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Rian Johnson and Natasha Lyonne Missed Classic TV-Detective Shows. So They Made One

‘Poker Face’ turns Lyonne into a lie-detecting, mystery-solving fugitive — and a modern-day Columbo
Karolina Wojtasik/Peacock

N atasha Lyonne thinks that the very idea of lying is bullshit. 

“I don’t think I believe in it philosophically, as a concept,” she says. “When people lie, on a deep level, I’m perplexed that they don’t seem to know that we’re going to die and that their lie doesn’t matter. It’s just a source of confusion.”

It’s late on a Friday night, and the diminutive redhead is carrying her laptop from room to room in her Los Angeles home so she can opine without interrupting our Zoom call. Her mind is spitting out ideas in full paragraph form, delivered with such speed and intensity that it feels like she’s in constant motion, even after she finally sits on her couch. The notion of lying leads to her hatred of small talk, as she argues that “How are you?”/“I’m fine” is “the worst couplet in the history of the world” — and also a lie. “Why? Because human beings are complex and going through many things at the same time. Some of which are marveling at the beauty and the poetry of the riddle, and others are just debating how we ended up in such a losing setup to begin with. So inherently, any living, breathing person experiencing sentience is inherently not fine. They’re anything but fine. That is the primary lie that I can’t stand for.

“That’s why,” she adds, not even stopping to catch her breath, “I really, really identify with my friend Charlie.” 

“Charlie” is Charlie Cale, the protagonist of the new mystery series Poker Face, created by Knives Out and Glass Onion writer-director Rian Johnson, which begins streaming Jan. 26 on Peacock. Both watchful and restless, Charlie is a human lie detector with an innate ability to recognize when someone isn’t speaking truthfully. Once upon a time, she used this superpower to make money as a professional cardsharp — one good enough to earn the notice, and eventual ire, of a dangerous casino magnate. When the series begins, she’s settled into a quieter life as a cocktail waitress who lives in a trailer in the desert. She wears her trucker hat low, drives a barely functional 1969 blue Plymouth Barracuda, and minds her own business. Then her best friend is murdered, and Charlie can’t stomach the obvious attempt to cover up the real motive for the crime. She finds a way to punish the bad guy, but as a result becomes a fugitive, forced to travel from town to town across the country. And — wouldn’t you know it? — there is a murder at each stop, and a killer only she can catch. 

If Charlie is not as exact a custom tailoring job as the one Lyonne stitched for herself as the time-traveling game designer Nadia Vulvokov on Netflix’s Russian Doll, she is awfully close — a testament to Johnson’s understanding of Lyonne’s specific talents, and to their joint fondness for vintage mystery-of-the-week shows like Columbo. The role exploits Lyonne’s gift for fast talking and even faster thinking. It lets her be hilarious with her wisecracks and her reactions to all the strange people she meets. And it taps into her dramatic talents and, especially, the charisma that she has had since she was a child actor but that Hollywood didn’t fully understand how to harness until she forced the issue as she turned 40. 

And if Lyonne’s own capacity to spot lies isn’t quite as uncanny as Charlie’s, it’s not far off, owing as much to her checkered past — her struggles with heroin in the 2000s eventually led to both open-heart surgery and a court-mandated stint in rehab — as to her innate intelligence. 

“I would say I am an excellent bullshit detector,” she says. “Thanks to a life that’s taken me from skid row to the Chateau Marmont and back again, I really have seen some shit. And I guess the gift that gives you is street smarts. And part of that is to know, ‘Oh, this is a smart person to go into the alley and score from. This is a bad person to go into the alley and score from.’ The way that manifests out there in the world of Hollywood is, I’ve retained that knowledge in many big and small ways. I can see very quickly: ‘This is a motherfucker I want nothing to do with. And this person who’s a PA is going to become my right-hand man for life.’ ”

Johnson seems like a potential lifelong collaborator. They met through his wife, the podcaster and film critic Karina Longworth. Lyonne wanted Animal Pictures, the production company she runs with Maya Rudolph, to adapt an episode from Longworth’s You Must Remember This podcast. The two hit it off, and soon Johnson was also taken with Lyonne. He had grown up loving episodic crime shows like The Rockford Files and Magnum, P.I., and had long wanted to make one of them himself. Watching Russian Doll, he recognized Lyonne as a kind of “modern-day Peter Falk — a strong enough personality to be the center of a show that isn’t one long story. You have to come back each week because you want to hang out with that person.” 

Johnson took her to dinner and pitched her on the idea. Lyonne found him as much a kindred spirit as she had Longworth. They discovered, for instance, that they shared a deep love for Robert Altman’s postmodern Phillip Marlowe film The Long Goodbye, with a shambling Elliott Gould performance that Lyonne drew on heavily in crafting Nadia. (Both Nadia and Gould’s Marlowe spend a lot of time muttering under their breath, lost in their own heads, and chasing after an elusive cat.) Johnson worried that Lyonne would assume this was another empty Hollywood promise about working together someday, but Lyonne recalls thinking, “This Rian Johnson is a pretty serious person. Why on earth would he waste his time coming to eat steak with me, sitting here with notebooks?” (“I also had a notebook,” she adds triumphantly — another sign they would make a good team.)

Dascha Polanco and Natasha Lyonne in ‘Poker Face.’ Phillip Caruso/Peacock

This would be only the second time in Johnson’s career (after the 2012 sci-fi thriller Looper, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt) that he wrote a script with a particular lead actor in mind, according to his longtime producing partner Ram Bergman. As with the Agatha Christie-esque Knives Out films, he was taking an older storytelling model that had fallen deeply out of fashion — in this case, a series built on entirely self-contained episodes rather than massive season-long arcs — and finding a way to modernize it without losing what made it work to begin with. 

“He has a deep understanding of genre,” says Longworth. “He likes to take things apart and see how they work, and then find ways to put them back together, but he doesn’t have any interest in doing it unless he can subvert those tropes and put them back together in a new way that allows him to put his own spin on it.”

“I’m an excellent bullshit detector,” Lyonne says. “Thanks to a life that’s taken me from skid row to the Chateau Marmont and back again, I really have seen some shit. And the gift that gives you is street smarts.”

Johnson faced a lot of incredulity within the industry when he decided to follow Star Wars: The Last Jedi with something as seemingly quaint and dusty as Knives Out. Even after that turned out to be an enormous crowd-pleasing hit, he and Bergman received a similarly skeptical reception when they began pitching Poker Face to streamers. 

“I knew that there was a certain amount of gravity right now towards serialized storytelling,” Johnson says. “But I didn’t think the notion of truly episodic TV in this mode was going to be seen as this big of a wacky swing. I was unprepared for the blank stares and the follow-up questions of, ‘Yes, but what’s the arc over the course of a season?’ There is, right now, this odd assumption that this is what keeps people watching. I think [executives] equate the cliffhanger at the end of the episode with the reason people click onto the next one.”

Lyonne withBenjamin Bratt, who plays a casino enforcer on Charlie’s tail. Peacock

Not only does Poker Face not have ongoing storylines, it has only one other ongoing character: Benjamin Bratt’s Cliff Legrand, a menacing casino enforcer hot on Charlie’s trail. And even he’s in only half the episodes, sometimes just briefly before Charlie eludes his grasp. In the Nineties, Bratt did a four-year stint on Law & Order, one of the preeminent mystery-of-the-week shows. And like Johnson and Lyonne, he has a soft spot for the NBC Mystery Movie franchise, which also included series like McMillan & Wife and McCloud, and whose typeface is adapted here for the Poker Face credits. “It’s a little sad,” Bratt says of how severely Hollywood has come to shun the genre. “These newer generations have no idea what that was. And they’re going to be able to discover what was once cherished and create a whole new model, hopefully.”

WHILE HE’S PRIMARILY a film director, Johnson helmed several episodes of Breaking Bad, including two that represent the opposite ends of the TV storytelling spectrum: “Fly,” a largely standalone hour where Walt and Jesse chase a bug through their lab; and “Ozymandias,” the shocking culmination of every story the series had been telling through five seasons. He was more than comfortable in both modes (“Fly” is riveting despite its incredibly small story; “Ozymandias” may be the greatest TV-drama episode ever). Still, he needed help learning how to make a show where he wasn’t the hired gun. 

Johnson recruited writer-producer sisters Nora and Lilla Zuckerman, whose résumé encompasses procedural series like Fringe and Prodigal Son, to show him the ropes, which included working in a writers room since he had written all of his films on his own. They had to figure out the logistics of a show where each episode has a new setting and supporting cast — guest stars include Gordon-Levitt, Adrien Brody, Lil Rel Howery, Nick Nolte, and Lyonne’s longtime friends Clea DuVall and Chloë Sevigny — as well as ways that Charlie’s special ability wouldn’t stop stories dead. (Among her limitations: She may know if someone is lying, but not why they are, nor what the truth is.) Since she has to avoid attracting the attention of authorities, the writers needed to find ways to achieve justice that didn’t always involve the killer being led away in handcuffs. And going back to the Columbo model, they had to figure out how to keep the audience engaged for the Charlie-less first act of each episode that focuses on the killers and their victims. Though Peacock executives appreciated the concept in a way their competitors didn’t, Johnson frequently got notes from them asking if Charlie could be introduced sooner.

It’s an understandable concern, because Lyonne lights up the screen whenever she’s on it. There are actors who are great soloists and actors who thrive in duets. Lyonne excels at either. She spends a good chunk of one episode arguing with a grouchy, flatulent dog, carrying both ends of the conversation with enough flair to kill the old showbiz adage about the dangers of acting opposite animals. But on the whole, Charlie is warmer and more laid-back than the misanthropic Nadia, inquisitive about the people she meets and their passions, like when she is delighted to let one of her new friends from a Texas barbecue joint teach her about the scents and flavors of different kinds of wood. 

Lyonne says the touchstone here is less Gould or Falk than Jeff Bridges as the Dude, and Johnson recalls that when he pitched her the character, she replied excitedly, “Aha! She likes people! This is something different I can do.” But Charlie and Nadia nonetheless share that same undeniable star quality and presence, which somehow makes Lyonne seem more imposing than towering scene partners like Brody or Bratt. Like Nadia, or like Lyonne’s recovering addict Nicky Nichols on Orange Is the New Black, Charlie is a champion talker, frequently speechifying her opponents into submission. 

“Watching her connect with other actors is truly a joy,” says Nora Zuckerman. “You can see the charisma pouring off her. That really informs Charlie. Charlie is moving from town to town and case to case, and she’s surrounded by new people every time. And Charlie as a character is magnetic — people are drawn to her, and they open up to her — and I think Natasha shares that energy. It was really incredible to watch.”

Charlie and Nadia represent temperamentally opposed variations of what has by now become the familiar Lyonne persona, in both her acting roles and in interviews and public appearances. The actual Lyonne is capable of that, too. Friends and co-workers laugh at how difficult it can be to keep up with her verbally — “I told her I need at least three cups of coffee before we begin rehearsing,” says Bratt — and how much disarray she can leave in her wake. “Fuck Columbo; she’s Paddington Bear,” jokes Lyonne’s Orange co-star Dascha Polanco, who appeared on Russian Doll and guests in the Poker Face premiere. 

But just as the rumpled exteriors of Columbo, Marlowe, and Paddington conceal their tenacity and wisdom, a serious capital-A actor lurks beneath Lyonne’s fast-paced, digressive, absurdist patter. “One of the surprising things about Natasha is just how dedicated and very highly technical she is,” says Lilla Zuckerman. “She is incredibly studious. She arrives so prepared. And then she gets onto set and it seems so easy, and it seems so laid-back. She’s got that lovely, chill vibe that I think really hides the craft behind it.”

She found a good match with Johnson, who does just as much homework and is just as decisive, while also recognizing the importance of keeping things light. “She seems like she’s constantly cracking jokes and keeping this air of chaos and levity around her,” Johnson says of his leading lady, “and very quickly, I realized she’s doing this very intentionally in order to keep the carpentry-like precision of the workings of a set at bay, so she can create stuff that feels real.” Lurking beneath Johnson’s soft-spoken, amiable exterior, meanwhile, is the man with, as Bratt puts it, the “actively devious imagination” that allows him to write these twisty murder mysteries. So Johnson was able to quickly tune into Lyonne’s on-set wavelength. While he admits they probably drove a lot of the cast and crew nuts by singing the Meow Mix jingle to each other, “It’s all to a purpose.” 

Johnson on set Phillip Caruso/Peacock

Even Lyonne sometimes gets fooled by her own persona. Told that Longworth described her as “the smartest person I have ever met,” Lyonne’s eyes bug out in disbelief — a rare moment where she is at a loss for words. But the many thoughts soon find her, and she is off monologuing again: 

“I think I have some sort of smart-people boner disease, just to seem as smart as I can in this moment. I am very hot for very smart people. They really do it for me. I don’t want to possess their bodies. I want to possess their brains. I want to put their brains in a jar in a room. I want to take my brain out of my body, put it in its own jar. And then I want to sit in my bed like Ray Liotta in Hannibal, sit there with my skull just open, watching the brains play together and hang out while my brainless self sits in bed smoking cigarettes. That’s my fantasy, you see.” 

LYONNE HAS LATELY put those smarts, and her mind-expandingly acid-trippy perspective, to work in new ways. After decades of feeling like she didn’t fit in as an actor — she says she and DuVall “were a pair of terrible ingenues” a generation before outsiders became the cool kids — she followed DuVall and Sevigny into directing, mainly as a way, at least with Russian Doll, to showcase her own on-camera versatility and magnetism. It paid off: “I’ve been in this business now for 35 years,” she says, “and I figure it’s like the last five years are the only time my case went hot. It was because of me saying, ‘OK, I’m gonna start making my own shit.’ ” But everyone who has watched her behind the camera thinks that may be where her bliss really is, including Johnson, who asked her to co-write and direct one of the Poker Face episodes. 

“I feel like where you see her become most herself is when she’s directing,” says Johnson. “You think, ‘Wow, this is really what she should be doing.’ She’s a fantastic performer. But when you see her putting all that energy and focus into the creative act of controlling a set and getting what she wants, it’s like a butterfly unfolding its wings.”

Sevigny got to watch her friend in action as a director while playing Nadia’s mother on Russian Doll and was impressed that Lyonne had prepared, with an acting coach, by rehearsing every character on her own so she could better relate to each member of the cast. In fact, Sevigny argues that she and Lyonne are happier directing because “we’re both too self-conscious to actually be good actors.” She pauses to joke that her publicist must be freaking out about this sentiment, then elaborates, “We both love making things and group activities and being around other people, and we love cinema and movies and TV, but I don’t think we both really love acting. And we’re tortured by certain aspects of it, because of low self-esteem around looks and all of that.

“But she also likes to be the boss,” she adds, “and the director is the boss.” 

Often, the price to pay for being the boss is not a lot of free time. Lyonne says she works “to the bone. No life, no kids. It’s just me and Rootbeer.” She turns her laptop around to show her dog, a little Maltipoo, resting on the sofa beside her. 

The workaholism is another common thread between her and Johnson, who segued straight from filming the Knives Out sequel Glass Onion into producing Poker Face. For a while, he would spend half of each day in the writers room with the Zuckermans and their staff, and the other half doing postproduction work on the movie. His longtime cinematographer Steve Yeldin followed him onto the project, and says that they were able to deliver their usual “really designed, conscientious, thoughtful shots” on a compressed television schedule only because Johnson has a well-honed sense of what a given scene does and doesn’t need. 

“I don’t think that he necessarily understood that he would have to have his hands on it all day every day for this period of time,” says Longworth. “I think he thought that there was going to be more of a machine than there is on his movies. The kind of creator he is, he still treats it like he’s an auteur, so he wants to be involved with everything.” 

Despite the overwhelming time suck of producing television, Johnson seems interested in taking the same approach to Poker Face that he has to the Benoit Blanc films — and to keep making it so long as his star is interested. After all, Peter Falk played Columbo off and on for a quarter century. “We’ll see how long Natasha sticks with it,” Johnson says. “Maybe we can give him a run for his money.” 

Would Lyonne be interested in doing it for that amount of time? “I’ve gotta get old somewhere! How else am I gonna convince Rian and Karina to adopt an adult child?” she jokes.

“The thing that I love with acting,” she says, “it’s almost like being a musician. If it’s Rian, I want him to Svengali me. There are certain people that don’t interest me, but I like the idea that he’s a composer, and he’s letting me know what part of the song I can play in service to his album. And I want to do it as best I can for him. It makes me happy to do it. I feel very alive when it’s all happening. And I like to not feel dead inside.”

And that’s no bullshit.