Greta Lee And Leslye Headland: Valley Of The Russian Dolls Russian Doll co-creator Leslye Headland and actor Greta Lee discuss sex scene storyboards, wackadoodle costumes, and their interpretation of the Netflix series' deeper meaning.
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Greta Lee And Leslye Headland: Valley Of The Russian Dolls

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Greta Lee And Leslye Headland: Valley Of The Russian Dolls

Greta Lee And Leslye Headland: Valley Of The Russian Dolls

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JONATHAN COULTON: This is ASK ME ANOTHER, NPR's hour of puzzles, word games and trivia. I'm Jonathan Coulton. Now here's your host, Ophira Eisenberg.



Thank you, Jonathan. By a round of applause, who here has been watching the show "Russian Doll?" You've seen that?


EISENBERG: OK. OK. I feel like "Russian Doll" is a television series that dares to ask - what would "Groundhog Day" be like if it wasn't just Bill Murray trying to sleep with Andie MacDowell?


EISENBERG: And from the show "Russian Doll," please welcome actor Greta Lee and co-creator and writer Leslye Headland.


EISENBERG: Thank you so much for joining me.

GRETA LEE: Thanks for having us.


EISENBERG: Leslye, I met you a few...


EISENBERG: ...Years ago at the Nantucket Film Festival.


EISENBERG: I was doing a panel for women in film.


EISENBERG: And you were promoting your film "Sleeping With Other People."

HEADLAND: That's right.

EISENBERG: You told this anecdote about working on that project that stuck with me.


EISENBERG: And it was about the fact that you had to storyboard some of the sex scenes...


EISENBERG: ...From the movie and then show them to some executives.

HEADLAND: I did. Because in the script, they were very explicit. And so everyone was very scared that I was going to make, like, an NC-17 rom-com.


HEADLAND: So - and I said, you know, let's do storyboards because it's also easier for the actors. You know, we have to do these very intense sex scenes. I want them to feel comfortable. And then they were like, yeah, it seems really good. Why isn't Lainey - the female lead of the movie - why isn't she smiling in any of these?


HEADLAND: And I was like, so sorry. What?


HEADLAND: And they were like, I just think she should be smiling, you know, when they're having sex, you know? And I was kind of like...


HEADLAND: ...I - first of all, I don't know what sex you're having...


HEADLAND: ...But I don't think I've ever smiled - ever.

LEE: Like, with teeth?

HEADLAND: Like, teeth? Like, a full-teeth smile?

EISENBERG: I can't imagine anything creepier.

HEADLAND: It was crazy. Yeah.

LEE: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: Greta, you have a very old, Hollywood-sounding name. And did they name you after Greta Garbo?

LEE: They did.


LEE: Yeah. My grandfather was a billboard painter during the Korean War. And he had polio. He was handicapped, so he couldn't serve. The job that he got at the base camp was painting the signs for the American movies that were coming in for the soldiers. And so he became a movie buff. And that's - he's the guy who introduced me to movies. And he named me Greta, which was not a popular name with the Koreans, you know?



LEE: My parents still can't really say my name.


LEE: But, you know, it's OK. Greta.

EISENBERG: And so did that sort of - you know, that was your...

LEE: Make me become an actor?

EISENBERG: That's right. It was your predestiny.

LEE: That's why you got to be careful what you name your kid, right?

EISENBERG: Yeah, right?


LEE: It's that easy. Yeah. No, because I think they would've named me Doctor Lawyer Scientist...


LEE: ...But that doesn't fit on the birth certificate. So...

EISENBERG: So, Leslye, the genesis of "Russian Doll"...


EISENBERG: ...What I read was that the co-creators with you - the show's co-creators - Amy Poehler calls Natasha Lyonne...


EISENBERG: ...And says, you are the oldest woman in the world.

HEADLAND: Yes. Yeah.

EISENBERG: And we need to make a show about that.

HEADLAND: Yes. Yeah. And by the time that it came to me, which was many, many years after they had that conversation - because they had made this pilot called "Old Soul," which Greta was in.

LEE: Yeah.

HEADLAND: And it didn't get picked up.

LEE: No. It didn't get picked up.


HEADLAND: You know, and I just remember we both were like, there's something bigger and better out there. What is it? What's that thing? And then - gosh, I don't even know how it became the, just, bat-[expletive] fever dream you guys have all...


LEE: Yeah.

HEADLAND: ...Binged within 30 seconds.


HEADLAND: Like, I swear to God, I've never worked on something where, like, two weeks after it came out, people were like - I'm so sorry I haven't seen it yet.

LEE: Yeah.


HEADLAND: And I was like - it's been out for two weeks (laughter).

LEE: Yeah.

EISENBERG: Right. Like, day four of it being on the air, the people...

HEADLAND: It's like - it's fine. Like, call me, like, five years from now and be like - I'm so sorry I haven't seen. You know, I just didn't make it to that.

EISENBERG: And, Greta, you play Maxine, who is throwing this party...

LEE: Yeah.

EISENBERG: ...For Nadia, who's played by Natasha Lyonne. And you - originally, the first script that you saw for this - the pilot script for "Russian Doll" - you read it and said, no, I don't want to do this.

HEADLAND: (Laughter).

LEE: I don't know if Leslye even knows that.


LEE: But here we are...

HEADLAND: By the way, do not blame...

LEE: And it all comes out.

HEADLAND: Do not blame you. Do not blame you.

LEE: I - yeah. Because I read it and was like, I don't know...


LEE: ...Because I was intimidated at the idea of repeating the lines...


LEE: ...And the time loop. I was like, oh, this is challenging. The group that you guys got together was incredible. And at that time, I don't think you guys had set out - explicitly - to make an all-female writer's room. Or...


LEE: Yeah.

HEADLAND: So, "Russian Doll" kind of became that opportunity to, like, hire all the people that...

LEE: Yeah.

HEADLAND: ...I'd always wanted to work with, both in the cast - like yourself - and below the line. But then, I think, weirdly, just, like, all the people we wanted to work with (laughter) were women.

LEE: Yeah.


HEADLAND: Do you know what I mean?

LEE: Yeah.

HEADLAND: Like, I just don't think, like - in the writer's room and the directors - like, we just kind of were like, yeah, we just want those people. So...

LEE: Yeah.

EISENBERG: This will be great. So you were convinced...

LEE: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

EISENBERG: ...Even though you have to - I'm sure everyone comes up to you and says...

HEADLAND: Sweet birthday baby...

EISENBERG: Every day...

LEE: No. No one said that at all. Not once. Not one single person. I don't - I have no idea what you're talking about. That never happens to me.

EISENBERG: And the costume director of "Russian Doll" gave you an amazing costume.

LEE: Yeah.

EISENBERG: I don't know if that was a lot of your influence. She's described it as a mixed-media fashion collage with a side of chicken.


LEE: Whoa. Yeah. yeah, yeah, yeah.

EISENBERG: Yeah. How would you describe it?

LEE: It's so wackadoodle, but it just makes so much sense. Like I just - we ended up going with some of the, like, you know, fast-fashion-y stuff. Like, we liked the idea that she thought, like, oh, I'm going to go to H&M and buy these terrible pants.

HEADLAND: Yeah. And then I remember the first day you came on set. I was like, what have we done?


LEE: I think everyone was a little bit like, oh, so that's the choice?

HEADLAND: We were like oh, this was the choice?

LEE: Yeah, like, lot of puffy here...

HEADLAND: A lot of puffy, yeah.

EISENBERG: And the chain tank top kind of over top.

LEE: Yeah, the chains - yeah, not simple - not a simple look.



EISENBERG: Are you ready for the next Halloween, everyone dressing as...

LEE: Oh, my God.

HEADLAND: Oh, my God. It's like my dream.

LEE: Yeah.

HEADLAND: Oh, my God, it's my dream.

LEE: OK. You know, I have to say - so it actually is a really big deal, and it makes me emotional because I feel like growing up - OK, I'm Asian, yes. There are not a lot of costume options for young Asian women. And now - it's a real thing - and I've had people say, hey, Halloween is really far from now, but I'm already really excited to be Maxine.

EISENBERG: Really? That's really awesome.

LEE: And how cool is that?


LEE: You know, growing up, all I had was Lucy Liu from...


LEE: ...You know, "Charlie's Angels," every year, just again and again.

HEADLAND: Again...


EISENBERG: I'm sure you were saying that people watch it so quickly that after two weeks they were like, I'm so sorry I didn't watch it. But I'm sure you also got, after two weeks, people being like, so when's the next season?

HEADLAND: Oh, yeah. Yeah, that too, yeah. Yes. Somebody texted me like that first weekend, and they were like, give me more.

LEE: Yeah.

HEADLAND: I was like...

LEE: What's the problem? It's so easy. Just make it.

HEADLAND: Yeah, it's so easy. It was really simple to figure out.

LEE: Just make the show. Make another one.

EISENBERG: Just write it.

LEE: Yeah - just writes itself.

HEADLAND: Yeah, it was just like, boom, existential dread, not a big deal. Worldbuilding - let's just start saying things.

EISENBERG: Worldbuilding (laughter).

HEADLAND: Worldbuilding, yeah.

LEE: Is this how you pitch a show? I'm...

HEADLAND: Yeah. It actually is pretty much exactly like that.

LEE: That's the secret. You just snap a lot like this, and you distract them, and they can't hear what you're saying.

HEADLAND: I do feel like, at some point during every pitch, you have to stop and go, you know what this story really is about? Hope.


HEADLAND: And then, boom - green light.

EISENBERG: Now, there's many fan theories that have bubbled up about what the show is actually about.


EISENBERG: What is your favorite theory?

HEADLAND: Every single one of them that I've heard so far are there. It's an allegory for therapy. Absolutely, we talked about that. It's an allegory for recovery. We talked about that. It's about what it's like to survive trauma and to get past trauma caused by a narcissistic parent or a childhood experience.

I'm like, yes. All of those things are things we talked about. Like the idea that everyone's picking up on this, but that you can watch the show through many different lenses - like, going back to the title of Russian doll, that was always the goal.

LEE: But I've also heard people say that they feel like the show is like an extended metaphor for just, like, how to participate in life.


LEE: How to get up and, you know, just, like...


LEE: ...Participate.

HEADLAND: I mean, as someone that's suffered from depression, the idea that I could be participating in something that would make people feel that way is, like, astonishing and, like, really fulfilling for me. I'm shocked.

EISENBERG: I think the best thing about the show is that it has a lot of hope.


LEE: Thank you.


EISENBERG: All right. Are you ready for your ASK ME ANOTHER challenge?

LEE: Yeah.

HEADLAND: I don't think so.

EISENBERG: Sure you are. Sure you are.


EISENBERG: Greta and Leslye, we were inspired by the name of your show, "Russian Doll." So we created a game just for you called Guess That Nesting Doll. Here's how it works. We found a bunch of weird and wonderful nesting dolls on the Internet. I'll describe the contents of a doll from smallest to largest. Ring in as soon as you think you can guess the theme of the nesting doll. So if I said, R2D2, C3PO, Leia, Luke, you would ring in and say...

LEE: "Star Wars."

EISENBERG: "Star Wars," right, because that's actually a nesting doll that we found on the Internet.

LEE: Oh, OK.

EISENBERG: So basically, this is, what do these things have in common?

LEE: All right.

EISENBERG: All right. So let's see how this first one works.

HEADLAND: So scared.

EISENBERG: OK - a slice of cheesecake, Sophia, Rose, Blanche...

LEE: Oh.


EISENBERG: ...Dorothy.

HEADLAND: "Golden Girls."

EISENBERG: That is correct.

HEADLAND: Was it me? Did I...


HEADLAND: A slice of cheesecake?

LEE: I was going to say a "Very Hungry Caterpillar."


EISENBERG: That's good.

LEE: But it's good that - 'cause I was wrong.

EISENBERG: I loved Sophia, Rose and Blanche in "The Hungry Caterpillar."

LEE: But then that changed it, so it's good to listen to the whole thing.

EISENBERG: OK. How about this one? Catherine Parr, Catherine Howard, Anne of Cleves.


HEADLAND: The Wives Of Henry VIII.

EISENBERG: That is correct, yes.


LEE: OK, nerd.

EISENBERG: So of course in this...


EISENBERG: The nesting doll set, of course, the heads come off.

HEADLAND: The heads come off.

LEE: Oh, clever.

HEADLAND: The heads come off. We get it.

EISENBERG: And there's also a version depicting Henry V and his wife as cats.



EISENBERG: Here we go. Forest Junior, Lieutenant Dan...

LEE: Oh.



LEE: "Forrest Gump."

EISENBERG: That is correct. Yeah.


HEADLAND: Right, right, right.

EISENBERG: And you played - wasn't there like...

LEE: I did play Forrest Gump...

EISENBERG: In a summer camp?

LEE: ...Early in my career.

HEADLAND: Wait. What?

LEE: I went to an all-Korean camp, and I insisted that they let me do a one-man show where I was Forrest Gump.


LEE: The last line of the play was life is a box of kimchi.


LEE: It's terrible. I was 14. I was 14 years old. Whatever. It was so cool, so cool, so cool.

HEADLAND: All right, nerds. All right, nerds. If you don't make that into a T-shirt, if that's not a meme by the time I leave here...


EISENBERG: Right. We're worth nothing.


EISENBERG: All right. This is your last one. Pluto, Slinky, Bolt, Goofy, Dodger, Lady and the Tramp, Pongo...

LEE: What - these are...

EISENBERG: ...Perdita.

LEE: But they're from different....

HEADLAND: They're Disney dogs.

LEE: ...Animated dogs.

EISENBERG: Disney dogs...


EISENBERG: ...That's correct.


LEE: Oh.

HEADLAND: Yeah. Pongo was what did for me.


LEE: Pongo was the one?


HEADLAND: Wasn't Goofy, it was Pongo.


HEADLAND: I was like, oh, right. Right.

LEE: I was in kid land. I was like "PAW Patrol," "PAW Patrol." Don't say "PAW Patrol." Don't say it.


EISENBERG: Oh, that is my entire life right now.

LEE: Yeah. I'm sorry.

EISENBERG: There's - that...

LEE: My husband just laughed. So...

EISENBERG: ...Theme song is all - my entire life.

LEE: My husband can sing that theme song very well. Very...

EISENBERG: Oh, it's part - yeah.

HEADLAND: Should we do it right now? Can we clear it?

LEE: I only know - (singing) PAW Patrol, PAW Patrol.

EISENBERG: (Singing) Be there on the double.

LEE: (Singing) Double.


LEE: Yes.

EISENBERG: Turns out Leslye won that game.

HEADLAND: Thank you.

EISENBERG: Leslye won that game.


EISENBERG: Greta and Leslye will join us later in the show to play another game. Give it up for Greta Lee and Leslye Headland.


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