Ozark stars Laura Linney and Tom Pelphrey on Wendy and Ben's 'great tragedy': 'I was just crying'
Warning: This article contains spoilers for Ozark season 3.
"Your brother is dead, you couldn’t have made a bigger sacrifice.”
That line from Marty (Jason Bateman) to his grieving wife, Wendy (Laura Linney), does a pretty succinct job of summarizing Ozark season 3. Both better than ever and more talked about than ever, the most recent installment of the Netflix series featured explosive wars above and below the border, but the most memorable — and important — development was the introduction of Wendy's bipolar brother Ben (Tom Pelphrey) and what that meant for the Byrdes, Ruth (Julia Garner), and Helen (Janet McTeer).
While surprised by his arrival, Wendy was glad to see her little brother, but Ben's unstable nature would soon begin causing trouble for the family's money-laundering operation. After a short stay in the hospital and confrontation with mob lawyer Helen, Ben is forced on the run with his sister. But, as much as Wendy wants to save him and bring somewhere that he can be okay, Ben continues to try and sabotage that mission. Eventually, she realizes that she has no choice but to hand him over to Helen.
Season 3 had found Wendy becoming a shark in a pond, taking the reins of the Byrde criminal enterprise, and getting in a dangerous entanglement with their drug lord boss. But the sacrifice of her brother left her broken, drinking heavily, and temporarily living out of her mini-van in a Walmart parking lot in the finale, before making her way down to Mexico for a bloody surprise.
With Ozark expected to have a strong presence at this year's Emmys, EW called up likely nominees Laura Linney and Tom Pelphrey to talk about the overwhelming reaction to season 3, the "great tragedy" that is Wendy and Ben's relationship, and news of Ozark being renewed for a fourth and final season.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Specific to Ozark, what has the last few months been like? Season 3 came out early on in all of our quarantines when we were looking for fresh content to watch, and a lot of people watched, making the show more popular than ever. Even being stuck in your homes, have you felt that?
LAURA LINNEY: Yeah, I think so. Tom, I’m sure you’ve been getting an enormous amount of feedback — at least I hope you have been. But I’ve had a sense that the show sort of hit, as you said, when people were antsy and a little frightened and stuck at home and it gave them a good 10 hours to escape. So this season did lift off a bit more than anyone expected it to.
TOM PELPHREY: That’s interesting. Being on a show like this, that is not just so great but just so popular, this whole experience is a new thing for me. The response has been amazing. I imagine Laura is a bit more used to having a lot of response to the work she’s done, so it’s interesting to hear how this time is different.
Quarantine definitely was a big factor, but there also seems to be a consensus both among new fans and old fans that season 3 went up a level. It's not like the first two seasons weren't well-received, considering Julia and Jason both won Emmys last year, but, Laura, having now done this for three seasons, did you feel that as you were filming? Like, “Oh, we're taking it up a notch."
LINNEY: The thing about Ozark is that it’s such a happy set, which is not always the case. Everyone is so happy to be there and everyone is so grateful for everybody else. So every time we reconvene to do another season the work gets deeper, just because we’ve had more time together and we’re more familiar and we’re also just so happy to be back. But the secret weapon this season was Tom. He came in and just added a whole other dimension and depth to it. It gave Julia wonderful things to play, it gave Jason an irritant that got under his skin, it caused the stress levels to go up for everybody. So I think in some ways it’s a natural progression, and it really lays on the shoulders of the past two seasons.
PELPHREY: It’s one of the coolest things about TV now, that when you’ve done such an amazing job laying a sturdy and interesting foundation, that the more time you get to spend with these characters, the greater the payoff, because we know them more, we care about them more. Just for myself as a fan of Ozark long before I had anything to do with the show, part of my brain was watching season 3 just as a total fan. It’s so satisfying to see how these characters continue to develop.
LINNEY: And you should see what happens to all of us when we get back to the Byrde house on the lake [after] we haven’t been there for awhile, the entire crew is like the happy villagers. It’s such a beautiful location and everyone is so happy to be there. And our crew has not turned over a lot, I’d say 85 to 90 percent is the original crew from the first season, so there really is a trust and a bond and we’re all inter-reliant on each other in the best way. It really pays off over time.
PELPHREY: Just walking into the middle of that, I couldn’t believe it was real. It was almost hard to accept how positive and supportive and nurturing and creative and laid back the environment was. In the beginning, I was sort of waiting for the other shoe to drop, and it never did, so it really created such a special work environment there. And Laura is a huge part of that.
Ben is such a complicated character and could have really gone wrong in the wrong hands, so what was your initial read and approach to him, and did that evolve at all as you went along?
PELPHREY: At his core, something that I really loved about Ben was that in a way he was extremely simple. I think he was a bit innocent and just really all in on loving his family, his niece and his nephew, and obviously how he felt about Ruth. There was this almost childlike simplicity with the way that he saw certain things. That’s a lot of fun to play and it’s a lot fun to get permission to be that character in a way that is sort of black and white.
With Wendy, we’ve had hints at her upbringing in North Carolina, but the arrival of Ben puts that in the forefront. Were you excited to finally get to really dive into who Wendy Byrde was before she was a Byrde?
LINNEY: Oh, absolutely. I had made all these decisions very early on and have just been sitting on them, letting them sneak out every once and awhile. Like in season 1, there’s a reason why she knows how to fling a possum onto a roof. Most people from Chicago don’t know how to do that. [Laughs] I had all this information in my back pocket, and so I was thrilled when [showrunner] Chris Mundy told me that my brother was going to show up, because he’s mentioned very briefly in season 1. And with references to her own delinquent behavior and then you see her delinquent behavior as an adult and you see that she’s a deeply conflicted, complicated, and, probably, wounded person, to have Tom show up in the flesh was really great. And then how schizophrenic it is for Wendy, who has fought very, very hard to get away from that. It was fun to work all that out, and when she would shift from Appalachian girl to former Chicago political adviser to casino runner-drug cartel emissary.
Both ahead of filming and as you were going, what were the conversations between the two of you about working through this complex relationship? Clearly, there were rough times in their history, but in many of these little moments you could also see the emotion and true love there.
PELPHREY: Laura and I spoke a bit when I first got there about maybe some of the shared history between the characters. I felt like we were on the same page and, obviously, this is something that Laura has been thinking about for awhile, and so it was like immediately validating in some way that my instinct was in line with what she was saying. But so much of it was just me getting to be around Laura — and, Laura, you were just so generous with your time, with your attention, and so kind and supportive and interested.
LINNEY: Oh stop!
PELPHREY: Well, no, it’s true. I’ll repeat this until the day I die, but it’s an invisible thing that makes everything easier and better if it happens, but it often doesn’t happen. And that invisible thing is someone like Laura being that generous, being that open, so that literally five minutes after meeting this incredible actor, who I’ve looked up to for years, I feel like she and I are friends, and like I’ve been on her show since season 1. Feeling like that makes it infinitely easier to do a good job, and when you feel that supported, it’s infinitely more likely that you’ll be able to surprise yourself in a scene or that you’ll be able to be vulnerable in a way that is usually very difficult to do on set. And so, to me, when I think about the brother-sister relationship, I just think, “Thank God I got to work with Laura Linney." Because not only is she an incredible actress, which we all know, but she’s an incredibly generous partner that gave me all the invisible things that any actor could ever hope for and did it all with a sense of a ease and a sense of grace, so much so that you could almost not even be aware that it was happening.
LINNEY: Oh God, Tom, I can retire now. [Laughs] Thank you. You made it really, really easy. We lucked out because we just liked each other and that’s not always the case. A lot of that is our casting director Alexa Fogel, who has known me for a long time and also has known Tom for a long time, so she had an understanding of how I work and how Tom works, and she just thought it would be a good match and boy was she right.
The thing that’s always the most exciting for me is being surprised when you’re working. If you’re not really surprised at least once a day on a set while you’re working then something’s wrong. There are certain things that do have to be aligned and in place for that to happen; you have to feel safe with the people you’re working with, you have to feel energized by their company, you have to feel inspired by what they bring to the table, and then you can really have fun. Then you sort of just get out of the way and let the work unfold, and when you are paired with a like-minded actor with really good material and really good directors and a great production, then it’s just heaven. And Tom and I just had a ball, even though it was emotional and dramatic and there’s mental illness and a lot of alcohol and living in a car and on the run. It was hot as hell in that parking lot, but boy was it fun.
You mention the parking lot, and that takes us specifically to the episode that we need to discuss. The penultimate episode, "Fire Pink," might be the high point of the season and features so many good moments between the two of you. What was your first reaction when you got that script and read through it? Obviously there’s a lot to take in, whether it’s Wendy’s decision to hand Ben over to be killed or everything that happens in that mini-van.
LINNEY: Well, I was really excited, because not only was I excited to see what Tom was going to do, but also Alik Sakharov directed the last four episodes, so I knew that would be a fantastic pairing. I was just excited to go to work every day, and you’re like, “Okay, we’re going there. We’re going to dig deep.” But we were tired by the end of the season, particularly the end of episode 9. I remember backs were going out, I had a twitch in my face; it was good, really hard, demanding work that you can’t glide through.
PELPHREY: For me, the first time I read nine I was reading it like an audience member and I was just crying. [Laughs] Towards the end of the script I was having a hard time seeing the words.
LINNEY: The crew was very pissed off and upset when they read nine.
PELPHREY: I wasn’t even crying in the sense of Tom the actor, it was just like, “Oh my God, of course this is how this would end,” and yet, “Oh Jesus, don’t let it end this way." Which is such a compliment to the writing, where it’s this horribly impossible situation and it kind of plays out the only way that it can. It’s just great tragedy.
LINNEY: I also just think about the damage that has been done and the haunting that is now going to happen. You just think, “How in the world do they survive this?”
PELPHREY: Yeah, I cannot wait to see where season 4 goes, because of what this has done to Wendy, what this has done to the whole family. What does it look like to cross that line?
The episode closes on the gut punch of Wendy giving up her brother, but it opens with Ben’s both chilling and heartbreaking monologue in the back of a cab after he confronted Helen. Tom, you’re in this confined space, you really don’t have anyone to work off of, so what was the process of preparing for that and then filming it?
PELPHREY: A scene like that is an actor’s dream. That writing was just perfect. We filmed the last four episodes as one block, so fortunately, I had a few weeks with that script before I had to film that scene. For me — given what’s going on with the character and given the way the speech was written — I think the best approach here is to be as prepared as humanly possible, so, like Laura said, on the day I can go to work and just throw it all out the window. It was all just drill that writing, play with it at home, run through it in a million different ways and see what pops or hits, because on the day you just want to be able to give over and let the writing sort of dictate itself to you. As much as possible I didn’t want any of my mediocre ideas being opposed to what was there. Like, can you do this in such a way, as we were saying before, each time you surprise yourself, rather than, “Wait until you see this idea I cooked up at home!” [Laughs] I’ll tell you right now, never as good as you thought it was!
LINNEY: There’s a wonderful moment if things are all aligned where the writing literally comes off the page and it just sort of plays through you and you just get out of its way and you let the writing sort of do the work for you. You have to earn that, that’s not instant pudding, but when you get to that place, when you’re intimate with the thought behind the line, when you’re intimately acquainted with the character and the story and what’s going on, when the writing is as good as that, it really is fun. And you have no idea how it’s going to go, you just show up and you’re like, “Okay, let’s see what happens here.”
PELPHREY: And to that point, Alik Sakharov is the director and so there’s like zero fear in me that I need to do anything repeatable, like I know if he needs me to do something he’ll say it. And then other than that, just play, just let the writing play. That is such a huge part of what makes work like that so enjoyable and possible.
You both briefly touched on seeing what this will do to Wendy in season 4, but we do get a version of that in the season 3 finale. This year, Wendy really became the alpha of the family and probably even more dedicated to this life of crime than Marty, but then she’s just left so broken here. Do we think that she'll be able to get back to that power position, or will this be something that she'll be unable to shake?
LINNEY: It’s the undertow of it all, isn’t it? The manifestation of the shadow side of all of her choices. Her love for her brother was genuine and immense, so I think she sort of has to slay the person she was in order to be able to keep existing. Otherwise, it would just be too unbearable to go on. So something has to click and shift for her to be able to wake up the next morning. And I’m really eager to see what Chris Mundy and the writers have in store for season 4, to see how it bleeds through that season and see how they think she’s going to deal with it. It’s an inconceivable choice to make... but she does it. [Laughs]
I don’t know if you’re aware, but in my research for this interview I found multiple articles speculating that Ben is actually still alive and this was all a fake out…
LINNEY: Yay! Wouldn’t that be great?
PELPHREY: That would be amazing.
Is this new information for you, or have people been asking you about this?
PELPHREY: That’s so funny, because Laura remembers this, but we had similar conspiracy theories on set at the time that the script came out, and Rita [Parillo], who does the hair on the show, was one of the first people to speculate that perhaps Ben wasn’t dead.
LINNEY: She refuses to believe that he’s gone. She took the script and threw it on the floor and was like, “Absolutely not!” [Laughs] One thing about our set is all of these beloved people get terminated and our whole crew goes into a period of mourning, because Tom is family now, and Jason Butler Harner was family and Janet McTeer and Harris Yulin, all these greats actors who we loved. We’ve started to call Chris Mundy the Grim Reaper. It’s just like, “Oh please, put down the scythe!” God only knows what will happen come the next season.
Thankfully, Tom has some time to start getting the "Ben is alive" campaign into full gear before filming starts again.
LINNEY: That’s right! I’m going to get T-shirts printed up.
PELPHREY: I’ll tell you what, alive or not, I would definitely go visit them again down in Georgia. I’ve just never had such an overwhelmingly positive work experience. I love them all so much and, as a fan of the show, I can’t wait to see what happens.
LINNEY: We may force you just to show up.
PELPRHEY: I might come to hang out on set 0ne day and just have a coffee with you and watch.
Maybe just keep popping into the background as an extra, get viewers talking.
LINNEY: Yes, like Where’s Waldo? Wouldn’t that be funny? Like all of a sudden, out of the lake, Tom’s head comes up and turns around like a periscope and then goes back down. [Laughs] You drive by in a car, you're a waiter at the restaurant, you're the delivery guy.
Laura, you mentioned not knowing what to expect next, so you haven't heard any plans of what the fourth and final season will look like?
LINNEY: I have no idea, and I never have any idea where they’re going. Which is wonderful, like I can’t even see it, and I don’t even have my own ideas about it. I have no idea where they would go, and every season it just gets better and better. In a time when you can never presume that you’re going to get any next season, it’s wonderful that we get to keep doing it, and so I’m going to enjoy it for every single second that we still have it because it’s been just a total and complete joy.
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