“A lot of people battle to be good when they know they have those bad things inside of them,” Jessica Frances Dukes says of her character on Netflix’s Emmy nominated drama.
In Ozark’s third season, the Byrde family is focused on expanding their casino empire and strengthening their ties with the Navarro Cartel. Unfortunately, Wendy Byrde’s (Laura Linney) decision to add a second casino triggers an FBI audit, led by Special Agent Maya Miller (Jessica Frances Dukes).
Dukes is a rising star thanks to her incredible Off-Broadway performance in By The Way, Meet Vera Stark. Dukes’ prior work and stellar audition impressed Ozark casting director Alexa Fogel, who has consistently funneled incredible theater talent into Atlanta-Georgia-shot series.
As Special Agent Maya Miller, Dukes inserts herself into Marty Byrde’s (Jason Bateman) life, watching him like a hawk. In a surprise move, Marty tells the head of the cartel that he can turn the FBI agent to their side, allowing them to operate freely from law enforcement.
Navarro agrees to the plan and Marty spends the better half of the third season probing Miller, casually offering other potential fraud cases that she could easily prosecute and advance her career. Miller, a soon to be mother in the series, unfortunately doesn’t budge on her morals and Marty’s plan is left with a big question mark.
Awards Focus spoke with Dukes about her process as an actor, her surprising love of guest star REO Speedwagon, and whether she thinks her virtuous character might crack in Ozark’s upcoming final season.
Awards Focus: You’ve done a lot of theater in your career and By The Way, Meet Vera Stark was such a brilliant turn. What made that experience so remarkable for you?
Jessica Frances Dukes: You know it’s everything. By The Way, Meet Vera Stark was one of those amazing projects where you get to work with such talented people. It was a dream role and the story was certainly parallel to my own life at the time. The story of an actress who is five years into Hollywood and I was five years into NYC, struggling to get a part. This was the role that was going to put her on the map and Vera Stark was the role that did that for me.
AF: You’ve said that you were a big Ozark fan prior to joining the cast. When you got the audition, did your preparation change at all?
Frances Dukes: It doesn’t really effect my process, no. I give my everything to every audition I get. I remember being on a train a few weeks before the audition came in and I asked a group of actor friends, “Who are the top three actors you want to work with?” One of mine was Laura Linney and when I got the audition I’d just binged seasons one and two. It felt serendipitous.
AF: An interesting wrinkle to Special Agent Maya Miller is that she’s very pregnant, and Marty needs to win you over before she goes on pregnancy leave. What was it like with acting with the prosthetic?
Frances Dukes: I’ve been around a lot of women that were pregnant, especially women that were working all the way up to delivery. One of my favorite things about the pregnancy prosthetic was that it was weighted so it really helped having to hold it up and that informed me how I had to stand. Also I would never take off my heels in between takes so that I could really feel the pain in my feet.
AF: The backstory that Chris Mundy created for Maya Miller’s father — an embezzler that brought shame to the family — makes a lot of sense for who she is when we meet her. Can you share any ideas that you have on Maya’s past?
Frances Dukes: Well I think about someone who had to become an adult very quickly and what that means and how righteous she is because of the fact that she wants to do everything not to be bad in a certain sense.
The other thing is how Maya views her relationship with Marty. She believes that if she can appeal to the humanity in him, the good in him, she can help him get out of this situation with less horrific consequences for him and his family.
I think that her hunt to help Marty is what she wishes somebody would have done for her father. That was my little secret that I kept to myself as we were shooting.
AF: That’s a good secret. I like that she is so earnest. She even articulates that I’m not like the two other agents that you’ve had to deal with. You endow her with this charm.
Also, there’s clearly an element to their relationship that leads you to believe that she could maybe, just maybe be turned. How do you see that playing out?
Frances Dukes: We all have multiple sides to us and I think that some of us have to fight to be good, because of the reality of what exists within us. I think there’s a lot of things that happen when your life gets turned upside down at fifteen-years-old.
A lot of people battle to be good when they know they have those bad things inside of them. One of the things that I love about Maya is the line where she says, “You are asking me to be something that I am not at my core.” At the same time, her core is her family and if your family is criminal then technically your core is criminal too. So, it’s very complicated.
AF: With the character of Helen Pierce (Janet McTeer), she was only seen as the attorney in season two and this year we establish her family and gain more insight into her life.
I suspect that Chris Mundy will use the pregnancy to establish more of Maya’s family in the next season. Have you had any conversations or any idea about who might be coming into the picture?
Frances Dukes: I don’t know anything (laughs). I’m excited to see whatever happens, which is the beauty about Ozark and its cliffhangers.
AF: A great moment this season was the REO Speedwagon concert, specifically where Maya seems to have Marty ready to confess and take her deal.Then he’s whisked away and tortured in Mexico. That was so enthralling to watch, plus you’ve got great music in the background. Were you a fan of REO Speedwagon?
Frances Dukes: I really loved shooting that with the performance going on throughout the sequence! The band is so cool and who doesn’t love working with music legends? It was fun to see the rock stars be as giddy as I was to be on the set of Ozark.
AF: In the interrogation scenes when Maya is talking with Ruth (Julia Garner), does Julia drop her accent between takes or maintain the character?
Frances Dukes: Honestly, it would be like a flash and she’d be in and out of character. She’s amazing to watch and Julia is such a beautiful person, your mind gets jumbled a little bit when you see her as Ruth (laughs).
AF: Is there a particular standout moment that comes to mind when you think of this season?
Frances Dukes: It’s hard to answer that because it was every single moment, every second. Even when I wasn’t needed that day I was on set and I would watch just because I love these actors so much… our crew, the directors and every department that makes the show possible.