[This story contains spoilers from the sixth episode of Poker Face, “Exit Stage Death.”]
When looking ahead at what was to come on Poker Face, co-showrunners Nora and Lilla Zuckerman had said that an upcoming episode involving a fake play within an episode was their toughest standalone murder mystery story to crack.
That episode, titled “Exit Stage Death” and starring Ellen Barkin and Tim Meadows, released Thursday as the sixth installment in the Rian Johnson Peacock series starring Natasha Lyonne. And, as was teased by the Zuckermans, the murder of Jameela Jamil’s character, who plays the onscreen wife to Meadows, involved many moving parts.
The theatrical episode sees former sitcom icons Kathleen (Barkin) and Michael (Meadows) reuniting for a one-night-only stage event, and it involved the carefully plotted murder of Michael’s uber-rich wife Ava (Jamil), who fell to her death through a trap door intended to be Kathleen’s show-stopping final act. The parody production, called The Ghosts of Pensacola, takes place at a local dinner theater that recently employed Poker Face‘s non-official detective Charlie Cale (Lyonne), who ends up proving for the police that the famed actors, in a Hollywood twist, were secretly in love and had plotted Ava’s murder.
Charlie’s secret gift is her ability to spot a lie, which anchors her as the central character who solves each episode’s murder mystery. “Can we have Charlie solve this crime as the play is running and people are going backstage and running out on stage, and she’s up in the rafters and all over the set?” said Lilla, previously speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, of the intricacies involved in pulling off the episode, which was written by Chris Downey. “That was the most tightly wound. There are details and clues everywhere, and it’s hilarious. That was our trickiest, most complex.”
Barkin’s Kathleen initially appeared desperate to reclaim the spotlight, which is why she pitched the play to Michael. Her behavior while rehearsing the show was offensive enough to make a Page Six item, as she berated her younger co-star (Audrey Corsa) and confronted Charlie about their lack of respect to the craft. Once it’s revealed that Kathleen actually wrote the script for the pair’s crime, she commits to going down in infamy and performs a rapturous final act. The police arrive during that final number, and the episode cuts to black.
“If you are an actress of a certain age, you do not have to model those characters after anyone,” Barkin tells THR with a laugh when discussing the episode. “The script was just too good. It was fucking hilarious.”
Below, the Emmy- and Tony-winning film and TV actress takes THR behind-the-scenes of The Ghosts of Pensacola production (including the Stephen Sondheim nods) and reveals the final scene she filmed that didn’t make the cut, which answers a burning question about the episode’s ending.
What was your conversation like with Rian Johnson about taking on this role?
They reached out to me.
And they said, “We have this perfect part for you?”
Exactly. (Laughs.) And, “Can you leave in like four days?” You know, it’s TV and when I’m on a show and they cast guest stars, they have four days. So they said, “Yeah, it starts in four days.” I said, “Ok.” The script was just too good. It was fucking hilarious. And I understood why the offer came my way (laughs.)
Can you elaborate on that?
(Laughing more.) It’s what I call the mean old lady stereotype. I went from the ugly wife or girlfriend to the irresistible sex symbol, to the mean old lady.
Your character had a similar line in the episode, about how actresses go from playing the wife to a senator to a “dementia patient.” I wondered if you had input there.
Yes, oh, God, that’s right! I wonder if I said that to them. (Laughs.) I don’t think I wrote anything. Those scripts are so tight and beautifully written. The jokes work spectacularly. The more dramatic parts work. Lilla and Nora, our showrunners, the Zuckermans, they’re just spectacular. And if something was not gelling, they were right there and it was beautiful.
They told me your episode was the toughest one to break, because it was the most tightly wound story with the play within the episode. And that when they cracked it, they were thrilled. Did it feel that challenging while filming?
Um, no. But it felt like that when I read it. So, I did what you do if you’re an actor: You just keep reading the fucking script until you are no longer lost anywhere in what you are doing. Which is not to say there weren’t times when I had to look up at Ben [Sinclair, the episode director] or Rian and say, “Wait, what did I do? Why am I saying this right now?” And they were like, “Because you hid the thing and then you killed the…” and I was like, “Oh yeah, yeah. Ok.”
I imagine you didn’t film in order, either.
No. In fact, we did the last scene first. But, it got cut out. That was my first day of shooting, the last scene, which was hard. But, it’s gone now.
What was that scene?
They [Kathleen and Michael] were being arrested, led away in handcuffs and she took on some Gloria Swanson Sunset Boulevard “I’m ready for my close-up” thing. I find the tone fascinating in every episode, because it’s not quite the same. I just watched the fifth episode, “Time of the Monkey,” and I thought, “Wow, that’s a whole other tone.” And I loved it. But this tone seemed to me different. It needed a heightened reality. But, you have to get past your own sense of the joke first, because it is very hard not to be laughing. And you have to play it for real. I have to say, it was the most enjoyable job I had since 2006, probably. I’m not kidding. I had nothing but fun.
I mean, I was terrified about the amount of dialogue I had, because, those fucking monologues. But, I got ’em. And they were very accommodating. They always had big cue cards there if I needed them. I loved the entire crew. I loved our director, Ben. I loved Rian. I loved Lilla and Nora. Everybody was wonderful. And Natasha is such a grounded actress. Whatever the fury around her, she grounds that show — without being a conventional straight man. Yes, it’s a lineup of very starry guest stars, but Natasha Lyonne, no one is going to dim her light. And I think that’s why she’s so perfect for this. Her wit. Her sexual energy, which they don’t lean into, it just makes the character. I’m in awe of her and what she’s doing, what she’s accomplishing everywhere. It was a very special job and I was like, “Do I have to go home? Can I be in the next episode?”
Rian Johnson does tend to love a good cameo.
Well, when I saw [that “Time of the Monkey”] was in an old age home — I have an old age home movie I’ve been trying to [get made], I could have been in there with them!
That would be a great murder trio, you with Judith Light and S. Epatha Merkerson. It sounds like a great spinoff episode idea for season two (which hasn’t yet been greenlit). Actually, you all are in prison now!
Me, Judith and Epatha (laughing). Yeah, we went to prison, I guess. Even though you don’t see us go.
Let’s talk about Kathleen Townsend. Who did you model her after and what did you tap into to play her?
(Laughs.) You don’t have to model. If you are an actress of a certain age, you do not have to model those characters after anyone.
Did you feel an unbelievable freedom to play this iconic Hollywood diva?
Well, I’ll tell you. I worked with a coach named Michael Godere, who I adored, for three hours. I had no time — I had to pack and leave — and when I had first read it, I didn’t quite have a handle on how I would approach it tonally. And he said to me, “Look, she’s fucking crazy. Like, she’s gonna kill someone. You can do whatever you want.” I thought about it, we talked about it some more, and I thought, “Yeah, why not?” As long as I am based in reality, all that ridiculous over-the-top stuff is funny.
But, she means it. Like when I corner Natasha in the kitchen and give her that screaming speech about respecting when there are actors on stage, and when I say to Rebecca, “What is that?” when she’s holding her script, those are such real moments. And I do have to say, when I showed the episode to someone quite close to me, they said, “Did you put that in about the script? Because I’ve heard you say to actors: What are you holding? What are you holding?! We are shooting!” (Laughs) Also, it was wonderful to be taken back. I was a huge Murder She Wrote fan. I love these standalone mysteries.
In the end, after they are set up by Charlie and caught on hot-mic admitting to the murder, Kathleen looks at Michael and tells him, “It’s showtime, baby.” Then she goes on stage and does this final performance that is based in truth, that even moved Charlie to tears.
How do you interpret Kathleen’s final performance; is it that all she cared about was going down in infamy?
That’s right. She wanted to do one great thing. And, she did. If the scene wasn’t shot as well and you just left the camera on her, you would have seen a very serious performance of some mashup of [playwrights] Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller. Doing the play within the play was just wild and very funny for all of us acting, because it was confusing. “Well, why am I here now?” and “Wait, that’s the trap door.” And then there’s me, 68 years old and 100 steps behind asking, “There’s a trap door?”
The end-credits song (“A Broadway Baby” from Follies) and the title cards invoked the late Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim, someone Rian Johnson is a big fan of (Sondheim made a Glass Onion cameo before his death).
Sondheim, yes. Well, Rian does a lot of that. He doesn’t talk to us about it. There’s a movie called The Last of Sheila that was made in the early ’70s. I had been trying to find a way to remake this movie for years. And then I see Glass Onion and I’m like, “Oh, wow, this guy just remade Last of Sheila.” He didn’t remake it, but he seemed to take it as a starting off point. I said to Rian, “Did you ever see Last of Sheila?” He said, “I did.” I said, “I’ve been thinking about Last of Sheila since it came out!” So his references are very embedded in other forms of entertainment. He knows what he’s doing. He knows what he’s talking about.
This job was just smooth-sailing. I mean, all the horrendous things about a job just weren’t there on this one. There were no 4 a.m. calls, there were no 16-hour days. It was all nice. And, I was sick at the time. If you look, I weighed 100 pounds during that shoot. But I just said, “I don’t care, I’m doing it.” And someone said, “Ellen, you can’t stand up, get out of your bed.” And of course, I couldn’t. but I got my shit together and I went. I was driven up state. And I would just either lie on the floor or sit on the floor, and the minute they say action, you have 200 percent.
Wow. It works for the character, I have to say. Are you feeling better?
Oh, yes. I’m much better and back to my normal weight. But, it was just the most pleasant experience I ever had. I never wanted to go home.
What was it like playing a romantic relationship with Tim Meadows and, did you two pose for those magazine covers from Kathleen and Michael’s show Spooky and the Cop?
It was the best. We had the best time and have stayed in touch. But no, I don’t think I did! (Laughs.) They must have edited them.
Rian Johnson loves Easter eggs. Was there anything else when watching it that you didn’t realize was happening while you were filming?
Hm. Other than the plot? (Laughs.) I never knew [where we were in the story]. I’d be like, “Why is the dog here?” Or, “Why is the microphone in my hair now?” I never knew where I was and they would explain it very nicely.
Did it inspire you to go after different roles next? Or, more stage work?
No. One Tony, that’s good. One performance. One Broadway performance, one Tony, that’s all.
One Night Only, that’s your thing.
Right, one night only. Now I remember: I kept confusing whether we were doing the first performance or the encore performance.
That was great when the marquee changed to “Second Night Only.”
That was very funny. They are all very funny and they really know what they’re doing. And, our director was just so much fun. I loved it. I really hated to leave. I loved being up state, it was all very familiar to me. It was an incredibly competent crew and it all starts from the top.
Well, I hope you come back for the second season when that’s announced, in a new character.
I just want to come back every year and play different people. You think anyone will want me to play like, a nice old lady? Who is sweet and understanding? I was going to try to make Kathleen a nice old lady because I was like, “Not again!” But, she has to be a mean old lady. (Laughs.)
It works perfectly here.
Well, thank you.
Interview edited for length and clarity.