The longtime friends and business partners discuss creating community outside of the entertainment industry’s rules.
On the surface, Maya Rudolph and Natasha Lyonne might seem like an unlikely duo. While Rudolph may be best known for Saturday Night Live (and her now recurring role as Vice President Kamala Harris), she has long lived in Los Angeles, where she’s raising her family of four with her partner, Paul Thomas Anderson. In recent years, she has taken on memorable supporting roles on cult-favorite shows like Big Mouth and The Good Place. Lyonne, on the other hand, is one of those immutable downtown New Yorkers, the hair and the raspy voice instantly identifiable, and describes her career as playing mostly “quirky best friend” roles until Russian Doll, the critically acclaimed Netflix series, which she co-created and stars in. (A second season is in the works.) But Rudolph and Lyonne have been friends for 20 years. They met in New York, were even roommates for a short stint, and have remained close through various creative collaborations. (Rudolph calls Lyonne “Tashi.”) In 2018, they launched a production company together, Animal Pictures. They recently executive-produced Sarah Cooper’s comedy special Everything’s Fine, currently streaming on Netflix, and are developing several films and series, including Desert People, a dramedy created by Lyonne and Alia Shawkat.
Here, the friends and business partners discuss “shedding the bullshit” of Hollywood and choosing the communities they want to create with.
Maya Rudolph: Do you want to do the honors of going down memory lane? The nice thing is this is a fashion magazine, so we can talk about our first connection being a fashion show. You were like the cool guy who sauntered over to me at Mercer Bar at an SNL after-party and were like, “You want to be in a fashion show?” I think you were with Tara [Subkoff, the Imitation of Christ designer]. Or maybe Chloë [Sevigny], I’m not sure. And you were like, “Great. Tomorrow, Showroom Seven, meet me there.” It was like the words that someone says to a kid in a fantasy of when you come to the big city. I remember we had our fitting, and we were so young and lithe, and tried on various cool black gowns, and it was everything. And then we sauntered down Seventh Avenue, and I was like, “This is it, Ma! I’ve done it!” Little did we know that we weren’t models in the show but we were in fact the emcees.
Honestly, when talking about you specifically, in my introduction to you as my first New York friend that I made outside of SNL, the thing I noticed very quickly is, you really did—even at that time, and you were very young—have your own kind of family that you built, which was really your friends, and an enormous sense of community.
Natasha Lyonne: The truth is, of course, that the real reason, at least for me, of this company is I just wanted to spend more time in this life with you in a substantive way. I remember the early days, we were like, “Oh, shit, we really have a reason to talk on the phone every day now.” Nothing brings me more joy, in the same way that I’m sure you have with Amy [Poehler] and Tina [Fey] and [Rachel] Dratch, like a Wine Country, or for me it’s like getting to do my show, Russian Doll, with Chloë [Sevigny]. It’s all these excuses we come up with to find ways to spend time with the people we love the most.
MR: I couldn’t agree more. I really appreciate the people in my life that I’m lucky enough to know. And I also got to a place where I was tired and I felt like work is hard, and if you are lucky enough to choose what kind of work you do and who you do it with, then you’d better enjoy what you’re doing; the day just flies by. If you’re enjoying what you’re doing and you’re passionate about it, and it’s with people who, when you walk in the door you’re happy to see, that’s everything, truly. I always say I like to do comedy as a group sport, but I do like showbiz as a group sport. I’m not a lady who’s like, “Let me get my spotlight and then we’ll see if there’s any left.” I like to make sure everybody’s had a turn. I’m a sucker for community. I love being a part of a community. It’s genuinely my favorite thing.
NL: I’m not interested in individual success. It feels much more like a setup for a head trip; it’s isolating. There’s something about the idea of being able to celebrate success as a community that is really fun. I don’t want to be alone in it, I want to be part of the group. I really enjoy the idea that we’re making something together.
MR: Over the years, I’ve learned that I thrive in a community setting. I’m better for it, I learn more from it. I think there’s a natural inclination that women have to create community. There are men in my life and in my community, but the female relationships that I’ve had for so many years, that have kept me very filled, they are wells that I continue to go to. Thank God for text chains. I have these text chains that really give me life and keep me grounded. They are safe places to vent and ask questions, and say: “Did you make this mistake? Because I just made one.” Or: “Does anyone have any jokes? Because I have to host this thing tomorrow. They’ve written the corniest things for me to say.”
It always was fishy to me and strange when I felt like women were categorized as catty. Yes, women fight, women can be emotional, but I never really had those types of relationships growing up, where it was like, “Who can be better than the other?”
NL: I really identify with that from the Nora Ephron experience I had [doing the play Love, Loss, and What I Wore] with Rosie O’Donnell, Tracee [Ellis] Ross, Carol Kane, and Tyne Daly. It was a real, “Oh, this is doing theater with women.” And then I had it really with Orange Is the New Black. It was seven years of just, “Oh, this is maybe what going to college and making friends would have been like.” That these are now my people for life. If I’m ever out of a job, you better believe I’ll have, like, 13 Orange Is the New Black cast members, at least one of whom I can reach out to.
MR: I’m sure there are some creative people out there who love to get it done and get the fuck out, and they’re not there to make friends. But I’m there to make friends. And also I joke about it all the time, and I say, “Well, I made these choices because I’m tired.” But I think at a certain point in life, if you’ve lived for a little while, luckily, then you also get tired of bullshit, and it’s important to weed that out. I have less patience for it and I have less room for it. I cheated my way to the place of shedding bullshit by having a child. It’s a really direct line to getting to what’s important. I don’t know that I would have been able to personally do that on my own without following that trajectory. I think having a child was really helpful to ground me solidly in a place of “These things need to get done,” or “Everybody is going to Madison Square Garden tonight to see Andy [Samberg] sing with Justin Timberlake, and my daughter has a fever. I’m going home.” I don’t think we would have had a company like this if I hadn’t had that experience.
NL: The way I experienced the end of bullshit was, like, there were so many years of just existing as a fringe player with nowhere to put my stuff. I have very specific stuff. For better or worse, whether you like it or you don’t, it’s a very specific point of view. And I think that, for decades in this business I’d been doing these sort of quirky best-friend parts where there was nothing on the page, and I was being asked to bring my entire personhood there, as if somehow that would make it interesting. And the truth is, there was nothing to do, there was nothing there. So it was figuring out that it’s okay to take up a lot of space in this life while being a woman, and that’s not a shame-based activity. It’s okay to be a boss. It’s okay for not everybody to like you 24 hours a day.
It’s much easier to complain from a distance and say, “Well, hey, man, I did the best I could in this jerk’s movie, but I guess they didn’t do a very good job or something with it.” It is big-boy shit to take the reins. It felt terrible being told what amount of space I was allowed to occupy in the creative realm. It was not sufficient. And I think it’s scary for women to do that, to say, “Hey, this is not enough.” And the truth is, I’m getting older, and I’m catching up to myself, like: “Oh, right, I’m over 40. It’s okay to be in charge of some shit. I’ve been around for 35 years. It’s all right.”
I really go out of my way to surround myself with women. And 40 is the beginning for so many of the women in my life. It’s such a false idea that’s drilled into us, which is that we should tap out at 25? 17? How young? Let us know.
MR: Once you have to exercise that vulnerability to ask people to show up for you, it’s really eye-opening.
NL: Nora Ephron directed her first movie at 40, and that’s fucking awesome too. We have so many warped ideas as a society on where those markers are of when we’re supposed to do things and when we’re not supposed to do them. I just think that it’s big stuff for women that we’re only really learning how to carve out the space for. And I think that’s really what we want to do as a company, is support other people and carve out that space for them.