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8 Quick Questions for Benjamin Bratt

Star of Peacock’s ‘Poker Face’ explains how the house always wins

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Rudy Torres/Image Press Agency/Sipa USA via AP Images

In the Peacock series Poker Face — which the network has greenlighted for a second season — Benjamin Bratt, 59, plays Cliff Legrand, a crooked casino employee on a cross-country hunt for Charlie Cale (played by Natasha Lyonne), who has the special ability to tell if someone is lying. The truth of the matter is that the veteran TV and film actor is feeling grounded and harmonious with his life, career and family.

Do you have a poker face?

I think when I’m acting I certainly do. The irony is in real life I’m a really terrible liar. I can’t lie my way out of a paper bag. Truly. I flinch.

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Do you play poker?

I’ve played a little bit, but I’m not one of those people who really got impassioned about it, enjoys it. That said, I do like to gamble. One of the fun things about being an actor who’s [filmed] a number of times in casinos over the last three decades is that after a wrap with nothing but time on your hands and a little bit of money in your pocket, you end up at the craps table, the blackjack table [or] playing keno — typically in the group of other actors and even some of the crew members. That’s always a good time, and that was really no different on Poker Face. At one point, Natasha and [show creator] Rian Johnson … and I found ourselves at the tables, mostly losing money, but they keep you in it. You win a few hands, lose a few hands, win a few more. Then the hook is in. You end up staying until there is nothing left in your pocket, and that’s how the house always wins.

Do you think you can tell if someone is lying?

I go through life recognizing that part of human nature is that all of us are lying on some level, and mostly in ways that are completely insignificant. We’re not hiding anything evil or ominous or duplicitous. It’s just a matter of sometimes saving a person’s feelings — Oh, that shirt looks lovely on you. Oh, I love the way you comb your hair. And, of course, if I recognize someone is lying to me, I’ll accept it, because they’re probably trying to be kind and save my feelings.

Poker Face has a throwback feel to it, like old-school network shows. Is that intentional?

That was very much part of Rian’s idea — to throw a nostalgic nod to [shows such as] McMillan & Wife, Columbo, McCloud — but he’s also mentioned publicly that he’s influenced by shows like Murder, She Wrote and Magnum, P.I. I certainly remember those shows. It was in that era of event TV [when] the entire family would gather round for the murder mystery of the week, and watch it together and figure it all out as a collective. It was a lot more fun to watch a story unfold in that way. I’m happy to see that format return. Of course, with the addition of Natasha, and Rian’s writing style, he’s completely injected it with rocket fuel and contemporized it and made it much more dark — much more darkly humorous, more shockingly violent —  and yet somehow still in the realm of family entertainment. … The fun is watching his lead protagonist — this very idiosyncratic, unique personality who’s got this incredible kind of one-off ability to tell when someone is lying — discover what the truth is, and then peel back the layers to find out what really happened.

spinner image natasha lyonne as charlie cale, benjamin bratt as cliff legrand and adrien brody as sterling frost in a still from poker face
Bratt, seen here with co-stars Natasha Lyonne and Adrien Brody, plays Cliff Legrand on the Peacock series “Poker Face.”
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Speaking of nostalgia, what decade stands out in your mind?

The decade I’m most emotionally attached to is the ’70s, for a lot of different reasons. A lot of my memories are linked to music. In any decade where you have the emergence of the Eagles and Queen and Earth, Wind & Fire, alongside divas like Aretha Franklin and Roberta Flack and Gladys Knight … they are truly the soundtrack of my life. … What’s remarkable is a lot of them are still touring and playing music, and the people in the audience are older than me, and I’m 59. It goes to show the staying power of the emotional connection that music provides.

You had a close relationship with your mother, who was a passionate activist for Native American rights. How did she influence you?

Listen, the number one lesson I learned from my mother is that you can’t love your kids too much. There’s no such thing as over-loving your children. The most successful, independent, self-actualized people in the world were more than likely deeply loved and nourished by their parents. So I know they go into the world with at least that confidence: that they know they belong somewhere, that they come from somewhere, that they are loved and that they are capable of deeply loving themselves. ... I also acknowledge it’s a tricky time for young people. I didn’t grow up in a time where there was such a thing as social media or even the internet. I count myself as blessed for having grown up in that time, because it teaches you how to survive and socially connect. I think a lot of young people are missing out on that today. With that in mind, my wife and I do our best.

Do you have big plans for your 60th birthday?

I don’t. And it’s not because I have a fear of getting old or I’m not enjoying it. I actually quite enjoy the ease I feel really in this era of my lifetime — in being very clear on what’s important to me and very clear on how to maintain a peace and harmony within my family life and the balance of my work. It’s the best time of my life. I will have been married for 21 years [to actress Talisa Soto] this coming April. My kids are thriving. I have a 20-year-old daughter and a 17-year-old son, and they really are the center of my universe. Work is important — it’s always been important — but it has always been secondary to those other priorities for me. And right now I’ve struck a really nice balance. I’m at a place now where I’m very clear on how to achieve that, and it’s harmonious.

Looking back, what advice would you give your 21-year-old self?

Keep doing what you’re doing. You’re on the right path.

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