on 'russian doll,' greta lee is who you see before you die
The actor tells i-D about repeatedly roasting chickens for her role in Natasha Lyonne's surreal Netflix hit.
Screengrabs courtesy of Netflix.
Russian Doll is the Netflix show that follows Natasha Lyonne as she repeatedly meets a grisly end after her birthday party. Not like when you vomit and it gets in your hair (welcome to 30, Stacey, bet you didn’t think it would start like this) but actual death — Lyonne falls down the stairs, gets hit by a car, and dies in all the ways most New Yorkers worry about, only to wake up back in the bathroom of her party and have to do it again. A constant presence throughout the show is Greta Lee, who plays the art-world hostess of Lyonne’s birthday, and in each episode is trying to roast a chicken, wearing a particularly fetching sea foam green outfit.
Lee, at this point, is an established scene stealer, appearing in High Maintenance as the now iconic Homeless Heidi, a scammer before it was a thing, and in Girls as Soojin. Having to play the same scene over and over might sound like a Dantean vision of acting class, but Lee, as is her way, gives her character Maxine a deranged magnetism. i-D caught up with Lee to talk about working with Lyonne, the TV series she’s developing, and how New York turns everyone into a cockroach.
I don't think I've ever seen a show where someone has to wear the same outfit throughout. Maybe you could tell us a bit about your character in Russian Doll .
From a wardrobe perspective, there are obviously many, many ways we could have gone, and many different ways we almost went. Jenn Rogien is a wonderful genius costume designer who I first worked with years ago on Girls, and really loved her. She's just very smart about character and she dressed me for this character, Soojin [on Girls], and I remember feeling like she can do a lot with a little, and establishing character and tone with clothing, she's just so great at.
Our second runner-up, I believe, was a head to toe Dries Van Noten look, which is obviously very different from what we ended up with.Can you imagine Maxine with all those raw chickens in a head to toe Dries look? Really...
Yeah, right. But Maxine ended up to be very different. I think what we landed on was this very weird hodgepodge mix of stuff that, I think, some of it was vintage, some of it was fast fashion-y. It's tricky because with artsy people, that line crossing over into trendy, I think you want to try to avoid because you don't know when this is going to come out.
Natasha's obviously quite a force of nature. What was it like working with her?
Yeah. I worked with Natasha before, we shot a pilot together many years ago for NBC Universal. I also played her best friend. It was probably this show, but a much nicer version. A show for the kids. That did not go, thankfully actually, because in a way, that show planted the seed for this show. Which, gives you any sense of how long television takes.
I mean, everyone knows Natasha. It's just like, the line when Maxine says ‘You're a cockroach’ like that's unkind, but I think what Natasha can share with [her character] Nadia is she's been around. She's been doing this forever, she's such a good actor and she knows everybody. I'm happy to be one of the people who had the experience to work with her. She's a rare bird — I will pretty much do anything she asks me to do. Even this job, I initially turned down, or tried to turn down, because I looked at the script and I just thought "Oh my God, this is actor suicide who would want say the same four lines over and over and over again?"
It’s pretty bizarre.
There was a time when I thought "Oh great, this is going to be the fastest media shoot of my life we're just going to do this once" [as] you just recite it over and over again. But, that definitely was not the case. We had a chance to breathe new life into each of those resets.
You’re known for doing a lot with a small role — Homeless Heidi [on High Maintenance ], who’s become a cult figure, springs to mind.
I'm mostly happy and surprised to hear that. It's just so funny to see which characters end up resonating the most with people. It's like, ‘ow, a homeless woman really struck a chord.’
She really said something about the way we live now, I don't know what, it's too early for me to be that intelligent.
Do you think the city, the longer you're in New York, turns everyone into a cockroach?
Yeah, we're all cockroaches. We absolutely are. And, I think that's a good thing, right?
What’s the message behind Russian Doll ? One starts off the series thinking repeated dying would be the worst thing in the world, and obviously I don't want to fall down a Chinatown basement ladder and break my neck, but as the series continues there is a spirit of live each day as if it were your last.
I think [something] this show does so marvelously is it tackles so many different things in this very twisted and strange and unique way. Yes, among those is that idea of resetting. If you have the opportunity to make some changes to your life, what would you do?
But, more interestingly, how successful would you actually be? And when you scrape away, what is the true essence of yourself? I find that to be a very interesting question. And, yeah, hitting rock bottom, I think that show manages to cover things like addiction and mental health in a way that I find very real and relatable.
I think so often that when you cover those kinds of tropes, it becomes like this is an addiction movie or something like that, or a suicide movie. And that's just not realistic, that's not how things manifest in life. I think ultimately those are the things that really drew me to the script in the end. It's just all encompassing in a way that was three-dimensional. And that's rare.
What are you working on at the moment?
We are writing a show with HBO, Jason Kim and I, who also is from the Girls world. We are working on a show about a family in Koreatown, Los Angeles. It's a very interesting place that has not been tapped into at all, surprisingly.
What's it like writing your own show? It sounds like acting is obviously a real game of cards.
It all is, you know. It never ceases to be incredibly humiliating in a new or more interesting way, and it's humbling. But, it's a good thing and I think that applies to being an actor, being a performer, but also being a creator. I think that I'm happily in a place where I want to keep pushing. I feel like even as an actor, there's just so many things that I'm still wanting to learn and wanting to do. And, with writing, we're excited to take on this world, and having grown up in L.A. myself, and you get to do something that's personal and I feel like, it seems at least, this time finally there are more doors that are open to tell new kinds of stories. So yeah, it's great, it's just wonderful.