If you know anything about Natasha Lyonne, Rian Johnson, and 1970s television, then you’ll immediately understand why Peacock’s Poker Face, which casts the singular performer in a Columbo-style, case-of-the-week detective show created by the Knives Out and Glass Onion filmmaker, is among the most anticipated TV series debuts of the year. (For those who are fuzzy on any of the above, suffice to say that the tough-talking Lyonne was born to play this role—which also very believably endows her character with an infallible B.S. detector—and mystery-box master Johnson was born to write it). But how does a project this perfect come about? Like so many other highlights of Lyonne’s recent career, from her collaboration with Amy Poehler on the Netflix hit Russian Doll to Animal, the production company she co-founded with Maya Rudolph, Poker Face, whose 10-episode season premieres on Jan. 26, grew organically out of a friendship.
The collaborators met through Johnson’s wife, Karina Longworth, the film critic and You Must Remember This podcaster, whose work Lyonne had long admired. At a reading for one of Longworth’s books, Lyonne recalls, “Rian and I were on the sofa while she signed books, riffing on how fun this [project] would be, and our shared love of mysteries.” A subsequent series of “funny dinners” where creator and star casually hashed out ideas culminated in Johnson sending her a script. “It was one of the best things I’d ever read,” she says. “I was so moved.”
Stories like this one suggest that working side-by-side with like-minded pals has done more than catalyze a career renaissance that’s been going strong since she joined the cast of Orange Is the New Black a decade ago; it has also made Lyonne, whose struggle with addiction as a young adult in the mid-aughts fueled nasty tabloid headlines, a more satisfied person. “I’m someone who thrives on collaboration,” she explains. “You get out of the competition business and into the inspiration business, which is obviously a more buoyant place to exist. Ultimately, the resource [in creative work] is ideas, and the greater the amount of collaborators, the more infinite that resource becomes.”
Speaking by phone from Los Angeles, where she’d presented an award at the Golden Globes the previous evening, Lyonne discussed Poker Face, creating characters who subvert leading-lady tropes, and why she’s happier in her 40s than she’s ever been before. Here are edited excerpts of that conversation.
TIME: What appealed to you and Johnson about the sort of rumpled, seen-it-all protagonist that Peter Falk played in Columbo?
Lyonne: We have a shared love for [Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled detective] Philip Marlowe. It’s such an iconic character type that we’ve seen permutations of it for, probably, seven decades now, whether it’s Humphrey Bogart or Elliott Gould or Jack Nicholson.
The women you play in Poker Face, Russian Doll, and many other project have a rugged, idiosyncratic independence that’s still largely reserved for male leads. Have you always been drawn to more traditionally masculine archetypes?
I’m very self-taught. I dropped out of the filmmaking program at NYU when I was 16 and decided to just watch a bunch of movies at Film Forum and read every book on filmmaking I could get my hands on. And as much as I love Bette Davis and Mae West and Gena Rowlands, I often found myself identifying with the Peter Falks and the Joe Pescis and the Jimmy Cagneys–all the boys. Certainly, by the time I was writing Russian Doll, I saw a character who was the perfect mix of feminine and masculine.
Do you think that androgynous quality liberates your characters from the typical story lines we see female protagonists saddled with, like the romance plot?
For sure. You get to circumnavigate all the traditional, overused tropes surrounding how we think of female characters. Especially when they’re the central character, it seems that they’re defined by an outer life. I remember, as a teenager, seeing Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now looking up at the ceiling fan while the Doors’ “The End” was playing. It’s so fascinating to watch a human being in process, ruminating, that we trust that to hold an audience’s attention. So whenever I have a measure of say-so in a character’s creation, I try to see to it that they’re able to have their inner beat be the thing leading them around by the nose, rather than society’s expectation of what a life should look like.
2022 was a rough year for streaming. As a creator and star of smart, offbeat TV shows, does that worry you?
The landscape is always changing, in terms of what is or isn’t getting made. And the hope is always that you can sneak things through. It’s never been easy to get original things made. We always need a champion to fight for it.
Animal works with a lot of emerging artists, like Sammi Cohen, who directed Hulu’s queer teen rom-com Crush. As someone who’s had a lifelong career in Hollywood, is it rewarding to shepherd newer creators through the industry?
I love that I get to help raise up so many brilliant young women. I love young people, just in general. But I also love growing up–I wouldn’t go back in time for anything. I can’t tell you that I’m a 100% happy person, but I’ve never been happier in my whole life. And it’s been hard-won.
Are you surprised that you feel as fulfilled as you do, at age 43?
The only surprise is how false the bill of goods is that we’re sold as young women. We’re supposed to be terrified of anything after 17 or 21. So it’s a revelation to discover what a lie that was. The truth of the matter is, it’s way better over here. I’m sure any woman in her 40s is gonna tell you, that’s when it all starts clicking, because you get to let go of so much concern about what other people think, and you get to focus on what you care about. And, of course, life being that funny karmic beast that it is, as soon as you let go of certain things, those are the very same things that come to you.
This appears in the January 30, 2023 issue of TIME.
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