The third season of Netflix’s “Ozark” introduces viewers to a new branch of the Byrde family tree in the form of the wildly unpredictable Ben Davis, brother to Wendy Byrde. Soap opera veteran Tom Pelphrey plays Ben, who becomes a romantic interest for Ruth (Julia Garner) and a support structure for the Byrdes in an increasingly violent dynamic. Sadly, Ben’s Bipolar Disorder becomes a liability for a growing criminal empire, and his tragic arc becomes essential to the success of the season.
A show often criticized for being cold gained emotional heat in the third season largely due to Pelphrey’s work, particularly in some heartbreaking scenes between him and Laura Linney, and there has been some justified suggestion that the Daytime Emmy winner should plan for the Primetime ones.
Pelphrey gave us a call from his place in the quarantine to discuss how he got the part, building a believable relationship with Linney, using mental illness in a dramatic series, how the pandemic is changing the industry, and his part in the new Netflix film, “Mank,” directed by David Fincher.
(Spoilers for the third season of “Ozark” follow.)
How are you holding up during all his chaos? It feels like every interview needs to open with a mental check-in now. Are you okay?!?
[Laughs] Yeah, I am okay. I’m healthy. My family is healthy. Everybody’s safe. People have enough to eat. We’re grateful that everybody is kinda doing good in my orbit for the most part.
How do you think this changes the industry or does it?
I think with a lot of these things there’s eventually a time where we look back and go, “Remember that weird time?” But in the short-term, I would imagine this is really going to change how we’re doing things. Nobody’s filming in the country right now and we don’t know when that will change. I would imagine for insurance purposes and safety purposes, there’s going to have be some standardized protocol. I’m sure a lot of people are trying to figure out what that’s going to be as we speak. I would imagine in the short-term, people will be looking at a very different way of doing things, which is right because if people get sick then we would have to shut the whole thing down.
Right. And this may be outside of your wheelhouse, but have you considered how this will change how we consume things?
You know what’s kind of fascinating? Streaming services and TV have already been changing the game, and one would think this would expedite the process. The pushback that I would have on that is that I know that I feel this way – and I think most people do too – now that it’s not on the table, I’m really missing not going to the movies. So many of my friends when I talk to them and ask them, “What would you do if you could do one thing?” Almost everybody says, “Go to the movies.” I think the process was shifting more into streaming, but I think we’re always gonna want to be able to go to the movies.
How did you get involved with “Ozark?”
I had an audition come through the casting director, Alexa Fogel, for this role of Ben. I just went in with Alexa and put myself on tape. A few weeks later, I got the call that I got the role. I was excited. I had been a fan of the show. I streamed season one and two right after two came out. I was excited about the level about pretty much everything being done on the show.
Did you know it was a ‘one and done’? Did you know the entire arc?
I didn’t know the entire arc but, technically speaking, contract-wise, I knew that this would at least begin as a one-season thing. I had some idea, although you never know which way things are going to go or how. And then before we started filming Chris Mundy reached out and filled me in on what season three would like with Ben. Chris called me about a week before I started filming and we went over the entire season.
What do you get to bring the character vs. what is scripted? Did your research into mental illness although you to speak up if you didn’t think something Ben was doing felt genuine? Are you given that freedom to shape the character?
I think that there’s always some amount of dialogue possible between actor and director and writer. But I do have to say in this instance, it never came up. Every now and then, the skies open and what falls into your lap in the form of an audition is something that makes perfect sense when you read it, and that was the case with Ben for me. I read the audition sides and I felt in that rare way that they had written it for me. They didn’t, but it felt like that.
Don’t overthink this. Follow your instincts. I talked with Chris and find out the arc and do all my research on Bipolar. As the scripts continued to come, based on my research and everything else, everything the character was doing made perfect sense to me. And that’s not to say that it’s “right” or “wrong” or there aren’t a million other ways to do it, but I just thought the writing was excellent. There was never anything he did that I disagreed with or I didn’t understand. That’s the main thing.
As far as actors go, you never want to get into a position where you’re trying to push things in a certain way other than do I believe this and can I understand this? Those should be the only kind of questions because the “story” is in someone else’s hands.
I generally agree but Episode 9 has such a unique flow in that it’s about someone going in and out of mental states and if it’s not believable the whole season could fall apart there. It sounds to me like you’re saying that you had the freedom to stand up and say something wasn’t believable but never had to use it. Is that accurate?
Yeah. All of the lines of communication seemed very open and the atmosphere is very conducive to collaboration, but it was really never a thought and never needed to be done. It’s one of the many reasons I say “Ozark” was a dream job.
Let’s talk about collaboration with Laura. How do you develop a believable sibling dynamic? Do you do a lot of back story with her to make the relationship with Ben and Wendy seem real?
Back story can work and also backfire. To take a step behind back story – my feeling is that you’re there to serve the story. Whatever the writer’s intentions are, to go too far into some back story that you’re completely inventing in the vacuum of space, you could start to pull your impulses and the character away from its intention. The character needs to help serve the story in a way that’s a piece of a bigger whole.
When it came to back story with Ben, I thought about some things and some of the early scripts give some indication about things that have gone on before. But, as it relates to my relationship with Laura, that became a conversation that we had. Not a million conversations but just enough to talk less about specifics but about their dynamic.
We always felt that Wendy was very protective of Ben. We felt in some way that she raised him. And that version of back story is very helpful. It’s understanding how we might relate to each other, emotionally and physically. That kind of back story which literally involves the exchange between Laura and I – that’s useful.
The opening scene in Episode 9 – that heartbreaking monologue in the back of the car – what was that like to shoot and how did it develop?
It was honestly one of the most fun days of work I’ve ever had. I was so excited to get to play it. We filmed the last four episodes in one block.
That must have helped.
It did because I got the script for Episode 9 and I had weeks to work that first scene. It was one of the last things we ended up filming. You read writing that good and it’s so exciting and you just want to be prepared enough to live up to what the writing is inviting you to do. So that was it. Drilling it for weeks. Alik Sakharov, the director, is a beautiful human being with great notes and easy direction. So it was just about being prepared, so that, once you get on set, you can just let it all go. Let it come to you in the moment, which is a luxury that comes with being really prepared. I just thought the writing was on next level. As an actor, when I get writing that good, it’s just so exciting.
That’s generous of you. The writing is excellent but there are a lot of actors who couldn’t have made it sound genuine.
Well, you know, there’s something about it. There’s a crystal clear emotional throughline that struck me in the writing regardless of how scattered the words seem on the surface.
It makes sense to him.
It makes total sense to him. And there’s a weird intellectual logic that was just well fucking done. You don’t get to execute if the writing isn’t there. The two are hand in hand.
How did you get involved with David Fincher’s “Mank” and how did it go?
I went on tape while I was in Atlanta [filming “Ozark”] for Laray Mayfield, David’s casting director. I got the sides and went on tape and ended up Skyping with David and getting the role. And it was really back to back. As soon as I finished “Ozark,” I put my dog in my Jeep and we drove across country to get to Los Angeles to film.
It was pretty intense! I mean, look, it was unlike anything I’ve ever done. David Fincher is a master director. We all love his movies. It’s exciting to get to play with Gary Oldman, who was a childhood acting hero. I had a poster up on my wall in drama school of “State of Grace.”
Wow. That’s a deep cut. That’s a good one.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. It was just wild to get to work with guys like David, who is so intelligent and so funny. And just really prepared. And you saw the benefit of that level of rehearsal and conversation. You get on set and you’re really there to work. Everybody is on the same page. Everybody is shooting in the same direction.
There’s a thing when you’re acting – you can put part of your brain into director mode. As much as you’re in it, you’re also kind of watching to make sure everything is okay. Maybe some director isn’t as good and you need to protect yourself. None of that was needed with Fincher. I can go to work and basically click that part of my brain off. It’s full-on blinders, head down, and it’s such a pleasurable experience to just run free as an actor because you know the guy calling the shots isn’t going to steer you wrong.
“Ozark” is now streaming on Netflix.