Natasha Lyonne | The Innumerable Faces of Transformation

Via Issue 185, The Cocoon Issue, out now!

Written by

Taylor Hess

Photographed by

Dennis Leupold

Styled by

Cristina Ehrlich

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ETRO jumpsuit and BVLGARI earrings, necklace, bracelets, and rings.

Great American actor Natasha Lyonne has a thing for the great American actor Peter Falk. It’s Falk’s work in the late 60s and 70s television show Columbo which always got her attention, and his collaborations with the late great cinematic auteur John Cassavetes, but mostly, it was Falk’s work with Wim Wenders that Lyonne considers. “I just think it’s a certain type of…” she pauses, “Mostly what I get from Peter Falk is his ability to tell the truth, and that’s really the thing I try to steal from.” 

There’s no role more fitting for an actor in search of truth than that of a character who can intuit bullshit. In her upcoming performance for Peacock’s new show Poker Face, Lyonne—who is an executive producer of the show and also directed one of the episodes—plays Charlie Cale, a desert-wandering ex-gambler who accidentally stumbles upon her true purpose when she applies her extraordinary gift for sniffing out lies to solving murders. While Lyonne conceived of her performance as a marriage between Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski and Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye, the result onscreen is singular and commanding. Each episode in the series functions as a standalone story full of quirky new characters—but what ultimately ties Poker Face together is Charlie Cale’s hero’s journey, enabled by Lyonne’s ability to ground the show’s absurdist comedy with a determined benevolence. 

ETRO jumpsuit and shoes and BVLGARI earrings, necklace, bracelets, and rings.
ETRO jumpsuit and BVLGARI earrings, necklace, bracelets, and rings.

Just prior to Poker Face, Lyonne wasn’t necessarily looking to act in another TV show. In the last 10 years, work has been constant, and Lyonne most notably completed seven seasons of Orange is the New Black, and two seasons of Russian Doll, the Emmy-winning Netflix series she co-created and starred in. Creating Russian Doll (which garnered her Gotham and Golden Globe nominations) with Leslye Headland and Amy Poehler, gave Lyonne—who also wrote and directed on the series—a chance to further cultivate a point of view she’d been developing since she was a young film school dropout watching obscure genre films in YMCA basements. For Poker Face, she returned to some of those earliest reference points for inspiration. “Whereas Nadia Vulvokov [Lyonne’s character in Russian Doll] is really ultimately on her own case, and it’s a much more psychedelic-existential-philosophical one,” Lyonne says, “Charlie Cale is somebody who is much more of an old fashioned literalization of this sort of noir detective idea that I’d always been so in love with.”

Poker Face is the first TV series from Rian Johnson, who rose from his first indie premiere at the Sundance Film Festival (Brick, 2005) to helm one of Disney’s Star Wars epics (The Last Jedi, 2017). Just a few years after that, he was nominated for an Academy Award for Knives Out in 2019, and then nominated again for 2022’s Glass Onion, which also features Lyonne. When the pair discovered a shared love of the noir whodunnit mystery genre, a collaboration felt inevitable.

BOTTEGA VENETA coat and skirt.

Lyonne began her work in the business as a child actor and starred in the 90s cult classic Slums of Beverly Hills. She worked regularly up until she went to film school at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, but soon after dropped out and pursued her own study, mostly of noir films and mostly by herself on Houston Street at Film Forum. It was there when she was struck by Jack Nicholson in Chinatown, and where a Humphrey Bogart style began to take root, and where Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye would make his lasting impact on her. Another major touchstone for Lyonne is Bob Fosse’s epic biopic, All That Jazz, which she mentions several times especially in reference to Russian Doll, and as a sort of beacon for her point of view on show business writ large. “We’re just making this one big thing that is the sum total, and suddenly you’re on your deathbed looking back and there’s probably a blurry line between which was even which project.” 

Five years ago, Lyonne formed a production company with Maya Rudolph called Animal Pictures and forged her path more as a creator of shows than as a player in them. But when the opportunity arose to work with Johnson on Poker Face—episode one aired on Peacock on January 26th—it felt like the potential beginning of a long professional relationship together. “When somebody hands you a script that’s good, it’s a token of the best kind of friendship in a way. It’s like saying: ‘hey, let’s do this thing and let’s do it for a while.’”

VERSACE dress and shoes, TIFFANY & CO. bracelets, and ANNA-KARIN KARLSSON sunglasses.

For more than 25 years, Lyonne’s worked steadily, often with many of the same collaborators.  Chloë Sevigny has been like a sister, she says, ever since they worked together on If These Walls Could Talk 2 and Party Monster in the early 2000s. Around that time, Lyonne also acted in Tim Blake Nelson’s The Grey Zone, kickstarting a long friendship for the pair. Before then, in the late 90’s, she worked with her best friend Clea DuVall on But I’m a Cheerleader. The work is inextricably linked to her long-standing creative relationships: Sevigny, Nelson, and DuVall all appear in episodes of Poker Face. “It’s sort of like a way of stealing time from the people I love.”

Lyonne recalls sneaking looks with Sevigny on the set Russian Doll  (“it’s like: ‘buddy, I got you no matter what’”), witnessing DuVall direct The Intervention (“I’m like her brother in arms”), and laughing on the shag-carpeted floor of a rental in upstate New York with Janicza Bravo preparing for the final episode of Poker Face (we’re talking about the script but we’re also spending a life together”). As she lists more key players in the life that is Natasha Lyonne, it becomes clear that the conduits in her search for truth are the intimate collaborations that surround her. 

The co-showrunners of Poker Face are a pair of sisters–Nora and Lilla Zuckerman. Johnson’s cousin Nathan Johnson—who is the composer for nearly all of Rian’s films—scored the series. “I don’t really have that kind of family member,” Lyonne says. “So I’m somebody who’s built a family for myself over the years.”

SAINT LAURENT BY ANTHONY VACCARELLO coat, dress, and shoes, BVLGARI earrings, necklace, bracelets, and rings, and X8 sunglasses.
SAINT LAURENT BY ANTHONY VACCARELLO coat, dress, and shoes, BVLGARI earrings, necklace, bracelets, and rings, and X8 sunglasses.

But the work can also be a lonely endeavor. Lyonne describes the challenging moments—running on five hours of sleep, feeling stressed about a budget, memorizing 60 pages of a script, surrendering to the weather gods on any given shoot day—and wonders why journalists often ask trite questions about having fun. “Believe me,” she says, “nobody loves absurdism and silliness and jokes more than I do. It’s my religion, basically. But I do think there’s a way to do it.” She recalls doing press for Orange is the New Black and being asked about who she would rather bunk with in prison, Katy Perry or Rihanna, and feeling uncomfortable. “We’re trying to portray the prison industrial complex, meaning that the job is to try to tell the truth, right? And there’s a way to meet the beauty and spirit of the thing where it’s really so that we can feel good about devoting a life to making things.” 

GUCCI dress, jewels and boots and BVLGARI bracelets and rings.

When preparing to play Charlie Cale, Lyonne invoked another Elliott Gould performance: Altman’s California Split, which became especially relevant to her discussions with costume designer Trayce Gigi Field. By digging into the details of a character, Lyonne manages a delicate balancing act. “You want to create tethering tent poles,” she says. “Keep it loose enough so that enough of you is in the character and enough of the character is in you, that it feels like a seamless endeavor, even when it’s sort of formally and technically speaking, very well thought-out and obsessive.”

ETRO dress, ANDREA WAZEN shoes,TIFFANY & CO. bracelet, and PIERS ATKINSON headband.
ETRO jacket, pants, and shoes and BVLGARI bracelets.

This kind of intentional process with close collaborators seems to be central to Lyonne’s creativity. When she co-wrote episode eight of Poker Face (which she also directed) with Russian Doll writer Alice Ju, there was an innate shorthand from all their years of shared history. It’s cyclical, she says, and can temper the stress, anxiety, and egoism that tend to accompany the work in this business. “Really, how I see things at this point, is the opportunity to spend some years together as friends and artists and to just make things together.”

DIOR dress and shoes and MITHRIDATE earrings.
DIOR dress and shoes and MITHRIDATE earrings.

Another writer on both seasons of Russian Doll is Cirocco Dunlap, who has created an animated show for Animal Pictures called The Hospital, that Lyonne seems particularly enthusiastic about executive producing for Amazon Studios. The cast includes Keke Palmer, Kieran Culkin, and Stephanie Hsu, who also makes an appearance in Poker Face. “I’m just trying to make my inner child happy so she doesn’t get mad at me,” Lyonne says. “And what she really likes is playing with other kids in this sort of play pen. She doesn’t really care about who’s doing what jobs on this one or that one, or if it’s big or small.”

ETRO dress, TIFFANY & CO. bracelet, and PIERS ATKINSON headband

As a contrast to the darker moments in Poker Face, Lyonne’s Charlie Cale seems able to live in the moment, to embrace that she has no idea what’s next, and to be enlivened by the unknown. She is somebody who is deeply curious about other people and their unique journeys, gravitating towards underdogs and standing against injustice. She sees things through to the finish line for integrity’s sake alone. “I always think of that John Lennon line,” Lyonne says: “‘Gimme Some Truth.

ETRO jacket, pants, and shoes and BVLGARI bracelets.

Photographed by: Dennis Leupold

Written by: Taylor Hess

Styled by: Cristina Ehrlich

Hair: John D

Makeup: Jo Baker

Nails: Alex Jachno at Opus Beauty using Chanel Le Vernis

Flaunt Film: Mynxii White

Digital Tech: Kevin Leupold

Photo Assistants: Winston Kingstro, Chandler Bemiller, Charles Brown

Production Assistant: Franchesca Baratta

Location: The Chap Pub

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