In Ozark’s third season, the Byrde family is expanding their casino empire and money laundering services for the Navarro cartel. A key part of their success and expansion belongs to Emmy winner Julia Garner’s Ruth Langmore.
In the season premiere, we find Ruth running the day to day “reputable” activities of the casino while also arranging cartel money drop-offs in various secluded locales. When Wendy (Laura Linney) has trouble securing an additional casino, Ruth organizes a slot machine scam to force the competitor’s casino to sell.
It seems there’s very little this shrewd businesswoman can’t accomplish. While things are going well for Ruth professionally, her personal life leaves much to be desired. Cousin Wyatt Langmore (Charlie Tahan), the person she’s closest to, refuses to see her or take any of her money.
Then enters Ben Davis (Tom Pelphrey), a kind, charming soul and brother to Wendy Byrde, who works his way into Ruth’s heart. Ruth lowers her armor and finds a meaningful connection with Ben. Unfortunately, he regresses into a bipolar state that threatens to take down everything she and the Byrdes have worked to build.
After a dark turn which we won’t spoil, Ruth questions her loyalty to the Byrde clan and ultimately decides to join cousin Wyatt at Darlene Snell’s (Lisa Emery) farm — trading one illegal business opportunity for another.
Awards Focus spoke to Garner about exploring Ruth’s vulnerabilities, the unscripted moment that made it into season three, and what’s driving Ruth as she joins Darlene Snell.
Awards Focus: Are you keeping in touch with any of your Ozark family during the quarantine?
Julia Garner: Charlie Tahan who plays Wyatt is like a little brother. He’s very close with my husband and I and we talk every other day. Sofia Hublitz who plays Charlotte, and Laura Linney and I are pretty much in contact with every single one of them including Chris Mundy, the showrunner, he’s an incredible human being.
AF: Were you working on anything prior to the shutdown?
Garner: Yeah, I was in the middle of a ten month production. We were actually five months in and everything shut down. Basically, I’m doing house projects, reading some scripts, a lot of phone interviews, Zoom interviews, Zoom panels. I actually found a packed suitcase from my time on the TV series Dirty John, which was almost two years ago. So I’m definitely taking this opportunity to get organized.
AF: Congratulations on your first look television deal at MRC. What are you and MRC’s Elise Henderson looking to develop in terms of material? Is there anything that you’ve read during the quarantine that you’re excited about?
Garner: Elise is such an amazing and talented woman. Obviously, I don’t want to bring a script to her and the team at MRC if it’s not great. I’ve been on the lookout for different stories. Eventually, I want to produce things that I’m also not in, but I feel like the first thing that I do, it would be good to be in as well. It’s all very exciting.
AF: Tom Pelphrey‘s work as Ben Davis is extraordinary this season. A lot of that is based on his scenes with Ruth. How exciting was it to work opposite Tom and explore a relationship for Ruth?
Garner: Tom did an amazing job this season. Before we started production started I called Chris Mundy to get Tom’s number so we could get together, I didn’t want to meet him on set. I felt right away that it was going to be very comfortable and not at all awkward.
This season, my fear was what if Ruth is too sensitive? What if she’s all of a sudden so vulnerable just because a guy comes in, I didn’t want it to seem like her character changes because some man comes into her life. It wasn’t written like that, but I was worried that if I didn’t play it right, then the character was going to seem lesser.
I had to plan out how long she was going to have her wall up with Ben, to the point where eventually she lets him in on her terms. I had to build that wall and work around that wall. Eventually, the wall goes down and then you see for the first time that she’s vulnerable in front of someone.
Ruth’s the most sensitive character on the show, it’s just that the other characters don’t know how sensitive she really is. She’s been very careful about who sees the real Ruth and this is the first time that someone has gotten there.
AF: The character of Ben has a real volatility because of his condition, it makes him dangerous and ultimately leads Wendy to make a horrible choice. When you’re working opposite that kind of performance, when Tom is really going manic, do you find that the intensity elevates the scene for you?
Garner: Oh yeah, it’s a big help and it’s easy to point to Ben’s meltdown this season, but if you look back at our show most of our characters reach a point where they crack. It’s all in the writing because this is a very intense show.
You’re always going to have an alpha and a beta in a scene. The interesting thing is, the roles of the alpha and the beta can be very obvious in the script, but then you get to set, sometimes those roles switch.
AF: As Ruth, you really go toe-to-toe with everyone from oversized mobsters like Frank Jr., to the Marty and Wendy. You bring an intensity that raises everyone’s game in those confrontational scenes.
Garner: I’ll tell you something about that though. You shouldn’t be an actor if you don’t want to be a generous actor. If you’re just acting for yourself, that doesn’t sustain an audience. If you aren’t generous with another actor, then the show or the movie or the play, whatever it is, it’s not going to be great.
AF: Are there any moments from season three that evolved on the day of the shoot from the script?
Garner: Definitely the moment between Ruth and Wyatt at the Snell farm. In the scene, I say something about Ben and then I’m crying to him and we both start crying. Suddenly, we just looked at each other and out of nowhere we start laughing. That was a real moment that wasn’t in the script. I’m glad they used that take for the episode.
AF: Chris Mundy had said that the last four episodes of this season were blocked together to cut costs. What was that process like for you, shooting four episodes in that manner?
Garner: Oh my God, it was terrifying. You know what was really difficult? The first scene that I did was episode nine, but we hadn’t done anything from episode seven. So, you’re really trying to modulate the performance based on scenes you haven’t played. We went from episode nine to eight, then back to seven and finally ten.
It makes you focus on the script even more than you would because you can’t miss anything. When you know something’s going to be hard, you work harder on it.
AF: How important is rehearsal for you as an actor?
Garner: Personally, I like having rehearsal. The finale face-off with Wendy, Marty, and Ruth is one that we rehearsed for a lot longer. Rehearsal makes it easier, and you’re more focused because you know what your intention is for every line. It’s not going to be perfect but it means you don’t have to do as many takes.
AF: When Ruth breaks free from Marty’s operation, what is it that motivates her to go directly into another illegal operation with Darlene? Is there a family allegiance there? Is there an allegiance of sorts to Darlene for the damage that she does to Frank Jr.?
Garner: I think it’s a few things. I think her main motivation is to get Wyatt back, because that was her real rock and she lost him. That’s why she went with Ben in the first place. Those are two very different relationships, but Ben became a rock for her.
In the beginning of the season, Ruth wants to be a Byrd so bad. Even when she meets Ben there’s no real interest in him. Then as soon as he says, “I’m Wendy’s brother,” she’s like, “Ding!” She wants to be closer to this family, but I don’t think she’s aware of it.
From that point, Ben grew on her and she slowly let her wall down. But I think why she lost her Langmore family is because of the Byrdes. She picked the Byrdes over her own blood, over her own kin, and then she realizes that the Byrdes don’t have her back. That broke Ruth.
AF: Talking about the character of Darlene Snell (Lisa Emery), do you think Darlene could be a version of Ruth many years down the road? What effect do you think Darlene’s leadership will have on Ruth and Wyatt, and do you see a way back for Ruth into Marty and Wendy’s life?
Garner: I think Ruth is the most sensitive character on the show, and she’s the underdog. You always root for the underdog. I also think Ruth is more sensitive than Darlene. I think that’s the only thing that separates the two characters.
AF: How much does the past inform the future for Ruth?
Garner: I think the past reflects everything through her. Every role that I play, the past has something to do with it. I always try to think about the past, when I am developing a character. Everybody has that insecurity or some sort of trauma as a child, even if it’s not terrible trauma, but some sort of insecurity.
As an actor I try to lean into that and I think Ruth just wants to be acknowledged and loved. I don’t think she’s really ever been truly, and unconditionally loved prior to this season. I view the parts that I play as people.
I’m not developing the character so much as I’m trying to get to know the person. You don’t have to like the person that I’m playing, but I want you to look at them and watch them and try to at least understand them and why they’re that way.