Peter Falk would be proud. Rian Johnson (Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery) invites the ever-witty Natasha Lyonne (Russian Doll, Orange is the New Black) to the Hollywood card table and stacks the cards in viewers’ favor in Poker Face. What a full house this is—literally and figuratively.
The new Peacock caper-of-the-week smacks of good-time procedurals like Falk’s Columbo, and spins a little Murder She Wrote, Barnaby Jones, and Scarecrow and Mrs. King for good measure as it chronicles a beleaguered casino server named Charlie (Lyonne), who suddenly finds herself on the run.
By the looks of it, the series should enjoy a great shelf life—Johnson even addressed a Knives Out and Poker Face crossover. Imagine that! Any way you deal it, Lil Rel Howery (Get Out, Free Guy, Bird Box) couldn’t be happier. The traditionally comedic actor goes against type in episode three of the series, dubbed “The Stall,” playing Taffy Doyle, who runs a successful Texas barbecue hotspot with his brother George (Larry Brown). Things head south when George decides to leave the lucrative family business and become a vegan—the guy doesn’t want to be a “murderer” anymore. Taffy, who’s also a radio DJ, doesn’t love that idea. The plot thickens and, well, Lyonne’s Charlie finds herself solving another crime.
For Howery, whose wit was a driving force in movies like Get Out and Vacation Friends, the opportunity to play a “bad guy” was thrilling. The actor shares more with MovieWeb.
Playing Bad Is Good
MovieWeb: Congratulations on a great turn in Poker Face.
Lil Rel Howery: It was a lot of fun and I love the show. It’s very interesting. I’m watching the show along with everybody else, and I was losing my mind after the pilot episode. Like, honestly, such a great show. And with what Rian had for me in my episode, it was so great to just play a villain. I’ve been a nice guy in a lot of stuff, so it was fun to play somebody bad.
MW: The show’s a hit. Downright refreshing. How was it for you working with Natasha Lyonne?
Howery: What I love most about working with an actress like Natasha, is that she’s giving. She’s fun. If you watch our scenes, it’s just us playing off each other—from us making faces outside just saying the lines and more. It was very supportive. I would love to work with her again.
MW: What makes your episode and character stand out in the overall Poker Face universe?
Howery: I was just thinking about it, and this episode stands out for me because the character of Taffy had his own thing. Nobody showed up from the casino looking for Charlie, you know? And the episode is funny—from that crazy dog and more. It’s all those little things. I really like that the series shows the murders up front. We see stuff that happened. Watching Charlie piece things together is exactly what makes this show unique, right? Rian did a good job of taking from the classics—you have the classic murder mystery shows we loved, like Columbo, Murder She Wrote, and others. And the writing credits are incredible. I’m enjoying the show way too much.
MW: Why else do you think the show and your episode just gels?
Howery: When I got the script, I fell in love with everything. Once we got to sit down and read, it’s one of those things where everybody kind of just meshed. Larry Brown, who plays my brother George in the episode is such an amazing actor. We did real good. That scene—I think it’s the last conversation my character has with his brother George before, you know… it was a lot more emotional than what stayed in the episode. It was—boom, we were like crying. Because at that point, my character knew what he was about to do. And it was tough because there is a lot of “brotherly love” in that scene, then my characters’ conscience kicked in. Actually, it made me feel bad about the dude. But you know, even that freezer scene is so much fun. It’s that thing where he’s realizing he’s about to destroy everything that he and his brother built. And the character was totally opposite of characters I’ve played in movies.
Poker Face and Beyond
MW: It seems like this fun, yet different role that stretched you?
Howery: A lot. People may be surprised to see me play this kind of role. It shows that I have a range to play around with, especially in something like this. Another thing people will be most surprised about, and what I love about the show, is that it’s not just about action, right? You’re not seeing a bunch of crazy, overly bloody effects and all that stuff. There are so many performance pieces in the show. That’s why people are enjoying it because you’re seeing these amazing actors or actresses just perform.
MW: What do you feel the show is trying to say, overall, about people?
Howery: It’s great to have Natasha’s character, Charlie, traveling the way she does. We’re seeing so many different groups of people. Think about it—we went from a casino [in episode one] and dealing with these very rich scheming people, who feel like they can do whatever they want, to Charlie hitting the road and experiencing different personalities along the way. And when she encounters the bad stuff, she’s like, “You can’t do what you want to do and get away with it.” She even says, “I’m not a cop. I have no moral code do this [solving a crime]. You’re gonna give it to my friend? Well, then I’ll get you.”
MW: There’s an eclectic bunch of characters.
Howery: Yes. It’s seeing all these different types of people in different settings. When you think about going from the “barbecue” episode to that musical episode with Chloë Sevigny which I love—that one-hit wonder bad and how they would do anything for a comeback—it’s just so crazy; so well written. And funny. Rian and the writers do such a good job with the small details, it makes you want to rewatch the episodes, so you can catch things.
MW: What are you most excited about next?
Howery: There’s a lot. February 3 is season two of the show Harlem, and I did a guest spot on there, and it’s a great episode. I love that show. So, this is what I do—if I love the show, and I know the person, I’m going to call and ask if there’s a way to get on. My friend [Harlem creator Tracy Oliver] was really dope. They just wrote it in and so it’s a very special, cool episode. So that comes up. And then Disney’s producing Dashing Through The Snow [starring Chris “Ludacris” Bridges and Teyonah Parris] where I’ll play Santa Claus. We’re going to see that later this year. Then there’s the Vacation Friends sequel, and I’m excited for everybody to see PAW Patrol 2.
MW: Excellent. And I’m sure I know the answer, but given the chance to work with Rian Johnson again, what would you say?
Howery: Definitely. I think he’s brilliant. And funny. He’s very specific about writing the right words, and I’m very, “off the cuff,” but for me, working with him was like a beautiful marriage. He’s such a great writer. I’m very interested in what he’s going to do with the next Knives Out movie, and I heard that he’s going to try something a little different than the last one. So, I can’t wait to see it.
Catch Poker Face on Peacock.