BlackBook Interview: ‘Russian Doll’ Star Charlie Barnett on Facing Down Demons, the Brilliance of Natasha Lyonne, and Having to Die Over and Over Again

 

Of all the binge-worthy shows coming out on Netflix these days, Russian Doll has risen quickly to the top of everyone’s list. Created by Natasha Lyonne, Amy Poehler, and Leslye Headland, the series takes us on a wild ride with Nadia (played by Lyonne), who finds herself stuck in some kind of tripped out universe glitch. She keeps dying and coming back to life in a (rather posh) bathroom at her 36th birthday party.

Though this premise has been explored a few times before, it’s evident very early on in Russian Dolls that this is an existential journey that’s entirely new. Nadia is a video game coder (for starters) with bombshell red hair, struggling with addiction, depression, and commitment. But it’s Alan – the inimitable Charlie Barnett (he will also be starring in Tales of the City with Ellen Page) – who throws a wrench into the entire story. He too is stuck in a death loop. Nadia first meets him during episode three in an elevator – in which of course they plummet to their death – but not before he tells her that he’s not worried: he dies all the time.

Amidst all the buzz, we managed to grab some time with Barnett – who is alive and well in Los Angeles – to chat about life after death, so to speak, as well as the bachelorette party that changed his life, judging his own work, procrastination, and how he brought a new dimension to an incredibly complex character.

 

 

You met Natasha Lyonne at a bachelorette party, right?

Yeah, it was actually for Samira Wiley, who plays Poussey Washington on Orange Is the New Black and Moira on The Handmaid’s Tale. She’s one of my best friends; we went to Juilliard together. She was getting married to Lauren Morelli, who was also a creator and writer for OITNB, and now is off doing her own thing. She wanted me to have her bachelorette party; and I’m not sure why she decided that, but it’s the best thing that ever happened to me.

Are you good at throwing parties?

Maybe I am! Because at this point I’ve now thrown a couple of baby showers, as well as bachelorette parties. Like, I guess I got word around town in my friend group that I can do it up.
There were some fails on that vacation. We had a really incredible time, and I can’t go into the details of the strip club, because I know the ladies would be a little upset with me about that. But, um…I took them to an island at one point. I feel like I kind of Fyre Island-ed all the women of OITNB. I rented this island in Miami that was supposed to be a private, beautiful island, super secluded. It turned out this island was covered with trash. It started pouring when we got there.

This sounds a lot like Fyre Fest!

It is! These beautiful talented women were in linens, and beautiful boat hats. We had a couple other friends – one from Wyoming, who is a legitimate cowboy, and Brock Harris who’s from Oklahoma. They were mountain men kind of guys. They built a fort for the ladies, built a fire for them, and we had a campout until the rain passed; it was just beautiful and we had a great time.

And you bonded with Natasha…?

We had a really nice dinner the last day that we were there; and we got to talking about life and our journeys, and through it we really kind of connected. She’s such a fucking powerful and brilliant human being. A woman who’s endured addiction and battled all kinds of fucking shit from this industry and really has risen to find her own voice and put it out there. But to also find a different and new platform to do it in. That goes for Leslye [Headland] and Amy [Poehler] too.
I was so drawn into who Natasha is and the creative beast that she gifts us all with. I was committed from the day she called me. She didn’t talk about the project that much at the party. She called me a little bit later, and I was 100% on board from the get.

It’s an amazing show. When I first started watching it I thought this is a lot like Groundhog Day, but then it takes this magical turn that you’re not expecting. Like you were saying, Lyonne has this really distinct voice – as do the other writers on the show – and it’s not just a woman telling her story. She transcends genres and styles and builds this world, a sort of sci-fi mystical experience.

And even the technical side, to give credit to all the writers – all of them are women, and it’s great that they created this great thing that so many people are resonating with. But [maybe] it doesn’t make a difference that they’re women.
I think what I’m trying to say is technically, being a 28-minute [episode] and then it being a story that flips back and forth and starts in the middle, where a character doesn’t even get introduced until like four episodes in, and it’s still so impactful to the situation and the environment. All of that included is technically new, different, challenging, risky, and they achieved it a-hundred-fold.

 

 

You came in at episode three, and you filmed a lot of those repetitive scenes all at once; even though as viewers, we saw them throughout the entire show. How did you tackle that, or compartmentalize ‘what am I feeling at this point?’

It was really challenging of course, but for me, as much as I have to admit I’m a procrastinator, because anyone from my class will read this and be like, come on Charlie. But I really really, really love breaking down the work and just picking a piece apart and not just from a character’s standpoint, but from a world: the timing, the technical side, the emotional side and background side. I think the biggest thing was just about playing Alan. My world just started to relate and reflect in a certain way; it had some results that I can’t even understand yet. From watching it, there were things I was surprised by. We [as actors] didn’t even know what the surrounding scenes were going to be.
Also, having people like our script coordinator [Melissa Yap-Stewart], who also works on OITNB, she is like an unsung god of this project, because she’s the one who held those memories. This happens, and this beat goes there, and this has to be lost and the flowers are aged this much at this point. All that stuff was her brain, and she did an incredible job. It’s a lot of work and a lot of attention and a lot of people being passionate about the details.

Were they explaining it from a bigger picture, like here’s what’s going on with Alan right now; or were they like, Here’s the script for today and we’re just going to tackle it one bit at a time?

You know, it’s hard to say because my position as an actor and not as a creative is always going to be different. I only got the script when I went to film the first episode – meaning episode three. That elevator scene is like the first thing I filmed. So for me it was a lot more fly by the seat of your pants.
I think everyone’s fascinated by how they built this and I think the genius really comes from their ability to be malleable. That’s the takeaway. Here are these women who knew each other very well, and they’ve all worked together, which has definitely gotta be a point. They were willing to bring challenges and problems to the table, question them and adapt. And they adapted a lot.

What were some of Alan’s traits that you were drawn to when you read the script?

It’s almost like a double-edged sword. I related to so much about him, but I was also terrified of him. I was terrified of living in some of those things – and those are the things I probably related to most.
A lot of the emotional turmoil that he goes through, the interior emotional turmoil, is something I related to wholeheartedly; and that’s something that Natasha and I related off of in that first conversation at that bachelorette party. I’ve had struggles with depression and addiction and suicide and it’s not uncommon for artists – but I’ve also learned later in life that it’s not uncommon for anybody.
So when I started reading the piece, a lot of those things were what made me beam in excitement, in fear – it was a mix – in joy, in a sense of duty and respect. I really feel like, especially being African American too, and gay, I want people to be able to face their demons. I think we as a people can open that conversation more and maybe even save a couple people’s lives. That really drew me in from my own personal experience and the desire to change the conversation.

Doesn’t seem like Alan procrastinates that much.

No! That man is on his shit. I did take that away from him. I have a calendar now. This is how old school I am – I have a dry erase calendar that I put up once a month and write everything in and make it all color coordinated. 

So it’s really interesting what you were saying about facing your demons. Alan has to overcome so much to beat this loop he’s stuck in, he had to look at some of the parts of himself that he didn’t really want to see. I think any human being would relate: in order to progress you have to get introspective and really dig in. Do you feel like Alan overcame?

I think Alan had this belief in the end, it’s not necessarily about changing yourself, it’s about challenging yourself and through these challenges you can change. I hate to have to break it down like that, but I think words and the way you think about how you react or how you act can change the way you can do it.
I think he did, at the end of it, it’s so hard because the end leaves us all in this kind of ‘where are they?’ Do they go on? Are they still stuck? Does it really matter? I almost think the change comes more from a release, him realizing that he can’t control; and that even beyond not controlling, there’s enough people around him in this world that if he’s honest and open with, he can get the help to give him the ladders in life.

 

He doesn’t need to contain himself or hide himself.

Yeah. I was talking to my partner the other day, and we were getting really deep about this, and the idea of what you want to be, what you want to be reflected as, and what you are. I’m still learning in this life, and I don’t know if I’m right in this idea; but it made me realize we all have what we think we identify as, what we want to be. But we ultimately have no control over that! You’re always a reflection of the people around you and your actions, and how you portray yourself. What you wear even, as fickle as that. You’re not in control… you kind of create it and it is received and then reflected back on to you.
You have to at some point let go of those requirements and then you have the freedom to just be you. That’s kind of where Alan got to, where he’s like I don’t have to be this thing for my mother or for Beatrice or even for Nadia. I’m allowed to live and not question myself, my actions, my past, and still push myself…but allow it to evolve without those kind of opinions.

Stop judging yourself in a sense.

Yeah.

Have you watched the whole season?

I haven’t!
Is it hard to watch your own work?
No not at all. Well, I say that so flippantly. I guess I have to admit, it’s not that I have a problem watching myself or judging myself. It’s really that it’s like you experience it as one thing. It’s one story in your mind and then you watch it and it becomes something completely different. And you lose a part of that aspect, you lose a part of that story.
I like to watch things in my house, on my couch, alone. That is my one rule, I don’t like watching it with other people. Other people telling me shit. The first time I’m going to be judging it hardcore. The second time I might actually enjoy it. The third time I’m might get lost in the story. It takes a build.

Would you say you’re a harsh critic of yourself?

Oh, of myself? 150 billion per cent. I’ve only watched up to episode six and I’ve been hard on myself. I’m like come on, why you doing that? What the fuck is that shit? You should’ve followed through on that emotion! But there are so many parts where I get to sit back and I’m like really surprised by myself and really proud and happy. It was an emotional beast, and anyone in my family and any one of my friends will tell you: they’ve seen me that broken, they’ve seen me that crushed. They’ve seen me that sad, and it’s such a weird thing to be like I’m an actor, but I’m really utilizing my own life and my own experience and my own emotions to tap into those. So how much of that do I get to give myself credit for?

You have had the ultimate experience to be this person even if you’re not exactly like him. Do you feel like you were able to evolve the character and contribute ideas as far as where things should go?

I think, I don’t want to toot my own horn, but I think I brought a lot to it, even in their eyes, that they didn’t see. It was just because of the work I put into it. After procrastinating for so long, when I do finally get to work, I work my fucking ass off.

What was some of the preparation that you did for it?

I’ve been to a lot of psych wards and I’ve done a lot of charity work too – but I’ve been in one myself, and taking a lot of the experience from that and taking a lot of the things I’ve written down over the years and going back into it was really really helpful. And a lot of stigmatizing that goes into it – not trying to fall into those cheap plays and also recognizing what is true and what does resonate.
But on top of that I went into hardcore research about OCD and how it can manifest, and I really wanted to respect that too, because I feel like it’s utilized as a character trait sometimes rather than just, ‘It’s fucking who I am.’

Now that this is all wrapped, what’s next for you?

There’s a lot that I’m really really excited about. I finished shooting Tales of the City with Lauren Morelli. It’s got a great cast: Laura Linney, Olympia Dukakis, Ellen Page. It’s an Armistead Maupin novel; we filmed it in New York with a good week or two in San Francisco.
I also did a movie with Jamie Babbit – director on Russian Doll – and Drew Barrymore who’s producing and also starring, called The Stand-In. It’s going to be really funny.

 

 

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