and Natasha?
I actually didn’t film with them at all. I probably shouldn’t put this out there because I hope it doesn’t put me down in some way, but I’m best friends with Samira Wiley and her wife Lauren [Morelli] is one of the writers. I had a bachelorette party for Samira when she was getting married and I met Natasha there. Me and Lauren, her wife, bonded through the development of the bachelorette [party], and I met Tara Herrmann, who is also a producer on Orange. Directly after that bachelorette party — I swear it’s the best thing I ever did in my life, I tell this to Samira every day — I got a call from Tara to do Orange Is the New Black, and then I got a call from Natasha to do Russian Doll, and then I got a call from Lauren to do Tales of the City. The last three incredibly beneficial and risky and amazing jobs that I’ve been asking for all my life came from this bachelorette party.
Bachelorette parties, the way to network!
Truth be told, I’ve worked my ass off. In some degree, friends and developing work on your own and meeting people is a lot of what this business is. And let me also say, I auditioned for each of them. Even with them calling me in, I had to audition and go through the whole thing.
After getting those three opportunities, how are you feeling about your career now?
I’ve been learning in life, I’ve been trying to let go of this control factor. When I got out of school, a lot of it was, I have to do what Julliard wants me to do. Chicago Fire was my first job and it was such a blessing and it was incredibly fulfilling for me at personal level, just meeting those actors and that crew because they are friends until the day I die. I learned a shit ton about this business. We’d have fun days and we’d have hard days. It wasn’t Russian Doll. I’m glad to say that I’ve had that experience, and whatever my next one is, I’m not gonna judge it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.