Greta Lee on Maxine in Russian Doll season 2

Greta Lee is an absolute scene stealer, an actor who lights up the screen no matter how small the part. Brimming with charisma, she can sear herself into the fabric of a series just by her presence. Lee has showncased this ability in countless series: New Girl, Broad City, The Morning Show, What We Do In The Shadowsand The Other Twojust to name a few.

And then, of course, there’s Russian Doll. Lee stole scenes effortlessly in the first season with that one line, “Sweet birthday baby!” – which quickly became the most quotable five syllables of the series. In spite of how many times she said the phrase, it felt like a gift each time. As the second season of the existential sci-fi series arrives on Netflix, viewers will see Maxine say so much more than “Sweet birthday baby.” This time around, her role as best friend and party planner expands to caretaker and travel partner as she jets to Budapest with Natasha Lyonne’s Nadia and displays a real fearlessness.

The AV Club spoke to Lee about Maxine’s meatier part, her character’s plans to have a Nazi baby, and returning to the party that started it all. (Be warned: There are spoilers discussed below.)

The AV Club: How was it returning back to the Russian Doll universe after a few years?

Greta Lee: Three centuries? During which nothing happened at all? What a boring, uneventful time it was for all of us.

It was a trip. It was already gonna be a challenge to come back because of how great the first season was, and meeting certain expectations for the next season. I think we had always sort of anticipated, “Alright, like, we really have to step it up if we come back.” And then we had to wait three years, which added even more to that.

But in the end, I’m so glad Natasha [Lyonne] really had the time to really sit and marinate and think about what she wanted to do. And I’m so excited to see how everyone responds to this new season. Because, you know, I feel like it’s really different. It’s like it feels like it’s plucked from the same world and a show that we loved, but she’s really taken it for a ride the second season. And it’s so much of her with her showrunning, writing, and directing. It’s Natasha’s world and everyone’s invited to come over into her brain. Which is like a really thrilling invite to get.

AVC: You think the first season is trippy and then you get to the second season. They really crank it up like 10 notches.

GL: We have joked about it collectively; we can’t agree what is the appropriate number of times you should watch each episode, to get everything, to get all the Easter eggs. There are some throwaway lines that are incredible. Natasha loves to do this thing where she fills in the gaps in ADR with improv, which is not always the case. So there’s just so much to catch. Even for me, every time I watch it, there’s something else that I catch.

AVC: What is your favorite Easter egg or hidden line from the season?

GL: I mean, it’s a really silly throwaway. But when I am in Hungary, and we approach our Hungarian man, Maxine says, “Holy Willem Defoe.” I don’t even know if anyone’s ever going to hear that, but things like that really add a texture to this world into what we’re doing — and especially their relationship in a way that I really, really enjoy.

Greta Lee as Maxine in season 2 of Russian Doll

Greta Lee as Maxine in season 2 of Russian Doll
Photo: Netflix

AVC: Maxine as a character this season really gets to open up a lot more, as opposed to kind of saying the same thing over and over in the first season. How did your approach to this character change?

GL: Well, I think the challenge with her is my approach didn’t change. It couldn’t, because she is someone who is so fully herself in a very Maxine way, no matter what situation she’s in. In my mind, I imagine if we dropped in on her at like 85, she would still be exactly the same. That presents a new kind of challenge as an actor, especially with so much time passing. I really wanted to stay true to who we created in season one. She really is so steadfast in who she is and so incredibly present. She’s one of those people for better or for worse who can only see like five feet in front of her. It’s this spectacular way of living. It’s really fun to play.

AVC: How do you feel about Maxine’s plan in Budapest to have a baby with a man with Nazi lineage?

GL: I mean, I love it. It’s truly idiotic. And I love that about her. She’s so unapologetic, even with her worst ideas. She’s so nonjudgmental in this crazy way. That’s a really terrible idea in my mind, obviously. You know, I don’t recommend it to anyone, the way she lives her life. But yeah, that’s just her. I love that we get to show how varied one’s journey in terms of motherhood can be that it’s not like this monolithic experience for women. For her, questioning, “Oh, do I want kids?” looks completely different than I think what I’ve seen elsewhere. So it’s a comedic kind of reckoning with motherhood that we get to play around with in Budapest.

AVC: In the Budapest episode and throughout the season, Maxine offers comic relief in scenarios that are also dealing with a lot of grief. How does she fit into the show? What does she bring?

GL: Well, I think it’s good to laugh. And especially when we’re investigating these really expansive questions of identity, where we come from, and uncovering really painful truths about who we are and our origin stories. The ride, it should be funny, because life is sort of that way, isn’t it? It can be so devastating; it can be so alienating — and also hilarious, in my experience. I think it was important for us to realistically honor what that could be like for someone to go through something like this with a friend, [as well as] what it would be like to someone who is an outsider bearing witness.

AVC: There is the sort of balancing act between Maxine and Nadia where they’re on these opposite ends of eccentricity. How would you describe their dynamic?

GL: There is something about the two of them where they exist and operate from different planets, but they can meet. It’s like they can take a spaceship and meet somewhere in the middle. Which we also thought was like a very real aspect of female friendship. You don’t have two people who are carbon copies of each other, who are going to get along with each other. So that has always been and continues to be something that we want to protect for the two of them. For the sake of storytelling, I think it’s useful to have those two perspectives, to have a clown for Nadia to sort of bounce off of. That kind of partnership, I think, makes it more enjoyable to watch what unfolds over this whole crazy season.

AVC: You also really see Maxine step up as a caretaker for Elizabeth Ashley’s Ruth, who raised Nadia, over the course of this season. Why do you think she feels that kind of responsibility to take that on?

GL: Because she loves Nadia; that is purely out of a deep love for her friend. We went as far as to say, you know, Maxine, probably may not even like old people. She borders on being offensive, obviously with her choices and her beliefs, as fleeting as they are. I think she lives for herself. And on the one hand, that’s extremely selfish. But on the other hand, it’s kind of thrilling to see someone who’s so honest with their needs and their interests. But it can also be entirely possible that someone like that can have a deep love for their friend, a love deep enough to make her want to take care of Ruth or make her want to take care of a baby. All the scenes in the hospital where [Nadia and Maxine’s friend] Lizzie [Rebecca Henderson] is baby crazy, Maxine is really not into it. And I like that we can show a woman who isn’t automatically melting at the sight of a baby, you know?

AVC: Yeah, exactly. In the last couple of episodes, time starts melting away and timelines start melting into each other. It goes back to the party scene from the first season. How was filming that?

GL: Oh my god. I felt like I was in a dystopian universe. I felt like I had climbed out of my own brain and was sitting outside of it, trying to make sense of what was happening. Because the level of detail with which they had restored what we saw: You guys maybe won’t be able to see all of it in full detail, but I mean, everything was there. To be back in that space felt so meta, like I had traveled back in time, but my body was different. I had another child in that space of time. There were very clear, tangible indicators that time had passed. But we were right back where we were. And having to say that line that I had gotten used to people shouting at me on the subway — I got [the point of] pretending I didn’t know the line, which was very fun for everyone for about five seconds. So it was wonderful, because that was the beginning of all of it. I kind of love that Maxine was stuck in that one place in that party. I really grew to appreciate what that meant symbolically for Nadia to have a friend there at that party again and again. It was really crazy to go back and revisit all of that. I mean, for lack of a more interesting answer, my answer is it was really crazy.

AVC: Do you think there will be a time when Nadia tells Maxine everything that she’s gone through, that she’ll be in on what’s been happening over the last several years?

GL: Yeah, I do. I think she is telling her—[that’s] the way I’ve interpreted it. Like, I think she is telling her in her own way. In my mind, the imagined unaired episode that happens after season two finale is her at a party with Maxine telling her everything about the train and going back and becoming her mom. I think she’s like telling her explicitly, and Maxine is sort of like, “Cool. So should we go to another party tonight? Or do we think we’re gonna call it? ” I think she’s able to take all of it in spades, if that makes sense. She’s able to then just pick right back up and keep moving forward and living life alongside her best friend.


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