‘Poker Face’ Rian Johnson Interview: His Favorite Celebrity Cameos

Rian Johnson has cast me in Poker Face, just two minutes into our conversation. Not because I’m a particularly deft actor—I’m not—but because there aren’t enough Hollywood stars left to cast in his show. So, once he’s gone through this year’s batch of Oscar contenders (he’s already got Stephanie Hsu) and every other actor out there, he’s going to cast little old me. And probably you, too.

“The hope is that we can keep going with this, and eventually use every single actor in the world,” Johnson says over Zoom, throwing his hand in the air to beckon us all into the show. “Literally all of them! We’ll be out of actors. Your phone will ring.”

Even though I love my job, I’d pick up the call from Johnson. He’s got a particular talent in getting whomever he wants, whenever he wants, for whatever he’s working on. There were nearly a dozen cameos in his most recent film, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, including posthumous appearances from Angela Lansbury and Stephen Sondheim. When you’re a star in Hollywood and the name “Rian Johnson” appears on your phone screen, you pick up.

In Poker Face, which premieres today on Peacock, Johnson enlists help from several dozen big stars (Joseph Gordon Levitt, Chloë Sevigny, Tim Blake Nelson, and Jameela Jamil, to name just a few) to face down with human lie detector Charlie Cale (Natasha Lyonne) each episode. Though Charlie sticks around, traveling cross-country to get away from casino bosses out for blood, every episode features a new cast and mystery.

The twist: We know how each victim dies from the start. The first 10 minutes of every episode are dedicated to watching the murders play out. What we don’t know, however, is how Charlie will use her amateur sleuth powers to suss out the killer.

“As opposed to a whodunnit like Knives Out or Glass Onion, where you have an ensemble of eight or nine suspects and you have to juggle all of them,” Johnson says, “the benefit of this format—which is sometimes called a ‘howcatchem,’ where we show you who did it and how Natasha’s gonna catch them—is that there’s only one suspect. If you have a guest star, you can really make them the star of the episode. You can give them the space to develop that character and give them the screen time.”

That was the pitch to guest stars like Ron Perlman, Adrien Brody, and Rhea Perlman: “real parts in something fun.” And Poker Face is really, really fun. The series pulls heavily from Columbo, Peter Falk’s similar howcatchem series that debuted in the late 1960s. While rewatching, Johnson loved getting to see a new star every week—John Cassavetes! Gena Rowlands! Dick Van Dyke! Johnny Cash!—so he baked that concept into the blueprint of his new show.

“That was something that, from the very start, was a bull’s eye that we put up for ourselves. Again, that’s the notion of: Who would it be delightful to have show up?” Johnson says. “In Episode 2, we got John Ratzenberger to come. It brought me so much joy. I directed that episode and got to be on set with John Ratzenberger. We’re going for casting that’s gonna give you the tingles.”

Poker Face features a cast of folks that’ll please your parents—hell, even your grandparents may be impressed. That’s the goal: Pitch a big circus tent, and squeeze everyone and their brother into the audience to enjoy the series. Nailing these guest stars down, however, wasn’t an easy feat. Sure, everyone was interested (again, stars in Hollywood won’t turn the director of hits like The Last Jedi and Knives Out down), but they weren’t all available at a moment’s notice.

“It was a constant struggle. Really, we were trying to land a movie star in every single one of these. It’s like 10 little mini-movies,” Johnson says. “The poor costuming department kept saying, ‘Have we got someone cast yet? We’ve got to get these clothes fit for them!’ I still can’t believe we got the group together that we did.”

Anyone who couldn’t make it into Season 1 will be put on the list for future episodes—like Maya Rudolph, a co-producer on the series, who was too busy filming Apple TV+’s Loot to appear in this batch of episodes. The director also tells me there was “nobody we got a no from,” a promising sign as Poker Face awaits a potential second season.

Nora and Lilla Zuckerman, sisters and co-showrunners on Poker Face, have a totally different idea when it comes to casting future seasons. What if the series brought back some of Season 1’s villains, like Ellen Burstyn and Judith Light, and spun them into new characters? Call it Poker Face: All Stars.

“We’ve often talked about having people from the original episodes, from the first-season cast —like they did with Patrick McGoohan and Robert Culp, [who] played multiple bad guys in Columbo,” Lilla says. “It would be really fun to have somebody come back as a totally different character.”

The Zuckermans are no strangers to TV, having worked on series like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Suits. Their experience helped Johnson transition from writing movie scripts in solitude to bouncing ideas around in a writers’ room. (Johnson directed a few episodes of Breaking Bad, but this is the first time he’s been a writer/producer/creator on a TV show.)

“We didn’t really know if he was going to enjoy collaborating with a group of writers,” Lilla recalls. “Usually Rian goes to a cabin in the woods by himself and writes his films. So we weren’t sure if he was going to be open to a bunch of people sitting around in a circle throwing ideas at each other. We were worried that it might overwhelm [him], but he really took to it. He was a natural.”

Johnson canceled the Airbnb for his cabin in the woods and settled into the writers’ room. Though he was in and out of post-production on Glass Onion, the director was able to dedicate a good chunk of his time unraveling mysteries with a team of other writers working on Poker Face. When you’re making 10 miniature movies at once, Johnson tells me, you need whatever help you can get.

“I had never done it before, it was a real adjustment,” Johnson says. “But I ended up really loving it. I love the social aspect of it, getting to collaborate with all these writers. And I got to a place where it felt like the best of both worlds. It was a true collaboration, but I still felt like I had creative ownership over it in the way that I do with my movies.”

Speaking of creative ownership, Johnson says that it’s his “dream” to direct an entire season of Poker Face himself, or split the duties with Lyonne. It’s something that, for example, Mike White does with The White Lotus—create, write, direct an entire season of television alone—and Johnson would love to spearhead in potential seasons to come.

“I don’t know if that will ever be able to happen. I admire the hell out of directors who have done that. I don’t know how they’re not dead. It’s so much work,” Johnson says, still exasperated from juggling Glass Onion and Poker Face at the same time. “That’s the limiting factor, it’s just time. It’s a good problem to have.”

Right now, though, Johnson tells me he’s back to writing the next Benoit Blanc movie. But keep your phone notifications on. The Poker Face casting team might be calling you next.

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