You thought dying over and over again looked hard, try being Rebecca Henderson on the day of a “brutal” audition.
“This time try to be like a real person,” she says a casting director recently told her. Those who’ve had the wild pleasure of witnessing Henderson in Netflix’s loopy sci-fi series Russian Doll (and in the queer indie film Appropriate Behavior by Desiree Akhavan, creator of Hulu’s The Bisexual), her mastiff-loving lesbian artist character, Lizzy, is nothing but grounded and real. Lizzy and Maxine (Greta Lee) are constants in the ever-changing NYC-set alternate timelines inhabited by their friend Nadia (Natasha Lyonne), who keeps dying and reentering her life on her birthday.
Henderson, whose wife, Leslye Headland, is the show’s creator and director, spoke to NewNowNext about getting turned down by a lesbian publication because of that dildo scene and holding onto a staple of Lizzy’s look: those overalls.
So, Russian Doll: What does it all mean to you?
There was a certain point in the series when I just found myself weeping. For me, it was a lot of the childhood stuff. The childhood trauma, the mentally ill mother, the substance abuse and the addiction stuff just affected me. I think of it as what therapy has been for me, getting me out of my own sort of trauma loop as a human and knowing who I really am—and being okay with who I am.
What part do you think Lizzy plays in Nadia’s life?
I’ve known Natasha for a minute, she’s a friend of mine, and I am playing another friend of hers. I think me and Maxine represent the safe, loving part of her existence.
Is this friend mutual?
I’ve known her for a while. She’s almost too cool for television, so I had to take it down a notch. She has this really deep voice and Leslye was like, “You can’t do that voice.”
Yeah, I think people would be like, “That’s not a real human being.” But she is! She really is!
And real queer human beings wear overalls?
I guess so! I mean, I don’t. I did take the overalls home with me.
Are you wearing them right now?
I’m wearing them right now! I can’t take them off! Show’s a hit! Can you imagine if I wore those overalls outside?
You’d get recognized.
It’s been happening a little bit, which has never happened before. And it’s really fun!
What do people say when they encounter you?
The other day I was with a friend of mine who is really kind of a fancy actress and a waitress came over and she was like, “Were you in Russian Doll?” She was like, “I’m gonna send over a free dessert!” And then she turned to my friend—who’s pretty famous!—and was like, “Are you also an actress?”
When it comes to queerness, what do you appreciate about the handling of Lizzy’s sexuality on the show?
Well, I like playing lesbians. I think it’s important, I have a history of it. I would rather an actual queer person play the queer person than not, until we’re also allowed to play all the straight people. And I also like that there’s an androgynous energy to her. I also like that it’s likely she dated Maxine, that was part of a conversation, and that maybe Lizzy and Nadia had also dated. Just that there was an openness to the sexuality and there was nobody at Netflix who was like, “Less of that.” They were like, “More!” That weird threesome moment where I get up and there’s a guy wearing a dildo backward, though? There was a lesbian outlet and they were like, “We don’t want to interview her because she obviously had sex with that guy in that threesome,” and I was like, “What?! I don’t know if that’s true! That wasn’t my takeaway from the scene.”
But also, you’re not being interviewed because there’s a man with a dildo that you might’ve had sex with?
Well, you know lesbians. You know they can be very strict.
What are your feelings on Hollywood’s LGBTQ-role casting?
Honestly, when I saw Can You Ever Forgive Me? I was kind of bummed out. I know Melissa McCarthy is a star and you have to cast a certain way to actually have people come see your movie, but Dolly Wells—she is awesome, by the way—is married to a man and has kids, and as far as I know is not queer. I was like, “That’s a part where you could really have found a queer woman.” Representation, in general: I just want people to make the effort. Natasha was really intense about the casting and having it be a colorful cast of people who represent everything under the sun.
While Leslye was creating the show, did you give her any input on your character?
Sometimes, when she’s writing things, she’ll consult me and I’ll throw some ideas her way. There is a lot of improv that is in this series that came out of me responding to Greta Lee’s amazing brain.
Can you give me an example?
Any of the entrances and exits of scenes. There’s a couple of moments when we’re coming up the stairs, when we first go outside with Natasha. We’re talking about colonics. I love a colonic—not doing them, but just talking about them [laughs]. And the very last scene I’m in, Natasha was like, “What is this scene? Let’s work on this scene.” And we just kind of started chatting about lesbian relationships and this thing that I heard: that when one gets the period before the other one, she’s the alpha.