In ‘Poker Face,’ Natasha Lyonne Can’t Help But to Crack the Case
The star, and co-showrunners Nora and Lilla Zuckerman, speak to The Hollywood Reporter about the premiere episodes setting the course for Rian Johnson's murder mystery series.
[This story contains spoilers from the first four episodes of Peacock’s Poker Face.]
After emerging from another season of Russian Doll’s mind warp, Natasha Lyonne threw herself into a new character.
This time, it was Charlie Cale, the star of her and creator Rian Johnson’s new Peacock series Poker Face. And there are some big distinctions between Nadia — her time-looping and time-traveling lead on the formerly mentioned Emmy-winning Netflix series she co-created — and Charlie, her on-the-run “human lie detector” who anchors the murder mystery-of-the-week Peacock show.
“Nadia is a bit more of a city slicker. She’s got more Lou Reed in her. And Charlie is more like The Dude from The Big Lebowski,” Lyonne, who also writes, directs and executive produces for Poker Face, tells The Hollywood Reporter when comparing her two TV roles. “Charlie sort of has the sun at her back, lives in the desert. She’s not in too much of a rush. And she has no worries of being hit by a taxi.“
She continues, “Nadia is definitely on the case. But it’s a philosophical, existential, psychedelic one and ultimately, she’s on the case of herself, and the riddle, by its very existence of being about mortality, is pretty dense and heady and personal. Here, Charlie’s just really a guy trying to get by.”
Poker Face introduced viewers to Charlie with its first episode, “Dead Man’s Hand,” written and directed by Johnson, the Knives Out and Star Wars: The Last Jedi filmmaker who has now made his TV debut. The 67-minute long premiere served as an origin story for the series, as it sent Charlie, a casino cocktail waitress, on the run from Las Vegas after discovering that her boss (Adrien Brody) and his right-hand man (Benjamin Bratt) killed her best friend (Dascha Polanco) after the latter uncovered something sinister on the laptop of a high roller.
Charlie, as it is revealed, has an uncanny skill for identifying when someone is lying, which is how she solves her friend’s murder. In an act of justice, she puts word out that the casino owned by Sterling Frost (voiced by a threatening Ron Perlman) plays dirty. Instead of facing his father’s wrath, Brody’s character dies by suicide and Sterling Sr. vows to hunt Charlie down to get vengeance.
From there, Poker Face road trips with Charlie, in her Plymouth Barracuda, through three more episodes. Each one brings Charlie to a new location where she has a direct connection to a new murder that she eventually solves, thanks to her unique skill. In “The Night Shift,” she seeks justice for a kind trucker (Hong Chau) who is framed for a murder (by Colton Ryan) in New Mexico. In the Texas-set “The Stall,” she unmasks a local BBQ king (Lil Rey Howery) and his sister-in-law (Danielle MacDonald) for a near-perfect murder of a family member (Larry Brown). And “Rest in Metal” sees Charlie avenging the murder of a drummer (Nick Cirillo) by a has-been rock star (Chloë Sevigny) and her band while on tour.
Though Bratt’s henchman remains a consistent character, the cat-and-mouse game that kicked off the series moves to the B-plot as each episode’s adventure focuses on a new set of star-studded murderers and victims (later episodes welcome Judith Light, Ellen Barkin, Tim Meadows, Nick Nolte, Cherry Jones, Luis Guzmán, Joseph Gordon Levitt, Stephanie Hsu, Clea Duvall, Rhea and Ron Perlman, and more).
Following the Jan. 26 four-episode launch, the remaining six episodes of the season release weekly (on Thursdays), fulfilling Johnson and Lyonne’s vision of delivering stand-alone stories with Charlie as anchor. The series was ordered for one season, but Johnson shared hopes of growing old making this show.
“I just kept coming back and hammering the notion that all the shows that I grew up watching were not about the cliffhanger at the end,” Johnson told THR about bringing back the “howcatchem” detective show format with Poker Face, and his plans to subvert the binge-watching model that has become the norm in the streaming era. It’s a formula that, when done right, could go on forever. Citing shows of the ’80s and ’90s like Magnum P.I., Murder, She Wrote, The A-Team and Quantum Leap, Johnson says “they were about wanting to come back to hang out with this character that you love and see them win, and that’s equally addictive. And it’s also something I miss, and I bet a lot of people also miss.”
Enter, Lyonne. After watching the Orange Is the New Black star in Russian Doll, Johnson says he knew that he found his Jessica Fletcher. And the reference even comes full circle: In Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, Lyonne made a cameo with the late Angela Lansbury herself, when the pair Zoomed in for a game of “Among Us” with that universe’s detective, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig).
“I spoke to Rian a lot about how I was ready to be Gene Hackman in Night Moves, instead of [Hackman’s] Popeye Doyle,” Lyonne explains, further revealing her cinephile nature (self-taught at the landmark Film Forum) and rattling off more screen inspirations for Charlie, like Philip Marlowe’s Elliot Gould in The Long Goodbye, Peter Falk, not just in Columbo but also in Wings of Desire, and NYPD Blue‘s Andrew Sipowicz, played by Dennis Franz.
“I guess in many ways I think of Charlie as a little bit more settled, a little but more seasoned, a little bit more relaxed,” she says. “And somebody who likes people and is curious.”
She shares a story. “I used to have some boyfriend, who I actually often forget we dated, and I don’t think I liked him very much, and I used to say, ‘What are you doing out there?’ And he would say, ‘You know, L-I-V-I-N.’ And I would say, ‘Why is this guy spelling living? I need to break up with him immediately.’ And, eventually I did. But, that’s a very Charlie Cale vibe: I’m just out here, having a Coors light, L-I-V-I-N.”
Anyway, she says, “that’s a long way of saying that Charlie falls into this thing, but she just can’t help herself but to crack the case. She can’t stand a lie, she loves the little guy, she hates injustice. And really, she just loves a puzzle.”
Figuring out Johnson’s famed puzzle box-style of storytelling was the job for co-showrunners (and sisters) Nora and Lilla Zuckerman, who have worked on series including Fringe, Suits, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Prodigal Son. Johnson, who was in the writers room daily, credited the pair for showing him the ropes of running a TV show, having come mainly from the world of features. Speaking to Nora and Lilla, they paint a picture of that room looking like a scene out of A Beautiful Mind.
“In the pilot we’re like, how are we going to live up to this? Lill and I tried to be really hyper-organized because Rian is so detailed in the way that he tells the story,” Nora tells THR of tracking all the details and Easter eggs of Poker Face’s non-linear storytelling. Each episode opens with the “perfect murder,” before backtracking to show how Charlie ended up there and following her along to solve the crime. As the episodes go, the format even bends itself a little bit (more on that later).
“The story jumps around in time, so we had to be really true to figuring out the timeline: What’s happening when we see Charlie here?” Nora continues. “We had our traditional board, but every so often we would go, ‘Let’s do the real-time timeline. And really write it all out and get nerdy about it.’ And we had to rely on other writers who also get nerdy about it. Because a lot of times, you can get lost.”
The writers, essentially, became meta detectives. “If you took a look at our writers room, we had boards wrapping around. We were drawing diagrams and timelines. We were tracing clues,” adds Lilla.
“We would have this perfectly airtight story and then we would go through it and realize somebody lied to Charlie there and she would know it. So we would have to start thinking, how do we figure our way around this?” says Nora. “Some days, it was really complicated. But when you figure it out, there’s no greater joy than when we cracked it.”
Their toughest episode to crack arrives later in the season, during a murder mystery starring Barkin, Meadows and Jameela Jamil. “It takes place at a dinner theater and Charlie is running around while a play is in progress, putting the pieces together of this murder,” teases Lilla. “That was a fun challenge: Can we have her solve this crime as the play is running and people are going backstage and running out on stage, and she’s up in the rafters and all over the set? That was the most tightly wound episode. There are details and clues everywhere, and it’s hilarious. That was our trickiest, most complex.”
Running the play within the murder mystery, Nora says, with a laugh, “the continuity, we drove everyone crazy.”
Expect clues hiding in plain sight, as well as fun facts. For example, the catchy songs from “Rest in Metal” were written by John Darnielle from the Mountain Goats, who played one of the murderous band members along with Sevigny. “I remember shooting the last episode of the season and a grip is walking past me singing ‘Suckerpunch,'” says Nora, also delighting at the mention of another original song from the series, “Merch Girl.”
And for viewers who want a bonus experience with Charlie, they can call 1-866-NO-BLSHT and interact with Lyonne in character. On the Poker Face “B.S. hotline,” Cale offers advice on everything from how to deal with mysterious disappearances, backstabbers, swindlers and cheaters to the very specific problem of if you’re working a dead-end job at the Sterling Frost Casino in Las Vegas and your boss is clearly up to something shady. In the series, Cale constantly calls “bullshit” when she spots a lie.
“I think the reason they released four episodes is so we can show our audience the scope of this show, and all the worlds we’re going to take you into and all of these characters you’re going to meet,” says Lilla. “And really start to understand that these truly are stand-alone episodes, but you’re going to tune in every week. And it doesn’t need to end in a cliffhanger in order for you to press play on the next episode. You’re going to do it because you love Charlie Cale, you love hanging out with Natasha. And, the show’s really good.”
They also plan to keep viewers on their toes: “We’re training our audience about how the structure of this show works. Because we tend to subvert it a little bit later on in the season. First we set the rules, and then we break the rules,” says Nora, alluding to later installments.
Circling back to Lyonne, who has long been kicking around plans for a third season of Russian Doll (Netflix has yet to announce a renewal), the multi-hyphenate who produces via her and Maya Rudolph’s Animal Pictures banner also sounds like she could Jessica Fletcher it as Charlie Cale for time to come.
“If you’re asking me on sort of a deep soul level about some of my more sweeping motives as a person in the arts, the John Lennon quote ‘Just give me some truth’ always comes to mind in whatever permutation. And I guess I do really think of it [all] as one big project,” she says of her artistic goals. “You’re just trying to work with the greatest people that are willing to work with you and, ultimately, it’s about a body of work and it’s about the quality of life while you’re doing it; being challenged and inspired. So I would say that’s a major tenant of what I hope comes through in any number of ways. Whether I’m acting or writing or directing or producing, it means something to me.”
As episodes go, Charlie’s empathy remains the beating heart of Poker Face, and the show’s flip of the script to show other perspectives ends up creating unexpected compassion among the audience, too.
Lyonne sums up her hopes: “To stand up for the little guy or the misfits and the outsiders, and the dark horses, and sort of have a voice for all those people, a truthful one that kind of cuts through a sea of mendacity. And I do think that what’s so exciting about Poker Face is that, thanks to Rian, that voice comes through in a super clear, very inclusive, inviting way for an even larger audience.”
The first four episodes of Poker Face are now streaming on NBC’s Peacock, with future episodes releasing weekly on Thursdays.