While developing her film Sleeping with Other People, writer and director Leslye Headland had to storyboard sex scenes for studio executives. "In the script they were very explicit, so everyone was very scared that I was gonna make an NC-17 rom-com," Headland told Ophira Eisenberg, host of NPR's Ask Me Another at the Bell House, in Brooklyn, New York. "It's also easier for the actors. We have to do these very intense sex scenes and I want them to feel comfortable." Executives had one unexpected gripe: Why wasn't lead character Lainey smiling in any of the pictures? "And I was like, 'So sorry, what?!' Headland laughed. "First of all, I don't know what sex you're having. I don't think I've ever smiled."
In their hit Netflix dramedy series, Russian Doll, co-creator Headland and actor Greta Lee further subvert similar expectations for female characters. The show follows Nadia, a no-nonsense software engineer played by actor Natasha Lyonne, who inexplicably finds herself caught in a time loop where she repeatedly dies and then restarts her life in the middle of her 36th birthday party.
Fellow Russian Doll co-creators Lyonne and Amy Poehler originally developed a pilot called Old Soul; starring Lyonne and Lee, it was based around the idea that, to Poehler, Lyonne had "always been the oldest girl in the world." While that pilot was never picked up for series, soon after, Headland joined the duo to brainstorm something new. "We were like, 'There's something bigger and better out there, what's that thing?" Headland said. "I don't know how it became this bats*** fever dream you guys have all binged within 30 seconds."
Greta Lee plays Maxine, the effervescent free-spirit hosting Nadia's 36th birthday. Despite playing Lyonne's roommate in Old Soul, Lee was initially hesitant to jump into Russian Doll. "I read [the script] and I was like, I don't know," Lee said. "I was intimidated by the idea of repeating the lines and the time loop." Lee was eventually sold by the sheer talent of the group: Poehler, Lyonne, and — somewhat unintentionally — an all-female writers room. "Russian Doll became that opportunity to hire all the people that I wanted to work with, both in the cast and below the line," Headland explained. "And I think, weirdly, all the people we wanted to work with were women."
Lee has had memorable guest appearances as Homeless Heidi, on the HBO series High Maintenance; Soojin on HBO's Girls, and a recurring role on Inside Amy Schumer. On Russian Doll, Lee plays the blithe but warm Maxine, known for her signature catchphrase "Sweet Birthday Baby" ("No one's said that [to me] at all. I don't know what you're talking about," Lee wisecracked) and her unconventional fashion sense, which the series' costume designer Jenn Rogien described as "a mixed media fashion collage with a side of chicken." "It's so wackadoodle," Lee elaborated. "But it just makes so much sense. We liked the idea that she thought, 'I'm gonna go to H&M and buy these terrible pants.'"
Lee is excited to provide young Asian-American women both a character to identify with and a new costume option for Halloween — something she struggled to find growing up. "It makes me emotional," Lee said. "I've had people say, 'Hey, Halloween is really far from now and I'm already really excited to be Maxine.' How cool is that?"
Since premiering, Russian Doll has garnered a devoted and obsessive fan base — and with that, an array of theories for what the show and its complex themes are really about. "Every single [one of the theories] that I've heard so far are there. It's an allegory for therapy. It's an allegory for recovery," Headland explained. "You can watch this show through so many different lenses and, going back to the title of Russian Doll, that was always the goal." Lee agreed, adding that some have interpreted the show as "an extended metaphor on how to participate in life." It's a take that moves Headland. "As someone who's suffered from depression, the idea that I can be participating in something that makes people feel that way is astonishing and really fulfilling for me," she said.
For their Ask Me Another challenge, Lee and Headland competed in a game "Guess That Nesting Doll," in which they guessed the theme of weird and wonderful nesting dolls found on the internet.
Leslye Headland, on how to pitch a show:
"At some point during every pitch, you have to stop and go: 'You know what this story really is about? Hope.' And then BOOM! Green light."
Greta Lee, on playing Forrest Gump at 14:
"I went to an all-Korean camp, and I insisted that they let me do a one-man show where I was Forrest Gump. The last line of the play was, 'Life is like a box of kimchi.'"
Headland, on the bingeability of Russian Doll:
"I've never worked on something where two weeks after it came out people were like, 'I'm so sorry I haven't seen it yet.' And I'm like, 'It's been out for two weeks. Call me five years from now.'"
Lee, on whether being named after Greta Garbo contributed to her becoming an actress:
That's why you gotta be careful what you name your kids. It's that easy. I think [my parents] would've named me "Doctor-Lawyer-Scientist."
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