Natasha Lyonne Takes Poker Face Very Seriously

This story about Natasha Lyonne and “Poker Face” first appeared in the Down to the Wire: Comedy issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. All actor interviews in that issue were conducted before the SAG-AFTRA strike began.

In each episode of “Poker Face,” the Peacock series created by Rian Johnson, Natasha Lyonne’s Charlie Cale, a former casino worker on the run from some very bad men, solves murder mysteries in the towns she travels through, aided by her ability to detect when someone is lying. Charlie is no saint, but she lives by a strong moral code.

But let’s let Lyonne explain it in the most Natasha Lyonne way imaginable. “Rian and I have this real shared love of crossword puzzles and puzzles in general — it’s how we pass time together on set between shots,” she said. “So we discovered that Charlie was going to have this stumble-upon quality of just sort of, ‘I’ve got to fill that puzzle in — like, something’s not adding up. Did the Times make a mistake? What’s wrong here?’ We took that attitude of almost going to the editor and saying, like, ‘Hey, Will Shortz…” Here, after referencing the New York Times’ famed crossword puzzle editor, she paused and out rippled that delightful, raspy Natasha Lyonne laugh. “You know, this is really gonna translate well to TheWrap!

Natasha Lyonne as Charlie Cale in “Poker Face” (Peacock)

“But,” she continued, jumping back into her metaphor, “‘Excuse me, Will Shortz. Sir, did you make a mistake in the puzzle? Because these letters just don’t fit. And I’ve been through it multiple times, both in pen and pencil. And we’ve got an issue here.’ That’s where Charlie’s coming from, because she’s obviously not a cop. Her need to sniff out wrongdoing, especially an injustice to a little guy, is so utter and complete that she will find herself up against the barrel of a gun, literally, and then try to charm her way out of it and mumble her way out of it, almost a magic trick.” 

If there were awards for Outstanding Delivery of Refreshingly Freestyle, Non-Boilerplate Answers During an Interview, Lyonne would be a shoo-in. Alas, she’ll have to settle for the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series Emmy nomination that she received for playing Charlie — her second nomination in that category, following her nod for “Russian Doll” in 2019, and her fifth overall. “I genuinely didn’t think it was gonna happen, just because there are so many great shows,” she said. “It’s always a shock. I’m so moved and grateful when I get a nomination. I’m like, ‘Holy Toledo! They actually saw it!’”

Lil Rel Howery and Ellen Barkin on Poker Face (Peacock)

Indeed they did. “Poker Face” debuted in January to stellar reviews and became Peacock’s highest-rated original series, reaching No. 2 on the Nielsen streaming chart. Soon, a second season was ordered. The show stood out for its loose, throwback vibe, reminiscent of the 1970s TV series “Columbo,” with Peter Falk in the iconic title role, and era-defining films like Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye,” starring Elliot Gould. (There’s also a dash of Angela Lansbury’s Jessica Fletcher from the 1980s crime-of-the-week show “Murder, She Wrote.”)

Lyonne is a cinephile — she rattled off dozens of actors and movie titles during our conversation — who reveres that period of American filmmaking. So when Johnson contacted her about collaborating on a contemporary howcatchem procedural that would lovingly nod to those projects while updating them with a woman in the hero’s seat, Lyonne was floored. 

“It was really uncanny to me that somebody who’s such a giant in his field wanted to create something together that was so bespoke,” said Lyonne, who also exec-produces “Poker Face” and directed and co-wrote an episode. “We had a few sessions where we discussed our shared love of “The Long Goodbye” and “Fat City” and “The French Connection” and the Dude from “The Big Lebowski,” and how Charlie would be a desert rat with the sun on her back and a smile on her face and somebody who likes people.”

Poker Face
Natasha Lyonne and Luis Guzman in “Poker Face” (Karolina Wojtasik/Peacock)

Johnson has said that he wrote Charlie Cale as a “bespoke suit” for Lyonne. She infuses the character with the laidback charisma and wry humor that has come to define her career resurgence that began in 2013 with “Orange Is the New Black” (which yielded her first Emmy nomination). There is a breezy confidence to her performance — and really, who else could look more at home pulling into a dusty truck stop in a 1969 Plymouth Barracuda, sporting aviator sunglasses and a trucker hat atop her unruly blonde mane? A perfect fit, but not easy, Lyonne said.

“Sometimes there’s a mistaken belief that I can just show up and roll into it because I seem so casual. Probably because I have big hair and a New York accent, it seems like it all comes naturally,” she said, chuckling. “I’m actually a pretty neurotic, uptight New Yorker. And to be honest about it, sometimes it does hurt my feelings. I know the amount of work I’m putting into it, and I know that back-foot style is something people work a lifetime for, like Bill Murray or Jeff Bridges. I’m always working towards making it seem as if there was nothing happening, but the actual specificity of each choice is something I’m pretty obsessive about.” 

The ongoing double strike in Hollywood will undoubtedly result in a delayed start to Season 2 of “Poker Face.” But Lyonne and Johnson have already stockpiled ideas for where it could go. Maybe, for instance, they’ll dive deeper into Charlie’s backstory, the history of her infallible B.S. detector and how it prevents her from maintaining relationships with other people. It’s rich fodder for storytelling, but the idea of sharing Charlie’s gift in the real world fills Lyonne with dread. “My terror of a future is one in which we’d be able to have, like, a neuro link and we could read each other’s minds,” she said. “No, no, no! The one gift we have is that we can’t actually know what the other person is thinking.”

Read more from the Comedy/Variety/Reality/Nonfiction issue here.

Bill Hader Wrap magazine cover
Photo by Jeff Vespa for TheWrap

Leave a Comment