As a smirky, curly-haired, New York-dwelling Jew, I’ve always felt some kinship with Natasha Lyonne. It started when I watched But I’m a Cheerleader in high school, and only grew when I moved here 10 years ago and started hand-gesturing more vigorously.
I’m also a big fan of Maya Rudolph in all her forms, from the Judge on The Good Place to Away We Go to her brilliant National Anthem on SNL. (If you hadn’t seen it before, you’re welcome.) So I was thrilled when, a few years ago, I learned that these Jewish women — two of my all-time favorites both in front of and behind the camera — were friends.
Natasha Lyonne and Maya Rudolph aren’t just casual Hollywood acquaintances. They’re roommate-level close, having lived together for a summer in the ‘90s. (I would definitely watch that show, for what it’s worth.) Their relationship spans 20+ years. They met in New York when Rudolph joined SNL — she calls Lyonne her “first real New York friend” — and have remained close across coasts and varied collaborations.
In a recent Harper’s Bazaar interview, Rudolph described her first meeting with Lyonne in the most delightful way: “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.’” (Perhaps unsurprisingly, Maya Rudolph does an incredible Natasha Lyonne impression.)
Replace all the particulars of that interaction with much less cool people and things, and this is a story I recognize: a spontaneous, 20-something moment of recognition that leads to a long-lasting friendship.
My admiration for this power duo amped up in 2018 when they launched a production company together, Animal Pictures. All of the projects on their slate look enormously exciting. They recently executive-produced the special Everything’s Fine for Sarah Cooper, a paragon of pandemic TikTok comedy, now streaming on Netflix. Among their other films and series in development is Desert People, a dramedy created by Lyonne and Alia Shawkat. They hired Danielle Renfrew Behrens as president of the company in 2019. She’s a lauded producer who’s worked on many female-driven films, including Jordana Spiro’s Night Comes On, Grandma starring Lily Tomlin, and Waitress, the basis for the Broadway musical — so I’m sure even more good stuff is on the way.
Almost as exciting as their creative work is the rapport they have with one another. Rudolph and Lyonne don’t miss an opportunity to hype each other up and shower one another with public admiration. When asked at the New Yorker festival about the name of their company, Rudolph attributes it to Lyonne’s voracious appetite and energy for her work. As in, “you’re a fuckin’ animal.” Alternate options were “Baller Pictures” and “Murder Pictures” (like, Lyonne murders it). Natasha smiles as Maya talks, and then gives it right back. “Genius is a very overused word, but there’s a very crisp genius to Maya’s ability to sort of razor, surgical see-through things.”
A few moments later, interviewer Michael Schulman mentions Rudolph’s Emmy nomination for her SNL portrayal of Kamala Harris. Lyonne starts dancing with her fists, and Rudolph shoulder-dances back — just a little private friend moment, gifted to us all.
I likely project too much onto these talented women, but it’s hard not to. Lyonne has started playing videogames in quarantine — “I’ve been living inside of the land of Zelda, I’m a full-blown gamer now” — while Rudolph went the sourdough route, saying she “went into full-blown pioneer woman mode.” I did both things in quarantine! I’m their Venn-diagram overlap! I’m basically part of their friendship!
Jokes aside, I do genuinely see the way I interact with my creative, ambitious friends in their dynamic. When you find someone, professionally or personally, who both complements you and makes you better, it’s like striking gold, and you hope to hold on to that person throughout your career. As I’ve learned about movies, I’ve heard a lot about the great male friendships of Hollywood directors — the film school generation, the Oscar-winning three amigos of Mexico. It’s inspiring to see a brilliant brain trust of women that reminds me of the fierce loyalty, mutual support, and hilarity I experience around my own chosen family. In an industry well-known for the toxic masculinity and abuse that runs rampant in powerful circles, I’m tremendously encouraged when I see these kinds of relationships — and people — in tastemaker positions, running companies. And I already feel more hope for the future of the industry as I hear them discuss their cinematic goals.
In that HB interview, Lyonne points out that “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 Rudolph’s ethos is similarly generous: “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.”
This friendship models what a more inclusive, less zero-sum film industry could look like. May we all find someone to shoulder-dance at our successes, like Natasha and Maya already have.