[Editor’s note: The following contains mild spoilers for Poker Face, Season 1 Episode 7, “The Future of the Sport.”]
Charlie Cale (Natasha Lyonne) is still on the road as Season 1 of Poker Face continues, with her latest pit stop taking place at a go-kart complex close to a local race track, where a fierce rivalry between an up-and-coming young racer (Charles Melton) and an older driver worried about being past his prime (Tim Blake Nelson) comes to a head with tragic results.
It’s not quite as simple as that, of course, thanks to the series’ unconventional approach to mystery storytelling. As Nelson tells Consequence, it’s all rooted in creator Rian Johnson’s signature approach: “The way that he shoots, he’s always saying to you, ‘I know I’m a step ahead of you.’ And that’s part of the fun of this. It’s a very, almost retro style. And nobody else does it quite the way Rian does.”
Like other Poker Face installments, “The Future of the Sport” features more than one twist as the full nature of the crime evolves. “I loved how the indictment of characters kept folding into new shapes, so that everybody’s vulnerability kept trumping other characters’ vulnerabilities in this escalation, which made each crime that happens throughout the episode worse than the one before it,” Nelson says. “You never knew, really, who ultimately was going to end up as the episode’s most nefarious person.”
Continues Nelson, “that’s what I love about Rian’s aesthetic. Because in the Knives Out movies, and then in Poker Face, he’s constantly trying to outdo himself as a storyteller, in a narrative tradition that he clearly loves, which is the mystery. And a really great mystery has twists and then twists upon the twist. I love being in an episode that does that in a quite breathtaking way.”
Many Poker Face guest stars have a long-standing relationship with either the show’s creator or its star — in the case of Nelson, he first connected with Lyonne after directing her in the 2001 Holocaust drama The Grey Zone, a very different project from Poker Face. “[Lyonne] is one of those actors who just makes you better,” he says, “because she offers so much nuance. If you simply react to what she’s giving you, you’re gonna find truth in the moment.”
Nelson’s an old hand at the guest-starring game, though, having made limited appearances in shows including George & Tammy, Stella, O.G. CSI, Modern Family, and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, so he knows what’s key to the experience. “You have to find certain shortcuts to a character that a show like this is going to embrace, because you have very little time to establish who you are and to experience where it is you’re headed. The scenes are short and economical — it’s just 50 minutes to an hour as opposed to the two hours of a movie, or the whole season of a series or limited series. And that’s a really interesting challenge.”
As he adds, though, “if you just follow the writing, and do what the writing asks, it makes it a lot easier. Because the writing is also answering that challenge and it’s deploying certain shorthands, and so you just do the sprint instead of the marathon.”
While Nelson hadn’t seen the final episode at the time of our conversation, he was pretty sure every scene he shot made the final cut. “Just because the writing was so economical. I don’t think there’s a scene, at least with my character, they could remove.”
To successfully play a professional race car driver, Nelson says that “I had to learn my way around the car, certainly. And I packed a lot of tutorials into the three or four days of prep. It’s the details that really get you, how you get in and out of a car that has no door, where you put your hands on the steering wheel, how you harness yourself in, how you put on a helmet, how you switch gears, how you move when the car is going in and out of a turn. It’s your responsibility, when playing a part like this, to seem like you’ve been doing it for decades. And that was pretty demanding. But luckily, I had really good advisors, whom I was able to encourage to criticize me whenever something didn’t look right. And they did.”
I mentioned that of all the elements he mentioned having to learn to do, getting in and out of the car seemed like the most difficult. “It was — I had to just do it over and over and over and over and over again,” he says. “Because again, if you hitch, if it seems like you’re struggling, then your entire persona as a race car driver is gone. If you do it correctly, then the ideal is that nobody even notices. It’s one of those situations in which if you do it incorrectly, you’re damned. And if you do it correctly, you’re hopefully going to get no credit.”
(I mention then that this article would point out his accomplishment on that score. “Well, you choose to put into print whatever you want,” he says. “You can also say this jackass went on and on about, ‘Oh, I had to learn how to get in and out of a car.'”)
While, as mentioned, Nelson’s had no shortage of experience as a TV guest star, he hasn’t done much in the way of series regular work. He did star in Damon Lindelof’s take on Watchmen, but that show was specifically constructed to last one season — prior to that, the closest he came was a swiftly canceled 2011 series for CBS (as Nelson puts it, “home of Matlock and NCIS and CSI“) called Chaos, which he says he did because “I would get to be a human weapon, and I thought that would be kind of fun — in addition to the fact that I needed to pay off an apartment.”
Doing Poker Face, according to Nelson, “felt like being on a movie set. And that’s what’s great about the best TV right now, that since you have these streaming services that aren’t beholden to advertisers, the heads of these networks are able to hire real artists to come in, and do what they want in the context of a television series, as opposed to bearing down on them and forcing them to conform to a network aesthetic that is driven by advertising.”
In general, he says, “if I’m going to do television, I really want to make sure that the showrunner is going to be like an independent film director, with his or her own or their own vision, that’s going to be supported by whatever corporate structure is behind the project. And so, if it’s Damon Lindelof, or Rian Johnson, that more than suffices.”
New episodes of Poker Face debut Thursdays on Peacock.