SPOILER ALERT: This post contains details from the first four episodes of Peacock’s Poker Face.
Natasha Lyonne is a casino waitress with an uncanny ability to tell when people are lying in her latest collaboration with Rian Johnson, Peacock’s Poker Face.
She’s not reading their faces or their body language. It’s “just a feeling,” her character Charlie explains in the first episode, which debuted Thursday along with three additional episodes.
As the premiere unfolds, Charlie agrees to help her boss take down a high-profile gambler, only to realize that he had previously been responsible for murdering her co-worker to keep her silent about the sins of that very same gambler. Rather than stick around and meet her own demise, Charlie goes on the lamb. Along the way, the finds herself embroiled in a series of small-town murder mysteries in each place she stops.
“I’ve learned that this is a character who just really can’t stand bullsh*t. She just really doesn’t like it, doesn’t get it and can’t stand for injustice. We really enjoyed that aspect of her as somebody who was gonna right a wrong, even if it meant putting herself at risk. She just saw no other way to live,” Lyonne, who also executive produces the series, told Deadline.
Lyonne spoke with Deadline ahead of the series debut about how she and Johnson built the series by paying homage to case-of-the-week mysteries like Columbo, what she brought with her from two seasons as the creator-star-showrunner of Russian Doll, and where Charlie is going to find herself at the end of the 10 episodes.
DEADLINE: So, Rian came to you with the idea for this series fairly early on. How did you develop it with him into Poker Face?
NATASHA LYONNE: We became pals through his brilliant wife, Karina Longworth. She has her podcast You Must Remember This, and Maya [Rudolph] and I had just formed Animal Pictures. I was wanting to adapt an episode [of the podcast] on Paul Robeson and Lena Horne to turn it into a series. So Rian and I ended up on a sofa at a book signing while we waited for Karina to sign books. I think we just started talking about our shared love of Philip Marlowe. In Russian Doll, Oatmeal the cat is a direct rip from Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye. So we started talking about our shared love of Philip Marlowe, Columbo…I love Peter Falk also from all of Cassavetes’ films and Wings of Desire. Wouldn’t it be fun to have a character who is sort of a more late-in-life backfoot Gene Hackman, closer to Night Moves and even Popeye Doyle. What if she was a bit happier, a bit lazier, not running from death, but more like Jeff Bridges as The Dude in The Big Lebowski. I think we were making each other laugh and realizing that we really had a shared language for this kind of thing. Eight months later, he actually sent the script that was the best version and that was wholly original, despite us both loving tethering to cinematic lineage so much. He really put pen to paper and I saw in practical application why he’s our premier puzzle box mastermind. We’d be in the writers room and Rian is listening and chiming in, and then at the end, he holds up a drawing from his notebook that he’s been doodling the whole time, and it’s actually just an entire map of the episode. Nothing brings me joy than seeing a puppet master at work like that.
DEADLINE: Each episode feels very distinct, tonally and stylistically. How did you come up with each of these mysteries for Charlie to solve?
LYONNE: First of all, it’s a huge task for Judy Reese, the production designer. We shot the bulk of the season in Newburgh, which is in upstate New York, a place I definitely don’t recommend visiting. The fact that she was able to turn that into 10 distinct worlds was a huge undertaking. Rian was so wise to bring with him his team, like Steve Yedlin as cinematographer. I just think that it was really a very detailed, high-level operation where Rian and Steve were really setting the tone in the pilot. That was a standard that we were all going to have to continue meeting in subsequent episodes. So I think that was really helpful, just even establishing all those slow Altman zooms and all those kinds of moves where it really looks so distinctly like a Rian Johnson movie that it just very successfully set the template.
DEADLINE: There’s also this guest star of the week aspect of the series. How was it to be the only constant acting alongside this rotating cast of characters?
LYONNE: The best way I can describe it is almost like being a session musician or something. It’s a funny thing where, I guess in many ways, I feel like a character actor who is a supporting actor who gets to take the reins. You’ve got to figure out how to play with all these different styles, and I think that it’s been really helpful to have decades of experience doing that, because it’s very fun to get to sort of jazz riff with all these different people, as opposed to feeling set in stone in some way. You’ve got to really trust the material, and I think that the joy of getting to spend so much time together [with Rian] building this thing is that I really had a clear sense, even when he wasn’t there, of what the tone was that we were going for. We knocked on all the walls together. It’s not like I’m jumping into any series. At this point, it’s really about the idea that he and I were getting to collaborate so closely on that just felt like a really special opportunity. Since we knew so well what the sound of that music was going to be, it was really helpful in working with all these other giants that would come in week to week, because it allowed for a bit of space as they would discover the tone. Then it became very fun by day three, they were totally swimming alone. It’s an interesting exercise for sure. Directing really helped me fall in love with actors even more, because nothing will make you fall in love with an actor like watching them on the monitor, and you’re rooting for them so hard. You want to see them score so badly. I’m becoming a softie with age. I’m sort of entering my Sydney Pollack era, I think. I want to see the people around me score very much, and it was so much fun getting to work with this many incredible people.
DEADLINE: I’m glad you mentioned Russian Doll. After building that series from the ground up, what did you take with you into this new collaboration with Rian?
LYONNE: Having been a showrunner really helps you understand all the different games along the way that are kind of coming down the pike and really helps you have a lot of foresight. For example, when we’d be discussing which department heads to hire and stuff, really weighing that correctly. It’s not a movie. I mean, you’re in it for the long haul. Here, obviously, we never really got into recycled locations or anything like that, which is funny. So there’s a lot of ways in which it’s not a traditional TV series, while at the same time it is a total throwback to the case-of-the-week ’70s-style mystery show. For me, the experience of being in the in the writers room and then later in the edit bay or even directing on Russian Doll, I would have so much more access to all the scenes and ideas that dropped out of scripts along the way for the budget, either because you can’t get that location or it just didn’t make sense with some other storyline. So, as an actor, it became very helpful to be able to fill in all the ellipses by almost, improvising. On the day, I would sort of fill in an arc where pages had gone missing just to make the day and make the episode. So I think that still something I’m really able to bring with me. That, for me, was a revolutionary aspect of beginning to be more part of the original formation of the characters I was playing. It really is very helpful so you can have a much wider playing field. Rian and I are also friends. He came to the edit of Russian Doll and I saw early cuts of Glass Onion and be in it. It just feels really safe and good to work with somebody who you feel that close to. That kind of a thing is really the glue you need to make a series successfully, I think.
DEADLINE: Charlie is very much flying by the seat of her pants. She doesn’t have any formal training, like some of the past series that Poker Face pays homage to, which were led by detectives or journalists. Why did you develop her that way?
LYONNE: I think we knew that we didn’t want her to be a cop. Rian had this idea that she would be somebody who could spot a lie, but I think that what’s so brilliant about that superpower is that it’s really not very super at all. The practical reality of it is that it just sort of ends there. He wrote that great line of like, ‘Lying is like birds chirping. It’s everywhere. The trick is to figure out why someone is lying.’ At that point, she becomes just a very workaday sleuth who’s got to crack a puzzle. In Russian Doll, it’s almost like Nadia is on her own case. It’s an existential, psychedelic, philosophical, almost theological show. So she’s trying to ultimately crack her own case and find meaning. What I love so much about Charlie is that she always reminds me of that John Lennon line, “Just give me some truth.” When I think about the type of character that I want to play, it’s someone that sort of aligns with my sort of larger beef with life itself. I’ve learned that this is a character who just really can’t stand bullsh*t. She just really doesn’t like it, doesn’t get it and can’t stand for injustice. We really enjoyed that aspect of her as somebody who was gonna right a wrong, even if it meant putting herself at risk. She just saw no other way to live.
DEADLINE: So by the end of the first four episodes, we can tell that something’s got to give. Cliff will catch up with Charlie eventually. So what’s in store for the next six episodes?
LYONNE: Benjamin Bratt does a beautiful job in this show. I love working with him, and he’s such a great actor. He’s the ticking clock of the operation. There feels like a baked in inevitability, but I mean, everything, as we know, is execution. Janicza Bravo directed the finale, and Rian wrote the finale. I’ll tease, rather than spoil, that it definitely does not go down like we think it goes down. It’s my personal favorite when we always think it’s one thing or another thing and we think we’ve got the clues right there, but it’s usually a third thing. Rian says it’s a howcatchem, not a whodunit. So, we might think that we know where things are headed, but it’s all about the details and the twists and turns of how we upend what we think we know.
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