Natasha Lyonne and Benjamin Bratt on why Poker Face is 'one of the best shows on TV' right now
Natasha Lyonne and Benjamin Bratt are on the case.
Or, more specifically, he's on her case while she's on the case. In their new series Poker Face (the first four episodes are available on Peacock now), Lyonne plays Charlie, a down-on-her-luck woman who has an extraordinary ability to determine when someone is lying. When her talents land her in some hot water with the wrong people, she hits the road in her Plymouth Barracuda and encounters a new cast of characters and strange crimes along the way that she can't help but solve, as Bratt's character hunts her down all the while.
It's the first television series from mystery mastermind Rian Johnson, who serves as creator, EP, writer, and director. Nora Zuckerman and Lilla Zuckerman serve as showrunners, and Adrien Brody, Chloë Sevigny, Hong Chau, Lil Rel Howery, Stephanie Hsu, Tim Blake Nelson, Judith Light, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt aren't even close to all the starry names that make up the guest cast.
With a winning formula like that, it's no wonder why Bratt and Lyonne are singing their new show's praises. In fact, Bratt goes so far as to tell EW, "[With Poker Face], I think you got one of the best shows on TV. There, I said it." Here, the duo explains.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Natasha, I understand the concept for this mystery-a-week show came about in a dinner conversation among friends. Who was there and what went down?
NATASHA LYONNE: Russian Doll I guess was maybe just out. Maya Rudolph and I had just started this production company, Animal Pictures, and one of the first projects that I was trying to get us to produce was an episode of Karina Longworth's podcast, You Must Remember This. And of course Karina is Rian Johnson's brilliant, better half. I guess Rian and I were maybe pals sort of, Twitter friends or something, but suddenly we were at a book signing for Karina's latest book and we were just sitting there waiting for like an hour, and slowly started kicking around ideas and how much fun it would be to work together. And that led to us having a series of dinners. As it turned out, Rian and I shared a deep love of lineage and cinema, which of course, makes so much sense with [his wife], Karina — nobody knows more about movies than she does.
And we sort of talked about our shared love of noir and all the different ways in which that can go, and I don't think I really knew all the way yet that Rian was kind of the master of that entire arena. Here I was, really doing more existential, psychedelic, philosophical puzzle boxes that were about the nature of self, sort of like a character on their own case. And in Rian, I really found this kindred spirit of doing this whole other game. So I think we just really fell for each other creatively. And he's truly brilliant. And about a year later, he really had put pen to paper, and sent me this incredibly crafted and funny and just really cool script that was a pilot of Poker Face. I was so moved just on a human level, because it really feels in a way, it's like, my inner child or something gets very excited. Because it's such a loving gesture of, "We're gonna go play together." Like we actually really like each other. It's not just, "Oh, I think you're such a great filmmaker." It's like, "You've actually done the legwork and the heavy lifting to say, 'Hey, I want us to go make [this].'" So it just felt so special to get to do this.
What can people expect from your characters?
BENJAMIN BRATT: The central conceit of the show is that her character, Charlie Cale, who is by no means a police officer or detective at all, she's just a working gal. You know, kind of adrift, loving her single life of drifting from job to job. But what makes her special is she has this innate ability to be able to tell when someone is lying. But that's easy. That's not really the fun for her. She can't help herself but want to discover why they're lying. And in the pilot, as we quickly learn, someone ends up dead and it happens to be her good friend, and she's upset, but she's also completely compelled to discover how and why she ended up dead. And that really sets the tone for the rest of the series, where by the end of the pilot, she is on the run, she's being chased. And she's running from town to town throughout America, trying to maintain a low profile working in different jobs. And strangely enough, though, death seems to follow her wherever she goes, and she can't help herself but try to solve the reasons why.
LYONNE: Yeah, and then in the meantime, Benjamin's out here. He, I guess, is the key antagonist. Wouldn't you say that he's sort of the ticking clock of the whole operation?
BRATT: Yeah. It's an antagonistic relationship. My character, Cliff Legrand, is the head of security for the Frost Casino. And she does something, or a series of somethings, that really make my boss upset. And so I'm tasked with hunting her down and bringing her back. And really that's just the engine for her being constantly on the move like a shark. I mean, she has to stay on the move to stay alive. But at the end of the day, that part of it doesn't really get answered until the final episode. But true to Rian Johnson and the way he writes, there are a whole series of surprises along the way that'll be both shocking and violent, and, of course, always funny.
Peacock Natasha Lyonne as Charlie Cale and Benjamin Bratt as Cliff Legrand in 'Poker Face'
Speaking of, can we expect a firm conclusion at the end or is it left more open-ended? Are we thinking about making this a multiple season thing?
LYONNE: I'm at a time in my life, I'm really only trying to create characters that I could easily play at 70-75 years old, you know, because you can't rely on your hips or your knees in this life is what I've learned. If there's one thing I know about 38 years in showbiz, you never know.
BRATT: Is it because hips don't lie?
LYONNE: That is why. And oh, yeah, season 2, I'm gonna be doing a sort of Shakira, you know what I mean? It'll be Poker Face: Her Hips Don't Lie. We're just crazy people. [Laughs] Listen, I don't know that I was looking to really even do another show. But I think the biggest thing in this life on a human level, or artistic level, is really getting to work with the people you love, and try to make something special. And I think part of what feels so safe and fun about Rian is how much he and I both want to do so many things. You know, when I joked about my hips, I've often thought like, "Oh, I've got to direct three features in this life. Otherwise, I'll be on my deathbed and I'll be mad at myself." I know that Rian has so many things that he's going to do. And I think that, for us, the dream of this thing is, first of all, that people like it and we're not in any rush to figure out what follows that. We just are excited, vulnerable people who are hoping that it clicks with people. And from there, it's the idea that we could just figure out together as a team what would make sense and it's very fun, and funny, that Charlie Cale could literally be 80 years old on a walker being like, "Bulls---. I'm gonna crack this one, crossword puzzle. Hey, that's not what happened."
BRATT: I cannot wait to learn what your voice will sound like at 80.
LYONNE: Well, by then — we don't need to get derailed here — but I assume I'll be a cyborg if I make it. And I'll just like punch in my voice from 2023. And I'll use that. I can't get raspier. I don't know. I'm so embarrassed of it. I'm glad that people meet it with generosity, but I'm really embarrassed by it.
BRATT: I saw the pilot for the first time last night at the world premiere. And I was blown away on so many different levels. But this one [Lyonne] — and you know, this is with the hindsight of having worked with her several, several days over the course of several months — I mean, there's real artistry there. There's real craftsmanship there. And we've been joking about it, but part of that is this specific personality she gives to her voice. Yes, she's gifted with this certain quality that is ever present even in this interview, but the way she employs it with Charlie Cale it's like a singer would employ their bass note, or their soprano range, or alto range. She's like a master musician. And she uses it to great effect. The show doesn't really work unless the central character is appealing and winning. And despite her down-on-her-luck persona, you can't help but root for her and champion her on, because at the end of the day, even though she's in mortal danger and being pursued, she can't help herself but want to stop and help someone who's down harder on their luck than she is. That's also a real compelling part of watching the show, is her presence in it. And then you add to that Rian's writing, and this army of amazing talented guest actors that join for episodes 1 through 10. And I think you got one of the best shows on TV. There, I said it.
LYONNE: That's defintiely true. He might be a baby Bratt but he is a sweetheart.
Mysteries are really having a moment right now. What sets Poker Face apart?
LYONNE: I think that part of the joy of these mysteries, is that when done correctly, which is exactly what Rian is such a master of, you're setting up these kind of different tent poles all over the place of locations, characters, specifics, different moments that seem like they won't be totally relevant until later when they come back to haunt you. And he's just such a master of making everything so crisp, that when it all gels together, the audience is invited in on that ride. And it's so satisfying, whether it's aspects that you think you know and it's in the execution of the way that they're revealed, or when there's aspects that you don't know, and the joy of the twist and that you're just really on the ride. I think that he more than anyone working right now really is incredible at doing that. It's like a highly specific world that's so much fun to be a part of cracking.
BRATT: Yeah, I think the murder mystery genre is more popular than ever. I mean, I think everyone out there, and certainly I would include my wife in this, fancies themselves that they have a very good detective in them. At one point my wife was telling me, because her brother is a homicide detective, "I should've been a detective. I could solve this." I think there are a lot of people out there who feel that way. But as popular as the genre is, the thing that makes Rian special is that he doesn't condescend to his viewership. He expects his audience to be smart. And so he doesn't over-explain in any narrative way or form what it is he's doing, he expects you to catch up. And he writes very smartly, just in terms of the architecture of the story. He's very, very savvy, very smart. And it can be a house of cards in anyone else's hands. But in his hands, it's this really unique, one-of-a-kind glass sculpture that by the end of the episode you enjoy smashing wide open.
Are you guys the type to figure out the twists beforehand? Do you enjoy that?
LYONNE: I am not that. I don't like doing that. I'm not trying to get ahead of stuff. Like, alright, show me what you got. I'm here. I like to turn my brain off. I have a hyperactive mind, a self-criticizing one that's out to get me. So I try to enjoy the relief of entertainment. But I know people love doing that. They love it. They love being like, "I'm ahead of this thing." It's a very popular thing. Me, personally, I'm always like, "Oh, wow, you know, I didn't even notice that they had a dog until they showed me."
BRATT: I'm with you. You can take me on the journey if you have a story to tell. I'll go along, just keep me entertained and I won't try to get ahead of you. There's no point in that, really, because you spoil the fun.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
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