SPOILER ALERT: This interview contains spoilers from the “Poker Face” Season 1 finale, “The Hook,” now streaming on Peacock.
Benjamin Bratt sucked it in like Rin Tin Tin or Anne Boleyn to shoot one standout scene in the Season 1 finale of “Poker Face.” The bit in question featured a poetic recitation of the entire third verse (and one line of the hook) of Blues Traveler’s 1994 earworm “Hook” by Bratt’s character, Cliff Legrand, to Natasha Lyonne’s Charlie Cale while taking her back for judgement by his boss, casino mogul Sterling Frost Sr.
Why does he do this (an act that makes Charlie call him “the fucking worst”)? Only “Poker Face” creator Rian Johnson really knows for sure — but Bratt, Lyonne and “Poker Face” showrunners Nora and Lilla Zuckerman were all on board with the idea once the “Knives Out” and “Glass Onion” filmmaker wrote it into Episode 10, aptly titled “The Hook.”
“That’s part of Rian’s charm, is he just throws things in there and then he doesn’t really explain it to you,” Bratt told Variety ahead of the “Poker Face” season finale, which dropped Thursday. “I guess charm is one way to put it. I read it and was immediately both excited and terrified at the prospect of rendering that scene.”
Lyonne, who stars in, executive produces and even directed on the show, was equally as frightened.
“Honestly, I don’t know what Rian Johnson does in secret, and it was the first time I was scared,” the “Russian Doll” star said (and that was after she shot the slasher episode with Joseph Gordon-Levitt). “And I definitely spent time shaming him about it. Benjamin Bratt, on the other hand, is a consummate gentleman who did nothing but lean in completely. I much prefer Benjamin Bratt’s version of the song to the original. It seems that it should be a spoken word. It’s such a stroke of brilliance on Rian’s part, I really can’t believe it. He’s a master.”
But when Bratt went through the finale script originally, he wasn’t aware of what Johnson had saddled him with just yet.
“The honest truth is, when I first read it, I said, ‘Wow, what a quirky, brilliant poem Rian has composed for this character. We’re actually learning that this laconic character that we discovered in the pilot is actually quite loquacious. He loves words. Look at him go!'” Bratt said. “And I think it was my second read through and I’m like, ‘I don’t know, there’s something very rhythmic about this. Let me just Google the first four lines and I did that and lo and behold it came up: the song ‘Hook’ by Blues Traveler.”
Once Bratt knew his challenge, he accepted it fully.
“Then it was about getting to work and just imprinting it on the brain in a way that would make it unforgettable. And the only way to do that was to listen to that song over and over,” he said. “To this day, I can’t hear that song. It came on satellite radio the other day and I immediately slammed my finger on the off button. I slept with it, I was eating with it, I was bathing with it for a good week before I got on the set to shoot it. I knew that time is money on the set and I knew I had to be 100% solid on it. What was cool though was we shot many different setups with that particular scene, and the take director Janicza Bravo ended up using was a oner.”
Yes, the performance you see in the finale was done in just one long take.
“They had this crane contraption mounted to the top of the the vehicle and the camera starts over on my left profile on the driver’s side and slowly swings all the way around the front of the windshield and finally lands on Charlie’s side all in one take,” Bratt said. “That was the challenge to get all those words out, not only in one piece and with some idea of sense, but also with perfect timing. And I relished the experience. Leave it to Rian to both terrify and inspire, but I’m totally here for it. 100% here for it.”
Beyond it being the title of the episode, “Poker Face” showrunners said the reasoning behind using Blues Traveler’s “Hook” was in keeping with the theme incorporated throughout the rest of the finale: “Another thing that Rian did in this script, and eagle-eyed viewers will appreciate it, is that there are tiny little Easter eggs of hooks all over the episode,” showrunner Lilla Zuckerman said.
Her sister and fellow “Poker Face” co-showrunner added: “So you see, when Charlie’s visiting her sister Emily (Clea DuVall) and niece Shasta, Shasta’s watching ‘Hook,’ right? Beatrix Hasp [the new villain played by Rhea Perlman] — a hasp is a hook, it’s like a latch.”
Some fans might be wondering why the actual Blues Traveler song did not play at any point throughout the episode (in fact, it wasn’t even mentioned by name), not even during the credits. “You know, there’s a peak of evil that you can reach,” Lyonne said. “Nobody wanted to go that far.”
Read more from Variety‘s “Poker Face” finale Q&A with Bratt below.
What was your reaction to Cliff finally getting his day in the limelight in the finale, after not appearing frequently since the premiere?
When that Episode 10 script was delivered, I was really quite moved with how much of a reward he was giving to the character, and to me as an actor. I was very flattered because his stories, they’re really complexly built. It’s really a house of cards, if you start unpacking it too much. He’s very detail-oriented and he succeeds at doing that by also maintaining character integrity. So he took all of what we learned about Chris in the beginning and then expanded it to where we discover he’s a real human being. And that’s what I really love about this role. Yes, he’s clearly the villain. But he’s a villain with menace, not with malice. In other words, he’s not a man who leads with evil intent, he’s a pragmatist. So one of the early ideas that Rian really wanted to focus on, in regards to how I was going to play Cliff, was the idea of using stillness as a threat. In a lot of the frames in the pilot, and certainly repeated in the 10th episode, Cliff is always lurking in the back of the frame. He’s like the personification of menace. And as we learn early in the pilot, he’s capable of quick and violent outbursts, which keep people in check. And so once we learn that, that stillness becomes ominously a theme throughout his appearances for the rest of the episode.
What do you make of Cliff’s choice to turn on Sterling Frost Sr. and work for his rival Beatrix Hasp after Frost’s insistence Cliff chase Charlie for more than a year?
I think the early assumption is that Cliff is unemotional because, on some level, he’s a bit of a stoic. I learned from one of the descriptions about him in the script that he’s got a military background, so just kind of unwrapping that a little bit, what’s the first thing a soldier is taught? To obey orders. What’s the second thing a soldier is taught? To be an efficient killing machine. And he is both of those things and he does it with real enthusiasm on behalf of his boss. His goal is to protect the hierarchy and make sure the machine is running smoothly. So he does his job without emotion, including killing people, as we learn, in the pilot. However, as we discover in the finale, he’s a man who, reasonably, expects his loyalty to be respected and on some level repaid. And when he discovers that it’s not respected at all, that, in fact, he is nothing less than a dog to Sterling Sr., that he, on some level, is even disposable, I think that hurts his feelings. Cliff’s choice in the finale is not out of some kind of desire for material gain, it’s really an outburst against being emotionally betrayed by his boss, by not being respected. And that gives a dimension to him that we don’t often see in villains. A lot of his motivation really comes from a very human place. He’s not a sociopath like Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character was, who has no compunction about killing. I don’t think Cliff really enjoys killing. He does it because he’s good at it and knows how to do it and that’s been his job.
Cliff attempts to turn Charlie in — only for her to switch it around and get him captured at the last minute. How do you see their relationship overall, and what does that mean for the possibility of Cliff’s return in Season 2?
He thinks Charlie is a pain in the ass. He’s been chasing her for over a year. He certainly has a respect for her unique unicorn-like ability, but at the end of the day, he’s not happy with her. And yet I also feel like he holds a grudging respect for who she is and her ability to survive and endure. There’s something familiar or recognizable in her that keeps him from disliking her, I think he actually admires her a little bit and is charmed by her pluck.
My own theory, and one I’ve never shared with Rian or Natasha, is I feel like Cliff is a formidable opponent for her because he is the only surviving person who has beaten Charlie at her own game. If you really think about it, she has never once called bullshit on him, never caught him in a lie. He’s like that well-trained cop or criminal who knows how to beat a polygraph. And it gives him a perverse high that comes from beating the system. And I think it’s an interesting idea to explore and I’d like to see more of that. Whenever she points that pointed question to him, like, “Did you kill Natalie? Did you go to the house and kill her husband?,” he doesn’t answer. And then on the boat, she says, “Because whoever killed Sterling Sr., we both want to see who did it, right?” He doesn’t answer, he just says, “So what do we do?” But he gives her that sly smile, and it’s the unspoken that we both know what the reality is, but I’m not gonna answer you, because you’re not going to catch me. I love that cat-and-mouse element between the two of them and I want to see more of it in Season 2.
This interview has been edited and condensed.