atasha Lyonne thinks
that the very thought of mendacity is bullshit. 

“I don’t assume I consider in it philosophically, as an idea,” she says. “When folks lie, on a deep stage, I’m perplexed that they don’t appear to know that we’re going to die and that their lie doesn’t matter. It’s only a supply of confusion.”

It’s late on a Friday evening, and the diminutive redhead is carrying her laptop computer from room to room in her Los Angeles house so she will opine with out interrupting our Zoom name. Her thoughts is spitting out concepts in full paragraph kind, delivered with such pace and depth that it appears like she’s in fixed movement, even after she lastly sits on her sofa. The notion of mendacity results in her hatred of small speak, as she argues that “How are you?”/“I’m nice” is “the worst couplet within the historical past of the world” — and additionally a lie. “Why? Because human beings are complicated and going via many issues on the identical time. Some of that are marveling on the magnificence and the poetry of the riddle, and others are simply debating how we ended up in such a shedding setup to start with. So inherently, any residing, respiration individual experiencing sentience is inherently not nice. They’re something however nice. That is the first lie that I can’t stand for.

“That’s why,” she provides, not even stopping to catch her breath, “I actually, actually establish with my good friend Charlie.” 

“Charlie” is Charlie Cale, the protagonist of the brand new thriller sequence Poker Face, created by Knives Out and Glass Onion writer-director Rian Johnson, which begins streaming Jan. 26 on Peacock. Both watchful and stressed, Charlie is a human lie detector with an innate potential to acknowledge when somebody isn’t talking in truth. Once upon a time, she used this superpower to become profitable as an expert cardsharp — one ok to earn the discover, and eventual ire, of a harmful on line casino magnate. When the sequence begins, she’s settled right into a quieter life as a cocktail waitress who lives in a trailer within the desert. She wears her trucker hat low, drives a barely purposeful 1969 blue Plymouth Barracuda, and minds her personal enterprise. Then her greatest good friend is murdered, and Charlie can’t abdomen the apparent try and cowl up the true motive for the crime. She finds a method to punish the unhealthy man, however because of this turns into a fugitive, compelled to journey from city to city throughout the nation. And — wouldn’t you understand it? — there’s a homicide at every cease, and a killer solely she will catch. 

If Charlie is just not as actual a customized tailoring job because the one Lyonne stitched for herself because the time-traveling recreation designer Nadia Vulvokov on Netflix’s Russian Doll, she is very shut — a testomony to Johnson’s understanding of Lyonne’s particular skills, and to their joint fondness for classic mystery-of-the-week exhibits like Columbo. The position exploits Lyonne’s present for quick speaking and even sooner pondering. It lets her be hilarious together with her wisecracks and her reactions to all of the unusual folks she meets. And it faucets into her dramatic skills and, particularly, the charisma that she has had since she was a toddler actor however that Hollywood didn’t absolutely perceive tips on how to harness till she compelled the problem as she turned 40. 

And if Lyonne’s personal capability to identify lies isn’t fairly as uncanny as Charlie’s, it’s not far off, owing as a lot to her checkered previous — her struggles with heroin within the 2000s finally led to each open-heart surgical procedure and a court-mandated stint in rehab — as to her innate intelligence. 

“I’d say I’m a wonderful bullshit detector,” she says. “Thanks to a life that’s taken me from skid row to the Chateau Marmont and again once more, I actually have seen some shit. And I assume the present that offers you is avenue smarts. And a part of that’s to know, ‘Oh, it is a good individual to enter the alley and rating from. This is a unhealthy individual to enter the alley and rating from.’ The approach that manifests on the market on this planet of Hollywood is, I’ve retained that information in lots of huge and small methods. I can see in a short time: ‘This is a motherfucker I need nothing to do with. And this one that’s a PA goes to turn into my right-hand man for all times.’ ”

Johnson looks as if a possible lifelong collaborator. They met via his spouse, the podcaster and movie critic Karina Longworth. Lyonne needed Animal Pictures, the manufacturing firm she runs with Maya Rudolph, to adapt an episode from Longworth’s You Must Remember This podcast. The two hit it off, and quickly Johnson was additionally taken with Lyonne. He had grown up loving episodic crime exhibits like The Rockford Files and Magnum, P.I., and had lengthy needed to make one among them himself. Watching Russian Doll, he acknowledged Lyonne as a form of “modern-day Peter Falk — a robust sufficient character to be the middle of a present that isn’t one lengthy story. You have to come back again every week since you need to hang around with that individual.” 

Johnson took her to dinner and pitched her on the thought. Lyonne discovered him as a lot a kindred spirit as she had Longworth. They found, as an illustration, that they shared a deep love for Robert Altman’s postmodern Phillip Marlowe movie The Long Goodbye, with a shambling Elliott Gould efficiency that Lyonne drew on closely in crafting Nadia. (Both Nadia and Gould’s Marlowe spend lots of time muttering underneath their breath, misplaced in their very own heads, and chasing after an elusive cat.) Johnson fearful that Lyonne would assume this was one other empty Hollywood promise about working collectively sometime, however Lyonne remembers pondering, “This Rian Johnson is a fairly severe individual. Why on earth would he waste his time coming to eat steak with me, sitting right here with notebooks?” (“I additionally had a pocket book,” she provides triumphantly — one other signal they might make a very good crew.)

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Dascha Polanco and Natasha Lyonne in ‘Poker Face.’

Phillip Caruso/Peacock

This could be solely the second time in Johnson’s profession (after the 2012 sci-fi thriller Looper, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt) that he wrote a script with a selected lead actor in thoughts, in keeping with his longtime producing associate Ram Bergman. As with the Agatha Christie-esque Knives Out movies, he was taking an older storytelling mannequin that had fallen deeply out of trend — on this case, a sequence constructed on totally self-contained episodes somewhat than large season-long arcs — and discovering a method to modernize it with out shedding what made it work to start with. 

“He has a deep understanding of style,” says Longworth. “He likes to take issues aside and see how they work, and then discover methods to place them again collectively, however he doesn’t have any curiosity in doing it except he can subvert these tropes and put them again collectively in a brand new approach that enables him to place his personal spin on it.”

“I’m a wonderful bullshit detector,” Lyonne says. “Thanks to a life that’s taken me from skid row to the Chateau Marmont and again once more, I actually have seen some shit. And the present that offers you is avenue smarts.”

Johnson confronted lots of incredulity inside the trade when he determined to observe Star Wars: The Last Jedi with one thing as seemingly quaint and dusty as Knives Out. Even after that turned out to be an infinite crowd-pleasing hit, he and Bergman acquired a equally skeptical reception once they started pitching Poker Face to streamers. 

“I knew that there was a specific amount of gravity proper now in the direction of serialized storytelling,” Johnson says. “But I didn’t assume the notion of really episodic TV on this mode was going to be seen as this huge of a wacky swing. I used to be unprepared for the clean stares and the follow-up questions of, ‘Yes, however what’s the arc over the course of a season?’ There is, proper now, this odd assumption that that is what retains folks watching. I believe [executives] equate the cliffhanger on the finish of the episode with the rationale folks click on onto the following one.”

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Lyonne withBenjamin Bratt, who performs a on line casino enforcer on Charlie’s tail.


Not solely does Poker Face not have ongoing storylines, it has just one different ongoing character: Benjamin Bratt’s Cliff Legrand, a menacing on line casino enforcer sizzling on Charlie’s path. And even he’s in solely half the episodes, typically simply briefly earlier than Charlie eludes his grasp. In the Nineties, Bratt did a four-year stint on Law & Order, one of many preeminent mystery-of-the-week exhibits. And like Johnson and Lyonne, he has a tender spot for the NBC Mystery Movie franchise, which additionally included sequence like McMillan & Wife and McCloud, and whose typeface is customized right here for the Poker Face credit. “It’s somewhat unhappy,” Bratt says of how severely Hollywood has come to shun the style. “These newer generations don’t know what that was. And they’re going to have the ability to uncover what was as soon as cherished and create an entire new mannequin, hopefully.”

WHILE HE’S PRIMARILY a movie director, Johnson helmed a number of episodes of Breaking Bad, together with two that symbolize the alternative ends of the TV storytelling spectrum: “Fly,” a largely standalone hour the place Walt and Jesse chase a bug via their lab; and “Ozymandias,” the surprising end result of each story the sequence had been telling via 5 seasons. He was greater than comfy in each modes (“Fly” is riveting regardless of its extremely small story; “Ozymandias” often is the best TV-drama episode ever). Still, he wanted assist studying tips on how to make a present the place he wasn’t the employed gun. 

Johnson recruited writer-producer sisters Nora and Lilla Zuckerman, whose résumé encompasses procedural sequence like Fringe and Prodigal Son, to indicate him the ropes, which included working in a writers room since he had written all of his movies on his personal. They had to determine the logistics of a present the place every episode has a brand new setting and supporting solid — visitor stars embrace Gordon-Levitt, Adrien Brody, Lil Rel Howery, Nick Nolte, and Lyonne’s longtime buddies Clea DuVall and Chloë Sevigny — in addition to ways in which Charlie’s particular potential wouldn’t cease tales lifeless. (Among her limitations: She might know if somebody is mendacity, however not why they’re, nor what the reality is.) Since she has to keep away from attracting the eye of authorities, the writers wanted to search out methods to realize justice that didn’t all the time contain the killer being led away in handcuffs. And going again to the Columbo mannequin, they’d to determine tips on how to preserve the viewers engaged for the Charlie-less first act of every episode that focuses on the killers and their victims. Though Peacock executives appreciated the idea in a approach their rivals didn’t, Johnson continuously received notes from them asking if Charlie could possibly be launched sooner.

It’s an comprehensible concern, as a result of Lyonne lights up the display at any time when she’s on it. There are actors who’re nice soloists and actors who thrive in duets. Lyonne excels at both. She spends a very good chunk of 1 episode arguing with a grouchy, flatulent canine, carrying each ends of the dialog with sufficient aptitude to kill the outdated showbiz adage in regards to the risks of appearing reverse animals. But on the entire, Charlie is hotter and extra laid-back than the misanthropic Nadia, inquisitive in regards to the folks she meets and their passions, like when she is delighted to let one among her new buddies from a Texas barbecue joint train her in regards to the scents and flavors of various sorts of wooden. 

Lyonne says the touchstone right here is much less Gould or Falk than Jeff Bridges because the Dude, and Johnson remembers that when he pitched her the character, she replied excitedly, “Aha! She likes folks! This is one thing totally different I can do.” But Charlie and Nadia nonetheless share that very same simple star high quality and presence, which someway makes Lyonne appear extra imposing than towering scene companions 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, continuously speechifying her opponents into submission. 

“Watching her join with different actors is actually a pleasure,” says Nora Zuckerman. “You can see the charisma pouring off her. That actually informs Charlie. Charlie is transferring from city to city and case to case, and she’s surrounded by new folks each time. And Charlie as a personality is magnetic — individuals are drawn to her, and they divulge heart’s contents to her — and I believe Natasha shares that power. It was actually unimaginable to observe.”

Charlie and Nadia symbolize temperamentally opposed variations of what has by now turn into the acquainted Lyonne persona, in each her appearing roles and in interviews and public appearances. The precise Lyonne is able to that, too. Friends and co-workers snort at how tough it may be to maintain up together with her verbally — “I instructed her I want no less than three cups of espresso earlier than we start rehearsing,” says Bratt — and how a lot disarray she will depart in her wake. “Fuck Columbo; she’s Paddington Bear,” jokes Lyonne’s Orange co-star Dascha Polanco, who appeared on Russian Doll and friends within the Poker Face premiere. 

But simply because the rumpled exteriors of Columbo, Marlowe, and Paddington conceal their tenacity and knowledge, a severe capital-A actor lurks beneath Lyonne’s fast-paced, digressive, absurdist patter. “One of the shocking issues about Natasha is simply how devoted and very extremely technical she is,” says Lilla Zuckerman. “She is extremely studious. She arrives so ready. And then she will get onto set and it appears really easy, and it appears so laid-back. She’s received that pretty, chill vibe that I believe actually hides the craft behind it.”

She discovered a very good match with Johnson, who does simply as a lot homework and is simply as decisive, whereas additionally recognizing the significance of holding issues gentle. “She looks as if she’s consistently cracking jokes and holding this air of chaos and levity round her,” Johnson says of his main woman, “and in a short time, I noticed she’s doing this very deliberately in an effort to preserve the carpentry-like precision of the workings of a set at bay, so she will create stuff that feels actual.” Lurking beneath Johnson’s soft-spoken, amiable exterior, in the meantime, is the person with, as Bratt places it, the “actively devious creativeness” that enables him to write down these twisty homicide mysteries. So Johnson was in a position to shortly tune into Lyonne’s on-set wavelength. While he admits they in all probability drove lots of the solid and crew nuts by singing the Meow Mix jingle to one another, “It’s all to a function.” 

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Johnson on set

Phillip Caruso/Peacock

Even Lyonne typically will get fooled by her personal persona. Told that Longworth described her as “the neatest individual I’ve ever met,” Lyonne’s eyes bug out in disbelief — a uncommon second the place she is puzzled. But the various ideas quickly discover her, and she is off monologuing once more: 

“I believe I’ve some kind of smart-people boner illness, simply to look as good as I can on this second. I’m extremely popular for very good folks. They actually do it for me. I don’t need to possess their our bodies. I need to possess their brains. I need to put their brains in a jar in a room. I need to take my mind out of my physique, put it in its personal jar. And then I need to sit in my mattress like Ray Liotta in Hannibal, sit there with my cranium simply open, watching the brains play collectively and hang around whereas my brainless self sits in mattress smoking cigarettes. That’s my fantasy, you see.” 

LYONNE HAS LATELY put these smarts, and her mind-expandingly acid-trippy perspective, to work in new methods. After a long time of feeling like she didn’t slot in as an actor — she says she and DuVall “had been a pair of horrible ingenues” a era earlier than outsiders turned the cool children — she adopted DuVall and Sevigny into directing, primarily as a approach, no less than with Russian Doll, to showcase her personal on-camera versatility and magnetism. It paid off: “I’ve been on this enterprise now for 35 years,” she says, “and I determine it’s just like the final 5 years are the one time my case went sizzling. It was due to me saying, ‘OK, I’m gonna begin making my very own shit.’ ” But everybody who has watched her behind the digicam thinks that could be the place her bliss actually is, together with Johnson, who requested her to co-write and direct one of many Poker Face episodes. 

“I really feel like the place you see her turn into most herself is when she’s directing,” says Johnson. “You assume, ‘Wow, that is actually what she must be doing.’ She’s a implausible performer. But once you see her placing all that power and focus into the inventive act of controlling a set and getting what she desires, it’s like a butterfly unfolding its wings.”

Sevigny received to observe her good friend in motion as a director whereas taking part in Nadia’s mom on Russian Doll and was impressed that Lyonne had ready, with an appearing coach, by rehearsing each character on her personal so she may higher relate to every member of the solid. In truth, Sevigny argues that she and Lyonne are happier directing as a result of “we’re each too self-conscious to really be good actors.” She pauses to joke that her publicist have to be freaking out about this sentiment, then elaborates, “We each love making issues and group actions and being round different folks, and we love cinema and films and TV, however I don’t assume we each actually love appearing. And we’re tortured by sure features of it, due to low shallowness round appears to be like and all of that.

“But she additionally likes to be the boss,” she provides, “and the director is the boss.” 

Often, the value to pay for being the boss is just not lots of free time. Lyonne says she works “to the bone. No life, no children. It’s simply me and Rootbeer.” She turns her laptop computer round to indicate her canine, somewhat Maltipoo, resting on the couch beside her. 

The workaholism is one other frequent thread between her and Johnson, who segued straight from filming the Knives Out sequel Glass Onion into producing Poker Face. For some time, he would spend half of every day within the writers room with the Zuckermans and their workers, and the opposite half doing postproduction work on the film. His longtime cinematographer Steve Yeldin adopted him onto the challenge, and says that they had been in a position to ship their standard “actually designed, conscientious, considerate pictures” on a compressed tv schedule solely as a result of Johnson has a well-honed sense of what a given scene does and doesn’t want. 

“I don’t assume that he essentially understood that he must have his palms on all of it day day-after-day for this time period,” says Longworth. “I believe he thought that there was going to be extra of a machine than there may be on his films. The form of creator he’s, he nonetheless treats it like he’s an auteur, so he desires to be concerned with every little thing.” 

Despite the overwhelming time suck of manufacturing tv, Johnson appears considering taking the identical method to Poker Face that he has to the Benoit Blanc movies — and to maintain making it as long as his star is . After all, Peter Falk performed Columbo off and on for 1 / 4 century. “We’ll see how lengthy Natasha sticks with it,” Johnson says. “Maybe we may give him a run for his cash.” 

Would Lyonne be considering doing it for that period of time? “I’ve gotta get outdated someplace! How else am I gonna persuade Rian and Karina to undertake an grownup baby?” she jokes.

“The factor that I really like with appearing,” she says, “it’s virtually like being a musician. If it’s Rian, I need him to Svengali me. There are sure those that don’t curiosity me, however I like the concept he’s a composer, and he’s letting me know what a part of the tune I can play in service to his album. And I need to do it as greatest I can for him. It makes me glad to do it. I really feel very alive when it’s all taking place. And I wish to not really feel lifeless inside.”

And that’s no bullshit.

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