A week before the “Poker Face” Season 1 finale, Thursday’s episode featured one of series creator Rian Johnson’s favorite collaborators — Joseph Gordon-Levitt. And with “Poker Face” being the show it is, if you aren’t Natasha Lyonne’s Charlie Cale, you’re either a murder victim, the murderer or an innocent bystander who gets caught in the crossfire.
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Lucky for Gordon-Levitt, who says he was thrilled to learn that “Knives Out” and “Glass Onion” filmmaker Johnson had assigned him a ultimate “total dick” role. Gordon-Levitt was not just the murderer in this installment, “Escape From Shit Mountain,” but the most prolific murderer of the first season — someone who actually attempts to kill Charlie herself.
“I would have done anything, I would have done any role,” says Gordon-Levitt, who has done voice cameos in both of Johnson’s Benoit Blanc detective movies. “I don’t really even know anybody that I would just do any single solitary thing with, but [Johnson is] a special person to me. I was delighted to get the call from him and even more delighted when I read it and was like, ‘Oh, wow, this is going to be a blast!'”
In Episode 9, Gordon-Levitt — who also starred in Johnson’s “Looper” and “Brick” — plays Trey Mendez, a white collar criminal on house arrest. Trey goes out for a joyride in his snowy mountain town when the power is down in town and his ankle bracelet is out — and then hits Charlie.
Long story short: By the end of the episode, we find out Trey previously killed his girlfriend as a teenager, and in the present day he shoots and kills his childhood friend Jimmy (David Castaneda), who helped him cover up that long ago murder that he thought was an accident. He also kills Stephanie Hsu’s “Morty” (we never learn the drug dealer/drifter’s real name) after she realizes he pulled a hit-and-run on Charlie, and then he stabs Charlie in the chest (because the hit-and-run didn’t kill her and she’s piecing together his crimes). Trey hides her and Jimmy’s bodies under a tree, thinking Charlie is dead.
Trey’s certainly not the best — but Gordon-Levitt sure had fun playing him.
“Whether we want to admit it or not, there’s a part of us that is just a totally selfish spoiled brat on the inside,” he says. “And then there’s those of us who strive to be kind because we’ve learned to overcome the the beast within. And so this guy is just a total dick through and through. It’s the fun thing about acting, just letting the worst part of human nature take surface.”
With Episode 9 exploring plenty of classic thriller-horror moments — minus that summertime romance sequence in the “magic mountains,” which Gordon-Levitt calls “one of the sunniest moments in the series” — it’s hard for the actor to pick his favorite on-screen murder.
“I think I have to go with stabbing another person through the chest with a knife,” he says. “I haven’t had a chance to do that before, the full-on Anthony Perkins-Hitchcock moment, raising the knife high above my head. The way we shot it to maximize the silhouette effect. It’s a ‘Dr. Caligari’ moment. It’s such a classic cinematic image, the stabbing, and I’d never done it before, so it’s appropriate that I ended up doing it on Rian’s show.”
Beyond the joy of reuniting with Johnson for “Poker Face,” Gordon-Levitt appreciated his chance to work with Lyonne and Hsu on what is, at its heart, a comedy series.
“Natasha is a comic genius,” he says. “And we have very similar senses of humor and and sensibilities. And Stephanie Hsu is just fantastic in this. I shot this before I had seen ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once,’ and when I finally did get to see that movie, I was honored to have worked with her. She’s such a powerful deity in that movie, and here I was, pummeling her head into the steering wheel of a Lamborghini. It felt very special.”
Despite Trey seemingly have gotten away with years of dark deeds, Charlie keeps her streak of catching the bad guy on this week’s “Poker Face.” She secretly grabs Trey’s ankle monitor so that once the town’s power came back on, it led the authorities right to her and she was saved. We don’t see exactly what happens to Trey after his “oh shit” moment (when he realizes, once home, that his ankle monitor is missing), but we know Charlie is safely recovering in the hospital.
Gordon-Levitt thinks Trey probably ends up safe, too. “I imagine there’s a lot of very high-priced lawyers involved,” he says. “Maybe some lobbyists. There could be a call to a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. There’s a lot of moving and shaking that happens afterwards and he serves no time. That’s the world we’re living in, isn’t it.”
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