“Poker Face” star and executive producer Natasha Lyonne makes an indelible impression as Charlie Cale in Season 1 of Rian Johnson’s “Poker Face,” but she’s far from the only one lending memorable acting chops to the Peacock series.
Throughout the mystery-of-the-week comedy’s initial run, guest stars included (but were not limited to) Adrien Brody, Chloë Sevigny, Clea DuVall, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jameela Jamil, Judith Light, Lil Rel Howery, Nick Nolte, Ron Perlman, Stephanie Hsu and Tim Meadows.
Fitting in this many famous faces with the central one in “Poker Face” required immense coordination by casting directors Mary Vernieu and Bret Howe, as well as the friendships and connections of Lyonne and Johnson. And then it was up to the actors to shine around Lyonne’s human lie detector.
Light led the guest star cast for Episode 5, “Time of the Monkey,” alongside S. Epatha Merkerson. They played Irene Smothers and Joyce Harris, respectively, two retirement-home residents and life-long besties with a solid free-spirit streak — and a history of murder.
When Light was sent the script, she said yes almost immediately, on the condition that Merkerson — already in talks with the “Poker Face” team — was absolutely, 100% going to be her co-star.
And Light’s judgment was spot on, as she didn’t just have admiration for Merkerson’s work, but an instant chemistry with her as well. “The real truth of it is that we walked onto the set, and I felt like I knew her forever,” Light says. “And I’m pretty sure she felt the same way.”
Light’s character is in a wheelchair because of an injury she sustained during a raid in her extremist days that left her paralyzed. “We were very careful to make sure that the disability was portrayed perfectly,” says Light. “And we had a wonderful gentleman, one of our first ADs, and he was there to help us.”
That expertise was needed during a fight scene between Lyonne, Light and Merkerson.
“After we would stop the tape, he would say, ‘Remember, you have to be aware of what your legs are doing! You don’t have that kind of flexibility,’” Light recalls.
The Tony winner also kept in mind just how tough these senior citizens were supposed to be. “Remember, we were women who had been in Bedford Prison — and we had been there for a long time. So we knew how to take care of ourselves.”
Three episodes later, Nolte guest starred in the monster-movie-themed episode, “The Orpheus Syndrome.” The installment, directed by Lyonne, also featured Cherry Jones, Luis Guzmán, Rowan Blanchard and Tim Russ.
“I wanted to play Arthur Liptin in a way that made it so comfortable for Charlie to be in this old barn and feel at home,” Nolte says, describing the relationship between Charlie and the elderly monster movie director she comes to work for and befriends during the episode.
Nolte was happy to take his acting cues from Lyonne, whom he describes as “a director that’s got a feeling about a piece, whether it should be a comedy, drama or something else.” He adds, “Natasha knew what she wanted to get out of us actors.”
Phil Tippett’s Tippett Studio was brought on to handle the intricate practical effects and props used in the episode, and Nolte studied the artist’s work while developing his character.
“Tippett was on set, and I was able to just watch him move,” Nolte says. “They had all this visual stuff that I sat with in the workshop in between takes.”
That helped him get to the mental state he needed to be in for the standoff he has with Jones’ character, an old friend who is revealed to be responsible for a death he deeply regrets.
Notes Nolte, “It’s a tremendous role and she was really, really good.”