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Interview: Ozark’s Tom Pelphrey

by Charles Trapunski

Coming across passionate comments and tweets that read such as: “If Tom Pelphrey doesn’t win an Emmy for his performance in Ozark, then why even have the Emmys”, is indicative of the performance that the thespian is bringing to a series that has always been powerful. But Ozark may have just broken open the doors in an emotional gut punch of a season 3, with Pelphrey as Ben Davis, the brother of Laura Linney’s Wendy Byrde, possibly the catalyst for the fireball of the Byrdes struggling to hold on from the interference of the cartel into a powerhouse of a resolution this year.

As for Tom Pelphrey himself, while some of you might be saying “WHO is that?”, it is reassuring to discover that Pelphrey has delivered one knockout performance after another, but is almost unrecognizable in voice when he first comes on the line from his remote home in the Catskills Mountains, suggesting that playing this character was the ultimate in immersion. And please, as there are *MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD*, we very much recommend that you stream season 3 of Ozark on Netflix first and then read this interview.

The following is a condensed and edited version of our phone conversation with the chameleonic Tom Pelphrey of Ozark.

BT: I watched the new season of Ozark a month earlier on the Netflix media site and then streamed it when it was available publicly, and your performance is incredible! You spoke previously about how An Unquiet Mind by Kay Jamison helped in your research of bipolar disorder and that you knew Alexa Fogel, the casting agent, previously, but what really helped you to craft the character of Ben Davis?

TP: That’s a good question, Charles. I mean, I don’t know. As much as possible, I knew that on just a very logistic level, that I would need a fair amount of energy, so it was just like taking care of myself, making sure I was sleeping enough and eating well and doing some exercise, because you watch a scene that’s filmed in, maybe the scene’s three minutes, but sometimes those scenes take four or five hours to film. So really, you want to have some kind of stamina. [chuckles] Aside from the actual research, sometimes it’s just a matter of taking care of yourself physically and understanding that you’re in for a long run and you want to keep your energy up and your focus up, and that was one thing of which I was conscious and going into this and having the thought that I should make sure I have my stamina.

BT: As of last week, you said that you had not seen your portrayal of this character. Have you had a chance yet to watch your mesmerizing work?

TP: Charles, I still have not seen it. [laughs loudly] It’s not that I don’t want to, but my house, I live in Upstate New York and where I live, I do not have high speed Internet, so it’s very difficult to stream things. So I do think that at some point, I will be able to shortly, but yes, so far I am a bit, I haven’t seen it. [laughs]

BT: The entire season, but especially all of of episode nine, is brilliant, but let’s talk about your scene in the taxi in the opening, which was a heartbreaking sequence. What of that was actually scripted and what was your headspace like when you were shooting that scene?

TP: Yeah, well I mean [sighs] God, I thought all of the writing was spectacular, but in particular, episode nine obviously there was a lot for Ben to do. Miki Johnson wrote that episode and I thought all of her writing was absolutely incredible. I thought it was so beautiful, I thought it was poetic, I thought it was true and honest to everything that I’ve read about bipolar. I think that the writers’ room, they all did an incredible job of crafting the character, so when it came to that in particular, filming the scene in the cab, there weren’t even many stage directions, it was just I thought written so beautifully, so perfectly, that it was apparent unto itself how it wanted to be played. And so the feeling for me it was make sure that I know those lines as well as I know my name, which I’d started weeks in advance just working on it, working on it, working on it, because that’s a lot to say, and the words are so beautiful I wanted to make sure that I got them all right. And then it was a matter of showing up and giving over to the words, again I thought that they were, the scene was so beautifully crafted that I didn’t want to impose anything of my own on top of it. I thought it couldn’t be better than what I was reading on the page, and so it’s just a matter of showing up and to the best of my ability, kind of giving over to what I thought that the writing was asking for. Rather than me coming in and saying: “This is how I think the scene should be and I’m going to use the words toward that purpose”—it felt more like getting out of the way.

BT: What was it like to be immersed in Atlanta and filming this series, but then later on in New York, watching Laura Linney performing on Broadway in My Name is Lucy Barton?

TP: You know, honestly I hadn’t seen Laura in a bit and I was so proud of her. Her work was so incredible in that show. And then when I was walking up the stairs after the show to see her, I saw her in person and felt emotional. [laughs] I’d really missed her. I can’t say enough about what an incredible human being, what an amazing lady she is. She made me a better actor, she made my time down there really special, she’s just an excellent human being and an incredible actress and she really made a deep impression on me. Yeah, I hope to be her friend for the rest of my life. She’s just a very special lady and I’m glad to know her.

BT: This show is very much about how there are a different set of rules by which to live in the Ozarks. Obviously, Ben is a character driven by human emotion, but that seems to be outside of the norm and doesn’t work there. In that spirit, do you feel as though Ben got a bit of a raw deal?

TP: Yeah, [sighs], well, yeah. I think it is a very, very [chuckles] particular world that you’re in when you’re talking about what the Byrdes are doing in Ozark, you know? That obviously, because of the stakes, because of what they are doing, because of the fact that they’re working for the cartel and these are life and death situations: you need things like secrecy, you need things like ruthlessness, you need things like cunning and manipulation and lying, and obviously at certain points people get killed. It’s a very brutal world. And then you have Ben, who believes in things like honesty and believes in fairness and believes in justice and kindness and the two do not mix well. And unfortunately for Ben, in the world in which the Byrdes are living, the qualities that Ben has—which I think are very beautiful qualities—can get you killed!

BT: I watched you in a lighter movie called #LuckyNumber, but otherwise when looking through your work, it is darker role after darker role after darker role. Look at your work in Banshee and then in Ozark especially. How much is your wheelhouse immersing yourself in these deep, heavy, emotional characters? 

TP: Yeah, well, [chuckles] that’s funny, I guess it’s kind of true. I think that I’m drawn to things that are perhaps a bit darker, but things in which I feel like we’re trying to get at maybe a deeper truth about what’s going on with someone. I find that fascinating not just as an actor, but as a human being to sort of explore the unexplored spaces. I think that there is value in that and I think that we can learn a lot doing that, so yeah, [laughs] I suppose I tend to be drawn towards projects that are more like that and I also seem to think people respond to me better in that way, so the marriage feels a bit prearranged. [laughs]

BT: Your scenes with Jason Bateman are extremely multi-layered, because Marty comes across as complacent on the show whereas Ben is filled with intensity. Is it fascinating as well to watch how he moves from the acting to the directing seamlessly?

TP: Yeah, he’s an anomaly, that guy is a very impressive human being. I really don’t know how he does what he does in the way that he does it. I remember it was like episode two, and Jason was directing, my first episode there, and there was a scene outside the patio. And it was Laura, Janet (McTeer), Jason, and I was in it and Jason was directing and he was going around and giving notes to the camera and then he was going to the actors and he was giving them notes, and then he was thinking about his own performance. And then everybody was getting set up to film and before they said “rolling”, he turned to me and told me a joke. And then they said “action” and he walked out and played the scene. [pauses] I don’t know how he keeps all that straight in his head, but he’s such a good actor. He’s such a good actor. And that would be enough for most people on which to be able to just focus [laughs] being that good of an actor. But he’s also this great director and he’s able to juggle all of these things simultaneously and he never…he’s unflappable. He’s always calm, he’s always very kind, he’s always very funny, he’s making jokes. The guy just has a bandwidth that I’ve never seen before. Like his ability to multitask excellently across many dimensions is just impressive. I really don’t know how he does it. And so it’s great to be in a scene with him because he’s fully present as an actor and he’s generous and he’s giving. And so yeah, he’s a very interesting guy with whom to work, a very cool guy.

BT: This feels like the perfect series to watch while in quarantine, as it explores themes of self-isolation, loneliness and divided loyalties. Why do you think it’s the perfect show to watch in this difficult time?

TP: Oh boy! I imagine on some level that people are just liking it because it’s a great show. I’ve always felt like Ozark is a great show and a lot of people are at home right now without much to do, so Ozark‘s streaming and I think it’s just a great show that everybody loves, so they’re tuning in to watch it and excited to have it come back. I think it’s just a scary time for some people and none of us know exactly what’s happening and where this will be going, and I think that there’s something very comforting to have a show like Ozark—which people have loved for a long time now—come back and it’s something familiar and I think that it’s very well done.

Ozark seasons one to three are now streaming on Netflix. To read more about Ozark season 3, click here for our interview with Jessica Frances Dukes

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