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[This story contains spoilers to the season one finale of Poker Face, “The Hook.”]
When Natasha Lyonne reached out to Clea DuVall about a pivotal role on Poker Face, it was an easy ask.
“She just texted me and said there was this role she wanted me to play and, would I be able to do it? And I said, ‘Of course,'” the multihyphenate who stars in the finale of the Peacock series tells The Hollywood Reporter.
Because of Poker Face’s murder mystery-of-the-week premise, the Rian Johnson-created series starring Lyonne amassed a starry guest cast, as new actors appeared each week as either murderer or victim across the first season’s 10 episodes. Each ambitious episode was set in a new location and featured a new murder for Lyonne’s character, the gifted fugitive Charlie Cale, to solve.
But the finale brought the season full circle as Charlie out-smarted the men who had been chasing her (played by Benjamin Bratt and Ron Perlman), amassed an even bigger enemy (voiced by Rhea Perlman) and set up the second season by putting her back on the road and, once again, on the run. Amid all of that, Poker Face delivered its most emotional gut punch when Charlie made a pit stop to seek out help from her estranged sister, who was played by DuVall.
This, of course, is not the fist time DuVall has acted alongside Lyonne. The pair, who have been best friends since the early days of their acting careers, co-starred in the 1999 LGBTQ cult comedy But I’m a Cheearleader and later reunited onscreen for DuVall’s directorial debut with 2016’s The Intervention.
But, like the other Poker Face guest players, DuVall didn’t have context beyond her episode to see how her scenes would fit into the larger Poker Face arc. Now that she’s watched the season, DuVall talks to THR about her hopes to explore more of the sisterly relationship in season two, acting alongside Lyonne as the friends have grown from actors to filmmakers, and weighs in on some of her other projects and roles, including Housebroken, Veep, The Handmaid’s Tale and Happiest Season.
So, it was a quick “Yes” when Natasha Lyonne reached out about playing Emily, the estranged sister to Charlie Cale. [Editor’s note: Their scenes were layered with history, and raised a lot of questions about what cased the rift in this family. Emily says it was Charlie and her gift, and Charlie doesn’t deny it.] Once you saw how heavy the material was, how did you feel?
I really thought it was a great role, especially because Natasha and I have such a long, rich, history that playing sisters — and playing sisters who have such a challenging past — and being able to draw from the experience of being friends for so long felt like a really fun area to play in. Even though it’s darker, there’s something that happens when you are onscreen with someone who you have such a close, personal relationship that doesn’t happen normally.
Much is implied about the sisters’ upbringing, without revealing specifically what happened. Did you two create a backstory?
We talked about it a little bit. Sometimes it’s nice as an actor to just have your own thing going into it. But there were certain elements that she and I both thought about and discussed as it related to their history.
Can you share any of that? Related to how Charlie, according to Emily, caused their rift?
I don’t know if I can. I can’t say, because there are certain things that would affect things moving forward that I don’t know if that’s a decision they would want to make. I think that’s in the writers hands now, about what of this backstory they want to use moving forward.
Seems like you should be coming back for season two …
I would love to come back. Natasha’s character is so fascinating and, as an audience member, I want to know more about where she came from and her personal history. So I think they would make room for me to come back, for sure.
How long were you on set?
I was there for two or three days.
You spoke about drawing from your friendship. What was it like to film this together? Were you serious or light on set?
It was serious. Because some of the scenes were more emotional, it was really about just making sure we were staying grounded. At least for me, anyway, because I love Natasha and she brings out the sillier side of me — what she organically brings out in me was kind of opposite of what I needed to be doing. So it really was about staying focused and not really going all out until the cameras were on, so there was an element of surprise to it. We’ve worked together several times and I really always love it, because it just feels so alive. It takes away to plan anything, because what happens spontaneously always feels like the kind of thing that, as an actor, you really want to have, which is being loose and malleable and not this locked in thing.
Both of you in your careers are now wearing many hats. On Poker Face, Natasha is acting, writing and directing. How does that make it different to act together now?
Now that we both have experience behind the camera, I think we understand what is required. At least, speaking for myself, I like to come in and be of service to the story and support the other actors, and really not make it about me. Especially when you’re coming into the finale of a series of television, so many other things have happened. They are trying to land the plane and it’s my job to come in and just help them do that — rather than break on the scene and really make a moment! The show is the moment. And Natasha is the moment. And really just being able to be there and make sure I’m giving her and the show everything it needs to close out this amazing season of television.
The Poker Face guest stars I spoke to said you only got scripts for your episodes. And you come in for this over-arching pivotal ending. First, are you watching the show now that it’s out?
Oh, yeah. I [couldn’t] wait for the new episodes every week, I’m hooked.
Do you have a different perspective on your role now that you’ve seen everything Charlie has been through?
Totally. I think because our scenes were more serious, I didn’t really have a sense of the tone as a whole. So that was really fun and surprising to see what the show was.
Something that upset me from your scene was that your character was so upset, she couldn’t even give Charlie a change of clothes. Couldn’t she have given her something to change out of this sparkly dress while she continues on the run?
(Laughs.) That didn’t come up!
Your showrunners, Nora and Lilla Zuckerman, also told me the penis ring was Rian Johnson’s idea. [Editor’s note: Johnson posted on Twitter about designing the ring]. Did that provide for any comedy on set?
I think Charlie loses it on the walk… I actually don’t remember [if she had it on in our scenes]. Also, we didn’t have a real penis ring on set with the kid. We didn’t make the kid play with a real penis ring.
We touched on this a bit but, you now have Housebroken and High School and your upcoming show Day Job; Natasha also has Russian Doll and her Animal Pictures banner. What is it like for you and Natasha as you go on this ride together, from actors to creators?
It’s really cool. I would have never thought that we would get on this track when we were just these little, scrappy kids starting out. I would have never imagined that we would evolve into these grown-up women who could handle responsibilities like this. We were definitely always the weirder, left-of-center girls in the stable of actors that we were coming up in. I guess it makes sense in that sometimes being the weirdos, more on the outside gives you the room to explore other things.
Do you think about how But I’m a Cheerleader would be different if it was made today?
If it was still Jamie [Babbit, director], the movie would have been made exactly the same, because she had such a strong vision and did just an incredible job, but I think the reception of that movie would have been very different now. Just as evidenced by the fact that so many kids are finding it now and it seems like it’s taken on this whole other life in the last few years with young people discovering it, which is so cool. At the time it came out, it definitely didn’t pop the same kind of response.
What’s most important to you now with the projects you take on? For example, how long do you want to do Housebroken (which DuVall co-created) and do long-term projects excite you?
I would love Housebroken to go on forever. It’s so fun and it’s such a wonderful group of people. And I think this [upcoming third] season is really good, we’ve really hit our stride. So, I’m super excited for that to come out. I would love to keep doing High School. I just think [it’s about] telling stories that on the surface may seem very specific, but that are really so relatable and universal. I was a kid who didn’t grow up watching a lot of movies and television shows with characters who reminded me of me. And yet, I still connected with movies so much, and really was so moved by them, that that’s what I wanted to devote my life to. So I think to be able to create the same kind of experiences with characters who are less seen or less-focused on screen, and yet are still able to capture the universality of the human experience, those are the stories that I’m really passionate about telling, whether it’s behind or in front of the camera.
There are some Veep alum on Housebroken. Showrunner David Mandel has said it oftentimes can feel like the world is begging the show to come back. Do you talk about that with your co-stars?
Unfortunately, with Housebroken, we don’t really get to see each other in real life. But we socialize and we do talk about it. We all talk about. We all loved it so much, and I think would do it in a heartbeat. It was just the greatest experience, and a group of people who are very in love with the material and each other. It was so wonderful and I can’t believe I got to be a part of it.
The Handmaid’s Tale is also coming back for its final season. Do you have a role there?
I actually don’t know. I haven’t heard anything about the final season. It kind of seems like no, just based on where things ended. It feels like that was wrapped up, but I also have no idea.
How do you feel about that ending for your character and Emily (Alexis Bledel)?
It’s heartbreaking, really heartbreaking. But also, if she really did mean what she said about getting to this place of acceptance that she’s gone for good, to sort of deal with this experience she had, that’s also maybe what Emily needed. Because there’s probably a part of her that never came back [from Gilead], even though she was physically there.
And, what about a Happiest Season sequel?
I don’t have any sequel news!
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Poker Face is now streaming on Peacock.
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