‘Russian Doll’ Star Charlie Barnett on How His Experience as an Adoptee Informs Season 2

·8-min read

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you haven’t watched Season 2 of “Russian Doll.”

As an adoptee, Charlie Barnett has been able to use “Russian Doll” to process his own family history.

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It’s been three years since Season 1 of the Netflix dramedy first brought Barnett’s character, Alan, and series creator Natasha Lyonne‘s Nadia together in a falling elevator, which kills them both instantly — though they wake up again “Groundhog Day”-style and continue dying cyclically until they learn how to help each other out of the loop. While Season 1 fixated on the concept of the present, Season 2 takes Nadia and Alan to the past, where they find themselves inhabiting their ancestors’ bodies and witnessing first-hand the kinds of family trauma they could have only guessed about before.

“I never got the chance to meet my birth mother,” Barnett says. “I have met my birth grandmother. I’ve never met my birth father. I have little puzzle pieces that I’ve been trying to put together for all my life. And, I admit, there are a million holes inside my soul because of it.”

Though Alan was not adopted, their perspectives align. When Alan hops on the subway in 2022 New York City, only to arrive in 1962 East Berlin in the body of his Ghanaian grandmother Agnes (Carolyn Michelle Smith), he becomes overwhelmed — both by the knowledge of what she went through and the questions she never got answered. Agnes, a student and immigrant, fell in love with a German man named Lenny (Sandor Funtek), who was attempting to tunnel under the Berlin Wall to reunite with his family. As Agnes, Alan becomes taken with Lenny, too, and is broken when he can’t find out if Lenny made it to the other side. A hole in the soul.

“Even in meeting my birth family, I’ve had such a difficult time trying to establish those relationships, build on them, understand them. Because I’m terrified of them to a certain extent,” he says, pausing. “I feel weird to say that freely now! Like, are they going to read this? I talk to my grandmother often, so I’ll be like, ‘Hey, FYI …’”

The Season 2 finale, titled “Matryoshka,” sees Alan meet an older version of Agnes, who confirms that she doesn’t know what happened to Lenny. She simply embraces the fact that she was there to help Lenny when he needed it, and lets go of the rest. Alan takes this to heart, and Barnett is trying to do the same.

“It really struck me as an adoptee. How [many] of these stories are embedded in me that I can’t even open? That I’ve been trying to understand for so long?” Barnett says. “I think Alan lives for the same thing. He finds this joy and freedom in connecting with his Agnes. All the answers he thought he was looking for are right there. Ironically enough, he [also] realizes that you’re never gonna get the answers, even from her. The answers are only within you, for you to discover. They’re not going to be told to you in the way that you expect them.”

This leaves room for a lot of imagination.

Alan begins the season in a much healthier place than he was when audiences first met him. (In Season 1, he was driven by loneliness to attempt suicide.) Barnett wanted a way to represent that growth visually while paying homage to his own history, and thus, Alan’s Season 2 mustache was born.

As a child, Barnett spent a lot of time dreaming about who his birth parents could be. Sometimes he’d picture himself as the child of Oprah Winfrey and Colin Farrell. Other times, he saw himself as Egyptian. And while playing Alan, he brought that into a new backstory he created for himself: “[Alan’s] father, I imagined, was an Egyptian man with this beautiful, thick mustache, and [Alan] grew up thinking that was the epitome of masculinity and growth and power.” Lyonne was on board immediately. “The first day of our rehearsal process, I was like, ‘Natasha, let me have this mustache, please, God.’ And she said that I looked like Clark Kent and fell in love with it.”

Neither Alan’s mustache nor his father made it into the script, but Barnett imagines that Alan relied less on his facial hair to affirm his masculinity as the season progresses and he learns to lean into his innate power. And Alan’s gender expression is further pushed as he begins moving through the world as Agnes, though Barnett thinks the storyline is bigger and more nuanced than just Alan questioning his identity.

Carolyn Michelle Smith as Agnes in Season 2, Episode 6 of “Russian Doll.” - Credit: Netflix
Carolyn Michelle Smith as Agnes in Season 2, Episode 6 of “Russian Doll.” - Credit: Netflix

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“When I kiss Lenny as Agnes, I have this moment of, ‘My god! This guy’s kissing me!’” Barnett says. “A lot of people are like, ‘Is that him exploring his sexuality?’ In my mind, it’s not. It’s him exploring life. Inside of this woman’s body, inside his grandmother, he feels that genuine love. That’s what he’s in search of. Whether it’s a man or a woman, I think, is [an afterthought]. But it’s a beautiful moment, because it’s the same reaction, and yet, two different experiences in his mind. ‘Is this man kissing my grandmother? Does she want to kiss him? Am I in control of this? Should I kiss him? I don’t want to fuck up the trajectory! So I guess I’ll lean in. You kissing me is thrilling and exciting, and I love you, but oh my fucking god!’”

Lyonne agrees, noting that that the decision to put Charlie in Agnes’ body wasn’t originally motivated by queer possibilities.

“It felt more like a hero’s journey for them to be going through this matrilineal line. It felt more like what the show is about,” she says. “I was really asking the question, ‘As a female creator, why would it be that just because he’s a boy, he’s jumping into his dad or his grandfather? Why not his grandmother? And what does that open up?’”

Still, she welcomes the idea that both Charlie and Nadia’s gender identity and sexual orientation could be fluid: “I’m not sure that things have to be quite so concretely about a male or female experience, or a straight or gay experience. I like that there is a queer and open question going on in the show. When Nadia even says to Lizzie [asking about Baby Nadia], ‘Is it a boy or a girl?,’ ‘She’s a neither/nor.’ I find that very satisfying, because Nadia is so heavily based on Elliott Gould in Altman’s ‘The Long Goodbye,’ or Peter Falk. It’s a very ‘Rumble Fish’ sort of typically male character. And Alan is what would historically be the female lead of a male-centric story. How much of a person even needs to be defined by their gender or sexuality? I’m very grateful to Charlie’s openness and desire to have things be [left as] questions.”

Another question of gender that preoccupied Barnett while preparing for Season 2 was how he could properly portray Agnes’ autonomy even as Alan controlled her body.

“​​Carolyn, who played Agnes, and I had a lot of conversations,” he says. “It was really important to me, because I already felt bad that Alan was taking over a Black woman’s story, inhabiting it and not allowing the audience an opportunity to understand the history of a woman like Agnes.”

Lyonne and other “Russian Doll” producers provided Barnett with different books and articles to give him context about the many groups of African immigrants who traveled to Berlin for educational purposes, despite the pressures of the Cold War.

“There was one group [I learned about] from the Congo, nine men and one woman, traveling to East Berlin as immigrants,” he said. “Let alone if you had an interracial relationship, which we portray, that is extreme danger — not only the country that you are visiting and working in, but the nine men that you are traveling with from your own country. As a woman, it’s insanely scary. I didn’t want us to be frivolous with that story. I didn’t want to take advantage of it. And I certainly didn’t want a young, biracial man living in the skin of this woman to be in control.”

But because of the nature of “Russian Doll,” the issue of control wasn’t hard to resolve.

“I don’t think I even really recognized this until a couple weeks or months into filming,” Barnett says, “But we don’t have control. Alan doesn’t have control. He is at the behest of this rollercoaster. It was still important for me to make sure that we reflected on the story. That ended up with conversations with Carolyn and me and Natasha being like, ‘How do we see this? How do we also see this without taking away from Alan’s journey? We don’t want to take away things. How do we include, and rise?’”

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