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“Poker Face” sits at the center of a motley Venn Diagram. It is simultaneously a nostalgia-drenched mystery-of-the-week series in the tradition of detective shows of the ’70s and 80s, a road trip show with a constantly rotating cast of characters, a star vehicle for Natasha Lyonne who plays human lie detector Charlie Cale, and a distinctly modern black comedy that blends murder, class mores, and touches of the absurd.
Lyonne’s “Poker Face” character, human lie-detector Charlie Cale, is equally eclectic. She’s a fish-out-of-water yet adaptable to any circumstance; she’s the coolest person in any room she walks into and yet often the person in the room with the least amount of power. A lot of the character’s idiosyncratic cool is down to Lyonne’s performance, of course, but Charlie looks a little like an accidental-murder-solving Time Lord, with a style that’s right at the spot where the contemporary overlaps with timeless.
That spot is right where “Poker Face” lives too, with a tone, structure, and visual style that blends previous whodunit romps and a dry, post-irony sense of humor, and it’s little wonder why. Charlie is who we follow from episode to episode after a scam goes horribly wrong and Adrien Brody’s casino failson makes her very unwelcome in the state of Nevada. Such a character can’t look anything less than iconic, even if they look slightly different as the road trip goes on.
Step one of accomplishing that mission is, obviously, having Natasha Lyonne play Charlie. But it took a great amount of finesse, done very quickly by the show’s hair, makeup, and costume departments, to set Charlie’s visual style. According to hair department head Marcel Dagenais, the first and most important challenge was making sure Charlie was visually distinct from Nadia, the character Lyonne plays in “Russian Doll.”
“Rian was always picturing the character as a blonde. So we went back to her blonde color, which was a feat because she has been coloring her hair red for so long and we had such a tight turnaround to make her a blonde. I think I had like four hours. So my friend Joy and I were slapping on bleach and luckily the color lifted out,” Dagenais told IndieWire. “We wanted her to be this woman from Nevada who lives in a trailer park and is a cocktail waitress. So we weren’t ever trying to do anything super refined,” Dagensais said.
From there, Charlie’s look became a cross-department collaboration to find the right reference points that would be a little vintage, a little off-trend, but give Charlie that sense of lived experience and keen-eyed observation that keeps helping her solve murders. “We were really pulling a lot of references of Stevie Nicks from like the late ’70s, early ’80s where she had this kind of mullet, this in between texture of curly and straight, and it just kind of looked very like raw and real in a sense,” Dagenais said.
Raw and real, with slightly vintage flair, was also how costume designer Trayce Gigi Field approached Charlie’s clothes on the series, even if these choices would be limited by what Field could justify a cocktail waitress keeping in her trunk or finding in a Goodwill off the Interstate. “Natasha is also a big fan of vintage so her initial mood board was ’70s meets Western meets desert girl, you know?,” Field told IndieWire. “So we just tried to like combine all three of those vibes together. I try to keep it interesting by mixing and matching pieces and you’ll see that there’s some repeating [pieces] throughout. To me that just feels really genuine.”
The costumes Field picked out helped Dagenais nail down Charlie’s distinctive hairstyle, too. “I really wanted to kind of have this throwback to the ’70s, especially with like what Tracy did as well, playing off her designs and just creating this ’70s-ish character,” Dagensais said. “[The hair style] wasn’t fully locked and then I put in these extensions. I was like, ‘let me just try this.’ I threw them in. And Rian and Natasha were both like, ‘Boom, that’s it.’ It was this a-ha moment.”
Setting Charlie’s look is nowhere close to the end of the job on “Poker Face,” however. Both Field and Dagenais relish all the work they get to do around Charlie, with different episode to episode of needing to suggest a different part of the country geographically or even a different period in time. “The background for me, that’s your instant read of where we are,” Field said of the show’s need to move around as much as its protagonist. “So if we’re in Texas, you gotta have some some Western [styles], and when we were in Laughlin, it had to feel touristy. I think that that is part of such an important part of the visual storytelling.”
For the show’s fifth episode, which takes place in a senior center where Charlie’s found some custodial work, the costume and makeup departments felt the bland, cookie-cutter backgrounds gave them the license to inject some color and really have some fun with the looks of S. Epatha Merkerson, Judith Light, and the seniors who start dying around them.
“It’s always fun to do flashbacks because you’re not fully committing to a full episode, so for example, I could make [S. Epatha Merkerson’s character’s afro] a little bigger than maybe someone naturally would, just because it’s this caricature of the past, of a memory, so you can go a little bit bigger with things or a little more exaggerated,” Dagenais said. “If you’ve ever gone to any of these like senior homes, there’s always the ladies that, like, still got it, you know? The fellas that have had the same clothes since the ’60s or the ’70s, but they’ve got their look. I feel like that’s a place to have fun,” Field said.