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Rian Johnson talks new TV series 'Poker Face'

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Academy Award-nominated writer and director Rian Johnson obviously likes a mind-bending whodunnit, which you can tell from his hit movies like "Knives Out" and his latest, "Glass Onion." But he also seems to enjoy a classic how to catch 'em like "Columbo" and "Murder, She Wrote," chock full of celebrity cameos and easy to miss, but oh-so-telling details. He linked up with fellow murder mystery aficionado Natasha Lyonne, and the result is their new 10-episode series on Peacock. It's called "Poker Face."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "POKER FACE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) You have to buy something if you want to use the bathroom.

NATASHA LYONNE: (As Charlie Cale) You know what I'd really like is to take a look at your security footage.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Why? Are you a cop?

LYONNE: (As Charlie Cale) Yeah. I'm a very deep, deep undercover cop.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) I don't like cops.

LYONNE: (As Charlie Cale) Neither do I. Right. So I'm not a cop.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Then why should I show you my footage?

LYONNE: (As Charlie Cale) Paradoxical.

MARTIN: Lyonne plays Charlie Cale, who is not your ordinary run-of-the-mill detective, if there is such a thing. She kind of fell into it, or more accurately, was pushed after the death of her best friend. But she does have something special, a gift for knowing who's telling the truth and who isn't. And it's as much of a mystery to her as it is to the people she encounters as she travels across the country. We wanted to talk to Johnson about what it was like putting his take on the classic murder-of-the-week format and working with Lyonne and what other secrets he might want to tell us. So he's with us now. Rian Johnson, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

RIAN JOHNSON: Hey, Michel. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Before we start off, can I just say congratulations on the Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay for "Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery," your second nomination?

JOHNSON: Thank you very much. Yeah, it's very exciting.

MARTIN: I was going to ask, is it - forgive me for asking - is it still a thrill? I mean, second nomination, is it still a thrill? Or you're like, whatever, yeah, sure, of course I got nominated.

JOHNSON: Yeah. The day an Academy Award nomination's not a thrill, I think it's time to hang it up. Yeah, I still am over the moon. I can't quite believe it. It's pretty cool.

MARTIN: So let's get into "Poker Face," and I want to get into Charlie's special gift. And I'm going to play a clip of her talking about it. This is the pilot. This is the first episode. Every episode has its own story. So that's one of the things I wanted to tell people is that you can just watch that one. And each story is self-contained. This is Natasha Lyonne as Charlie. She's talking about it with Sterling Frost Jr. He's a casino owner. And he's played by Adrien Brody.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "POKER FACE")

ADRIEN BRODY: (As Sterling Frost, Jr.) You're not reading the cards.

LYONNE: (As Charlie Cale) How could I read the cards?

BRODY: (As Sterling Frost, Jr.) You're reading me. It's not like it's one thing, like my eye twitches or something. It's just a general - you can just tell.

LYONNE: (As Charlie Cale) Just that something is off. That's the best way to describe it. I could just tell.

BRODY: (As Sterling Frost, Jr.) When anyone is lying, 100% of the time.

MARTIN: Can I ask, how did you come up with that? That is kind of her superpower.

JOHNSON: Well, it was interesting. I mean, we you know, first of all, this show is kind of a bit of a throwback, and that is case of the week. It's - each episode is entirely its own thing. It's very much kind of modeled after, you know, '70s "Columbo" in its structure and its style. And once I threw the character of Charlie Cale that Natasha plays into this and realized she wasn't going to be a detective or a cop, it was not going to be her job to solve these cases, I felt like it would be good to give her a little something, some reason that she's specifically good at it.

And so the notion of her being able to detect lies kind of came to me and Natasha, and we thought that would be interesting, the way that we use the gift, because it's never like the person says, you know, I didn't do it, and she goes, yes, you did, a-ha. We always find kind of a subtle side way into it. And as she says, once you can tune in to people lying, people lie constantly, mostly about really stupid stuff. So it's kind of like birds chattering in the background. It's always there. And why people are lying about specific things becomes the more nuanced but more important question, I guess.

MARTIN: I have to tell you, that's one of the things I found so fascinating about it and so enjoyable about it is that - how can I put this? It's kind of like the difference between baseball players and basketball players. You know, basketball players are 6'7", and you think to yourself, I couldn't do that. But baseball players could be your height, right? They can be 5'5" or - I don't know how tall you are, I'm sorry. I'm just saying. They could just be any one of us. And they're walking around, and you don't know that they're special until they reveal themselves as special.

JOHNSON: Right. Right.

MARTIN: And that's what I found so fascinating about her as a character.

JOHNSON: Yeah.

MARTIN: And how does Natasha add to that as an actor? I mean, people may know her, just reminding people, they may know her from "Orange Is The New Black." What does Natasha add to that as an actor?

JOHNSON: When I think about "Columbo," for instance, you know, or "The Rockford Files" or "Magnum, P.I.," when I think about those shows I was watching, I didn't really watch those shows for the mysteries. The reality is those shows are hang-out shows. I was tuning in every week to hang out with Peter Falk because I liked him. In that way, I feel like the shows have more in common almost with sitcoms. It's kind of like, you know, the central character that you love seeing them take down the bad guy. There's a pleasure to coming back to that and the familiarity of that every week.

MARTIN: Why don't I just play a little bit more just so we can hear her talk with that really specific, that great voice. Does she talk like that in real life?

JOHNSON: Oh, yeah, you bet. No, that's it. That's what you get. Yeah.

MARTIN: All right. Just so we can hear more of it. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "POKER FACE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) You you live on the road, right?

LYONNE: (As Charlie Cale) Yeah. Yeah, I guess I do.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) So what's it like to leave everything behind and start fresh?

LYONNE: (As Charlie Cale) Well, it's - it's easy, too easy maybe. A life of fresh starts, but it suits me. And yeah. And you get to meet all sorts of people, all sorts of lives.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) All sorts of lies?

LYONNE: (As Charlie Cale) Lives. But, you know, sometimes I just - I take a map, I pick a spot, and I head there.

MARTIN: You know, I just - she cracks - you know the funny thing about her? She just cracks me up, like just - just listening to her talk just cracks me up. On the other hand, though, you just - you can't miss anything because you feel like she's just going to drop some knowledge just at any point.

JOHNSON: Yeah. Yeah.

MARTIN: And it's going to be something really deep. And you're going to have to stop and think for a minute about what she said.

JOHNSON: Well, that's Natasha. She's funny, and she's also incredibly wise. I mean, and I'm talking about in real life, not the character, my friend Natasha. She's, you know, she's lived a lot of life. She's been through a lot of stuff. She's got a lot of wisdom under the hood. And yeah, and just - and this is similar to Charlie Cale You know, you underestimate her at your peril.

MARTIN: That was one of the other things I was thinking about in terms of how you construct these episodes, because you cannot miss things. I appreciate what you're saying. It's more of a hangout show. You're just kind of enjoying the company and the experience and being taken along on the ride. But then when you think about it later, you know, there are all these details.

JOHNSON: (Laughter) How it all fits in, yeah.

MARTIN: How do you construct something like that? It just would seem like...

JOHNSON: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...You'd have to be so careful about every - it's like a Jenga game. You know, if you pull out one piece, it's going to fall apart.

JOHNSON: Yeah. I mean, that's the kind of story I really love putting together. And I just kind of build it structurally, draw out a map. Also, I had an amazing team of writers in the writers room and two terrific showrunners, Lilla and Nora Zuckerman, who kind of taught me the ropes of how to make a TV show and how to work with a group of writers, which I had never done before.

MARTIN: I was going to ask, what's that like? How did you teach yourself that?

JOHNSON: Yeah, I enjoyed it. I mean, I, you know, for me, writing has always been kind of like a lonely, terrible, unhealthy process. Then suddenly you're in a room filled with all these cool, talented writers and you're bouncing ideas off each other and ordering lunch together. And I don't know. It was a new experience for me. I really did enjoy it. But yeah, in terms of the audience coming into it, the other thing that I think is kind of a throwback to the old TV shows that you mentioned, that this is a how-catch-them. We show you who did it and how they did it at the beginning of the episode.

So in that way, it's a little bit more laid back in that it's not like your job is to solve the mystery at the end or something. It's kind of the delight of seeing how Natasha is going to catch up with you and how she's going to nail these people who have done these seemingly unnailable (ph) crimes, I guess.

MARTIN: So what's next for you? I mean, I remember reading in another interview - you actually alluded to this, how things that you liked to watch kind of growing up and - so how do you feel now that you've done your own?

JOHNSON: I feel really good. I mean, the same way that, you know, "Knives Out" and "Glass Onion" came from me thinking back to what I loved about reading Agatha Christie growing up, this came back to remembering sitting on the carpet in front of the TV in the family living room and watching reruns during the day of those hour-long, you know, kind of procedural dramas and mystery shows. And I don't know. I watch it. I find myself kind of like - I had like the link to all the screeners on my phone in the past few weeks. I find myself just clicking on them and watching them because I really enjoy them. I've never done that with anything that I've made before, but I just - I can watch Natasha all day long. And I just feel like, yeah, with the vibe that we were going for with these, I feel like we hit it. I really hope the people enjoy it and respond to it.

MARTIN: And what's next, if we can ask?

JOHNSON: I'm starting to kind of fish for ideas for the next Benoit Blanc mystery. So yeah, I'm starting to put my whodunit hat back on. So I'm really excited, but I'm just in the very beginning phases. So, Michel, if you got anything for me, I'll take it.

MARTIN: (Laughter) OK. Rian Johnson is a two-time Academy Award-nominated writer and director. He is the creator, writer, director and executive producer of the new Peacock show starring Natasha Lyonne. It's called "Poker Face," and it's streaming now. Rian Johnson, thanks so much for joining us.

JOHNSON: Oh, it was great being back. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.