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The Best Actor on TV Is Russian Doll’s Natasha Lyonne

This is a star performance through and through.

Natasha Lyonne. Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson/Vulture and Netflix
Natasha Lyonne. Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson/Vulture and Netflix
Natasha Lyonne. Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson/Vulture and Netflix

“Fun is for suckers, Max,” says Nadia Vulvokov, the cosmically imperiled heroine of Netflix’s Russian Doll, talking to the friend who threw her a 36th birthday party she can’t enjoy because she knows she’s going to die immediately and repeatedly after leaving it.

But you’d never know from Natasha Lyonne’s lead performance that fun was a sucker’s game, because every second that she’s onscreen, she bets on it. In a medium thick with electrifying lead performances by actors who created and wrote juicy lead roles for themselves — Fleabag, Barry, and Better Things are but a few this year — Lyonne, who co-created, co-wrote, and co-directed Russian Doll, towers, red hair and padded shoulders, above the rest.

Ya want fun? [Lights cigarette, jabs the air with it, making smoke trails in the air.] I said, ya want fun? Huh?! Here we go, people!

Russian Doll is a comedy about a lot of things, including time, space, morality, relativity, the bonds of and our obligations to other people, where Nadia and her sometime companion in distress, Alan Zaveri (Charlie Barnett), try to figure out the rules governing when and where they will die and die and die again, and whether there’s a way to make it stop. The show is part of a matrix of familiar pop-culture touchstones, including Groundhog Day and Edge of Tomorrow, about characters stuck in time loops. It also owes a lot to the structural logic of video games where characters can be endlessly killed and resurrected — a lineage that Russian Doll acknowledges by making its heroine a software engineer, and having her attack her own predicament like a coder trying to locate and remove a bug that’s causing a program to restart at random. As a writer-director, Lyonne has cited Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz as a personal influence on Russian Doll, and series co-creators Leslye Headland and Amy Poehler have respectively cited the Stanley Kubrick adaptation of The Shining and Albert Brooks’s purgatorial comedy Defending Your Life as primary influences as well.

All of these sources and more are reflected in Nadia, and in Lyonne’s performance, a fusion of artist and character that feels both carefully constructed and wholly spontaneous, confessional and liberating, and immediately vivid and memorable, as if she had always existed. Like a handful of other recent lead TV performances, including our 2016 winner, Rami Malek as Elliot on Mr. Robot, Lyonne’s Nadia became part of the cult pantheon of antiheroes virtually the second she appeared onscreen for the first time. The general rule is, if you can draw a character (even if you’re not much of an artist), or imitate them (even if you’re not much of an actor), and be reasonably confident that another person will immediately figure out who it is, the character is major. Nadia is major. You could scrawl her in chalk on a sidewalk outside of a bar at 2 a.m. and some drunk would yell, “That’s Nadia from Russian Doll. I love her!”

Headland has said that when she and Lyonne were looking for models for Nadia, they gravitated toward their favorite American films from the 1970s and ’80s, which starred hyperverbal, wise-ass lead actors with strong comic chops who were droll and sarcastic and disheveled, and sometimes delivered their lines through teeth clenched around a burning cigarette. These characters were often played by actors like Jack Nicholson (Five Easy Pieces, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), George Segal (Bye Bye Braverman, Blume in Love), Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara in the dramas of John Cassavetes, or the great Elliott Gould — particularly in Robert Altman’s version of The Long Goodbye, where Gould stars as a rumpled, chain-smoking, mumbly version of iconic private eye Philip Marlowe, who dotes on a cat. In the ’80s and ’90s, the roles were inhabited by flinty-eyed wise-asses like Bruce Willis, Michael Douglas, and, perhaps most memorably, Mickey Rourke, who, in addition to being one of the weirdest yet most seductive leading men of that era, is a Humphrey Bogart–level cigarette actor.

Yes, all of these characters were men. Although women did well for themselves in the dynamo department prior to about 1950 — see Barbara Stanwyck, Katharine Hepburn, Claudette Colbert, and Rosalind Russell in just about anything — there was a freeze-out, one written about extensively in Molly Haskell’s classic film-history book From Reverence to Rape. After that, leading ladies rarely got to play disreputable but lovable shit-stirrers who strolled onscreen, tucked the production into the inside pocket of a frayed overcoat, and sashayed off with it. When a woman got to play the engine of the story — like Barbra Streisand’s star turn as force of nature Judy Maxwell in What’s Up, Doc? it threw the usual way of doing things into even sharper relief. What Lyonne is doing in this role is a kind of comic sorcery, thought-experiment time travel: What if a woman got to play the Jack Nicholson or Elliott Gould part in a seedy New York movie of the type that Natasha Lyonne would have watched 20 times on cable TV as a child?

Of course, Lyonne’s performance in Russian Doll isn’t as reductive as playing, essentially, Jack Nicholson from Five Easy Pieces but with long, curly ringlets and makeup. Nor is it a Frankensteinian combination of this and that pop-culture influence — even though yours truly has indulged that descriptive tendency (a few months ago, I described Nadia as a fusion of Streisand from What’s Up, Doc? and Rourke from Diner), and even though Nadia plays that game, too, when she describes herself as Michael Douglas in The Game or “like the girl from Brave and [Andrew] Dice Clay made a baby.” The conception of this role — which is related to, but not the same thing as, Lyonne’s performance — imagines Nadia specifically as a woman.

The scripts build the story around Nadia’s fraught relationship with her own mother (Chloë Sevigny), who was mentally ill and had a fear of mirrors, and whose chaotic stewardship of her daughter’s life gave Nadia a fear of relationships and motherhood. She jokingly characterizes Oatmeal, the deli cat she’s obsessed with finding, as a clichéd single-woman substitute for a child. Significantly, this semi-fetal cat has a place where it hangs out but no real home, and comes and goes as it pleases, just like its erstwhile “mommy.” (A lot of the recurring words in this show have punny Freudian double meanings: Nadia is not delicate; she’s a deli cat.)

It’s Lyonne’s ferociously physical incarnation of Nadia that turns the character into a flesh-and-blood human being, somebody you care about and feel as though you know, as opposed to a film nerd’s corrective of Hollywood’s seductive yet misogynistic history of male antiheroes. Without Lyonne’s expertly channeled charisma and commitment to making each moment pop, Russian Doll might have collapsed beneath the weight of its influences and its mandate. No lead TV performance in the last 12 months has more moments that could, lifted out of context, stand for the totality of the character and the series, from Nadia’s Bugs Bunny–like pronunciation of Thursday (“Thoisday!”); to the seemingly infinite number of ways she can say “It’s okay” and “cockroach”; to the way she mutters, in squinty-eyed Rourke tradition, “Religion is dumb as fuck, all right?” Or the way she chastises her ex-boyfriend John (Yul Vazquez) right before tumbling into an open basement door and snapping her neck, the pitch of her voice rising, her eyes bugging and her non-phone-hand jabbing the air angrily, in a shit-losing aria worthy of Steve Martin: “Just start fucking other people, okay????”

Look at how Lyonne spins lines that, on paper, might have seemed entirely expository, like the bit in the first episode where she tells the womanizing professor Mike (Jeremy Bobb) that the apartment where they’re currently enjoying her birthday party used to be a yeshiva. Nadia describes it simply as a “school for the Jews,” but Lyonne treats it as an opportunity for culturally self-lacerating vaudeville, jabbing a finger over her head, straightening her back, and popping her eyes a bit, as if channeling a long-gone New York ancestor (“Schooool for de Jewzzzz!”). Then, moments later, she continues the history lesson, sidling up to Mike and gazing up into his eyes. “Seriously, yeshiva students used to study the Talmud right where you’re standing,” she murmurs, turning a data dump into a pickup line.

If Lyonne were just being funny, sexy, and weird, she still might have been a shoo-in for consideration in this category. But it’s the way she rises to the occasion during dark and capital-D Dramatic moments that cements this as the best lead performance of the past year. She slides along a wide emotional continuum, playing scenes that range from feather-light to anvil-heavy, but none of them feel like a reach for her. She just does it. You feel like you’re not watching an actor play a role, but a person who just happens to be trapped in a predicament that theoretical physicists would never stop writing papers about if it were real, and who responds to it as a real person, somebody with an inner life and issues that she’s forced to confront as she goes on this perpetually renewing life-and-death journey.

A Closer Look at Natasha Lyonne’s Performance

“A Communal Experience” (Episode 1)

During the second of Nadia’s innumerable 36th birthday parties, Max (Greta Lee) fires up a projector that casts stars onto the room and tells them she’s looking for a “communal experience and not a solo performance.” Lyonne gives us both, incarnating the shared fear of sudden, violent death (as Nadia remembers the first of her many demises), and the character’s shock as a suppressed memory (one of many that will be dredged up during Russian Doll) rips into her conscious mind.

There’s nothing funny, sexy, disarming, adorable, or daring about the look on Nadia’s face here. She might’ve just been jabbed in the heart with a needle. The pain radiates through every part of her. The terror and sadness are overwhelming. And then, moments later, she’s back to being the wisecracking dame we know and love.

This is the moment when the series wipes the smile off our face, and the heroine’s, and it has to feel organic and involuntary, not telegraphed to make a point. Lyonne nails it. The key might be the sense of Nadia relinquishing control without realizing that’s what’s occurring. This is a character who, in life, makes things happen. When she’s acted upon — via death — it’s sudden and startling, but then it’s over. We see her (comical) reaction after she’s reincarnated, but we’re spared the visceral agony of the loss of control itself. This is different. This is a moment that we have to live in, along with Nadia. We can see in her eyes how much it costs her, and there’s something else in her expression that makes the moment about more than remembering an accident. A new realm of possibilities has been opened to Nadia. Now she can truly stand outside of herself and her world, a spirit wandering between the winds.

“I Go to Sleep” (Episode 2)

As Anika sings “I Go to Sleep,” Nadia fights off her terror of dying and dying again by immersing herself in the decadence of her own birthday party, drinking and smoking and doing all kinds of drugs, embracing oblivion. Episode director Leslye Headland stages the scene as a time-lapse covering hours, and Lyonne gives us a gradual lessening of control, a picture of terror numbed by hedonism, until finally Nadia collapses on a couch (after what we later learn was an orgy), then wakes up the following morning and lights a cigarette.

Perhaps more than any other self-contained sequence in the show, this one gives us a clear picture of how this woman works through her problems and gets through her days. When you think about how this sequence was shot, you realize how much control Lyonne has over her instrument (that is, herself). Maintaining continuity of thought and feeling within a single moment is difficult when you’re pretending to be someone else. That’s why actors study in order to learn how to do it. It’s a more complicated proposition when you’re staying in character in time-lapse. And yet, the result doesn’t feel fragmented. It feels like a progression that makes sense dramatically even though, to Nadia, it’s just another fragmented night.

“I’m Seeing Things” (Episode 7)

In a scene that draws on two of the great horror films, Don’t Look Now and The Shining, Nadia encounters her younger self (played by Brooke Timber) in a deli where she made a fateful choice, mirroring another fateful choice that she made in a deli as a girl 20-some years earlier. This scene is a terrific example of the multitudes that Lyonne’s performance contains. On the way into the store, she’s already in a different, more contemplative mode from the usual funny-blowsy-snarling Nadia — sharing details of the latest death with Alan, talking about how she brought two friends from the increasingly depopulated party as part of an effort to somehow save them, and batting around a plan for the rest of the night — but when young Nadia appears, we see a gradual dialing down of whatever confidence was left. In the walk to the back of the store, we see curiosity and concern giving way to profound terror as the bounds of reality slip away. The high point is that slow walk-up, where the camera stays on her, watching her face as she realizes what kind of vision she’s encountering, and also that she can’t stop walking toward it — that perhaps this is not just something that is happening, but something that has to happen.

This moment is probably the closest that Nadia gets to complete annihilation. She doesn’t just die again; she dies her bloodiest and most hideous death yet, and she does it right after encountering the image of herself as a child, a psychological rabbit hole that she’ll tumble into for a full episode. Nadia completely loses her composure, and after that, she’s just a body suffering trauma, blood streaming from her nose, her legs giving out. There is no better example of how Lyonne makes complex and demanding performance moments seem as if they’re just another thing that happens to Nadia.

The Other Contenders

This was an exceptional year for leading performances. We considered Phoebe Waller-Bridge as the heroine of Amazon’s Fleabag — a performance that’s probably closer to Lyonne’s work in Russian Doll than anything else under consideration here, given that Waller-Bridge is inhabiting a spectacular disaster of a character — as well as Bill Hader as the assassin and wannabe actor of HBO’s Barry. On Game of Thrones, Emilia Clarke made Daenerys Targaryen make sense even when the writing failed her. Other contenders included Michelle Williams as Bob Fosse’s collaborator-enabler Gwen Verdon in Fosse/Verdon, and Patricia Arquette, who played unglamorous and often alienating real-life characters in, respectively, Showtime’s Escape From Dannemora (as a prison employee who enabled the escape of two men she was romantically involved with) and Hulu’s The Act (as a drug-addicted mom inflicting Munchausen syndrome by proxy on her daughter). Williams and Arquette, in particular, were standouts because of the extraordinary detail they brought to their re-creations of real people, including the careful reproduction of accents, gestures, posture, and behavioral tics.

Lyonne is giving a different kind of great performance — one that’s so lived-in, and associated so closely with the writer-performer who created the character, that it’s rather too easily written off as “Oh, she’s just playing herself” despite the versatility and control required to pull off the role. Despite the dark or disturbing moments highlighted above, probably 70 percent of Lyonne’s acting here has less in common with the intense, often disturbing Method immersions that are typically characterized as great acting than with the sorts of loose-limbed, explosively energetic lead performances that Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, or Robin Williams used to give, and that Hugh Grant, Kristen Wiig, and Tiffany Haddish still do. Just because you don’t see sweat doesn’t mean you’re not watching a master at work.

Lyonne as Nadia is seductive, off-putting, self-pitying, defiant, electrifying, depressing, and a lot of other things besides, but over and above all that, she’s enjoyable to watch, a ray of sunshine in an increasingly gloomy world. As a tailor-made role for an actor-writer, playing to their strengths while simultaneously revealing previously unseen depths, it’s right up there with Rocky Balboa. The character doesn’t just have a personality; she has a vibe and a silhouette. You feel like you’ve known Nadia for years the instant she leaves that bathroom for the first time and rejoins her birthday celebration, saying hello to people she knows, the camera trailing just behind her shoulder.

This is a star performance through and through. The only thing that prevents our acknowledgement of that from feeling less than elated is the knowledge that film and TV history tends to be rigged against characters like Nadia. The only way women have managed to play them recently is by writing the roles as star vehicles for themselves, in projects they produce. That the role is so sheerly pleasurable to watch even when the character is suffering and literally dying, over and over again, is a testament to Lyonne and her collaborators, who committed to making the kind of production they grew up adoring, but with a woman in the lead role this time, fully imagined, as real as a person who might live down the street from you and stumble into the deli at 3 a.m., high, looking for a cat.

If fun is for suckers, kudos to Natasha Lyonne for seeing what marks we were.

Vulture’s sixth annual TV Awards honor the best in television from the past year in six major categories: best lead performer, best supporting performer, best writing, best direction, best miniseries, and best show. Eligible contenders had to have premiered between June 1, 2018 and May 31, 2019.

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The Best Actor on TV Is Russian Doll’s Natasha Lyonne