Rian Johnson Plays An Inspired Winning Hand With ‘Poker Face’

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Unsurprisingly, Rian Johnson’s latest creation has plenty of layers.

Set in the present day but inspired by case-of-the-week crime shows of the 70s, Poker Face is a creative smorgasbord that manages to be so much more than the sum of its excellent parts.

The comedy-drama, which premieres on Peacock, is a real jewel in the crown of the streamer. Created by Johnson, who also directed three episodes, it stars Natasha Lyonne as Charlie Cale, a woman with a unique talent who travels from place to place happening to solve crimes. Like the classic shows, each episode boasts an ensemble cast of cameos.

I spoke to Johnson about Poker Face, what makes it fresh, the killer cast, and worlds colliding.

Simon Thompson: I’ve seen eight of the ten episodes so far. You’ve spoken about this being inspired by many shows, including Columbo but one you have yet to mention, and I felt elements of in Poker Face, was The Littlest Hobo.

Rian Johnson: I don’t know that one. I will have to look it up.

Thompson: It’s about a dog that used to go from town to town helping people.

Johnson: I’m in.

Thompson: How difficult is it to be inspired by classic shows that mean so much to people but also have it feel like its own thing?

Johnson: I don’t know. In a way, it’s a similar approach to Knives Out and Glass Onion, which was to think about something that I truly loved and had deep roots and try and boil down for me what the pleasure center of that thing is, and then make something new that hits exactly that. That’s kind of my formula. A big thing with Poker Face is that the entire thing came from me becoming friends with Natasha and me realizing that those shows that I loved, I didn’t really watch Colombo for the mysteries; I watched it to hang out with Peter Falk. I realized these are really hangout shows. When I became friends with Natasha and saw her work in Russian Doll, I realized she had that magnetic presence that could anchor a show like this and bring you back each week because you want to hang out with her; that was where I was really off to the races. Having her energy at the center of this makes it feel unique.

Thompson: You mentioned Knives Out. Do Natasha’s character, Charlie Cale, and Benoit Blanc, exist in the same universe? Will she see reports of his crime-solving?

Johnson: Well, here’s a very interesting thing. Natasha’s cameo in Glass Onion, where she’s on the Zoom call with Stephen Sondheim, Angela Lansbury, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, she did that Zoom call in her trailer in between setups for Poker Face. She is Natasha, but she’s on set for Poker Face. I like to think that in the world of Glass Onion, Poker Face is a show that his friend Natasha is shooting. It’s layers upon layers.

Thompson: Poker Face is dropping weekly episodes after the premiere. Is that something that you really wanted to happen with this?

Johnson: We’re putting out the first four at once, and then weekly after that, and, honestly, I like weekly because it does extend out and gives people time to discover it and keep talking about as it’s revealed. Right now, if I go back to The Rockford Files, essentially, it’s the binge model because they’re all up there. I can go through and skip through and pick, so I’m not that bothered with them all being up at the end of the day and people being able to dive in. The other thing that I like about this episodic format is if you’ve watched the pilot, and then you read on Twitter, ‘Oh my God, you’ve got to see the Nick Nolte episode,’ you can skip right ahead to that one and watch it. It’s not like you have to watch them all in order and catch up.

Thompson: Are they sequential in a timeline, or are they jumping around telling stories out of order?

Johnson: For the most part, we sequence them the way you sequence songs in an album. It’s not like they one leads into another, but tonally it feels good to watch them in this order. I will say that you should probably watch the pilot first, and maybe episode two kind of teaches you how to watch the show, but it’s not necessary. The only other thing is episodes nine and ten. You should watch them as nine and ten because nine sets up ten which is a true finale to the season.

Thompson: Were they shot episode by episode in sequence?

Johnson: No. It was interesting because I directed three of the episodes. The first episode we shot was episode nine, and then we shot the pilot. It was very weird. The last episode I shot was episode two, which was the final episode we shot at the end of the schedule, so we were all hopping all over the place. It was crazy.

Thompson: I also wanted to ask you about consulting experts regarding Cale’s human reading ability. Did you talk to experts about that? Did you speak to gamblers or liars?

Johnson: I feel like I should probably lie and say, ‘Yes, I did extensive research,’ but I’m a terrible liar, so no. To me, it’s less about the reality of poker tells, reading people, and about that kind of thing; it’s more about it as a dramatic device. There’s an element of magical thinking too, which I think is fun and essential to it. I can’t claim it was a heavily researched skill. It’s a little bit of a superpower, I guess.

Thompson: It’s an incredible ensemble cast. Did you write some of the episodes with specific people in mind?

Johnson: There were only a couple of them where I wrote with someone in mind, and then that person ended up playing the part. Joseph Gordon-Levitt in episode nine is someone I definitely had in my head while I was writing it. Nick Nolte oddly was like the person we were talking about in the room for his episode, and he ended up showing up and playing it. I was shocked. I was like, ‘Oh my God, we got Nick Nolte. That’s incredible.’ For the most part, it was writing in the room and then figuring out whose schedule would allow them to come out and play with us.

Poker Face premieres exclusively on Peacock on Thursday, January 26, 2023, with four episodes followed by a new episode each Thursday for six weeks.

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