[Editor’s Note: This article contains spoilers for “Poker Face” Season 1, Episode 9.]
After more than 15 years of working together, it’s only fitting that Rian Johnson would give the most pivotal “Poker Face” cameo to longtime collaborator Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
Gordon-Levitt appears in the penultimate episode of “Poker Face” Season 1 as Trey, a white-collar criminal under house arrest who turns out to be guilty of multiple murders — and brutally stabbing protagonist Charlie Cale (Natasha Lyonne).
“That scene was just a classic well orchestrated crescendo from Rian,” Gordon-Levitt told IndieWire ahead of the Episode 9 premiere. “He had such a clear vision of exactly what he wanted, especially down to this moment… I don’t know if I’ve ever quite got to do that ultra-cinematic image of stabbing another person in the chest with a knife, and it stands to reason that it would be on a Rian Johnson set that I finally got to do it.”
Unlike the chaotic fight between Lyonne, Judith Light, and S. Epatha Merkerson in Episode 5, this one makes quick work of its violent ends. Trey is not someone acting out of self defense or passion; he’s gotten away with murder before and knows he can do it again. For him, this is a swift, easy fix for his problems.
“Normally what I am almost always doing is looking for complexity in the characters I play,” Gordon-Levitt said. “What is it that they tell themselves? What are the circumstances that led them to be making these bad choices… with this character, I didn’t feel as obligated to find the complexity. In fact, I thought it would be fun to lean into playing a really bad person who just sucked.”
Trey’s blueprint is laid out from the cold open, when he grows weary of being under house arrest in a gorgeous mountaintop home and never tips his delivery drivers. “I didn’t want play him cartoony, like a caricature of a bro bad guy,” Gordon-Levitt adds. “I thought it’d be more chilling to make it seem like, ‘Yeah, this is just a real person who is this way.’“
Unlike previous episodes’ culprits, Trey actually spends a lot of time in close quarters with Charlie — scenes that only included some combination of Gordon-Levitt, Lyonne, Stephanie Hsu, and David Castañeda talking in a room, like a play.
“Just like any story, and those are my favorite scenes where you really get to step away from the murder mystery for a second and dig into who these people are,” Gordon-Levitt said. “When the dialogue is Rian’s, that’s what makes it fun. And that’s the thing with any master of a genre is they transcend the genre and ultimately becomes a story about people.”
The dialogue is a feat of its own, building on previous episodes that hinge on Charlie’s uncanny ability to tell when people are lying; for a lot of the episode, Trey doesn’t lie. He asks what happened to Charlie and tells her where she is, but it’s a white lie from Jimmy (Castañeda) that puts the inevitable conflict in motion.
“He’s a sophisticated operator,” Gordon-Levitt said of Trey’s facade. “Who’s better at lying while simultaneously telling the truth than finance guys? Money itself is one big lie — but also quite true.”
It was the first major role Gordon-Levitt has had in a Johnson joint since 2012’s “Looper,” though he pops up in “Knives Out,” “Glass Onion,” and more. Despite the gap and shifting from film to television, Gordon-Levitt says the only major difference between their last outing together was creative — doing a case-of-the-week murder mystery rather than a time travel movie or detective story.
“This is sort of a magic trick that Rian pulls off, kind of every time,” he said. “On the one hand, he’s as pure an artist as an artist could be, and yet on the other hand, he’s fulfilling the crowd-pleasing sentiments of delivering the wants from genre. It’s a hard balance to strike and he does it — I don’t want to say effortlessly because he’s a hardworking guy — but it comes naturally to him.”
“Poker Face” is now streaming on Peacock.