From creator/writer Rian Johnson, the Peacock mystery-of-the-week series Poker Face follows Charlie Cale (Natasha Lyonne), who suddenly finds herself in the position of needing to hit the road in her Plymouth Barracuda. Trying to outrun some very dangerous consequences for her actions leads her to a series of encounters and strange crimes that no one is more perfect to handle, as her ability to always be able to determine when someone is lying never fails her.
During this interview with Collider, co-stars Lyonne (who’s also an executive producer on the series) and Benjamin Bratt (who plays Cliff, the security boss at the casino that Charlie works and who sets off on the road after her) talked about Lyonne’s inspirations for her character, focusing more on The Dude than Lou Reed, the magic of what Johnson put together with this series, keeping it grounded by real stakes, the dynamic between Charlie and Cliff, and how Bratt’s character became such a dutiful soldier.
Collider: Natasha, you and Rian Johnson came up with this together and built this role for you. What were the must-haves that you were insistent on this character having?
NATASHA LYONNE: I think it was more that we were enjoying riffing about the whole thing. We knew that we wanted her to be a cousin of Philip Marlowe. By that, I mean the Elliott Gould/[Robert] Altman Marlowe (in The Long Goodbye). We knew that she should feel a little bit more Jeff Bridges as The Dude in The Big Lebowski than Lou Reed. Usually, my characters skew more Lou and less Dude, but The Dude has more sun on his back. I also knew that I wanted to be Gene Hackman from the Night Moves era, as opposed to Popeye Doyle. Those were the tent poles, which I worked around. I think more about, “Which male actor from the ‘70s should I steal from,” and less about, “Should my character wear hoop earrings or studs?”
Was there anything with the structure of the show or the setup of this that you were worried wouldn’t work, or did it all just feel like it really worked for this story and this character?
LYONNE: The magic of what we all pulled off together, with Rian as the ultimate puppet master of 3D chess, architect, and mastermind, it never seems somehow that it’s not fun even though there’s a murder in every town. Knock on wood, but the dream was that it would feel a little bit more like Murder, She Wrote, where you’re not really questioning it because you’re having so much fun being on the ride that it’s a buy in. Obviously in 2023, it’s harder to have that by in. It’s got to be really grounded by real stakes, hardcore actors, and the production elements have to be pristine, for you to be willing to go on that ride. In a way, that’s the biggest achievement and the thing that maybe we spent the most time talking about it. For the pilot, when Benjamin [Bratt] and Adrien [Brody] and I were working, it would come up less often. I remember it only really came up once, this question of, do we believe that she would face off with these two guys, who are these lanky, dangerous dudes? And we were able to make sense of it because she loved Dascha [Polanco], or Natalie, so much. That’s her best friend. That was the main thing, if anything, that felt like a sweeping achievement.
Benjamin, you’ve described your character as the dutiful soldier, which is easy to see as a fitting description of him. What do you think he’s up to, when we don’t see him? Do you think he has any kind of regular life, when we don’t see him murdering people?
BENJAMIN BRATT: The dutiful soldier description really was my extrapolation of a very simple stage direction in Rian’s script, which was something along the lines of, “probably ex-military, well-muscled, in a suit.” While that doesn’t really seem to say a lot about the character and a backstory, I take that, having known soldiers, and think about the whole philosophical approach to life that comes with being a soldier. You’re someone who follows the chain of command, you’re loyal, you’re personally regimented, you’re fastidious, and everything is this habituation in motion, with the makes his bed, the way he dresses, and all those things. I didn’t necessarily need to discuss that with Rian. They were implied to me, in that one simple description.
And then, I took that information to the hair stylist, Marcel [Dagenais], for example, and said, “I think the hair needs to be very specific, always overshot with hairspray, but very neat, all the time.” I also knew the suit needed to be impeccable, etcetera. It all lends itself to a certain personality that has a rigidness that also speaks to loneliness. He’s clearly a lone wolf. We don’t know anything about a family, or any kind of personal life, at all. He is a totally dedicated company man. You buy that, right away, because he’s asked to do some pretty heinous things, in the course of serving his job, without question.
I tried to convey a little bit of how I might not wanna do that, in the pilot, but at the end of the day, he has to do what he has to do. And Rian being Rian, there certainly will be a deeper exploration into what that nature is, what some of his actions are, and how they’re justified. The good note to share, even though the rest will remain a surprise, is that a lot of the answer to the interaction between us that happens in the pilot will be addressed, at some point, by the end of the show.
Does it feel like Charlie is a character that really throws him off his center then?
BRATT: We’ve never talked about it, but what I’m going to admit for the first time, in front of her, is that I think Cliff recognizes her for the unicorn that she is, and I think he’s impressed by it. He’d be loathe to let her know that he’s impressed by her, in any way, but I think he really is, on some level, charmed, even, by her chutzpah and her moxie. We’re talking about a throwback show, so I’ve gotta throw in a couple of throwback phrases. She’s a survivor, in a different universe, not necessarily unlike him. He knows how to survive, if nothing else, and I think he has a tremendous grudging respect for her, on that level. And let’s face the fact that, throughout the course of 10 episodes, she is successful at eluding him, and he’s one of the best hunters in the game, he thinks. So, what happens behind the scenes, while he’s in pursuit? We don’t know. But we know that he’s dogged, and she’s equally dogged, in trying to stay ahead of him.
Poker Face is available to stream at Peacock.