Janet McTeer (‘Ozark’) on the fun and challenges of playing Helen Pierce [Complete Interview Transcript]

Janet McTeer plays Helen Pierce on the Netflix drama series “Ozark.” The actress joined the cast in Season 2 as a guest star but was bumped up to series regular for Season 3.

McTeer spoke with Gold Derby contributing editor Riley Chow about how much she knew of where Helen was going in Season 3 of “Ozark,” working with Jason Bateman as a director and how she’s a bit of a good luck charm. Watch the exclusive video interview above and read the complete transcript below.

Gold Derby: Janet, when we first see you this season you’re getting tortured. How was that? Was that new for you? Were you able to prepare?

Janet McTeer: Yeah, it’s not something I do on a daily basis. It was kind of challenging to shoot it. It’s not fun to be tortured but it was incredibly well-handled. Those kinds of scenes are challenging so that makes them fun to do, but yeah, it wasn’t easy (laughs.) I was a bit tired and wet by the end of it.

GD: So six months have passed between Seasons 2 and 3. Can you fill in the gaps for us of what Helen was up to?

JM: I think that she went back to her home in Chicago and she was busy doing her thing, the way she does. But in the meantime, particularly what Wendy Byrde has been doing, she’s been monitoring how the Byrdes have been handling the whole situation. The fact that they are trying to do actually something that she’s really impressed by that they’ve never done before, that hadn’t been done before in her world, which is to create a legitimate business to launder the money in terms of the Missouri Belle, which they get and that’s what they’re gonna do, she’s really impressed by that. So she decides to go back and go to the Ozarks and make it happen.

GD: You joined the show last season. How did you get this job and how did they describe your character?

JM: I think they knew that they wanted somebody to take over from Del, ‘cause obviously Del is no longer with us at the end of the first season. So they wanted somebody to take over and they wanted a woman. So I talked to them and they asked me if I would be interested. I love the actors, I love the first season and it just seemed like I was being asked to play a really interesting, fun character that I hadn’t played before and that’s, as an actor, always incredibly entertaining and fulfilling to do.

GD: So what was new about this role for you, then?

JM: I’ve never played a lawyer for a drug cartel. I’ve never played somebody who was embroiled in that kind of world before. I’d never played somebody who regularly kills people for a living, orders it. I’ve never played somebody who was okay with that. That was really challenging. I had no idea where to start.

GD: So you recurred last season and then this season you were upgraded to series regular status. Is that something that you knew when you came aboard the show?

JM: Not at all. I joined as a guest because I was also filming something else, so I was going backwards and forwards between Los Angeles and Atlanta, which is where we film “Ozark.” As the season went on and as we realized that the character was really good fun and asked if I’d be interested in coming back again for another season, I said yes ‘cause I thought she was so much fun to play. Chris Mundy who was the showrunner, who is a fantastic writer and a great guy, he said if she comes back, we’ll expand the character, we’ll do something else that we haven’t seen her do before. That’s why the show is so brilliant. Also, I was not filming something else at the same time, so it meant I was available to be more around, apart from, I think, three episodes where I was already doing something else. So I flew around a lot, but otherwise I was pretty much full-time on “Ozark,” which was really bliss.

GD: Coming into this season, what did they tell you about what your arc would be?

JM: I knew what my arc was going to be. I knew that one of the themes of the series is families and how they all deal with being members of the drug cartel or working for the drug cartel. Obviously you have the Byrde family and then you have Julia Garner’s character’s family, you have Darlene’s family. So to bring Helen’s family into it and to see what that would and how that would be to add that to the mix, that I knew was going to happen and I knew that myself and Wendy were going to become business partners and friends and what that would be and of course she’s such a magnificent actress and a friend. How could that not be really good fun to do? It was a no-brainer, really. I had a wonderful time.

GD: I found your outfits this season quite striking in a way I don’t remember them being in Season 2. Can you tell me about how your wardrobe defined your character?

JM: Actually, I think the wardrobe’s pretty similar in 2 and 3. I think she’s very stylish, she’s armored. I would think of it like armor. In the scenes when she was at home, at the beginning we were like, “Crikey, does she wear jeans?” It just seemed so wrong to ever seen unarmed and she’s this person who’s always on. Even when she’s hanging out she’s always really together. She could never be cut short and not rush out the door and be perfectly ready to face the day. So I think that was really much part of the clothes that we chose for her. I loved her clothes.

GD: So “Ozark” has done quite well at the Emmys. One category that it won last year was Supporting Actress in a Drama Series. Now, if you were nominated for that category this year you would have to submit an episode that the academy could view on the academy website that would be a showcase of your best work. Do you have an episode in mind that you thought stood out from the third season in terms of your material and your performance?

JM: I have absolutely no idea! You better ask someone else.

GD: What about just an Emmy clip? When they say “Janet McTeer, ‘Ozark,’” is there some moment from the season you would want to see on the screen?

JM: Oh, I think being waterboarded. That’s always fun.

 

GD: The other Emmy that “Ozark” won last year was directing for Jason Bateman. As a viewer it’s very hard to pick out what makes great directing. Can you tell me what makes Jason Bateman stand out as a director?

JM: Jason’s really, really good. All of the directors that we have on “Ozark” were fantastic, really, really fantastic, all of them. Jason was very much part of the original team. Is he an executive producer? Whatever his title is, he’s very much part of the whole production team so he really knows and he’s incredibly well-prepared, Jason. He grew up in this business, he knows cameras, he knows the whole business inside out. It’s like part of his DNA. That makes him really good. He is also an actor so he also understands from an actor’s point of view. He’s incredibly well-prepared and he’s very efficient. He knows exactly what he needs and exactly what he wants. If you come in with a great idea, he’ll go, “Ooh, great, I hadn’t thought of that.” He’s just really cool. He’s a really nice man and really, really good at what he does both behind and in front of the camera.

GD: So this show brought on a second producing director this season in Alik Sakharov, who did the last four episodes. Can you tell me what distinguishes his style?

JM: He’s such a nice man. He’s so great. Again, a bit like what I said about Jason, he’s incredibly specific with his camera. He knows what he wants. He’s very concentrated. He runs a very tight set but a very friendly set, as does Jason, as you can imagine. It’s a lot of fun. I’m not 100% sure but I think they did the four together because it was very much in terms of trying to get it finished in time and also it meant that in terms of locations, normally you shoot two episodes at a time, so you’d go to the Byrde house set then you’d film for two days there for two episodes and then you’d have to go back there two weeks later. All of that is a lot of moving around when you’re going from set to set to set because most of it was on location. So to shoot four together meant we could shoot a lot faster because we could do four scenes at the Byrde house for example for five solid days over four episodes. It’s harder for the actors. It’s easier to imagine the next two episodes than it is to imagine the next four episodes, so in terms of the scheduling, they have to really help you out so that you know what you’re learning for next week, ‘cause you can’t necessarily learn all four episodes when you’re still filming Episode 3. That has its own challenges that you have to be really, really specific about. I would write the storyline out of every single script so I could go backwards and forwards, going, “All right, I know when I shoot this in the last episode. I’ve done this, this, this, this and this,” even though we haven’t shot it yet. You have to be, in a way, more prepared on a different timescale. What was great about it is Alik is such a clever man and such a kind person, so the way that we would do all of that and jump backwards and forwards, he was very prepared, a word I use a lot. But it actually makes you free. You know exactly where you are and he’s incredibly well-prepared. We’d all take the mickey out of his iPad ‘cause it will have endless amounts of, “This is where we are and this is what’s happening, this is how we’re gonna shoot that,” which allows you to really know where you are as an actor, going, “Okay, I know where I am and I know how we’re gonna shoot that which means we can shoot this like this.” I think that level of preparedness made us all very relaxed, given that we were trying to shoot four episodes at once.

GD: So at Gold Derby, we’re an awards-focused website and you’re somebody who is in the conversation it seems every single year. You were in the final season of “Damages,” then you were in “The White Queen” and you got a Golden Globe nomination and the show was nominated for Best Miniseries. The very next year you were in another Best Miniseries nominee with “The Honourable Woman.” Now you’re in “Ozark,” which is doing very well. Are you a good luck charm? How are you finding these roles? Are they coming to you? Do you just have a knack for them? What’s going on there?

JM: I would love to think that I’m a good luck charm. That’s a nice way of looking at it, that I’m a good luck charm. I think that I’m incredibly fortunate. I get asked to do a lot of good, interesting work. You can’t be nominated for something if the part isn’t there. You can be incredibly talented. Many people are ridiculously talented but if they’ve not got the part that is that kind of a role, then it doesn’t matter how good you are. I’m very fortunate. I’ve done a lot of great roles. I guess I’m a good picker.

GD: And what are people recognizing you for? What role?

JM: It depends. If I’m in Manhattan they recognize me from the stage, usually, and/or “Ozark” currently. Yeah, I think that, really. I suppose in “Ozark” it’s the nearest I’ve looked to myself ‘cause often in other things I’ve looked very different from how I normally look so people don’t recognize me so much whereas in “Ozark” I look mostly like myself. So I’m more recognizable, I guess.

GD: This TV season you were also in the second season of “Sorry for Your Loss” on Facebook which has unfortunately been canceled, so I wanted to ask you what you think happened to your character, Amy Shaw, in the future seasons that we will not see now.

JM: I loved doing that. We had such a great time doing that. It was these incredible people and there were a lot of women onboard and the men who were onboard were also fantastic. It was a joyful experience. I’m not sure what will or would or might happen. You never know.

GD: So you’ve been cast in a pilot called “The President Is Missing.” Is that something that has shot or is that something that’s going to be shooting and what else can you tell us about that one?

JM: Yes, I was filming. We were prepping in Baltimore for a couple of weeks and then we shot for a week and then they were supposed to continue shooting but unfortunately, with everything that’s going on in the world, we had to stop filming. Hopefully, that will get going again when the world is better. That was great fun. I had an amazing time doing that. We’d only just started so it was relatively short and intense. We rehearsed a lot. We spent a lot of time in and around the Senate. We did a lot of political readings and political understandings of trying to get to grips. I was playing the White House Chief of Staff, so trying to understand that, I met some extraordinary people, watched a lot of extraordinary documentaries and I’m still reading a lot of books in my time off. It will pick up, it’s just a question of when, along with the rest of the world.

GD: Finally, I will be interviewing your co-star Tom Pelphrey soon. He came aboard “Ozark” this season. What should I ask him?

JM: You can ask him from me if he’s cleaned his kitchen yet, and I hope it makes him laugh.

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