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[This story contains major spoilers to the penultimate episode in season one of Poker Face, “Escape From Shit Mountain.”]
After delighting audiences with his unsuspecting cameos, Joseph Gordon-Levitt finally steps back into Rian Johnson’s frame on Poker Face.
Since starring in Johnson’s directorial debut, the 2005 indie movie Brick, the actor has appeared in every movie Johnson has helmed. In addition to his starring role in 2012’s Looper, the Johnson favorite has made harder-to-spot cameos, including his secret role of Slowen-Lo in Star Wars: The Last Jedi and two voice roles in the Knives Out films — including the sound of “the Hourly Dong,” which goes off every hour in the Edward Norton-starring sequel, Glass Onion.
For the penultimate episode of Poker Face‘s first season, Gordon-Levitt was able to take on a starring guest role for the pivotal installment, “Escape From Shit Mountain,” which was written by showrunners Nora and Lilla Zuckerman and directed by Johnson.
“Finally, the schedule worked out,” Gordon-Levitt tells The Hollywood Reporter of working with his frequent collaborator, who created the Peacock series. “We’ve been foiled by the fate of the calendar a number of times over the last two years.”
Each episode of the murder mystery-of-the-week series introduces new murderers and victims, with Natasha Lyonne’s Charlie Cale ultimately solving the case, thanks to her special ability to tell when someone is lying. In this week’s episode, Gordon-Levitt plays Trey, an entitled white collar criminal on house arrest for insider trading who can’t bother to tip on his food deliveries. When there’s a blizzard and the power goes out, so does his GPS ankle monitor. So he heads out for a joy ride that alters the course of Poker Face.
Trey, who is boozing while driving, hits a woman on the road who turns out to be Charlie (Lyonne). He seeks out an old friend Jimmy (played by David Castañeda) to help him bury the body, but Charlie is not dead — yet. She and a friend whom she met on the road, Morty (played by Stephanie Hsu), end up cornered in a motel lodge with the two men, where Charlie uncovers that Trey murdered another girl years ago and similarly tried to hide the body. Trey ends up killing Jimmy and Morty and attempts to kill Charlie, to cover up his secret.
But, in the end, it’s revealed that Charlie had swiped his ankle bracelet in her attempt to fight back. Trey only realizes it’s missing when he returns home, just in time for the power to return. The final moment shows Charlie still breathing and clutching the beeping bracelet, with her fate amid the season’s over-arching cat-and-mouse chase between her and Benjamin Bratt’s character, Cliff, set to be revealed in the finale.
Below, in a chat with THR, Gordon-Levitt talks about playing an irredeemable villain (“This guy is just an awful, awful person”), bonding with Lyonne after meeting her for the first time in their careers on set, what draws him to Johnson’s projects — and whether or not he’s made another sly cameo in other Poker Face episodes.
I was told that Poker Face guest stars only knew about their own episodes. Are you watching the other episodes now that the season is out?
Yeah, you’re right. I am watching them. And I don’t watch anything, so it’s quite a testament. I’m like halfway through the season. That show is fun to watch!
It’s become almost a sport for fans to find you in Rian Johnson’s projects, which is why Poker Face is a delight because you have such a big role. I imagine that you could have had your pick at Poker Face villains, why this one?
Oh, well, I honestly wasn’t the picker. Rian called me and said, “Hey, I’m doing this show. Can you do this role?” And I’m like, ‘Of course I can.’ That was the extent of the decision-making process. (Laughs.)
And then did you ask what it was about? Or was it just, “See ya then”?
Somewhere in between, I guess! I obviously read it. But I said yes before I read it.
So it sounds like it didn’t take any convincing for you to be the star of the episode, instead of making a cameo?
Finally, the schedule worked out. We’ve been foiled by the fate of the calendar a number of times over the last two years. So finally, he was making something at the time I wasn’t, and the stars aligned.
I saw you call it a tradition, of making a cameo in all of Rian Johnson’s movies.
Yeah. It’s a really sweet, I guess, tradition is what you call it. I guess you could also call it an inside joke. But I’m particularly a fan of the Hourly Dong [in the Knives Out sequel, Glass Onion], Slowen-Lo [in Star Wars: The Last Jedi] and Detective Hardrock, I think is the guy from the first Knives Out movie. I also have a tiny cameo in Brothers Bloom, too.
How much time did you put into recording that “dong” sound for Glass Onion?
That was recorded in about 120 seconds right as I wrapped on Poker Face, actually. The sound department of Poker Face recorded my takes for the Hourly Dong.
I spoke with Poker Face showrunners Nora and Lilla Zuckerman and was surprised to hear that your episode, “Escape From Shit Mountain,” was the first one they filmed in the season because it’s an intense one to start with. They said that with you on set, and Rian and T-Street producing partner Ram Bergman and the crew, it felt like a family reunion. What was it like to be a part of this show kicking off and helping to set that tone?
You said it, it feels like family. Rian, Steve Yedlin, Ram Bergman, Jaron Presant, Nathan Johnson… all these artists who are also dear friends of mine that all go back to Brick. It’s really one of life’s great pleasures to get to have fun and make art together with your friends. Not every job feels that way, but this one did in the extreme.
Also, not every director and star form such a collaboration after making a movie. Is there some kind of magic you and Rian found on Brick that you’ve carried through, all the way to Poker Face?
Boy, I don’t know. I love how he writes. One of the barometers I have for whether or not I want to get involved in a project is that as I’m reading a script, sometimes I find myself saying the words aloud. It doesn’t even necessarily happen in an intentional or conscious way. I don’t even try to analyze it too closely, it’s just something that kind of starts to happen, and I take that as a very strong sign when it does. I don’t think there’s another writer in the world whose words more consistently and strongly inspire me. You just start reading them out loud, and his words are just so much fun to say. That was certainly the case with Brick and that persists with all of his stuff, in Looper and now in Poker Face.
When it came time for you to start prepping for Trey, who did you look to for inspiration?
Oh, that’s interesting. I wasn’t really modeling the character after any one individual or people. I went to an Ivy League school for about half a bachelor’s degree. But I also think the attitude of entitlement that this character Trey embodies is not just found at an Ivy League school; I think you can find it anywhere. And I think we all, to some degree, have it in ourselves. And those of us who strive to be kind people keep a lid on it. And so that’s part of the fun of acting is that you get to sort of face your demons by letting them out and indulging them. We all, at some point, want to be a spoiled brat, and this character is the very worst spoiled brat you could imagine, really.
Usually, when you talk to actors who play villains, they still look to find something redeeming. Was it freeing that you didn’t have to do that here?
(Laughs.) It sort of was. And, I have played a number of other villains in the past. You said it exactly right. Usually, you want to empathize with them. You want to try to find, “OK, what’s going on with them? How did they end up this way? How are they a victim of circumstance?” Maybe because of the genre, because it’s an episode in a case-of-the-week TV show, this [was different]. And it was kinda fun, to just take it all the way there. This guy is just an awful, awful person.
We don’t see what happens to him after he realizes his ankle monitor is gone, and he’s about to be caught. We can guess. But, have you taken any time to imagine where Trey is today after the last scene?
Oh, I hadn’t really yet. I imagine he’s behind bars.
Probably for less time than he deserves.
Well said. Probably behind bars for less time than he deserves. (Laughing.)
There are a lot of murderers in Poker Face, but you’re the first to try to kill Charlie Cale. It’s an emotional episode for her. What was it like to have Natasha Lyonne as a scene partner?
She’s someone I’ve admired for such a long time. Her work has been so great for so long. She and I were both actors young. And she’s also flourished into a filmmaker of her own, which is something I like to do as well. So, I have a real admiration for her. And when Rian got together with her to do this show I thought, “Man, that’s a great teaming right there.” But I’d actually never gotten the chance to work with her and never spent any time with her before, and we hit it right off. We had a lot of the same sensibilities and past experiences and sense of humor. And it was also interesting because this was, like you said, the first episode. So I was sort of watching her find this character. And it’s quickly becoming such an iconic character. It was great to see it in its coming-out party.
The Zuckermans also told me they’d like Poker Face to be like Columbo and have guest stars come back in later seasons in different roles. Would you like another big role, or would you prefer to do some sneaky cameos for season two?
(Laughs.) I would do anything that Rian asks me to do, at any time.
Do you have any cameos in other episodes of Poker Face that we missed?
I can’t answer that.
Poker Face is now streaming on Peacock, with the finale releasing March 9. This interview has been edited for clarity.
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