Sat. Aug 8th, 2020

Interview: ‘Ozark’ season three breakout Tom Pelphrey

In season 3 of Ozark there’s a new member of the family in town. Tom Pelphrey joins the cast as Wendy’s brother, Ben, and his performance is generating more buzz than all the heroin in Darlene’s fields. Read our full conversation, about how Tom feels about completing the Laura Linney trouble brothers trilogy, what it’s like to be the breakout of the season, and Julia Garner’s ability to “weaponize the word ‘fuck’. 

Huge spoilers for Ozark season 3 below!

As you’re playing Ben, did you think about the end point you had to get to? How audiences might be concerned for your character?

Tom Pelphrey: Oh, that’s really interesting. I never thought about it in terms of how the audience would be concerned for the character, but more just trying to be as truthful as possible with Ben, given the constantly evolving circumstances. I guess on some level the writing takes care of itself, in terms of its effect.

You’re so immediately compelling in your character. Ozark sort of did the same thing for Julia Garner (Ruth).  When it started, she was the big hot thing everyone was talking about, she won an Emmy last year. That’s you this year with Ben, the breakout of the season with all the buzz. Did you feel any of that while you were filming? Or do you feel it now that it’s out in the world?

TP: I mean, I knew it was a very special job the entire time. I was a fan of the show before I got the role. Once I was there filming, it’s a very special environment to be working down there. It was a job that was good across every possible dimension. And those are so rare. I knew the role was pretty special. Just one of those moments where you understand that this is a very special opportunity.

And then, sure, to have that come to fruition with people’s response being positive and supportive in the way that you would imagine; that the show achieves what you thought it could when you read it and when you were excited, that’s kind of the dream outcome. You think you’re working on something special, you think you’re making something that people will respond to, but you can’t predict it. So yeah that’s been kind of overwhelming, A lot of support, a lot of people reaching out with encouragement. That’s some pretty special

I know we have ten or fifteen minutes, but I could talk, conservatively, for six hours about you in episodes 8 and 9. You’re sitting there, it’s episode 9, you’re crying in that car, do you know, like, I am killing this. Do you feel that?

TP: (laughs) 

I mean, maybe you can’t answer, but I wonder… 

TP:No, I mean it’s… there’s so many things going on when you’re filming. You feel connected. That’s what you’re looking for, really, I think. I want to feel connected and I want to feel I’m telling the truth, and the extent to which I’m not present, is the extent to which I’m dropping the ball or failing. The greatest part of any job for me is always in the doing. It’s cool if it comes out and people respond well and that’s very exciting. And, of course, that’s all very positive and encouraging. It’s exciting when you got a job. For me the reason I love what I do is in the doing, is in the filming, is in the rehearsing.

When I get to be there with someone like Laura Linney and Jason Bateman and Julia Garner. In episodes 8 and 9 playing filming those scenes, with that gorgeous writing, I mean, I just could die that night happy. To me that is as good as it gets. And I just want to be there, and I just want to be present for that. You’re not even thinking beyond that. That’s why you do it. Those are the moments that make all the hard years worth it.  Those are the moments that make the rejections all worth it. That’s why you’re doing this.

It’s funny you said episodes 8 and 9 you’re filming it and you could die. You kind of did, right?

TP: (laughs) You know…

I want to talk a little bit about Julia Garner.  She had one of those years where she popped up in everything a few years ago and really just blew everyone away with her talent. What was it like working with her?

TP: It was It was excellent. It was amazing right off the bat. We have a very easy friendship, similar sense of humor, we laughed a lot. It was really nice because we felt very comfortable around each other. There was a lot of laughter and levity because obviously we had to do some very vulnerable scenes, some intense scenes. So it was nice that you know behind the camera we could sit around and joke and have a good time and be friendly. And it was exciting to work with her, obviously, because Julia is such an incredible actor. You always want to be working with the best actors because they make you better. Getting to play scenes with her brings them to life in a way that you get to be better.

I said the other day, nobody weaponizes the word ‘fuck’ like Ruth on that show.

TP: (laughs)

It’s like a dagger. So I guess my follow-up is what’s it like to work with Ruth?

TP: This needs to be the logline or the headline of the article: No one weaponizes the word fuck like Ruth. 

It’s true! It’s so good!

TP: (laughing)

It’s one word but she finds 1,000 ways to use it.

TP: It’s so satisfying, isn’t it?


TP : There was a day there was a day where we were filming – um God what episode is it, It’s like episodes four maybe – And it’s the scene where Ruth is organizing all the ‘smurfs’ to give them all the money so that they’ll go to the casino and lose it. So, we’re filming that and the dialogue is all as written and Julia is doing it, and I think it’s hilarious. After we’re done filming they just kept the camera rolling and Julia just improvised more of the scene, as Ruth. (laughs) And I was in fear.  You know, I was just dying because she was, like you said, weaponizing the word ‘fuck’.

I want to move on to Laura Linney. a true titan of acting. Something that I realize – I’m gonna really show my pop culture nerds credentials right now.

TP: Do it. 

You sort of complete a trilogy of Laura Linney and her troubled brothers.

TP: Wow.

Famously, her vignette in Love, Actually is with her brother who is mentally ill. And the poor woman can’t have sex with the very attractive Brazilian guy. And then You Can Count on Me, her and Mark Ruffalo, an iconic pairing, she got an Oscar nomination. Now you come along and it’s kind of a combination of those two. Sort of the down-on-his-luck Mark Ruffalo character and the and the mentally ill brother [Michael from Love, Actually]. And my favorite scene of the season was just you and her, sitting at that table, having drinks. What was it like to work with Laura Linney? To be Laura Linney’s brother, who’s so good at having brothers in movies and TV?

TP: It’s a dream come true. You know, I hate to use a cliché.  I’ve admired Laura for years.  I mean, I’ve seen all those films; The Savages with Philip Seymour Hoffman. One of the first Broadway plays I saw was Laura doing Sight Unseen. She is an incredible actor. She’s obviously accomplished just about everything you can accomplish. 

And on top of all of that talent and skill, she is one of the most generous and beautiful human beings I’ve ever met. That generosity… she holds the space for you. Like when I show up to work with Laura there was always this meta element, aside from just working with your partner on the scene, where I was aware that she was holding a space for me. She was making it safe. She was silently or invisibly encouraging me and cheering me on. It’s very hard to describe but it was always present when I was with Laura. I am eternally grateful to her for the way she works and the way she treated me.

Whatever the performances that I gave is in large part due to her. She made me a better actor. I think that part of the reason that we all love her so much when we watch her on film, is some of her innate qualities shine through. Her just goodness, which is such a beautiful thing to be around and be the beneficiary of. Yeah, I mean just doesn’t get better than that, you know?  Meeting her in person, working with her has been better than I thought it would be. I think that’s rare. 

I found that Ben was the key to understanding Wendy. I don’t know that we, as people who watched the previous seasons, knew we didn’t know her. You, coming on as her brother, and as such a fully formed [character], made her more fully formed – did you feel that in the writing at all? 

TP: That’s a really interesting point. I think that’s really smart. Yeah, I thought that the writing and the writers did an excellent job, that, yes, through the character of Ben we understand the character of Wendy better and we see, obviously, a real vulnerability, a real love, a real sense of her history and where she’s come from, and also this sort of indomitable spirit, this energy. 

I always saw Wendy as Ben’s protector. I think that she basically raised him. I think she took care of him and you see some of that dynamic when they’re reunited again. And I think on the deep level they just really enjoy each other.

I thought that there was something about the storyline, and the way things played out, that also did something beautiful to the family, as a whole. I felt at the beginning of the season, Marty and Wendy were so at odds with each other that you wondered if it was too far apart to reconcile and because of everything that happened in season three, by the end I was like ‘Oh, they’re on the same team again.’

I was sure – sure – that Wendy was going to kill Marty.

TP: Wow.

Instead: Sorry, Ben!

TP: (laughs)

My question there is: Whose fault do you think it is? I think you have like three major [culprits] – 

four, if you include Ben himself but let’s remove him. Ruth gets him out of the mental institution.

TP: Right.

Helen essentially makes the call.

TP: Right.

But Wendy – eeeek — You know his sister

TP: (laughs)

Led him the slaughter?

TP: (laughs)

I’m glad this is going so well. I was very nervous —

TP: (laughing) Don’t be nervous, this is hilarious. 

Whose fault do you think it is?

TP: Well, I am going to give a diplomatic. I think that it was perfect tragedy writing. Literally from the first scene we see Ben, I thought the writers had, in some way, sped up the ending. Because of the mix of characters and because of the circumstances, the outcome – the negative outcome – is inevitable. So, I believe they’re all responsible. I believe Ben has some responsibility in there. But, that is just me tipping my hat to the writers. I feel like they nailed that perfect mix of, regardless of the specific things that happened, there is no other way that this ends truthfully. I think it was just the perfect mix, the perfect stew.

I mean the beginning of that second episode, we don’t know who you are, we see that Ben is obviously a little off, we don’t know: Is he a good guy? Is he a bad guy? What’s the deal? And by the end of that episode when you’re running naked into that lake –

TP: (A hearty chuckle)

You go, ‘Oh, this guy. Oh, he’s doomed.’

TP: (laughs)

I’m so glad that the writers and your performance didn’t turn Ben into a bad guy. Didn’t turn him into somebody who did something awful, where you go ‘Well, okay they’re letting themselves off the hook [to kill him]’

Is that something you thought about as you were in the character? That you know he’s making poor choices based on his mental illness, not based on to character?

TP: Well it was, again, I think just a mix of both. Obviously bipolar disorder doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Sure, that’s at play here, also this character is in an *insane* circumstance. I was often thinking as we were filming, like forget about any kind of mental illness, just put a character who has such a sense of right and wrong, such an innate sense of justice, like Ben does, just put that character into the circumstances and the ending might be somewhat similar. I felt like that was that was just a great example of him feeling compelled to do what he thought was the right thing. And then, for sure, yes, he goes off the lithium, when he goes off the medicine and thoughts start perseverating to a level that’s obviously unhealthy and sort of out of his ability to control. And it’s just the perfect writing, you know, where I think the audience can relate to his intentions, although at a certain point it’s like, ‘Oh God, why are you doing it?’ 

Ben keeps on screwing up. He’s running over to Helen’s house, he’s going to the party and making a scene. Did you realize you had to walk that line? How did you play that, so that you made it so he’s a liability, but you don’t ever want to see him go?

TP: I thought they [the writers] did a great job on the page of showing that Ben had strong noble principles and also that there was something about him that was very almost childlike.

I’ll go back to that very first scene in the classroom where it’s clear this guy has a strong sense of right and wrong. Clearly Ben has no patience for bullying, clearly Ben wants to protect somebody who’s being hurt or taken advantage of, clearly he has a temper. I thought it was interesting, of all of the places that they could have shown those qualities, they made him a substitute teacher. They made him protect a young child. I feel like that is something that was so beautiful about the character. And that’s why he got along with Jonah so well. There’s just a sense of he wants to protect innocents, he wants to protect the kids. And that quality in him, I thought redeemed him of anything that we could hate about him.

Season 3 of Ozark is currently streaming exclusively on Netflix.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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