Laura Linney stars as Wendy Byrde on the Netflix drama series “Ozark,” which returned for its universally acclaimed third season earlier this year. She was nominated for an Emmy for Season 2 last year.
Linney recently spoke with Gold Derby executive editor Paul Sheehan about working with a great cast, Jason Bateman as a director and her recent theater work. Watch the exclusive interview above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: So, Laura Linney, we’re talking to you today about Season 3 of “Ozark,” which, rollercoaster is a word that could have been invented for Season 3 and I know you’ve described Wendy in the past as sort of a kaleidoscope, looking at it through this prism. How did you tackle her for Season 3 where we see such a range of behavior from Wendy?
Laura Linney: Well, I’m just lucky that I’m on a show that has great writers, really, and I get to work with fantastic actors in the process. But she goes through a lot and gets to experience a lot and she’s a reactive creature. So, fortunately for me as an actor, there’s a lot I get to experience and go through.
GD: She’s reacting to all kinds of circumstances and to people and I would think as an actor when you’re working opposite the likes of Janet McTeer, Lisa Emery, these other great theater actresses like you, I mean, what a joy that must be to go to work every day.
LL: Well, it’s heaven when you’re surrounded by like-minded people. And whether or not that’s people who I’ve worked in the theater with or I know have a theater background or someone like Jason [Bateman] who’s not from the theater, but has grown up in front of a camera, there’s still a like-minded, shared view of work and why we do it and what we hope it will be. So when you are lucky enough to be a part of that type of community, it’s really a joy.
GD: Well one of the wonderful things about the show being on Netflix is there’s no need for commercial breaks, the running times vary. I’m curious, though, with that, do they allow for production rehearsal time? Do you have that luxury of doing rehearsals?
LL: Well, it depends upon what you mean by rehearsal (laughs). If you mean the definition of rehearsal through a lens the theater uses, no. But for television, there is time. There’s a little bit of time for it. When the writing is as good as it is, fortunately, things are pretty clear and when you are surrounded by experienced actors and a crew that knows what they’re doing, that helps you with time. Part of the excitement and the exhilaration of doing television is just jumping in, is doing that work on your own, and then coming in and jumping in and seeing what everybody else has to offer and how that might alter what you originally had in mind. So for television standards, yes, there is rehearsal time. By theater standards, it’s no rehearsal time at all (laughs).
GD: You talked about the work that you do off the set. We had the pleasure of talking to Tom Pelphrey earlier this year and he talked about the work he’d done in developing Ben. So the chemistry, the kinship that the two of you had onscreen, did you have a chance to work together a little bit? That pivotal episode in the car, take us through that because it almost turned the show into a two-hander for that one episode, which was just so compelling to watch.
LL: It was a beautifully written episode, and fortunately, it was Episode 9 and not Episode 2. So Tom and I had had several months to work together and get to know each other and realize that we really liked each other a lot and were comfortable with each other. So by the time we got to Episode 9 — and we filmed 7, 8, 9 and 10 in one block — so by the time we got there, we’d had the benefit of working together for several months, so we had created a sort of foundation in which to play on. You just show up and there he is and he’s all prepared and deep and handsome and great. So it was really easy and the words were so wonderful. The language was great. The dynamics were all in place. It’s one of the great advantages of working on a show for multiple seasons because you become more and more comfortable. You know the crew. You know the people you’re working with. You understand the show a little bit. So the longer you get to go, hopefully, the better it gets.
GD: Right. You were saying you’ve worked on it multiple seasons. I know, Tom said about how warm and welcoming, not just you, but the rest of the cast and the crew and he made special mention of the crew and you’re on location. So talk about that element of it, the idea of when you’re away, is it a sort of a surreal family? How does it work when you’re on location for so long?
LL: Well, we’re based in Atlanta, so the Atlanta crew is most of them, I would say 90 percent of them are local to Atlanta. And most of the actors, not all of us, but a lot of us fly in and stay there for several months and the crew is more important than anybody realizes or any of the audience knows and nor should they know. But they are critical to the culture of your set, to the health of your daily life while filming. Their support and their talent and their skillset adds… words cannot describe how important a good crew is and they make your work better. You’re a better actor with a great group. And for crew members who feel that they don’t have much to do with something, they’re wrong. Their very presence adds to your daily work and our crew on “Ozark” is probably my favorite crew of all time. I just love them.
GD: Well, also, as you said, mentioned the actors, and I just think back to those scenes with Janet McTeer, with Lisa Emery, great theater actresses like you who have decades of experience in the theater. The scenes with each of them is like watching great chess players, I felt like. Wendy vs. Helen, Wendy vs. Darlene. It’s, I’m assuming, thrilling for you as an actor to be playing opposite somebody who’s giving you back so much.
LL: Well, it’s a relief more than anything. You’re so relieved that there’s someone who cares about it as much as you do, who works as hard and who makes you better. Janet and Lisa, we all have a ball and we’re all older actresses, which is really nice. That doesn’t happen very often. Very rarely do you have scenes with other women, period. And then to have other scenes with your contemporaries, all of us on the other side of 50, it’s an unusual thing. I give an enormous amount of credit to our whole show for that.
GD: And not just actresses over 50. I think about Marylouise Burke, who is beyond delightful. First came on my radar in “Fuddy Meers.” Also, a woman who didn’t start acting until her 30s. But those scenes in the therapist’s office, I mean, what I think is so wonderful about the writing and the playing of it is it goes from comedy to drama and back almost in the blink of an eye. Is it hard sometimes, though, to do that, to get that shift and get just the right note?
LL: Not when the writing’s as good as it is. Not when you’re working with Jason Bateman. Not when you’re looking at Marylouise. Then it just makes complete sense, and it’s easy. And that’s the thing about any job is that when things are in place, it doesn’t matter how emotionally distraught you have to be. It’s easy to do because nothing’s in your way. When you’re working with people who you don’t get along with, the writing’s not very good, the producers are taking advantage here and there, when you don’t feel like you’re being treated well, that’s when it’s hard. And that’s when you’re exhausted at the end of the day. And that’s when you’re weary from the work. But when everything is aligned properly it’s really a joy.
GD: It’s just wonderful to hear because I wasn’t the only one who was so compelled by it. I know Netflix told its shareholders, 29 million people watched in the first four weeks. Because I think it’s one of those rarities in television where each season, the plot is getting more byzantine but it’s more and more compelling to watch. So do you feel that as a part of the cast? Is it because you’re being asked to do so many different things, like in Season 3, I mean, everyone watching this hopefully will have seen it. Wendy is responsible for the death of her brother. I mean, something like that, does that weigh on you? Do you know that as the season starts, that’s where it’s ending?
LL: I did know that. Our showrunner is wonderfully generous and trusts us completely and gives us all the information that we need to do our work. And consequently, then you can really plot something through. You can really make decisions and choices about what you’re going to reveal and when. But without that information, it’s not possible. I feel that’s always a good thing to do. Not every show works that way, so I’m extremely grateful to Jason and to Chris Mundy for giving us that info.
GD: Well, unfortunately, we have to say goodbye to Tom Pelphrey, the actor. Unfortunately, we have to say goodbye to Janet McTeer. But I have great hopes for Felix Solis. This is this new tennis partner, I feel, for Wendy. And certainly that last moment, I mean, I was shocked that that’s how it played out. That image of the two of them standing there. I mean, you must have heard from your friends, colleagues when they finished watching, “What the…?”
LL: Yeah, it’s an ending (laughs). It’s an ending and it’s a real beginning. It was wild to film and it was, I think, really, really good storytelling.
GD: Well, it’s interesting, Felix, a New Yorker and then Julia Garner, I think most people don’t know, another New Yorker.
LL: Most of us are New Yorkers actually, from the cast. We have a fantastic casting director named Alexa Fogel and she’s New York-based as well. So she goes to theater all the time and she knows the whole theater scene. So we’ve been able to have a lot of really, really fine actors on our show.
GD: Yeah, it’s interesting, when I started doing my research and I know you were in four seasons of “The Big C” and you were on “Tales of the City.” But in terms of screen time, this is, even with only 30 episodes, the longest you’ve ever played a character. So are you learning more about yourself as you’re doing it in terms of the freshness? I know the writing is really key to it but for you as the actor versus I think of you as onstage, whether it’s “My Name Is Lucy Barton,” where you’re playing the character repeatedly, more than 30 hours and it’s the same two hours. It’s the script. I know the audience might change it up every night. How do you keep it fresh as you’re playing Wendy?
LL: Well, I think you have to be patient because the big difference between theater, of course, is that you’re telling the whole story from beginning to end every night. So you’re telling the story and refining the story and all of that. And with television series that go on for many years, you don’t even know where you are in the story. You could be at the halfway mark, but you could be at just the first third or maybe your show’s gonna be canceled the next year and you don’t even know that. So you have to sort of surrender a little bit and really stay in the moment and not play too much at one time and but play everything very specifically, which is why having as much information as you can have is important.
GD: Well, you’ve mentioned Jason a couple of times, and I don’t know if people fully appreciate how involved he is in the show. What’s interesting is that each of the three seasons he’s directed the first two episodes. So I’m curious, from the beginning, like you just said, the first season, there may never have been a second season. Has his style of direction or anything changed each successive year? I know the plots have changed.
LL: I love starting the season with Jason directing the first two because it sets the tone for the whole season and our crew and our cast, I think we function really well when he’s leading the way because we know how invested he is in it. It is absolutely his show and we are all so proud of the fact that it is his show. As much as he has contributed to it and the years of experience it took leading up to this moment for him, we’re all really happy to be a part of it and to watch him thrive the way that he has. So each season when we go back and he starts us off, it’s a great reunion and it feels very celebratory. And we sort of know, “OK, here we go. We’re off for another adventure together.” And it’s just a wonderful way to sort of reunite.
GD: And you mentioned your great casting director and I have to think, Jason, having started out in the business when he was a kid, in terms of the wonderful actors who play your children watching him direct them in those first two episodes must be so comforting to you, I would think this to realize, “Oh, those kids are in good hands. They made the right choice coming into our family.”
LL: I love watching Jason direct because I can see where he’s pulling from his own experience. I can see someone who had not been an actor would never have given that direction. And that’s always really satisfying to watch someone evolve like that and to be able to use their past in a way to create a whole new road for themselves. It’s very exciting. So it’s organic in a way that you don’t have with directors who come from other areas of the industry.
GD: It’s wonderful to watch, and I know you said earlier when this first started, the Byrdes were a family that didn’t know each other. Season 1, they’re getting to know each other. So now we’ve seen them for 30 hours. Do you think they know each other? Do they like each other now?
LL: Well, I think they’re learning things about each other that they don’t necessarily like about each other and about themselves. They’re not the most psychologically astute quadrangle (laughs). They’re not the most mature group of people. They don’t make the soundest decisions. But they do love each other in their own messed up way, and they’re all trying to survive, sometimes as a group and united, and sometimes very much as individuals.
GD: I was watching earlier your first Emmy acceptance speech for “Wild Iris.” The competition was Gena Rowlands, Vanessa Redgrave. But I was struck by what you said. The first thing you said was, “We become actors so that we can connect with great material and connect with other people.” And I think that’s certainly what we’re seeing in “Ozark.” I’m curious about “My Name Is Lucy Barton” because it’s a one-person show. So you’ve got great material but what is it like when you were doing it to hear every night, “Place, please”? It’s just you and you alone.
LL: (Laughs.) It’s a totally unnatural thing to do, a one-person show. And when I was offered the job, I said yes very quickly, I think because I knew if I thought about it too long I’d get scared and say no. So it was really good for me to do “My Name Is Lucy Barton” because it forced me to sort of banish long fears I’ve always had about being onstage. I don’t like to break the fourth wall. And “Lucy Barton” is all about that. I really cling to my fellow actors and no one else was there. So I had to hone skills that were a little rusty and really rely on the language and really have tremendous faith that I would get through it, quite frankly, every night. So it was a wonderful thing for me personally to do. I think it made me a better actor and I was just so relieved every night that I actually got through it. It’s a crazy thing to do, a one-person show. It’s bonkers.
GD: I must tell you, as an audience member, it’s a joy to watch, to watch somebody who’s so skilled at their work up there and giving us this fascinating story. And I know the really interesting thing is you and Elizabeth Strout have sort of intersected before “My Name Is Lucy Barton,” but it didn’t quite connect, right?
LL: Well, we had been set up by our mutual agents to meet because my agent had read that she had said in an interview that if anyone ever did “Lucy Barton,” she would hope that it would be me. And so we were set up. Neither of us really understood what the meeting was about. And I think she thought I was going to pitch her something and I thought she was going to pitch me something and we just didn’t know what we were doing there. And then we realized that it was just a miscommunication through business lines and we said, “Well, so nice to meet you.” I loved spending time with her. She’s a brilliant, kind, amazing artist and then months and months later, I was filming “Ozark,” I got a phone call from Nick Hytner at the Bridge Theatre in London saying, “I’ve commissioned this play from this novel and can you do it? It’s called ‘My Name Is Lucy Barton.’” I said, “Well, does Liz know about this?” And he said no. And he said she knew it was being done, but I don’t think she knew that he was reaching out to me about it. So it came to me twice and when that happens, you sort of feel like you have to listen. There’s a reason something’s come to you more than once.
GD: Well, listen, I’m glad that came to you and I’m so glad “Ozark” did. I hope we see more of it because I think that story may be only a third of the way through. I think there’s a lot left to learn about Wendy Byrde.
LL: From your mouth!