It didn’t take much for Rian Johnson to pitch Natasha Lyonne on the series that would become “Poker Face.” As the writer and director recalls, he said something to the effect of “What about a show in this mode, starring you?” Lyonne was in.
“The show is made for her like a bespoke suit,” Johnson told IndieWire via Zoom. “She’s not just the star of it, she’s a collaborator from the very, very beginning. She also co-wrote and directed one of the episodes and she’s very, very much… she is the show with me. The two of us really built the house together.”
The Peacock series stars Lyonne as Charlie, a woman who innately knows when someone is lying. After a mysterious discovery leads to the death of her best friend (Dascha Polanco) in Las Vegas, Charlie ends up on the run from casino boss Sterling (Adrian Brody). For the next several episodes, she finds various communities around the country to embed herself in while on the road, using her unique skill to suss out duplicity and solve multiple murders. Instead of a “whodunnit” — like Johnson’s “Knives Out” mysteries, in which viewers and characters try to identify a murderer — “Poker Face” is a “howcatchem,” identifying the murderer, motive, and method from the start, then following Charlie’s investigation.
“Just because of this format, Natasha doesn’t show up during the first act,” Johnson explained. “That to me is really exciting, because that means the guest star gets to really lay down the groundwork of who they are. You get to set the stakes, it lets you breathe, and then when Natasha comes in, it’s like the door opening and the breeze blowing into the room. But it also means [that for] the first act of your show, your main character isn’t there… it motivated us to make those first acts as compelling as possible and as tight as possible.”
Lyonne also serves as an executive producer with Johnson, who worked with Brody on “The Brothers Bloom.” It was a welcome opportunity for the two to collaborate, and for Brody to flex the kind of finessed gangster persona last seen chewing scenery on “Peaky Blinders.” Benjamin Bratt plays Sterling’s muscle Cliff, who’s never far behind Charlie and pops up throughout the series to intimidate her.
“God, I got so lucky getting Benjamin considering that he’s the one who threads through the whole season,” Johnson said. “I always loved him in moves. He’s such a good guy and he’s so amazing on film — you point a camera at him and he’s just this gorgeous, menacing figure.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
IndieWire: What does the writing process look like for a series like this? Where do you even begin — even for the individual mysteries, do you start at the end, go backward?
Johnson: It was interesting. I wrote the pilot the way I write my movies, just on my own — but then we started up a writers room and that was the first time I was writing collaboratively. I really enjoyed that. We had a great group of writers and we had Nora and Lilla Zuckerman, our showrunners, showing me the ropes of how it works. We would do days where it’s freeform pitching, where it was throwing out ideas for a location — “Oh, what about an episode in a dinner theater? What about an episode in a barbecue?” — and then it was a combination of that and throwing out kind of conceptual ideas for the murder: “What about this kind of murder, or what about a twist where you think it’s this but it turns into this?” It was almost like assembling jigsaw pieces. I’ll tell you, after years and years and years of writing alone, it was nice to have other people there.
What are kind of the benefits and drawbacks of formula? You’ve done many murdery stories, but television also tends to be procedural, for lack of a better word.
I completely embrace that. That was part of the thing with this show, is not thinking of it in terms of shaking up or elevating or whatever, but really thinking of it in terms of going back to the stuff that I was sitting on the carpet in front of my parents’ TV watching reruns of every day: “Columbo,” “Magnum, P.I.,” “Rockford Files,” “Quantum Leap,” “The Incredible Hulk,” all those old shows, which did have said formulas to them. You sat down and it was going to surprise you, but in a format where it felt comforting — and I wanted to embrace that. That’s part of the pleasure I think of television. In that way, this almost has a lot in common with a sitcom, the notion that you’re coming into a space that you recognize, are coming into your favorite bar. The conversation that night may be different and new stuff will happen, but you feel comfortable in the space…and the procedural format, I don’t consider that a dirty word at all. I love procedurals and I love that this is a procedural.
It’s also a throwback to a lot of the shows that you mentioned because there’s very minimal technology or phones, except in the first episode. Was that a conscious decision, and if so, what was the thinking behind it?
It kind of was. I made it a very big plot point in the first episode that at the end of the episode when she goes on the run, she breaks her phone. Part of that was I worked in a thematic thing of [her] doing this nonsense thing we all do on our phones, thinking we’re making an impact by retweeting something — and then in the episode she actually has to get involved and do something for real. But the nice side effect of having her have to be off the grid for the whole season, and not being able to communicate with her phone — boy, it was really nice. It was nice because it lets it be a little bit more of a throwback, but also, honestly, it was nice because we didn’t have to do a lot of inserts of phone screens while we were shooting, which I was thankful for.
Was there any concern, because the series is releasing weekly, about viewers maybe losing the thread of of the pilot and why Charlie is on the run?
It’s interesting. The big, big pitch with this show was that it’s episodic. There’s been so much great serialized TV, we’ve gotten so used to especially television of a certain production quality level, being serialized where the entire season is one story — or if it’s a mystery, the entire season is the mystery. I think we’ve all sort of been brainwashed in a way to think that that’s the way that TV storytelling works best, and the reality is that’s a relatively recent innovation. All the stuff that I watched growing up was not that. The character can have character growth, but over the span of each episode. You put all those episodes together and you do feel like you’re following someone’s journey, but it’s also something where you’re gonna get an entire meal when you sit down for any one episode.
But still, it was funny, when we pitched it around town, there was kind of “Okay, but what’s the arc of the whole season?” We’ve just kind of gotten into that mode, but I’m very excited at the notion of giving people this kind of storytelling. I have faith that it’s going to get people’s attention.
What are the some of the challenges of television versus film?
I mean, the speed. The speed that you have to move is the biggest challenge, but it’s also the thing that is the most fun. I like that speed. I like moving fast. I like not being able to be precious and being able to try things that, if I were spending two years making one polished object, I wouldn’t necessarily try. My heart is still very much with movies, I’m not gonna say I prefer doing TV, but I really loved it and I had a great time doing it.
It really is 10 contained stories — that’s so many ideas, so many pitches, and that seems really daunting.
It was, it was also joyous though. And like I said, the fact that we had a room full of incredible writers made it fun to do. But also — and I hope this is reflected in the show — as opposed to feeling that that was a challenge or a burden, seeing that as an opportunity with every episode to really try something new; to take a new swing with each episode and keep it interesting for ourselves by shaking it up. Also tonally, I love the fact that we have episodes that feel like horror movies and we have episodes that feel like a “Noises Off”-farce comedy, and all the same season. For me that seemed like a challenge but it ended up being the fun part of it. If we are doing 10 movies, that means we can really try some shit.
Let’s talk about this incredible cast.
The guest star element of it — and it’s staggering for me to look at like the whole lineup — I’m really happy, because that was another element of those shows that I was really excited to do. This specific format, the howcatchem format — you show the murderer and then it’s Natasha versus the killer for the rest of the episode — really lets you take advantage of them. They’re not cameos, they’re truly the guest star of the episode and they have the space to breathe and develop the character and you have the space to have that, them versus Charlie dynamic really play out over the course of it. You really get your money’s worth for all of them.
This isn’t the same as “Knives Out” or “Glass Onion” with an ensemble, but it is still a large cast with a variety of stars. What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about working with such a high volume and caliber of actors?
It is different because with “Knives Out” or “Glass Onion” it’s like nine people in the cast, because it’s a whodunit, it’s a group of suspects. And so it functions more as a true ensemble and that’s a very different animal. I was very lucky with those casts that I had such stellar actors that they made that look easy. They all calibrated to each other and embraced that ensemble thing. This was a very different challenge because Natasha had most of it on her shoulders, she had so much to do in all 10 episodes. I don’t know how she did it all. But then it almost felt like “The Tonight Show.” It felt like every two weeks we’d have a new star on the couch, but the star very much playing the lead role in it. I don’t know that there was anything from “Knives Out” or “Glass Onion” that I really was able to draw over because it was such a different working environment. It was fun though, and the fact that it was just a two-week shoot and then and then they were gone and someone else was on the couch — it constantly kept it fresh and fun.
The first four episodes of “Poker Face” are now streaming on Peacock, with new episodes every Thursday.