“The thing about doing scenes like that is that all actors, I think, have a tiny little smidge of masochism in them,” says Janet McTeer of her waterboarding scene in the early minutes of Ozark’s third season. The Tony winning and Oscar nominated actress delivers some of her finest work as cartel lawyer Helen Pierce in season three of Netflix’s Emmy nominated drama.
After being trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, McTeer rose to critical acclaim in every possible medium. From critically acclaimed performances in films such as Tumbleweeds and Albert Nobbs to television programs like Into the Storm and The White Queen, McTeer is known for endowing characters with a deep emotional complexity.
As a lawyer and enforcer for the Navarro Drug Cartel, Pierce carries an incredible gravitas and danger in season two. In season three, showrunner Chris Mundy and his writers offer a deeper dive to Pierce’s character, introducing her family dynamics with her estranged husband, son, and daughter.
Awards Focus spoke to Janet McTeer about Helen Pierce’s arc in season three, the incredible global reach of Ozark, and what the incredible ratings might mean for 2020’s Emmy awards.
Awards Focus: At the beginning of the quarantine, Tiger King was the most talked about series. Now, it’s been revealed that Ozark blew those numbers away. What was your reaction to realizing you were on such a popular show?
Janet McTeer: Oh, really?
AF: Yeah, the third season of Ozark is the most widely seen program in the whole world basically.
McTeer: Isn’t that insane? I knew that there were huge numbers. And, you know, that’s always really thrilling. It seems that everybody has really enjoyed it as well, which is even better, but it’s very odd. I was out grocery shopping with my mask on the other day and my husband was in the car when he heard somebody walk past the car and ask, “Is that the woman from Ozark?” How could they tell it was me with a mask on and completely different hair? So, I guess a lot of people are watching it.
AF: Talk about coming back as a series regular and your conversations with showrunner Chris Mundy. I know shooting was pushed back this year. Could you talk about the logistics living and working in Atlanta?
McTeer: There are really only two main things about the logistics of it. One, is that Atlanta in the summer is really hot, and trying to look like an ice queen in a humid environment is pretty difficult (laughs). It involves very expensive machines and it involves a lot of people running in at the end of a scene with fans and all kinds of things trying to keep you cold, while trying to keep yourself nice and dry.
The other element of it is that Laura Linney and I are really old friends. So, we shared a house and that made life so much better. You can be away from your family for a long time, but at least we were together and there was another lady who lives with us as well. We all got on brilliantly and that made it a really nice time because it can get pretty lonely.
But in terms of actually doing it, yeah, we had lots of great conversations before with Chris Mundy, the showrunner, who’s just the most spectacular man, and the most phenomenal writer. It was clear that the writing was getting better and better this season.
It started off brilliantly in season one, and it’s just gotten better and better. I think that’s just them having more confidence in what they’re doing. So now, they can really push the envelope and try to be as brave and as wild as they can be… I think the writing is fantastic.
AF: In the first episode that Chris Mundy wrote, when you see the waterboard scene in the script, is that something that you’re like, oh, that’ll be a fun challenge to figure out or is that a dread inducing moment when you read something like that?
McTeer: I laughed out loud when I when I read it just because I thought it was such a brilliant introduction or reintroduction of the person who had walked away at the end of season two. She’s just always so cool and calm and collected, you never saw her on her back foot.
And at the beginning you don’t know who it is for a second, and it’s so vulnerable and it’s just so not Helen.. it’s just such a fabulous piece of writing. The thing about doing scenes like that is that all actors, I think, have a tiny little smidge of masochism in them, and they all just love doing scenes that seem dangerous.
They’re really good fun as long as you don’t have to do them every day. They’re really good fun because they’re quite hard work to do, but they’re challenging and they’re fun. So no, I wasn’t dreading it. I’m weird.
AF: When it came to the casting of Madison Thompson to play Erin Pierce, your character’s daughter, did you read with any potential casting choices?
McTeer: No, I did not. I had absolute faith that they would find the right person and they did. She was wonderful to work with.
AF: Helen seems to be at the top of her game for much of season two, but this year we realize her family unit isn’t in the shape that she would like. Talk about playing those scenes with Madison and how Helen compartmentalizes the business of lining up murders, moving all this money, and then having a teenage daughter that she’s just not connecting with.
McTeer: Well, I think when I first read season three, that was my biggest kind of worry. As much as I was thinking, “How can you still be scary Helen if you’re also playing a mom?” So we see into her private life, and then I realized that maybe that was something I could try and use to my advantage. If you think about the most nurturing, kindly, lovely, warm, safe place to be, it’s probably with your mom. So, mothers in general signify that and that’s what we instinctively think when we see mothers depicted onscreen.
I thought of the idea of seeing Helen as a mother and then seeing her doing what she does with the drug cartel. I thought if I could compartmentalize those things it might make her even scarier in a way that viewers would ask, “How can a woman do that and then go to work and do that?”
I also love the idea that somebody who was so in control in her work life could be, as any parent is, out of control when you have a teenager or a late teenager. And I love the idea of seeing her out of control in the way absolutely anybody is who has a teenager. I thought that was a really fun contrast to play, and try to keep the tension between those two things.
AF: The Ozark writers manages to inject humor into the most serious and dark scenes. This season we’re gifted with the Byrde’s therapist, Sue Shelby (Marylouise Burke). How did you enjoy “closing the book” on that character?
McTeer: Marylouise is just such a delight and she’s so funny. When you go to set, it is often just you, the actors, the director, and perhaps the DP to watch you rehearse. Then, when you feel like you’ve got the scene and everybody knows what they’re going to do, then you call in the heads of department and everybody else who needs to come watch you run through the scene in order.
So, there’s probably forty people on the set, all watching as you do the scene, and they’re always very professional. It’s very quiet when you run the scene and we were two-thirds of the way through the scene that I have with Marylouise, and I couldn’t hold it any longer and I just burst out laughing because she’s just so funny.
Behind me, the entire crew burst out laughing because they were trying so hard not to laugh because they were trying to be so professional. She’s just delightful and so funny, she can’t help it. I loved working with her.
AF: That scene was incredible on all fronts.
McTeer: I think it’s at the end of a scene when she asks about the money and I say something like, “Oh, don’t worry, I’ll make sure you’re taken care of.” My brother-in-law texted me and said that if you ever say to me, “I’ll make sure you’re taking care of,” I am moving out of the country!
AF: That’s fantastic. I would say, the most emotionally charged scene this season was when it seemed like you were connecting with your daughter in the yard and Ben (Tom Pelphrey) shows up and has a manic episode that reveals your work with the cartel. You’re mostly reacting in that scene, but you’re giving so much to Tom in that scene.
Janet McTeer: Well, I think that’s what you do all the time, hopefully, whether it’s something massive or whether it’s something small to do. The object lesson is always to be focused on the other person not focused on yourself, because that’s what we do in real life. Often you’ll focus on the person you’re talking to, rather than thinking about yourself. And I think certainly with a scene like that, when an actor has to do something really hard, like he had to, to maintain that level of tension, you just try and be as present as possible in order for them to give as much as possible.
That’s just what you do and they would do it for you… it’s always delightful as well, because when you watch somebody being really great it’s just easy. So he’s easy to act opposite to, because you don’t have to pretend anything.
AF: Was that something that evolved from how you expected on the page?
McTeer: Well, I think it was really about how violent he was going to get and we had rehearsed that. We’d rather rehearse where the spectrum of where that might be, and then when we shot it, of course, we shot all of his stuff first.
Because you want that intensity to be fresh and you want them to do whatever they have to do first so that by the time they come and shoot your way, if they’re exhausted, or if they’ve had to scream or shout or sob or whatever — they can give you an approximation of it, but they don’t have to do it full out fifty times.
You only ask them to do it twenty-five times when the camera is on them, because then you’ve got an approximation of what they’re doing. Even if they’re doing it just 75%, you don’t want them to wear themselves out. Overall, it was an easy scene to shoot because he was so great.
AF: The confrontation between Skylar Gaertner’s Jonah Byrde and Janet in the finale episode was quite intense. We had a chance to look at that script, and it seems like there was more to Helen’s disappearance offscreen in the episode than was on the page. Was that something that came alive onset?
Janet McTeer: I think the idea was to dissolve it as quickly as possible. And you know, that if you move really silently and really quietly, you won’t scare the person with the gun and they won’t shoot you. It was as simple as that, really.
AF: There’s a wonderful flash in your eyes. I don’t know if it was just as a fan watching it, but it felt that she might have a different ending in mind for Jonah.
Janet McTeer: Oh, I think probably she’s buying herself some time because as far as she’s concerned, he’s still a child… she’s not totally evil. I think she’s probably thinking alright, how are we going to handle this once this is over? Even though it is a dangerous moment, he is still a child and hurting a child is a bit much because there’s some roads you just can’t recover from… even for Helen.
AF: In that scene, when you were blocking it and you’re on your heels backing up, what was that process like working with Skylar?
Janet McTeer: When we shot it I remember rehearsing it for quite a long time. We rehearsed it a couple of days before so that we knew the sections and how it was going to happen. I wanted to make it as easy as possible for him because I don’t think it’s easy for a kid to wield a gun and to be scared and real all at the same time.
Luckily, Skylar is really instinctive and a very good actor that’s comfortable with everybody on the set.
AF: Ozark has had a lot of great directors, including Emmy winning director Jason Bateman. Each season starts with Jason directing the first two episodes. What’s it like when you’re in a scene with Jason and he’s also directing?
Janet McTeer: Jason is incredibly well prepared, he grew up in this business and he knows every single side of the business inside and out. Jason runs a very professional and a very pleasant set. There are no bad manners, there’s no bad attitude… it’s just very focused and very “Let’s get this done.”
Not to say that we can’t have a laugh, and if it’s appropriate to have it, we have a giggle. Unless something changes radically in rehearsal, he knows what he wants to do with the scene. He knows where all the characters are and he has this extraordinary memory.
Jason shoots very economically so you know that the shots he’s got are the shots that he needs, which means you’re not going to do twenty-two hour days, which believe me can get really old very quickly.
AF: There’s a wonderful tradition in England that allows actors to go back and forth between theater and television and film. How important has that relationship been to you? Is there one discipline that is more difficult than another or does one inform the work that you’re doing?
McTeer: I think they all inform each other. Absolutely, without a shadow of a doubt. I think that the craft of creating a character and how a character moves, how a character talks, the dynamics of a character, how they think, what they think about life, what they think about what they do for a living, what they think about their family…. I think all of those kinds of questions are questions that are universal in any medium, whether it’s film or television.
I personally learned those in drama school and I think drama school is just really key. I personally do because I just feel like if you learn your craft, it gives you freedom. It gives you freedom to make choices and it gives you freedom because you know what you’re doing, and you know why you’re doing it.
I think if I was only working in film or television all the time, that it would rob me of a certain amount of depth. There’s a certain amount of depth that you get when you work in the theater because you’re doing the same role for weeks at a time. So hopefully every time you’re in the theater, your character is getting deeper and deeper and more rounded.
Byron Burton also contributed to this article.