How Natasha Lyonne Is ‘Fighting the Good Fight’ to Keep Cinema History Alive

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Photo Source: Karolina Wojtasik/Peacock

Like most of Hollywood, Natasha Lyonne has generative AI on the brain. “I would say almost at all times,” the “Poker Face” star tells us. (She also writes, directs, and executive produces on Rian Johnson’s Peacock series.) “I am agog that that is not the headline conversation on everyone’s minds, considering it’s so obviously about to change the world so radically for all of us, in all our fields, so quickly.” 

Talk to Lyonne for any amount of time, and it becomes obvious why she’s not keen to see algorithms make films. “Movies are my lifeblood. Obviously, it’s only because of terrible parenting that I don’t have other things to cling to. But here I am,” she says. Lyonne started out at NYU with a double major in philosophy and film; but her dreams of an Ingmar Bergman–esque career as an arthouse dramatist led her to drop out and turn to cinema itself. “I just went to Film Forum and learned it all there,” she recalls. 

The result of that DIY education is on full display on Episode 8 of “Poker Face,” which Lyonne directed and co-wrote with Alice Ju. “The Orpheus Syndrome” finds wayward human lie detector Charlie Cale (Lyonne) laying low with retired special-effects artist Arthur Liptin (Nick Nolte), who is still mourning a tragic on-set accident from his past. 

The episode is a stylistic tribute to old-school thrillers—particularly Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo”—with a few slow, Robert Altman–style zoom shots thrown in. Storywise, it’s a love letter to handcrafted VFX, especially the work of “Star Wars” and “Jurassic Park” stop-motion mastermind Phil Tippett. 

“I’m a huge proponent of tethering [your work] to some kind of lineage,” Lyonne says. “I’m obsessed with the idea of…just doing the research. Read as many books, watch as many movies, and listen to as much music as you can so that you actually understand the stories that you’re telling.” 

“The Orpheus Syndrome” allowed Lyonne to show off a directorial sensibility she perfected on Netflix’s “Russian Doll,” which she also co-created and starred on. Her work resurrects a gritty style from an earlier era. She’s not afraid to lean into the look of film grain, canted angles, and production design that emphasizes the messiness that comes with the life of a scatterbrained creative. 

“Something I really love as a director is filling the frame with an abundance of information,” she says. It’s a response to a modern filmmaking era that she sees as marked by a “sickness around simplicity.” She’s not only referring to the uber-slickness of CGI, but also the motion-smoothing effect on newer TVs. “For the love of God, please get rid of it,” she says. “The heartbreak when you see your own work with that on—it’s painful in your soul.” 

Ironically, Lyonne creates her chaos from a place of total control. Before the camera rolls, she makes sure her team has created storyboards and an extensive shot list and taken “a photo of every angle of every location.” The goal is to know every detail for when those details inevitably change during filming. “I want to be loose when I get [to set]. I’m a bit of a merry prankster and a surrealist, so I like keeping [the process] mischievous.” 

That dedication is in service of creating art like the movies Lyonne watched at Film Forum all those years ago. “I do think there’s a danger in telling people that brightly lit, crisp things that make perfect sense are good storytelling. There’s actually a…risk for a soul-sucking shame that can make people feel like they’re doing their lives wrong,” she says. “I always worry about the kids, you know? It’s probably a lot safer for them to be watching ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ and saying, ‘Oh, maybe this is what it’s normal to feel like.’ ” 

This story originally appeared in the June 15 issue of Backstage Magazine. To hear our full conversation with Lyonne, listen and subscribe to In the Envelope: The Actor's Podcast.

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