The third season of the Emmy Award-winning Netflix series Ozark dropped on March 27, which was a welcome distraction to fans who were in lockdown due to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. It was hard to savor the 10-episode season, however, because the show is as addictive as it is intense (how can 10 hours go by so fast?). The series has many elements that makes it so obsession-worthy, not the least being spitfire Ruth Langmore, played by Julia Garner, a character who is as entertaining as she is tough and calculating. Garner, who won an Emmy last year in her first-ever nomination for playing Ruth, looks poised to contend again with a season 3 performance that piles on even more layers to a complex character who we might never fully figure out. As if 2020 hasn’t already put the 26-year-old Garner on the awards path, her quietly powerful performance in Kitty Green’s low-budget indie movie The Assistant is getting not only rave reviews but some serious Oscar buzz.
I asked Garner what it’s like to be mentioned in the Oscar conversation, along with how Ruth has developed over three seasons and how she would have reacted to that infamous picture of partyers in the Ozarks over Memorial Day weekend.
Julia Garner: Hi! How is the quarantine treating you?
AwardsWatch: It’s treating me fine, I guess, all things considered…
Yeah, there’s a lot going on…
It’s been pretty wild.
It’s definitely a historic time, in a way, because it will definitely be in the books.
There are these two massive movements, one is forcing us apart and one is bringing us together…
It’s crazy, the fact that one of them was a health and physical crisis and then, being in lockdown, it turns into a mental crisis. And then everything that’s going on with Black Lives Matter, although it’s not a health crisis, it is a physical crisis and it’s also a mental crisis in a way. The whole thing is a crisis! I have friends who are getting married on Zoom, and in the beginning I was like “why are you doing that?” but now I’m like, you know what, it’s good that you’re doing that because you can tell your children, this is what was happening when we got married! There’s going to be a lot of change after this for the better, but I also think there will be a lot of change for the worse. I’m talking about Corona, with the machines, everything will probably be machines, which I’m obviously against, because I want people to have more jobs. People need jobs!
So, from your perspective, how do you think it will change your industry specifically? I heard they are going to be shooting the new Jurassic World in the UK. What have you heard? Is everything in your life getting pushed back? I know you were working on the Shonda Rhimes mini-series, Inventing Anna.
I have a friend who’s actually in the new Jurassic World. From my understanding, they are filming mostly in one place, I think, so that’s probably easier. For Inventing Anna, it’s going to be interesting because we don’t shoot in one location. Even in New York, we don’t shoot in just one place. We shoot uptown, downtown, in the studio. And then we will shoot in all these restaurants and shops—I mean, it’s Anna Delvey. We shot in Morocco for two weeks, but we still have to shoot in Paris and Germany. They have to shoot scenes that look like Ibiza, but we may shoot those in the south of France, or Mallorca, I don’t know. And then we have to shoot a couple of days in L.A., which won’t be so much of a problem, but there’s a lot of airplanes and traveling. I know that we’re going to finish it because it was a 10-month shoot and we were 5 months in, so we have a lot of stuff already, but I don’t know when we’re going to start it up again. I hope I don’t change how I look too much! But then, on Ozark, we shoot in Atlanta, and I know a lot of things in Atlanta have been opening up more, and I am happy for people to get their jobs back. It’s been really terrible what’s been happening with the economy, obviously. That being said, most people don’t get touched five thousand times a day like an actor does. Most people don’t get their pants or their shirt adjusted, we’re all getting mic’d, and then having makeup and hair touch you, often at the same time. I’m not the type of person who hates being touched, it would make it very hard to be an actor if I were. That being said, it’s a different story now. I think it will be very hard to shoot. I’ve seen stores and restaurants who can limit people, I think that can all open up, it’s very easy to keep distance, but in terms of shooting a movie, it’s different. My husband [Mark Foster of Foster the People] is a musician, for example, he was supposed to go on tour but they had to close everything for the whole year because you can’t be a musician and be in an indoor venue without any windows and do your job. I feel like, for entertainment, if you open up in, say, September, which is what they are saying, I feel that’s pushing it a little. That’s just my opinion. I mean, [Coronavirus] is not gone, it’s still alive and well. To be honest, I’m really happy we are protesting for change, because obviously police brutality is not ok, but we will see in a few weeks what will happen, in terms of Corona. If there are not new cases, it means everything’s back to normal. So hopefully that will be a good thing.
And tying it to that, I couldn’t help but think about Ruth, your character in Ozark, when I saw that infamous picture from the pool party in the Ozarks over Memorial Day, where nobody was social distancing. What would Ruth have done if that had been at her place?
Oh, I think she would flip out. She’d be like, [putting on Ruth’s voice], “get your asses back home! I ain’t gettin’ no ‘Rona!” [laughs] But I also think that Ruth would take lockdown and use it as an opportunity in a way, to plan out everything, so when she leaves, she’ll explode. For sure.
Speaking of Ruth, she’s such a great character. The Langmores, as a whole, are not a family we see too often on television. There is a deep pride and love there for each other. Is that why she stays, when she could easily leave that trailer?
For sure, but I think she also doesn’t want to draw any more attention than she has to. On one hand, I think people dismiss her and underappreciate her, and she doesn’t get acknowledged by people, but, on the other hand, she doesn’t like a whole bunch of attention on her, in a weird way. She’s happy to be dismissed, because it takes the focus away from her.
What is her motivation? Is it greed? Power? Redemption? Respect?
I think it’s power. I think it’s obviously money. I think she stays there because of Wyatt. I think the whole thing is Wyatt, to be honest. Three too, but mostly Wyatt, because she has this special connection with Wyatt. Her motivation is to have nice things for both Three and Wyatt. She wants to prove herself, too, being the only woman. She was sort of like that token girl in the group and they didn’t really respect her, which is why she likes Marty.
We see a new side of Ruth in season 3. You already won an Emmy for season 2, but in season 3, Ruth is even more emotional and vulnerable than we’ve ever seen. What was it like to find a whole new gear to play for her?
I think Ruth is always emotional and vulnerable. I think Ruth is the most sensitive character on the show. She gets the most hurt the easiest. The only difference is she doesn’t show it in front of people but she’s definitely the most sensitive one, and I think that’s why people love her. She is always the underdog. I think the different kind of sensitivity and vulnerability that we’re used to seeing is obviously the love interest. Wyatt left, her Dad left, everybody left and it was her fault. She’s in a very vulnerable place. She knows what she did wasn’t the right decision, but she’s trying to justify to herself that sticking with the Byrdes is. So, as soon as Ben says “I’m Wendy’s brother,” she takes more of a glance, she’s more attracted to him. Because it’s a way of getting closer to being a Byrde than she had thought of before. And then it turned out that she actually had feelings for Ben, once she puts her walls down. This season was hard because I wanted to stay consistent with the character—I didn’t want to change the character just because a guy shows up. In the beginning, I was trying to establish that wall that the audience can see that wall and then by the middle of it, they can see her taking down that wall. But it was hard because I was worried people would think my character was going to change, that’s she’s all sensitive now, but she’s always been sensitive!
In your career, you have this trait of taking your sleight physical stature and playing characters who are so powerful and in control…
And big! [laughs]
Yes! You play almost against what people expect you to be.
First of all, I just wanted to give a shout-out to Tom Pelphrey, who did an amazing job playing Ben. But thank you. I feel like my favorite actors are intense actors. Even if I do have a natural intensity on screen, I try to lean into it because I think that’s really captivating. You think about Al Pacino, how intense he is on screen, or Gena Rowlands in the Cassavetes movies. Meryl Streep, Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci, Cate Blanchett, they are all intense. I’ve always liked intense actors, that energy.
Speaking of intense, let’s talk a bit about The Assistant. It’s such an amazing, haunting film and your performance is so compelling. What is it like to shine such an honest lens at your industry?
What I love about The Assistant is that Jane doesn’t actually get sexually abused by her boss, but she is abused, and she isn’t even aware of it. And that, to me, is very common. Everybody has had that experience. Not everybody has been sexually abused, I mean, there are so many girls who have, but there are people who have been abused but may not know it. They work at a place that doesn’t make them happy and they feel horrible when they come home and they don’t know why. They feel bad that they feel horrible because they work in this great place, but really they are getting abused. So, to me, the script and the movie is about abuse in general and how that has to stop. You see it even in the other male assistants—they aren’t abusing Jane, but they are following the abuser. And they are also abused. It takes a village and this movie shows it. [Writer/director] Kitty Green is so smart, so brilliant. I wouldn’t do this movie for just anyone. I saw the script was great, but it was scary because #MeToo had just came out a month or two before I read the script, so it still felt a little early. I knew the movie was going to come out the next year. I knew if it was scary, that was more of a reason to do it. I didn’t know how people were going to react. But at the end of the day, I didn’t really care. In this day and age, things move on so quickly because of the internet. I mean, every week there’s something new. I’m trying to think of something that people don’t even think about anymore, like the Las Vegas shootings. I didn’t want the #MeToo subject to move on so quickly.
Are you happy that this is labeled a #MeToo movie?
It is a #MeToo movie, but more than anything, it’s about abuse. Kitty did such a smart job in not showing the boss, because it makes it more ambiguous and makes it a little more relatable. I feel sometimes when you’re in Hollywood, peopled get trapped in this Hollywood bubble. There’s a world outside of Hollywood and abuse happens everywhere in all professions, everywhere you go. Sexual abuse yes, but also just abuse. It can be woman to woman, woman to man, man to man, man to woman. So that’s what the movie is about for me. It does have the #MeToo element because it has all those girls going in, but it’s covering abuse, in all quarters. That’s why I feel the movie is powerful.
And there’s no denying you are getting some serious Oscar buzz for this. With the Oscars being pushed back, are you ready for the long Oscar season?
Oh, I don’t know…thank you. You know what, for me, I love Kitty so much and we made this tiny movie in like 19-20 days, low budget, one location. And all the attention it’s been getting, I’m just super happy about it. I’m super happy that people like my performance. I of course I’m not like, “I’m waiting for my Oscar,” [laughs]. You don’t think about it. It’s great, and thank you, but that seems so big, it’s like wow. I’m just happy that people respond and it wasn’t just another indie movie that disappeared. I’m happy people liked my performance because it’s one of the hardest roles I’ve ever done. Unlike Ruth, who has a lot of lines, there weren’t any lines in this, everything had to translate through my face. That was hard in a different way. So I’m happy that it translated, that people understood what I was saying! [laughs] Thank god they knew that Jane was NOT happy when she was photocopying the pictures of girls!
At the very least, that’s what I like about the Oscars, it gets people to pay attention to little movies like this…
That’s one of the things that attracted me to this film, I want to support films where script is the most important. It’s not about the budget, it’s about the story.
Season 3 of Ozark is currently streaming exclusively on Netflix.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.