Pelphrey recently spoke with Gold Derby executive editor Paul Sheehan about what he knew heading into Season 3 of “Ozark,” working with the great women of the series and his memories of attending the Daytime Emmys. Watch the exclusive video chat above and read the complete interview transcript below.
Gold Derby: Boy oh boy, the opening scene in Episode 1… your character just drives the action all season long. How much pressure is there on an actor joining an existing show like “Ozark”?
Tom Pelphrey: Yeah, I was a fan of “Ozark” before I got this job. I really loved the show. I’d seen the first two seasons, I was a big fan. I think there’s a possibility that joining a new show like that which is extremely well done and popular, you could walk in feeling a certain amount of pressure but I have to say, that said, “Ozark,” that job that is a very special place to work. The atmosphere there is extremely calm, supportive, respectful, and I believe that that has been cultivated and curated on purpose from the top down. Jason Bateman, obviously, Laura Linney, Chris Mundy, who’s the showrunner, I have to say that that was just about in every possible way a job could be good, that job was good and that includes making me feel very welcome, making me feel like I’d been there with them from the beginning. So all of the pressure that I probably could or should have felt never really came up.
GD: I’m smiling ‘cause you’re talking about this calm, supportive atmosphere off camera but on camera, it’s a fever pitch and it must be physically and mentally exhausting doing the show in so many ways. This is, I think, some of the most intense drama I’ve seen in years. What is the shooting schedule? How many months were you doing it?
TP: We shot for five and a half months, I suppose. We started in the beginning of May and we shot until the end of October, so yeah I suppose that’s five months, a little more than five months. Yes, for sure, by the end of that schedule, given the nature of the things we were filming, I think all of us needed a break. I think everyone went home that weekend and slept for 48 hours straight. Physically it starts to show up. People’s backs are going out, people are starting to get sick, people are starting to get colds. Yeah, it was intense in a good way.
GD: We’ve talked a little bit around this, so Ben, the character you play, Wendy’s brother, is dealing with some mental health issues but it’s not obvious at the beginning. We see he’s an intense person. We know he’s got some issues. I’m so curious, do you know when you sign on where it’s going, that this is one season in and out for you? Do you get all the scripts at once?
TP: Yeah, I did know that this would be a season. You have that information because when you get a job like that, you’re negotiating some kind of contract and the contract has that kind of language in it, but then as far as the scripts go, no. I did not get all the scripts at once but what did happen is before I started filming, and this is a rare thing to happen on a job, Chris Mundy, the showrunner, called me without me even reaching out or asking. I’m so used to not being able to get this information but Chris Mundy called me and talked me through the entire season for my character, which was incredibly helpful. It also went a long way to making me feel very welcome and making me feel like I was part of the team. So yes, I had the advantage of understanding where things were going, which was also really useful because it gave me the time to do the research that I needed to do so that all of the sudden one day I don’t get a script and go, “This is what we’ve been doing all along?” (Laughs.)
GD: So there’s research. He’s such a complicated man, Ben, and the way that you convey that, talk about that, that process. I know actors don’t like talking necessarily about the intimacies of it, but the research you did, what kind of research did you do into Ben’s position?
TP: I just wanted to understand as much as I could objectively about bipolar disorder. There’s an incredible book called “An Unquiet Mind” by Kay Jamison and Kay was studying mental health in the ‘70s and she had bipolar and she didn’t know it, even though bipolar was what she was studying, and some colleagues helped her realize what was going on with her, why her behavior was getting erratic and she realized she had bipolar and then started going on lithium. Anyway, the memoir is incredible because you have this intimate almost journal of a woman who’s suffering with bipolar and she talks about the highs and she talks about the lows and she talks about the cost it had for her in terms of jobs and family life and friends and relationships and it’s very honest and very vulnerable, which she shares simultaneously. She is a doctor and she studies mental health so she’s also telling you what is happening scientifically while she’s living through it again to share her experience, she’s also the doctor commenting on it. In terms of research for something, I couldn’t imagine a better source of information because it’s incredibly vulnerable and human and visceral and at the same time, you’re also objectively getting facts and information, because of course, bipolar, like anything really, affects each person differently and there’s so many variables that go into how it’s going to affect someone at any given time. How much are they sleeping, what’s their diet like, what is their stress level like at the time, are they on their medicine, have they been on their medicine for a while? All these things are a factor, alcohol, drugs.
GD: Just to watch, it was so compelling and then what I was struck by was there’s three women in his life in the Ozarks, there’s sister Wendy, there’s Ruth and then there’s Helen. These three actresses are so different and I’m just imagining for you the experience so I’d like to talk a little bit about each one. With Laura Linney, the scenes between sister and brother, do you have much time for rehearsing? Because you absolutely believe that they’re brother and sister.
TP: No, we didn’t have too much time for rehearsing. I got goosebumps when you brought up Laura. That is an incredible woman and one of the most generous, open, kind human beings I’ve ever met, an incredible work ethic. She taught me a lot. I’ve been a fan of Laura since I was young. One of the first Broadway shows I saw was her doing “Sight Unseen,” I’ve obviously seen her in all of her movies and the TV shows, so yes, I came in with a great deal of respect and admiration for Laura and she did not disappoint. She was incredibly open and warm with me right from the beginning. You say it seemed like we were really brother and sister and so much of that is on her and how generous she was with her time and her affection and her talking to me about work and making me feel like I was at home and that I belong there. So yeah, that went a long way towards what ended up on the screen.
GD: Oh, absolutely, and then this young talent, Emmy winner for last season, Julia Garner. That is a force of nature, this firecracker. The chemistry between the two of you, it’s combustible and you so understand why Ben makes the decisions he does, going off the meds, risking it all for her. Just talk a little bit about working with her, and I’ve gotta point out, a New Yorker. When I looked her up on Google, this is a girl who’s born in Brooklyn!
TP: (Laughs.) She is, it’s exactly what you said, she’s a force of nature and another person who reached out to me before we started filming and met up and we talked about the characters and we talked about work and again made me feel very comfortable. I loved working with Julia and I loved watching her work and watching her process and watching the explosions and the things that they were catching on camera that she’s capable of doing, which is really impressive. Obviously, it doesn’t even need to be said but yes, I love working with her and then as far as the actress goes, a lot of our scenes were intense but when we weren’t filming, Julia and I were sitting off-camera laughing. She has a wonderful sense of humor and we got along well so it was a nice balance of intensity with the work but able to relax and laugh when we’re not working.
GD: I have to imagine the most intense moments for you were probably in that cab in the backseat, that ongoing monologue as you’re heading towards Helen’s house. Was that all scripted?
TP: Yep, that was all written by Miki [Johnson], one of the writers, yeah.
GD: It’s extraordinary. In today’s world of television, everything’s so fast-paced and cuts and scenes have to be short, what a gift is it for an actor? Was that a day-long shoot? How long were you sitting there in that backseat of the cab?
TP: We were probably in the backseat of the cab for three or four hours, but yes, that is an incredible, incredible, incredible, beautiful piece of writing. Yes, it was an honor and a gift to get to show up to work to say writing like that. It’s incredible. It’s poetic, it’s honest, it’s true to the circumstances of the time, it is layering in the impediment, and it’s just gorgeous. Some of the lines could be extracted and you could write them on a wall. I thought that was one of the most beautiful pieces of writing I’d gotten to do ever and I let her know that. That was a really exciting day to go to work and we also had Alik Sakharov directing and he’s a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful director. So yeah, that experience was pretty special.
GD: What I love about Netflix is at the end of that episode, I immediately went back and watched that again because it’s building up. He’s almost like this prizefighter. He knows what he’s about to go do, this confrontation with Helen. Janet McTeer, leading lady of the West End, Oscar nominee, that one scene, I watched it just before we started talking now, that’s probably why I’m so worked up because it’s just incredible the way Ben comes in there and destroys her life. Does he know the price he’s gonna pay? I’m fascinated to know if he understood.
TP: I think that he does understand because Ben is very intelligent but there’s a certain point at which he believes that whatever the fallout is is worth correcting what’s been wrong and that’s a tragic flaw, I suppose, or maybe a tragic feature of that character, which is he believes in things being right and obviously he’s in the middle of a world where that’s not most people’s priority.
GD: So we talked about all the wonderful women of “Ozark” but I gotta talk to you about Jason Bateman a little bit ‘cause he directs the first couple of episodes. I know filming is always out of order but was he your first director on “Ozark”?
TP: Yeah, he was.
GD: So what’s it like being directed by somebody who’s then an actor in a scene with you? I’m fascinated.
TP: With Jason, you almost don’t even notice that he’s directing you because he’s so good at it. He’s such a lovely human being. I hate to sound like I’m repeating myself but that job is very special. The people that work there are top-notch in all the ways and so, with someone like Jason, we’re sitting there doing a scene, half of the scene is taking place outside, he’s directing plus he’s in the scene, he’ll go outside give everyone some notes, come back in, maybe give me a note before he starts and then they’re rolling and he’s thinking as a director, he’s gotta drive the scene as an actor and then he’ll turn to me and start telling jokes until they say action. So his ability to focus, his ability to multitask and hold multiple things in his attention simultaneously without ever getting ruffled, I never saw him get flustered, even. He was calm, he was focused, he was funny. It was amazing to watch. I really have a great respect and admiration for his ability to be the captain of the ship in a very calm and funny way and when you’re doing scenes with him, his notes were so smart and so easy, they were so subtle. It was always encouraging, “Oh, I love that, maybe a little bit, we’ll just see. Let’s just try this,” and it’s all so easy with Jason. You’re there working with him and he’s directing you and all of a sudden it’s the end of the day and you’re like, “Did we do anything?” It was so easy. It never felt tense or anxious or “Here we go.” He’s so calm and controlled. It really makes you feel safe and you can give over to that. It’s nice.
GD: We’re an awards website so I gotta take you back a decade now. It’s unbelievably a decade that “Guiding Light” went off the air and you were there ’til the end and boy, for your efforts, four Emmy nominations in a row and two Emmy wins for Best Younger Actor. So you aged out of that. People watching this, some of them will know you from that. Memories of those Emmys, the wins, what it meant to you to be recognized by your peers?
TP: Yeah, I mean, that whole experience was really incredible. I got “Guiding Light” maybe a month out of graduating college and that is not common. You leave acting school and you figure, who knows when you’ll get your first job and how you’ll have to work your way up and I got that job and it was incredible, pretty quickly getting nominated for Emmys and having that kind of recognition for your work was a heady experience and the first Emmy that I got nominated for, the Emmys that year were in New York at Radio City Music Hall. I grew up in New Jersey so the first year I was nominated for the Emmy I didn’t win, 40 people came (laughs). 40 people came to Radio City Music Hall from New Jersey, friends and family, to support me. Not just my friends, my friends’ parents came. Afterward, somebody was nice to me, I got them all into the after-party. It was ridiculous. They literally should’ve rented a bus.
GD: So where were the ceremonies the two times you won?
TP: At the Kodak in Los Angeles.
GD: That’s where they have the Oscars. I gotta talk to you a tiny little bit about “Mank,” speaking of Oscars. You’re gonna be in this David Fincher film and you’re playing Joseph Mankiewicz, brother of Herman Mankiewicz. The film’s based on him and his relationship with Orson Welles writing “Citizen Kane.” So you’re playing Joseph Mankiewicz, who ends up winning a bunch of Oscars, “A Letter to Three Wives” and “All About Eve.” Tiny little tease on that? What if anything will David Fincher allow you to say on “Mank”? It might be nothing, I understand.
TP: Yeah, I haven’t talked at all about that but I will say just the little bit he showed so far is absolutely gorgeous and Gary Oldman is incredible.