Natasha Lyonne on Her Emmy Nomination for ‘Poker Face’

In the Peacock murder-of-the-week procedural “Poker Face,” Natasha Lyonne plays Charlie Cale, a former cocktail waitress and poker hustler with a difference: Charlie is a human lie detector in a trucker hat, able to spot a falsehood from across the casino floor.

Also among Charlie’s powers? She helped earn Lyonne an Emmy nomination on Wednesday, Lyonne’s third as a performer, for best lead actress in a comedy series. (She also previously earned two nominations as an executive producer and writer for “Russian Doll.”)

Charlie’s unusual ability in the series — a reverse whodunit, or “howcatchem,” created by Rian Johnson — is a wonky blessing that sends her out on the lam after she upsets a Nevada casino boss. As she shambles across the country, Charlie, the sole constant in every episode, stumbles on diverse crimes and then intuits how they were committed.

But Lyonne’s job requires more than intuition. For each episode, she memorizes a 60-page script and helps guide the guest actors through the particular rhythm of Johnson’s style.

“It’s really moving when the work is actually acknowledged,” she said by phone just after the Emmy nominations were announced. “Because I do put in quite a good deal of work to make it seem so loose.”

Lyonne — who has a mess of red-gold hair and a voice that sounds like she’s perpetually just waking up, and isn’t especially happy about it — hadn’t watched the nominations. But she had already reached out to Johnson to ask if she could bring his wife, the podcaster and critic Karina Longworth, as her date for the ceremony.

In a brief interview, Lyonne discussed Charlie’s multilayered spirit as desert rat, idealist and puzzle maven. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Congratulations. I like to see this nomination as a win for raspy-voiced women everywhere. What’s the fun of playing Charlie? And how does the nomination feel?

Rian really built this bespoke character on our shared love of Peter Falk and of Elliott Gould in “The Long Goodbye.” But with this added twist of the Dude from “Big Lebowski” or like a lazy, late-in-life Gene Hackman. Well, not really late in life, but more “Night Moves” than “French Connection.” Just a back-foot character who’s sort of a desert rat who’s got the sun on their face. And with the hairdo, I sometimes feel like I’ve archetyped a Mae West character for myself.

But I’m building the character from the inside out. A thread in my work is this John Lennon quote: “Just give me some truth.” There’s a lineage of people who’ve had that desire to communicate truth through their work. The deep need to communicate the human experience is what I’m after. Sometimes I worry that because of my surrealist bent, that kind of gets lost in the shuffle.

How hard-boiled is Charlie? What motivates her?

I don’t know. How hard-boiled a musician is Bob Dylan? Charlie’s somebody who just really has a need to right a wrong, or when she sees an injustice, to name it and call it out. She’s not like, “I can’t wait to put cuffs on you.” Because she’s not a cop. It’s a need instead to look out for the little guy and make sure that nobody’s being taken advantage of, which is obviously something I resonate with.

Rian and I have this shared love of crossword puzzles. So in many ways, we built Charlie as less hard-boiled and more as someone who wants to crack the case, to get to the end of the puzzle. If she sniffs out something rotten in the state of Denmark, she has to get to the bottom of it, without realizing that as she gets there, she’s looking into the barrel of a gun.

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