Judith Light on Teaming With S. Epatha Merkerson for ‘Poker Face’
[Warning: The below contains MAJOR spoilers for Poker Face, Season 1, Episode 5, “Time of the Monkey.”]
Poker Face continues to track Charlie Cale’s (Natasha Lyonne) progress as she travels across the country to escape the powerful people who are trying to hunt her down, and in the process, she encounters some bold seniors in “Time of the Monkey.”
Mainly, these seniors are gal pals Irene (Judith Light) and Joyce (S. Epatha Merkerson), who reside at an assisted living facility which could otherwise be classified as a nursing home. When a new resident moves in though, Irene and Joyce devise a plan to kill him, but their reasoning isn’t revealed until much later in the episode when viewers discover the man they knew as Gabriel (Reed Birney), who now goes by Ben, was partly responsible for Irene’s paralyzed legs, which bound her to a wheelchair.
Irene and Joyce blame him for their suffering as they tell Charlie (who has taken up work at the assisted living facility) their version of events, which involve a rebellious streak including planned acts of protest. While Irene and Joyce don’t say what their planned protest included, flashbacks see Gabriel exit the warehouse where said planning was taking place only for him to be taken into witness protection and Irene, Joyce, and fellow rebels arrested — but not before Irene was shot in the back.
Seeing Gabriel at the facility reveals that he survived and they figure out he sold them out to the police. Angry and vengeful, they come up with a sneaky plot as they kill him and make it appear like a heart attack. Little do they know that Charlie’s human lie-detector skill will sniff them out. But don’t feel bad for Irene and Joyce because it’s later revealed that their protest back in the past involved acts of terrorism, including killing teens. Once they know Charlie’s figured them out, Irene and Joyce attempt to kill her in an epic fight that lands them in police custody … but not without some explosive moments.
Below, Light opens up about taking on the role of Irene and working with Rian Johnson and Lyonne, as well as what she believes her character’s motivation is.
How were you introduced to this role and what excited you about playing Irene?
Judith Light: This was a “yes,” right away. I’m a big fan of Rian Johnson and I have always wanted to work with S. Epatha Merkerson, and I had done The Menu, the movie directed by Mark Mylod with Reed Birney, we were good friends before. And it’s one of those experiences where everything is just a great time. Lucky McKee, the director was terrific. Wyatt Cain and Charlie Peppers did this terrific script and created these expansive very rounded characters of these two women who were good friends. And also what it was like to play somebody who is in a wheelchair and had been wounded in the lower back and is paralyzed, that was something I wanted to be very respectful of within that community. We had a gentleman named Gary Baisley who was on set all the time. So the whole experience was rich and fun, and Natasha Lyonne is a joy. [Laughs]
Was there any special stunt work involved in this role between Irene’s climbing and that epic fight scene at the end?
Yes, some of it, like climbing up the wall and stuff. I’m interested in doing those types of physical things. I just did something for Ryan Murphy for the American Horror Stories anthology that was also very physical. I’m in pretty good shape myself because I do work out and I do yoga, and so I’m really prepared for something like that. We don’t get to see women do that all the time. We’re getting to do some more and more, but we don’t get to always see mature women do that.
You mentioned being excited to work with S. Epatha Merkerson. What was it like getting to flesh out Irene and Joyce’s friendship?
You’ve got everybody on board being available and ready and taking a leap and making it fun. Our director, Lucky McKee, let us do that. Sometimes we would improvise certain things and the writers… when they were on set, at certain points we would say to them, “how [do you feel] about us saying this?” or “how [do you feel] about us adding that?” You could feel that everybody on the set was having a good time. And that’s not always the case. But in this one, there was never a bad note. I think that’s gotta come from the top. That comes from Rian Johnson and Natasha. So, that always makes the difference, and people pick up on that energy.
That’s wonderful to hear because it was so much fun to watch.
‘Cause that’s the energy that comes through, right? You feel the energy of the people and you feel those two friends and their relationship over so many years. And we just had that instantaneously. I think it comes from our theater background and knowing each other through the theater. I’ve watched [S. Epatha Merkerson] for years and Law & Order and Chicago Med. I saw her do a play in New York that just really blew me away, a production of Come Back, Little Shiba, and she was just breathtaking. It is gorgeous. So I always wanted to work with her.
What was it like learning the twist in Irene’s story? The fact that she was planning to kill teens for her cause back in the day. Did that lessen your softness towards her as a character? Was it fun having that secret?
They believed that what they were doing was important for the greater good. What happened to them was that they never stopped to really think about all of what they were doing. And they were young and they felt they were idealistic and what they were doing was gonna change the world, and they forgot to take everything else into consideration. Personally, I feel wildly different from that. But those people at that time really felt they were doing the right thing. And, in many ways, thank goodness they were stopped. This isn’t about a couple of old ladies in a [nursing home], they’re hiding out in this place. Where else are we gonna go? So it’s the perfect setup for them to keep hiding and then they find out who this person is and it’s like… now we have to kill you.
After killing Gabriel, Irene and Joyce go on a murder spree of sorts, killing their annoying fellow resident Betty (K Callan) and attempting to kill Charlie. Do you think they’ve been secretly killing at the nursing home the whole time?
I don’t think we went around killing people. [There’s] purpose in getting rid of Reed’s character. In many ways, Irene suffered the most because he sold them down the river. So it’s her revenge on that. It wasn’t like they were just gonna go around killing people. These women, it’s a very specific dynamic. It has to have some purpose to it, but I don’t think they’re just going around from assisted living home to assisted living home killing a bunch of people.
Poker Face, New Episodes, Thursdays, Peacock
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