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It's a lovely thing when a new friendship blooms in unexpected ways. Take Rian Johnson and Natasha Lyonne. At the recent TCA press day for their new Peacock mystery series Poker Face, Johnson, the director of The Last Jedi and Knives Out, said it was his burgeoning friendship with Lyonne that led him to watch her Netflix sci-fi/mystery series, Russian Doll. Watching that show, he said, proved to him that the actress is the kind of person everyone in the audience would want to spend time with week after week.
"The big ingredient I knew I needed for a show... is a charismatic figure at the heart of it, because Columbo or Rockford Files, as much as those shows are mysteries, what really brings you back each week is you want to hang out with the main character. They're really 'hang out' shows," Johnson explained. "When I saw Natasha in Russian Doll, I thought here is somebody who has the presence and the charisma on the screen that I would just want to come back and be with her every week and see her win."
And so came Charlie Cale, the everyday woman at the center of Poker Face, who just happens to be extraordinary at reading people. Just looking at someone, Cale can tell if they're lying. It's a skill that's gotten her into some trouble when she tried to use to to get an advantage while playing poker — and it blows up her life again in the first episode of the series, which debuts with four episodes on Peacock on Jan. 26.
Also an appreciator of the classic mystery series, Lyonne said the two discussed crafting a series to scratch their sleuthing itches. "This is us making a life plan together for how to hang out as much as possible," Lyonne deadpanned about the real reason they created Poker Face. "But we certainly did a lot of talking and dinners and that kind of a thing."
Lyonne said a common ground for her and Johnson was Elliott Gould's portrayal of Philip Marlowe in Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye.
"I love that particular kind of a lone wolf, who is somebody who is really, sort of floating above a situation, trying to crack a riddle of some sort," Lyonne explained. "But is also very much an everyman who's really got their nose to the grindstone and is figuring out the sounds of the streets. I love that as a noir device in general, just the idea of these small pockets and eccentric figures, and that you need that type of a Philip Marlowe lone wolf who also is really in communication with the witness or the clue or their cat."
After they'd solved the mystery of what makes for a good mystery-solver, Johnson went off and wrote the scripts.
"It was shocking to just see what it is that makes a master, because it's just right there in black and white," Lyonne said of her immediate reaction to reading the scripts for the first time. "It's all conceptual and a fun idea until you really see it. And it's such a gift, the way it fits like such a glove and yet is unlike anything I've had a chance to do yet. It was also very moving, just on a friendship, humanity level, I would say."
The first four episodes of Poker Face premiere on Jan. 26 on Peacock. New episodes will air weekly.