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SYFY WIRE Poker Face

Rian Johnson and Natasha Lyonne reveal the mysteries of the 'Poker Face' premiere

The creator of Poker Face, along with Natasha Lyonne and Benjamin Bratt, explain the first episode.

By Tara Bennett
Pictured: (l-r) Natasha Lyonne as Charlie Cale, Benjamin Bratt as Cliff Legrand in POKER FACE Season 1 Episode 10

And so the game is afoot. The Poker Face series premiere, "Dead Man's Hand," introduces audiences to Charlie Cale (Natasha Lyonne), the latest in a revered list of eccentric but street-smart sleuths on the small screen. An amateur crime solver with no ambition to be legit, Cale just happens to be particularly good at sussing out the perpetrators of homicide because she can always tell when someone is lying. So when someone fabricates to her face, she can't help but respond with a spontaneous response of "bulls***," and then a compulsion to know exactly why they've lied to her. 

Although the Peacock series is episodic, the premeire, written and directed by creator Rian Johnson, gives us a bit of Cale's origin story. She's landed a waitressing gig in a modest Nevada casino operated by the ambitious Sterling Frost, Jr. (Adrien Brody). But, the gig goes south when Charlie's best friend, Natalie (Dascha Polanco), is murdered. Charlie picks apart the inconsistencies surrounding the details of Natalie and her dead beat husband's deaths, which finds her by episode's end on the run with the casino's head of security, Cliff Legrand (Benjamin Bratt), hot on her heels.

RELATED: Before Poker Face, revist the 8 best TV mystery series

In our first exclusive post mortem for Poker Face, SYFY WIRE collected Johnson, Lyonne and Bratt to dissect the elements of the introductory episode, which includes many an entertaining story... no bulls***.

**Warning: There are spoilers for the first episode of Poker Face below.**

Framing Devices

Poker Face

Right from the reveal of the show's '70s style title and font, there's an immediate connection to other classic procedural mysteries like Columbo and The Rockford Files. Was that birthed in marketing or by you?

Rian Johnson, Creator/Writer/Director: That was me just being a big fan of the mystery wheel. It just goes back to the roots of what this thing is trying to get at the heart of, which is my love of the type of shows I grew up watching, and nothing spoke to it like that. My cousin, Mark Johnson, did the title design. I worked with him and gave him those references, and we came up with kind of our own slight version of it. Every time that font comes up, it just warms my heart.  

Perhaps a little known fun fact is that Episode 9 was the very first episode you shot, and then you shot the pilot episode. How did basically shooting the end of the series and then going back to the start inform how this episode turned out?

Johnson: I think it ended up being a blessing because Episode 9 is so action heavy and intense, whereas Episode 1 is more of a hangout. Getting those couple of weeks on set to find our feet and kind of dial [Charlie] in with the [proverbial] duck hunting shield around us of "very much in action" for the thing ended up being great because when we got to Episode One, we had more conversations. We had put scenes on their feet and I think that's a big way it ended up helping.

Natasha, there's so much DNA of Peter Falk's Columbo in Charlie. Was that conscious or subconscious?

Natasha Lyonne, Executive Producer & Charlie Cale: It really is a chicken or the egg, isn't it? I mean, I have a great love of Peter Falk from all the Cassavetes' and Wings of Desire. I just love the guy. I love his oil paintings. So I think, as somebody that's essentially just self‑taught based on my interests, I've always gravitated to him. But the other guy I love so much is Sipowicz [Dennis Franz of NYPD Blue]. I don't really know how to answer your question exactly, other than to say I would love to go on Finding Your Roots and discover that Peter Falk was some sort of deep, distant relation.

Cat and Mouse

Pictured: (l-r) Natasha Lyonne as Charlie Cale, Benjamin Bratt as Cliff Legrand, Adrien Brody as Sterling Frost POKER FACE Season 1 Episode 1

Ben, How much did Rian share with you about who Cliff is and his eventual pursuit of Charlie?

Benjamin Bratt, Cliff Legrand: I loved what he shared with me, which is Cliff Legrand is the dutiful soldier. He's got a military background. He's given the responsibility of protecting the Frost Casino empire, and he'll do whatever it takes to succeed at his job. At the end of the pilot, he is charged with going after and capturing Charlie. That amounts to, in essence, the ticking clock that the show really needs to keep her on the road. And stay tuned, because in Episode 10 there is some connective tissue to what gets launched in the pilot and answered quite surprisingly in the end.  

Talk about how you established the dynamic between your characters.

Bratt: My first day of working with Natasha was the elevator scene where her character is very hyped up. I'm the picture of stillness because I don't want to be caught in any kind of lie. As we were shooting that, this one [Natasha], is uncharacteristically generous in a moment where we don't know each other, but also we're truly being antagonistic. We were dancing sort of delicately around each other, and she said to me out of nowhere at the end of the take, "You know what? Some people are doing exactly what they should be doing." To me, I received that as the highest praise from an artist of her caliber. I was reminded that we all need a little, "attaboy!" once in a while. But more importantly, it gave me the notion that I was on the right track and trying to tell the same story that Rian was telling and that she was telling, so that was was a special moment.

Natasha, who came up with Charlie's "bulls***" catchword, and did you practice saying it to make it so believably spontaneous?

Lyonne: I like the idea that I'm walking around the house going, "Bulls***. Bulls***. Bulls***!" I didn't do that. I felt in pretty fair command of the word. Rian and I met up and we started talking about what the show could be and were kicking that around for some months. And then he actually sent me a script, and it was great so it wasn't a full surprise. But the way he had executed it was so beautiful. And [the script] just made it feel really natural. We did definitely spend a lot of time drilling down on every specific aspect of how do you do this, such that it's more of like, a reflex and less of a catchphrase. I guess it's acting 101 or something, where you can't actually play that catch phrase or whatever. It's got to be an "in real time" like, "Bulls***. Oops, you heard that?" And but thanks to having said that word quite so often in my life, it was like everything had been preparing me.

Rian, do you have a favorite scene in the pilot episode?

Johnson: There's the first big scene where Adrien brings her into the office, and they tell what their deal is. But maybe my favorite scene though, because it brings me right back to Falk, is the scene where Adrien's telling her about the clicker, and then she hits him with, "What was the phone call about?" I like it because, to me, this will be really delicious to do if we can get this show off the ground; the thing of the subtle cat and mouse between her and the killer. Just those two actors playing that, it's just so subtle and dialed in. That brings me joy.

Burn Notice Name Drop

Pictured: (l-r) Adrien Brody as Sterling Frost Jr., Benjamin Bratt as Cliff Legrand in POKER FACE Season 1 Episode 1

The tiny details that each of the characters relay about themselves make them pop as real people. Is that something you bring or Rian had in the scripts?

Bratt: Looking at the pilot, Rian writes a little bit like a musical composer depending on the character. There's a specific rhythm and a specific attitude that he assigns to every character. He wrote this thing custom fit for [Natasha], even the "uhms" and the pauses. He put it down on the page. What Adrien Brody does with the beautiful speeches that he gave are just genius. And it's very, very specific stuff and so highly detailed and so fun to play — using that musical metaphor — that you don't want to go off and improvise on your own. There's no need to because the specificity is right there in the writing. And he gives little quirks to everybody. He gives everyone their fair do.

He's so good at that thing, like when Cliff, in the middle of the highest stakes, does the Michael Weston [Ed. note: the lead of Burn Notice] line. Why that's so brilliant, though, is not even how it's delivered at all. It's Rian, as a writer, has given you an insight into who this man really is. I see him as the personification of menace that kind of lives this lonely, solitary life and probably even fantasizes about being a little bit like Michael Westin. Like that would be his aspirational job. He's the head of security of the casino, but, "God, I wish I was a private detective."

Lyonne: But your execution of it is also gorgeous, because you don't lose the fact that the stakes have never been higher. That's really where you see all the elements and it's such a beautiful externalization, when everybody's playing at the highest level. The script is beautiful, and the right actor is doing it and has totally brought it to life. An ensemble is like a little troupe. Adrien and you are working in that moment and you really believe that that room is a real space. All the work in the episode that's come before it, and after it, and that's where I really hear what you're saying about the musicality of it all. It's just orchestrated and put together with his great precision and realized by the correct players to make it just fully realized. Rian is great at that. He really can take a moment where the audience is on the edge of its seat and somehow defuse it, but keep the tension and you're getting major insight into the entire human being. It's really cool. 

Deadly Pursuits

Poker Face Season 1

Let's talk about that scene where Cliff is shooting at Charlie down the hotel hallway. Natasha, you looked authentically freaked out.

Bratt: The woman is shockingly swift running on a pair of four inch cork platform shoes. I was really impressed. [Laughs.]

Lyonne: You know, I'm surprisingly spry. Also, I'm somebody who does not love a ton of rehearsal for a first take. I'm very much like, "Let's do the first take on cameras, see what happens." And then, dial it in. I always enjoy that. I remember Rian and Benjamin were like, "No, no, no, this is guns and running. There will be a small explosive." I was like, "Guys, guys, guys... alright." Anyway, cut to the next thing I know, I hear, "Action!" All of a sudden, that thing went off and I was terrified! And then we tried to recreate it, and I increasingly couldn't do it as well. [Laughs.] And then Benjamin's got these crazy long legs, so I was just running as quickly as I could. But I'll never forget that. That first one was terrifying. 

Portions of the interview were derived from the Poker Face panel at TCA.

The first four episodes of Poker Face are now streaming. Come back to SYFY WIRE for our exclusive Poker Face post mortems all season long after new episodes debut on Peacock.