“Every now and then you get writing that you just can’t wait to say,” says actor Tom Pelphrey of Netflix’s Emmy nominated drama. “The writing in Ozark doesn’t feel like you have to muscle it, it doesn’t feel like you have to build or add to it. You show up prepared and then you play with it.”
In Ozark’s third season, the Byrde family is expanding their casino empire and strengthening their ties with the Navarro Cartel. As usual, their plans are met with numerous complications, from a surprise FBI audit led by Special Agent Maya Miller (Jessica Frances Dukes) to the unannounced visit of Wendy’s (Laura Linney) bipolar brother, Ben.
Actor Tom Pelphrey perfectly embodies the tragic complexities of Ben Davis, the good-natured and quick-tempered brother who struggles with finding his place in the Byrde family. Ben slowly unravels throughout the season, choosing to give up his bipolar medication for side-effect-free intimacy with girlfriend Ruth Langmore (Julia Garner).
Pelphrey is a rising star in cinema and television, having just shot a key supporting role in David Fincher’s Mank. The film that chronicles Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz’s (Gary Oldman) clashes with director-star Orson Welles. Pelphrey plays Mankiewicz’s brother, Joseph L. Mankiewicz.
Awards Focus spoke with Pelphrey about landing the Ozark role, the evolution of his scenes with Laura Linney and Julia Garner, and how he approached the nearly five minute taxi cab monologue.
Awards Focus: I’m curious what material you were given in the audition for the character of Ben Davis?
Tom Pelfrey: There were two sides in the audition that were fairly innocuous. I think they were both from episode two… I remember doing Ben meeting Ruth for the first time in the casino. There wasn’t anything about his condition at that point.
AF: I know you read An Unquiet Mind and delved into a lot of research regarding bipolar disorder. Can you talk about your approach?
Pelphrey: Once I got the role, Chris Mundy called me up and walked me through the entire season. He guided me through the arch of the events that would happen to the character and it was only in that conversation that I learned that Ben was bipolar. From that point, I read as much as I could to build the foundation.
AF: Ben’s choice to go off his bipolar medication seems to come from his inability to connect with Ruth in a physical way. Do you feel it was his own insecurity that drove him to do it, or perhaps a fear of losing Ruth?
I suppose one could argue with Ben’s medical history, it’s only a matter of time before he gets tired of feeling numb and goes rogue.
Pelphrey: I would imagine that it’s probably a combination of many things. I’m sure there is a feeling of insecurity and frustration that physically all the parts of the relationship are not in sync.
AF: In your mind when you created the character’s back story is this the first relationship he’d had in quite some time or did you see him being more of a serial dater?
Pelphrey: I imagine it would be the first relationship he’d had in sometime. Wendy alludes to it in episode six that Ben’s had girlfriends before who have loved him and unfortunately it never ends well.
Ben had been trying to have a clean start when he’s substitute teaching and then the chaos of the cell phone shaming scene really propels his bipolar into the forefront.
AF: I think everyone loved the cell phone scene. When you’re performing one of Ben’s manic episodes, talk about the energy requirement as a performer.
Pelphrey: You know you’re going to need a certain amount of stamina and then it’s just a matter of taking care of yourself. I made sure I was eating well, I made sure I was getting enough sleep at night. I knew that those scenes were coming so I wanted to be as prepared as possible.
The scene is two minutes long but of course it takes you about five hours to film it. As a professional, you understand that this is the job and you learn how to take care of yourself so that it never becomes an issue.
AF: It’s such a nuanced performance that you give, capturing a childlike quality to Ben when he’s really succumbed to his condition. Were there any moments where something evolved on the day of the shoot that maybe wasn’t on the page that took an unexpected turn in those scenes?
Pelphrey: Yeah,I feel like that was happening constantly especially with Laura (Linney) toward the end of the season. I felt that way with everybody but the way Laura would be vulnerable in certain scenes or the way that she would look at me with that sort of love or compassion and understanding… that really affected what I was doing and then the scene went off in the direction that I had not anticipated.
Similar things were happening with Julia (Garner) and that’s really the gift of working with actors who are that good. If you just show up and do what you’d imagined doing while at home working on the material, then it’s probably not going to be the most interesting version of the scene.
However, if you show up and you’re open to discoveries and you have amazing scene partners, then the scene becomes something more than anybody thought it could be… that’s when you are on to something.
That’s how you access your best work because it’s a real collaboration, it’s alive in the moment. Everyone is surprised and really listening and responding and that is why when you work with good actors you’re always better. A good actor raises your game.
AF: Well said, I think you’re absolutely right there. Can you talk about that brilliant monologue in the cab? Did you take any liberties with the nearly five minute scene?
Pelphrey: I tried my best to be word perfect, the way I was trained as an actor in theatre is with the expectation that every sentence is word perfect.
Sometimes plays take years to write, and it’s always been my belief that the words are on the page for a reason. There are certain times or certain scenes where the director wants you to improvise and play with the words, but I truly thought that the writing for that taxi scene was impeccable.
Every now and then you get writing that you just can’t wait to say. I prepared for weeks ahead of time in terms of just running the lines so that I could feel free when I got to set and just play.
AF: While you’re delivering that cab speech, you’re dealing with a variety of complex emotions and there’s a sort of unpredictable nature to the performance… you don’t know when you are going to tear up or when the camera is going to catch that. Can you talk about that experience more?
Pelphrey: In my experience I’ve found that good writing holds many interpretations. As you’re performing, different things are popping and that’s the real pleasure of good writing, you are interacting with it. It doesn’t feel like you have to muscle it. It doesn’t feel like you have to build or add to, you show up prepared and then you play with it.
AF: What’s next on the horizon following the much deserved Ozark momentum?
Pelphrey: Right after filming Ozark I drove out to LA and I worked on Mank with Gary Oldman and David Fincher. That was another great project and a great experience. Right now, the future of everything is a big question mark. Right now, and rightfully so, everybody is focused about getting healthy and taking care of people and getting through this time.
AF: Is there anything you’d like for your fans to be aware of in terms of charities or good philanthropic organizations you work with?
Pelphrey: I’ve worked with different charities over the years and right now one of the organizations that I think is doing really good work is Humanity First. That’s an organization started by Andrew Jang. He’s someone that I really liked as a presidential candidate. Humanity First is trying to distribute money and access to resources to families who are struggling right now financially with everything that’s going on in the world.