Poker Face

Tiffany Haddish tells Gemma Gracewood about taking a holiday from comedy in Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter, her hotel comfort viewing, and why Oscar Isaac thinks of her as Jesus.

When I say yes to a movie, that’s a hundred to two hundred people that get to work and I want them to be happy about working.” —⁠Tiffany Haddish

Comedians taking on dramatic roles is not an innovation in cinema, but it’s which comedian, in which role, that makes a casting choice a talking point. Melissa McCarthy in Can You Ever Forgive Me? Mo’Nique in Precious. Peter Sellers in Being There. Robin Williams in everything.

In The Card Counter, Paul Schrader’s meditative slow-burn on American shame, part of the tension as a viewer lies in what we already appreciate about Tiffany Haddish as a performer. She is an unbridled crack-up, a live wire on screen and off, a former foster kid committed to busting unsustainable Hollywood beauty myths by wearing the same dress throughout an awards season. Her physical comedy is electric, even when it’s a simple raise of an eyebrow.

The wildest thing about La Linda—a gamblers’ agent working the mid-level casino circuit, who spies, in Oscar Isaac’s William (Bill) Tell, a potential new thoroughbred for her stable of card counters—is the way her drinks order changes from hotel bar to hotel bar. “I came in there with my comedy ways and it sucked,” Haddish laughs, disarmingly honest about her leap from the hi-jinks her fans know her for, to her dramatic role in Schrader’s new film. “Paul was hard on me at first,” she recalls. “He had to reel me in, make adjustments, strip all this stuff off, all my tools, leave me with these instruments I barely ever use.”

Oscar Isaac and Tiffany Haddish in a scene from The Card Counter.
Oscar Isaac and Tiffany Haddish in a scene from The Card Counter.

There’s an enduring myth that drama is tougher to pull off than comedy, something Haddish’s friend Morris Chestnut corrected her on a few years back. “He’s like, ‘No, what you do, that’s hard work. You are actually overworking yourself, doing these comedies.’ And I’m like, ‘He don’t know what he’s talking about.’ Then I actually did a drama. And I was like, ‘Oh, that was so easy. Oh, that was beautiful.’ It’s way easier. It’s way easier.”

What La Linda doesn’t know, but any casual observer of Schrader’s work will, is that Isaac’s Bill has a past, and that his methodical attempts to keep his guilt in check through a supremely minimal lifestyle, perhaps even to allow himself a spark of pleasure—redemption, even—are about to come unwound.

Before that, though, there’s time for La Linda, Bill and Cirk (Tye Sheridan)—the son of one of Bill’s former, shall we say, colleagues—to become an odd little chosen-family unit as they travel the circuit. Bill and La Linda cook up a nice heat while killing time in cocktail lounges, and her casual business charisma is a charming offset to the deeper themes at play. Writing fresh from a Venice Film Festival viewing, Rahul notes “you keep expecting Haddish to break out of the understated style and that tension works.” Andy agrees: “Her simple outlook on life and lack of existentialism offer a nice contrast to Tell’s brooding sorrow. Plus, La Linda is just a great character name.”

Haddish understood the pull between Bill and La Linda, and La Linda’s desire to probe into his mysterious monotony, in a very specific way: “As a standup comedian, I work with a lot of men that—they’re very talented, they’re doing big things when they’re on stage—but then when they come off the stage you’re like, ‘Who are you? Why are you so dark? Who hurt you? What’s going on?’ I can relate to that in so many ways.”

Still, of all the dramatic writer-directors to work with in America, why Schrader? What was it about his specific brand of lonely-white-man stories that appealed? “Cat People. It’s my jam,” declares Haddish, of Schrader’s 1982 erotic horror reimagining of the 1942 classic (and one of his few films with a female lead, played by Natassja Kinski). “I love that movie. It had some weird, twisted shit in it.” She has been campaigning Schrader to mount a sequel, so that she can have a crack at playing a sexy, predatory jungle cat. “I try to bring it up to him all the time. And he’s like, ‘Tiffany, we’re not doing it. No.’”

Natassja Kinski in Paul Schrader’s 1982 remake of Cat People.
Natassja Kinski in Paul Schrader’s 1982 remake of Cat People.

Haddish imagines that Cat People would certainly be on La Linda’s list of hotel-room comfort watches, along with Shaft and Goodfellas. Haddish, on the other hand, prefers to kick back with series television when she is on the road. “I watch old sitcoms like Martin or, like, The Facts of Life. I love a good cartoon, especially the throwback ones on Boomerang. I really like the old school, like ThunderCats. That’s a good wind down for me.”

Filming days are long, making the minutes can be stressful, and Covid safety protocols add layers of complexity to the job. There are performers who are cast not only for what they bring to their roles, but also for the energy they bring to set. Haddish has an undeniable magnetism, so it is unsurprising to read her co-star Isaac, in The Card Counter’s production notes, describe her as being “like Jesus”, in that people would drop everything and follow her. She enjoys this comparison, revealing that she has always wanted to be an AD, the crew member with, traditionally, the greatest people skills. “I always wanted to be assistant director just so I can be like, ‘All right, picture’s up, guys.’ And just so I can know everybody and be cool with everybody.”

But as a performer with clout, what is her intention when she—Tiffany Haddish, famous actress™—walks onto a soundstage? Haddish’s answer is a generous primer on how to be a good sort on set (or, indeed, in any working environment). “When I say yes to a movie, that’s a hundred to two hundred people that get to work and I want them to be happy about working,” she explains. “I’m going to work with them again in something else, and I want to have a pleasant experience with the crew. The DP, the gaffers, all these people, we all work together as a unit, so I think it’s super important.”

Paul Schrader, Oscar Isaac and crew on the set of The Card Counter.
Paul Schrader, Oscar Isaac and crew on the set of The Card Counter.

Certain crew members, she admits, “are imperative to making me look good”, but more than that, her approach is grounded in her own physical and emotional safety in an often volatile and unpredictable creative environment. “I see how some actors won’t talk to any crew members at all, and I feel like that’s not okay because these people are busting their ass to make you look great, and they are part of telling this story too. They might not be hanging off the side of the building like you are, but they are making sure that the camera’s operating correctly, so you don’t have to shoot it five hundred times.

“These people keep me alive. They keep me going and they can tell when I’m in a bad space. They’re like, ‘Here’s a Snickers.’ If I’m working with an actor who might be treating me not the best, they’re coming over, they’re giving encouraging words, ‘You’re going to be okay.’ We’re a team. I even talk to the editor. They’re like, ‘Picture’s up, sound’s rolling, and speed.’ And I’d be like [staring down the camera lens], ‘What’s up editor? Hey, it’s your girl Tiffany Haddish. Just a little note: I’m thinking about you. Now, if you could just make sure this lazy eye is this way… I know you’re in that room by yourself, but look out for your girl.” Sometimes, Haddish will even throw a bone to the studio executives. “I know they’re watching the dailies,” she laughs.

Her investment in the welfare of her film families is paying off in unexpected turns such as The Card Counter, with more to come. Up next, a trio of unusual comedies: Jerrod Carmichael’s existential buddy farce On the Count of Three, which was picked up by Annapurna out of Sundance this year; Cory Finley’s surrealistic sci-fi romp Landscape with Invisible Hand; and the intriguing Nicolas Cage vehicle, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent.

The Card Counter’ is in US cinemas now.

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