It is a pleasure to get to know Jessica Frances Dukes. She plays Maya Miller, a pregnant FBI Agent working against Marty (Jason Bateman) in the explosive Season 3 of Ozark (now streaming globally!). She is the type of person who asks how our day is going and we reply: “Better, now that we have spoken to you” and we truly mean it. Because Jessica Frances Dukes is skilled in the art of performance she speaks with the poise and grace of an actor who is truly proud of the show in which she stars.
The following is a really fascinating (condensed and edited) phone chat with the alluring Jessica Frances Dukes.
Brief Take: You seem to be very different from Maya, how did you go about playing her?
Jessica Frances Dukes: You know, I think that we do have a lot of similarities as far as how we work, and that’s one of the things that I found really fun to play with Maya. I feel that as an actress I am myself a bit of a detective in how we study character and how we study people. I feel like that’s my favorite thing about being an actor and I think that’s at what Maya is brilliant. I’m not a math genius like her [chuckles], but my father was an engineer so it’s great that I have those ties. But I think that what we share in common is her diligence, her work ethic and her need to get the job done. As far as even how I studied Ozark itself, I studied both the first and the second season. I was already a fan, but I went back and I watched it as an FBI Agent to see what I could find. But as far as her conservativeness and all of that, I have that in me. It’s deep down, but I have that. [laughs]
BT: What does it feel like in that space filming the series in Atlanta?
JFD: Ah! First of all, I loved Atlanta, it was amazing. I remember the first time I walked on to the set- being such a fan of the show, I was in awe. It was like walking into Disneyland for the first time, in which you get a chance to see all the rides and how they work. I used to always say on set that this is like being in the front seat of a rollercoaster in which you get to see everything. The first time I walked on I thought that it was absolutely beautiful and so well done and every single thing, down to the electricians and how they can dim the lights on the machines while we shoot, was epic to see. And even when I wasn’t shooting as an actor, I would sit on set and watch to learn in all the areas all of the people that are working on the show. [laughs]
BT: What was your favorite scene to shoot or to observe?
JFD: Wow! I don’t know if I have a favorite moment because I swear every single moment was so amazing. I’m such a fan of Jason Bateman. I’m such a fan of Laura Linney. It took me a minute to process that they were Marty and Wendy, not Jason and Laura, to whom I’ve looked up for so long as an actor. I guess that if I could say that there was a favorite moment, it would be the very first moment that I met the both of them that very first day. That I worked with Marty, the very first day that I worked with Ruth and my first day on set with Laura. I walked into the room and Laura opened her arms wide and had this huge smile and said “welcome” and gave me a hug and I felt like I had just come back to my summer camp, [chuckles] you know? It felt like that, like I belonged. Everyone made it that way, it was like you’re walking into a family reunion and you had no clue that you were family.
BT: What was it like when you saw Laura Linney in My Name is Lucy Barton on Broadway?
JFD: Ah! Yes. [giggles] First of all, I don’t miss anything that she does. I see everything that she does and I was in a show while she was doing that, so I was like: “I’m going to make sure that I see that” and she was amazing!
BT: You were in a really interesting show as well, you were playing Van Helsing at the Classic Stage Company?
JFD: Yes, it was a new, feminist adaptation by Kate Hamill of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
BT: How does your theatre background inform the experience on a series?
JFD: Being on the set of a tv show, we don’t get a lot of the same rehearsal time that we do in theatre. You don’t get the four weeks of rehearsal and a whole week of tech in which you’re there 12 hours a day. You’re just working these moments, but having that tool helps you do the work at home. I set up my own kind of four week rehearsal process with each episode and finding what was the arc of Maya and I looked at the entire 10 episodes as if it was one big play. Just because that’s from where I come and that is how my process works. It was great to find the beats and the moments and everyday work on something new and utilize what I had learned in seasons one and two, because I already had a road map.
BT: What are some of the shows of which you were a part that you bring with you into Ozark?
JFD: Right before I did Ozark, I just finished By the Way, Meet Vera Stark By Lynn Nottage at the Signature Theatre. It was about an actress who had come off the vaudeville circuit in the 1920’s and fighting her way through Hollywood. I loved representing so many black actresses of the time like Hattie McDaniel, Nina Mae McKinney, Theresa Harris, etc.) And to be an actress five years into New York City, I felt like I was on a parallel journey with Vera. Every single experience I take with me into the next and now it’s just such a joy to be able to play Maya, someone who I’ve never before played. So it was really fun to have all of those characters I have worked on and over the years with whom I have had fun bubbling inside of her. I don’t know if that answers it, but I think that I take every character into everything. I’ve had a chance to do some fun, fun roles that are all over the place. I’ve never been put in a box and I’m thankful for that.
BT: You get to work with Janet McTeer in both Jessica Jones and in Ozark, and you’re both incredible!
JFD: Thank you! Thank you. And Lisa Emery, Lisa Emery was in Jessica Jones as well.
BT: That’s right! What was great about working on two shows in which the women are really the strongest characters?
JFD: That was one of my first times full-time on a set, as opposed to coming on for one day and peacin’ out or a couple of days and peacin’ out, so I was really able to watch how the machine worked. I’m so thankful to Rachael Taylor who plays Trish, whom I was with the entire time. She was such a wonderful role model for me and had no problems talking to me any time I had questions. I learned a lot on that set that I ended up taking with me into my Ozark life. Even just the vocabulary of being on a tv set, it’s very different from the theatre world. So sitting there with her, I would constantly turn to her and go: “So what does that mean?” [chuckles] “What does that mean?” [laughs] “What does that mean?” Eventually, that was my training for Ozark [laughs]. To be on that show with those powerful women, to be on Ozark with those powerful women…I tend to get to work with a lot of powerful women in my journey and I’m thankful for it.
BT: Tell me about working with Julia Garner, as you are a big fan of Ruth I saw from your Instagram.
JFD: Julia is just an epic force. To watch her work it made me so excited to work with her, because Ruth…she’s just fire! I learned so much and she’s also just a great person and we became great friends. But the beauty of that show and the writing of that show really gave us a chance to truly see Ruth and I’m so thankful for that.
BT: And Ruth is so intimidating, which is quite a transformative performance from Julia!
JFD: Yeah…when I first met her I thought: “Oooh boy, this is…’, Between her and Darlene, I was like: “Oh boy, here we go…oh, what is it going to be like?”, you know?, because their characters are sooooo just steel knives! It was brilliant to watch them work. I was on set when I wasn’t even called, just to watch them work. Just because if they are piercing, they’re amazing and I was taking notes. [laughs]
BT: You did something fascinating in that the premiere was properly cancelled, but you still dressed up for it and acted as if it were happening. Why was that an important action for you to take?
JFD: You know, I thought about it, I spent so much time on set. Like I was saying, even when I finished shooting, I switched over to crew because I wanted to learn everything. When they said: “That’s a wrap on Maya Miller”, I put on my crew hat, and I said: “Okay, now time to learn everything”. So I was able to be there all the way through to the end and learn. Like you said, I got a chance to go to see Laura’s show, I bumped into Julia sometimes on the streets of New York. It was sad that we didn’t get a chance to celebrate at a premiere, but at the end of the day, the show is its own celebration. To be on such an amazing show with amazing people, that’s a celebration right there. I’m more concerned with the health of our country than I am with a party right now [laughs].
BT: Do you look at this show in terms of good and evil and characters as heroes or villains?
JFD: I couldn’t look at it in that way, especially due to Maya’s backstory. I think that it’s very hard for Maya to look at Marty as a criminal. I think that human comes before anything and I think that also being an expecting mother-for me, at the forefront of Maya’s mind is what you do for your family. I think that allows me, especially with my past and with Maya’s father- who you will get to hear about in this season- it humanizes them for me. Wendy is a mother. I see her as a mother more than anything. I see Marty as a smart man, I am enamoured with his brain. That- I see that first. That’s why I’m trying so hard [laughs].
BT: It’s also a story of survival in trying times and there’s a lot of parallels between the characters on the show and what is happening right now.
JFD: Exactly. Yeah. And whom do you trust? And whom do you depend on? You really find out those things when you’re put in situations in which you can’t quite say ‘help me’, [chuckles]. And I think that we find out who we really are in these trying times and what types of humans we are in the world. I’m finding in this moment what type of human I am and I think that Marty and Wendy and Ruth and all of them are put in a situation in which they are tested every day. Like we said at the top of this call, you’ve got to take it day by day and try to survive.
BT: Within a serious show, did you find there really funny scenes for you to shoot?
JFD: I did! [laughs] Even though it’s a dark show, a lot of the actors that are in the show are actually awesomely funny people. I love ironic dark comedy and I think that they are brilliant at it. I think that Ruth is a genius when it comes to that- Julia nails those jokes without nailing them and it’s perfect to watch. And Jason Bateman…it took me so long to keep a straight face with him [laughs] because he cracks me up. There are moments in which Kevin (L. Johnson), his bewilderedness as Sam and his aloofness, I think that it is perfectly well-done. It’s because we find these humans in these weird circumstances that it is ironically brilliant, because a lot of the times the funny is: “Oh my God, how are you going to get out of this one?” [laughs]
BT: How does Jason Bateman transition between actor, director and executive producer on set?
JFD: Day one, I said to him- one of the camera guys and him were talking and I said: “Uhhhh, what does that mean? I’m not going to be shy. I’m so new and you guys have this lingo that I would like to understand”. And the lingo that they have, every person on set, from director, to D.P., to camera, to Jason, every single person works as a team- there is no ego on that set. Every single person is there and loves to be there and loves to work, that it is like this roundtable of geniuses. I would sit there in the midst of these conversations and learn so much about how to get the shot. They would get the shot so fast because they love working together, because they’ve worked together so many times and Jason is smart. The same way that Maya looks at Marty’s brain, Jessica was looking at Jason like that, because…Oh, that’s funny, Maya and Marty, Jason and Jessica…but I really looked up to him in a huge way. Being the most with him, it was like a masterclass, a five months masterclass for me.
BT: Are there shows that you really enjoy as well, of course, aside from Ozark?
JFD: Oh yeah, I recently finished The Outsider and it’s sooo good. That is up my alley with doing Dracula obviously. I recently finished Self-Made. I love Self-Made, even though that’s not on the dark side, but I love great performances. I love to watch great acting and that’s why it was such a blessing that I booked Ozark, because that’s the top! It’s the top for an actor. I recently finished Cheer on Netflix, and that’s not acting, but I loved it…[chuckles] I finished The Outsider and I’m excited to watch a whole bunch of new things, but I think that I’ll be in Ozark land for a little bit right now [laughs].
BT: What do you think is the best way to get through this time and the importance of shows like Ozark right now?
JFD: In my opinion- in my humble opinion, artists shape the world. We are the storytellers. We are the ones that keep tradition and history and every character that I get to play—whether it be on stage or on screen—is telling some story that is teaching or changing or influencing or inspiring. In this time that’s what we need the most—we need inspiration, we need to be uplifted—especially because we’re in such uncertain times. What is certain, I think, is art. Right now we have the ability to keep people up, keep people entertained or happy, engaged, or get their mind off of the bad things that are going on and escape into a different world a little bit. I think that is what’s so beautiful about what we do—the chance to bring you in to a different world and out of whatever you don’t want to be a part for an hour. [laughs] I think that we’re going to get through this, we’re going to get out of this. But in the meantime, I look forward to being a part of that influence and inspiration.