'He doesn't want to change too many things. But it's also like he's fixated on certain things,' the actor tells Metacritic.
Charlie Barnett relates heavily with the subject matter in Netflix's Russian Doll.
In its first season, the series dealt with such issues as mental health, trauma, and addiction — subjects the Juilliard-trained actor has encountered in his own life. That made the role of Alan Zaveri particularly heavy and meaningful as he and Nadia Vulvokov (Natasha Lyonne) attempted to break the weird time loop they were stuck in, where they would each die every single day.
By the end of the first season they finally succeeded, or so the theories went. Now, when the second season unrolls, four years have passed and both Nadia and Alan seem to have a new lease on life. But then Nadia's mother-figure Ruth (Elizabeth Ashley) falls ill, and the time loop opens again, sending the characters into the past where they physically embody family members in New York, Germany, and Budapest.
Getting back into that world was terrifying for Barnett, but in a gratifying way.
"I'm a terrified person," he tells Metacritic. "Luckily enough, Alan is terrified half the time, so it worked. The characters were developed and written with a lot of our influence and experience put in, so it's not ironic for me to say I was terrified. I got to use that ability to help build this character. I use a lot of what I'm experiencing sometimes to feed Alan in a weird way. I'm not Alan, but so much of what he is, is in me hardcore. So to tap into it, even going into the second season, it was scary because I wonder if people will understand it and if they will accept it."
Here, Barnett speaks with Metacritic about returning to the world of Russian Doll, honing Alan's physicality (including his new mustache), and embodying his character as a Black woman in Cold War era Germany.
What are some specifics you and Alan have in common this season?
I'm a neat freak. I pack like a f---ing insane person. I roll my bags up. In one scene they brought in a suitcase that was already packed by the prop department. By the way, my partner was in props for years; he's a set designer now and art director. So in that world, I'm always hands on, give me my sh--. But I refolded everything in that bag because like Alan, I felt it needed to be more tight and efficient. I'm not as afraid as Alan, I'm riskier; I'll jump off the cliffs at every point. Alan is afraid to make those leaps. We both operate from a place of lending too much power to the people and the voices around us. We don't listen to our own selves as much as we probably should. And God knows, first season when we were doing that, I was fully, admittedly an alcoholic. And I think Alan was a different type, but a binge alcoholic and binge eater as well. I truly believe that and absolutely related to that. I've stopped drinking. So, maybe that's a little different. And in a weird way, I didn't even go into the second season asking where Alan is now with his drinking, but it's an interesting thought I'm just having now.
Is it scary or revealing to toe that line with a character given your own history?
We both deal with depression, we both have dealt with suicidal reactions and moments and thoughts. Alan is obviously in a different place than I am currently. I had the utmost respect going to those places because I knew my own situation and circumstances within it. In a weird way it was bridging to play and explore and to have people receive and understand. There is that darker side, but I don't want the darkness to be unappreciated because it's the darkness that makes Alan who he is. Also for me, it's the darkness that makes me such a beautiful artist and compassionate human being. It's like a superpower. I wouldn't want to take away the challenges it brings.
How did Alan's physicality change in Season 2?
Weirdly, the mustache plays a lot into that. I was not able to grow my own mustache until I was 30 or something. Through the mustache, I imagined I grew up with an Egyptian father. I, Charlie Barnett, have always been interested in Egyptian life. I was adopted and I used to say, "I think my parents are Egyptian." I took some of that influence and added it in here, and made the decision Alan's dad was Egyptian with a big, beautiful, thick mustache. To him, and me, it was the epitome of manhood. So, getting out of that loop and Alan realizing he is more capable and powerful and more in love with himself, that was the point when Alan grows a mustache. He's proud of his masculinity and his weight in this world, and he's ready to show it and explore it. On the other side, oh, sweet baby, Alan, you think a mustache is gonna change things? It's not. But that power it brings to him is really osmosis. It's kind of bulls---, but it helps.
How fragile is his mental health this season, especially when the loop begins again?
He is loving and he's having more fun. I was terrified as an actor to lose too much of what he was in the first season, but I also reminded myself of what we've gone through with these insanely traumatic, life-changing events like dying and reliving. It would change the way a person viewed life. Time does affect us.
Like the first season, the fourth episode of Season 2 is a big Alan-centric episode with some parallels with the music and bathroom. Did you revisit the first season before filming that?
No, but now I'm going to go back and re-watch it. I didn't actually make that relation. In general, bathrooms are important for all of us and I should sit down and ask Natasha about that. I have my own idea. I feel most safe in life in a bathroom. You get to close the door, even if there's a giant party going on. In high school if I was feeling depressed, and I obviously deal with depression, I would sit and eat in the bathroom. Every time I go into an airport, I'll use the bathroom and then I just sit there in a stall, usually far away from people — as long as it's not too smelly. It's like your own weird, little safe space inside. It's almost like being invisible inside the bubble.
How does Alan view his trips to the past? What does he get out of them?
In a certain sense, he's trying to not f--- up the world. He doesn't want to change too many things. But it's also like he's fixated on certain things, like why his grandmother was playing "Morgen," which is a song from the period. Why was it on? Why is it playing? I just want to listen to it over and over again. And I did that as Alan. While I was there, I listened to the same song, "(You Don't Know) How Glad I Am" by Nancy Wilson, over and over. It has almost nothing to do with Alan — it was more just a trigger for me into playing Alan. It's special for me.
Alan almost seems to be his most authentic self in that time period and in his relationship with Lenny (Sandor Funtek). What's your take?
Everything he is experiencing is his grandmother's real, actual experience. Alan has no control over that. It's like he's in a wooden Russian doll. The kiss, for example. In her reality, it's scary because they're an interracial couple. I was playing into the idea that he never has kissed her before in the hallway and it's in public and it's scary. It's also invigorating and exciting and a rush. She could be kicked back to Africa. She could lose her scholarship. She could lose her education. That was a whole history. Ultimately I don't think the homosexual aspect plays into that or it's him even questioning his sexuality because he knows he is protected by this guard. He just doesn't want to f--- up the existence. I think he likes love. He likes the feeling of love. He likes the feeling of genuinely being held by someone who loves and protects him. When he goes back into his reality, maybe he will bring some of that into it. And maybe he will be more comfortable with exploring — we all f---ing should. But in his mind, it's not a part of the equation.
Is there more to dig into at the end of the season or are you happy with where he is emotionally and existentially?
I really wish we had two more episodes. Not to say I would add anything or take away from Nadia's trajectory, because it's really well fleshed out and clear. This is not a front to any of the writers, there was maybe just more to fill in for Alan's storyline. Where we end up with Alan, it doesn't necessarily feel earned, but that's just me as an actor. That said, Alan and Nadia are both given the beautiful benefit or gift of seeing themselves outside of that life and given that opportunity to chat with their mother or grandmother. They both learn what they need. Natasha might disagree with this, but in my mind Nadia needs to let go of her own past and has to get outside of her own self. She can't change the bad parts because they made her as beautiful as she is. In my mind, she's trying to avoid the trauma [but] the trauma makes you who you are. He realizes at the end, too, that it really is about life. He needs to let go of other things and, in a sense, start living. He needs to stop looking at it in reference of how he looks to everyone else, which is still lingering from Season 1. But also you don't need a mask, you should be living.
Get to know Charlie Barnett:
Prior to Russian Doll, Barnett starred in such series as Chicago Fire (Metascore: 49), which also led to crossing his character over onto Chicago PD (50); the revival of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City (63); Arrow (73), and You (75). Most recently, he also starred on Ordinary Joe (64).