“I am planning to establish a following. That is my ultimate goal!” Natasha Lyonne discusses her interest in crime, crossword puzzles, and Macaulay Culkin.
The true joy of watching Natasha Lyonne in Poker Face is the underlying suspicion that she is almost identical to Charlie Cale, the endearing protagonist and amateur detective of the show. Lyonne has the potential to solve crimes on her own, even without Charlie’s special talent for detecting dishonesty. (Her go-to phrase: “Bullshit.”) Much like Charlie, Lyonne could cruise across America in a Plymouth Barracuda, nabbing culprits in retirement homes and roadside diners. “I must admit, I do have a fondness for solving mysteries,” she remarks. “I’m quite fond of a good puzzle.”
Natasha Lyonne, a 44-year-old crossword puzzle enthusiast, was once asked to create a puzzle for the New York Times. On the set of the show she worked on, Rian Johnson and Lyonne would take breaks from solving crimes to solve various puzzles like crosswords, Wordle, and Duotrigordle (32 Wordles at once). During the recent actors’ strike, she raised funds by auctioning off the opportunity to have a 15-minute existential conversation with her and her dog, Rootbeer, while completing the Wednesday NYT crossword puzzle. The winning bidder paid $6,300 for this experience and Lyonne states that they had a great time together. She discovered that fellow crossword enthusiasts have many similarities.
I had a 30-minute video call with Lyonne without spending any money, even though we squeezed it in between a busy afternoon of meetings and an evening event. She briefly turns on her camera and shows her smiling face without makeup. I hear a bark in the background. “That’s Rootbeer,” she explains. “My dog, not the beverage.”
Talking to Lyonne is similar to trying to control a group of unruly cats. When she discovers that I reside in Melbourne, she shares, “I once had a romantic encounter with a man named The Butcher in Melbourne. He was a musician. I believe I met him in a cemetery or a bar. There was definitely a cemetery involved at some point.”
She was recently named a contender for a Golden Globe for her performance in Poker Face, in addition to her previous Emmy nomination. Reflecting on her journey, she expresses immense gratitude for the recognition and acknowledges that it has not always been smooth sailing.
A faint sound of aerosol can be heard. “That is hairspray,” she remarks. “Not the film featuring Divine.”
According to Taika Waititi, Natasha is consistently the most impressive person in any given room. This was recognized by Time magazine when she was included in their list of the 100 most influential people in 2023. The confident New Yorker with striking red hair and a distinctively rough voice has even inspired songs from Rufus Wainwright and has an entire Instagram account dedicated to her smoking. She exudes coolness and this is why her role in Poker Face was tailored specifically for her, according to Johnson. Just like how we would want to spend time with iconic characters like Columbo or Magnum, we also want to hang out with Natasha, also known as Charlie or Lyonne.
Among her friends she counts a cohort of former co-stars – Chloë Sevigny, as well as Melanie Lynskey (Yellowjackets, The Last of Us) and her fellow American Pie cast member Jennifer Coolidge (The White Lotus) and Colman Domingo (Euphoria, Rustin, The Color Purple), all of whom are reaching new heights of fame after decades plugging way.
Lyonne states, “We are a group of men who run marathons.” She and Melanie joked yesterday that this achievement would not have been possible 20 years ago when she had the energy to go out in high heels for multiple nights. It’s a victory for all those who have been on a long journey. Now, at 35 years old, you are seen as an overnight success.
The speaker expresses her gratitude for no longer being upset about something that occurred ten years ago. She believes it is better for her mental health than being a teenage celebrity. She also expresses concern for young stars who may not have the opportunity to process their experiences.
Lyonne began acting at the young age of six, appearing in Pee-wee’s Playhouse and a Woody Allen movie. As she got older, she became estranged from her parents. She once stated, “I had to be mature and business-savvy at only six years old. By the time I was 10, I was already a cynical professional. By 16, my youth was gone and my fate was sealed.” In her 20s, she battled heroin addiction, hepatitis C, a heart infection, and a collapsed lung, all while being scrutinized by ruthless online gossip sites of the early 2000s. After a brief hiatus, she made a comeback with her role as Nicky in Orange Is the New Black, gaining recognition from those who missed her in previous films like American Pie and But I’m a Cheerleader. Her work on the critically acclaimed Russian Doll, which she wrote, directed, and starred in, solidified her reputation as a brilliant creative mind.
When her dear friend and fellow former child actor, Macaulay Culkin, was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Lyonne delivered a humorous and affectionate speech. She remarked, “There is a unique and unspoken bond between child actors who manage to survive.” She then turned to Culkin and quipped, “Though, you were like Shirley Temple and I was more like Paul Giamatti.”
“As you move from being a child actor to an adult, it’s important to establish your independence and control over your own identity,” Lyonne explains. “What I’m most proud of, for myself and fellow actors like Mac and Melanie, is that we are still just as eccentric as ever. Our unique quirks and quirks were not smoothed out due to being coddled too much. It’s a wonderful thing to be recognized and appreciated for who you truly are.”
During her adolescence, she struggled with understanding others’ expectations of her. Now, she faces different challenges that are more existential in nature, focusing on why she exists rather than who she is.
Finding fame in her 40s suits her. “You become softer over time, you know?” she says. “Back then, I was only interested in being a real cool kid – which is, by definition, cold. Now, I want to be a warm kid.”
Charlie is the definition of warm: no matter how many murders she stumbles on, she still talks to strangers in bars, remains open to the world. She’s seen the worst of it, but none of it has made her hard or cynical. “She is someone who’s always got the sun on her back. She’s way more Jeff Bridges than Lou Reed,” Lyonne says.
Some of Charlie was shaped simply by the need to differentiate her from Nadia, Lyonne’s character in Russian Doll. “Nadia is chain smoking to suck the pain away and Charlie is smoking because it’s nice to take in the breeze once in a while,” Lyonne says. “They’ve got very different attitudes about things.”
The show Poker Face is not a traditional mystery, but instead, according to Johnson, it follows a “howcatchem” format: where the crime is shown first and the solution is revealed later. This structure is similar to popular procedural shows like Columbo, but in Poker Face, the guest stars could be big names like Nick Nolte or Chloe Sevigny. When Johnson and Lyonne were trying to sell the show, some networks were hesitant because they saw it as a dated concept. However, just last week, one US network announced that they were going back to more lighthearted, character-driven procedural shows due to the high demand for shows like Suits and Monk.
Lyonne reflects on her experience in the television industry, noting the trend of popular shows being imitated by others. She mentions the success of “Orange Is the New Black” and “Russian Doll”, and how other acclaimed creators like Donald Glover, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and Bill Hader have also been producing similar content. However, she finds it amusing that while these types of shows were once considered unconventional and difficult to sell, suddenly there is a high demand for them. She also points out the irony of the industry’s constant desire for something new and different, while also wanting to replicate past successes. Despite this, she sees the humor in the situation rather than becoming frustrated. As she puts it, “We are crazy! We crave originality, not more of the same.”
The second season of Poker Face concludes with Charlie returning to the Barracuda. While season two is still far off, Lyonne is optimistic that the success of the first season will attract more actors and directors to join the project. She and Rian have high hopes for the show and even joke about starting a cult together in the future.
Lyonne is thrilled to have received a Golden Globe nomination, an Emmy nomination, and to have landed at No. 5 on our list of the best TV shows of the year. She jokingly imagines The Butcher, a character from her show, being impressed that she made it from the graveyard all the way to the top 5.