'Ozark': Tom Pelphrey on Shaking Up Season 3 (Exclusive)
By Jennifer Drysdale
He's not a Byrde, not a Langmore and not a Snell, but he shakes up Ozark like none other.
Tom Pelphrey's Ben Davis joins the Netflix series for season 3, playing the brother of Laura Linney's Wendy Byrde. The character had previously been referenced in the series, with Wendy and her husband, Marty (Jason Bateman), discussing whether their son, Jonah (Skylar Gaertner) was "like" him -- but in what way was never clear.
The mysterious character made his first appearance this season in a scene showing him as a substitute teacher who explodes on his class, throwing their cell phones into a woodchipper. Clearly, something was "off" with Ben, though it wasn't clear what until the season progressed.
It was later revealed that Ben has bipolar disorder, and that he wasn't taking his medication. His visit to the Byrdes saw him developing a relationship with Ruth Langmore (Julia Garner), learning about his family's criminal enterprise, and eventually putting his own life in danger as he told the teenage daughter of the Byrdes' lawyer, Helen Pierce (Janet McTeer), that her mother worked for a Mexican drug lord. All that led to a tragic ending for Ben amid an already insane season. Pelphrey's dynamic performance grounded the season -- and then blew it all up.
The New Jersey-born actor was a fan of Ozark before signing on to the series. He binged the first two seasons "in about a week" and was immediately in love. "I was like, 'What f**king show is this? This is amazing!'" Pelphrey tells ET. "I really loved the world of it, all the anxiety and the violence and the surprises. And yet, I was laughing the entire time as well. I think that's a very hard balance to strike."
The actor couldn't have been more excited to be called in to audition for the role of Wendy's younger brother. "The things I got to do with this character is kind of every actor's dream," he explains -- but notes he actually didn't know about Ben's incredible arc (or that he was bipolar) until after he had been cast.
In a candid interview with ET, Pelphrey opens up about stepping inside Ben's complicated mind, reveals his favorite scene, and jokes about how the Ozark set has "ruined" him for life.
ET: Ben goes through so much this season. When did you find out the full extent of what he'd be going through?
Tom Pelphrey: I didn't know much at all when I went in for the audition. The audition scenes were fairly innocuous… they didn't give much away. They certainly didn't give away where the character and the arc would be going.
It wasn't until I got down to Georgia to start filming, and a few before my first day of work, Chris Mundy, the showrunner, called me and sort of walked me through what this season would be, what the arc of the season was. He told me that Ben has bipolar disorder, so I thankfully got all that information before we started so I could go and do research and prepare myself and understand where things were going. So, I knew how to play things out.
How incredible to be cast for such a complicated character without auditioning some of those intense scenes.
It's incredible. The things I got to do with this character is kind of every actor's dream. I think it's also a testament to -- I've known [Ozark casting director] Alexa Fogel now for 15 years. She's been keeping an eye on my career, she knows what I'm capable of doing. If they know where it's going to go, and she's saying, "He can do that," obviously that helps.
It's like the great advice I got when I was younger, "It's a marathon and not a sprint." You never know how these things work out over time, and how the information it's giving is going to play out. But certainly this was a very special and amazing opportunity for me. And I'm grateful for it.
Once you did find out Ben was bipolar, did you do any research? How did you prepare to play that aspect of him?
I started looking into it, and the book I found to be most helpful for me -- there's a book called An Unquiet Mind. It's written by a woman called Kay Jamison, and it was written in the '70s, and it's kind of her autobiography about living with bipolar. It's very personal, very honest, very visceral. Her writing is very vulnerable, and she talks about when the early onset of what bipolar disorder was, and what it felt like to go through it. The book is actually this insanely useful information. I had a lot of the book underlined and… it was very helpful for me to try and understand how this might play out.
Now given that, it's also the circumstances of what's happening and in Ozark in that season are insane. I would argue any human being put in that situation would have a very, very, very difficult time, regardless. (Laughs) So, there's that too.
You did a lot of work with Julia Garner this season. Your characters brought such a fun balance to the show. What was it like working with her?
It was great. She's a blast. Julia has a great sense of humor, and she reached out to me when I first got on the show and was very friendly and welcoming. We got along well and laughed a lot, and it was good because some of the scenes are intense and vulnerable, so it was good to have a friendship to dispel any tension.
Obviously, Julia's incredibly talented, and one, it was exciting to have the friendship there and the safety, but two, you always want to be working with the best actors possible because they make you better.
Laura Linney has talked a lot about how the Ozark cast has really become a family -- there's such a camaraderie between them. Did you feel that on set?
Yeah, I did feel that. That set is truly, in my experience, a very special place. That set is almost magical. As I kept telling them all, I think they've ruined me for life (Laughs). That set is very supportive, very respectful. The cast and the crew, everybody treats each other the same. There's no arguing, there's no drama, there's no tension.
I was really inspired by the atmosphere they've cultivated there. And a lot of that speaks to Jason Bateman's character, Chris Mundy's character and Laura Linney's character, because that type of atmosphere really does come from the top down. As soon as I got there, Laura pulled me into a hug and started talking to me and made me feel like we had been friends for years.
Even though this is an actress that I've looked up to for a long time -- I've seen all of her movies, I've seen her in TV shows -- she put that all aside immediately by making me feel very safe and very welcome. She's just a very special lady. She's obviously very talented as well, but she was extremely generous with me, extremely kind, and all of those invisible things go a long way to making it easy to do your best work. Because a lot of that stuff is so vulnerable, it is so helpful to feel safe, that you're supported, that you're loved, that you're in good hands and the people you're working with want you to succeed.
That's a credit to them. That's a special place, that set. There's really good people there.
Your scenes with Laura toward the end of the season are just heartbreaking -- as are Ben's final episodes, as he tries to fix what he's done, but just can't. Was there a scene or a moment that will stick with you?
God, there's many that I really loved. One of the scenes I really loved is towards the end, sitting in the minivan with Laura in the parking lot. Just like, filming that scene kind of late at night, it's two in the morning, sitting in a minivan with Laura Linney, getting to play that scene over and over again and each take felt different and alive and really wonderful.
There's so many beautiful scenes, but I thought in particular that scene -- I remember loving filming it. And I also thought the writing in that scene was poetic, it was really beautiful.
You performed such a range with Ben. It was incredible to watch, but was this role a challenge to you? How did you destress and calm yourself back down after some of those scenes?
Yeah, it's strange. It does start to take an effect. On some level, I don't think your body really knows the difference, so it does become a matter of making sure you're taking good care of yourself. And partly just like an athlete or something, you have to make sure you're not breaking down or getting sick, because you do still have more work to do. So for me, I was doing a lot of yoga down there, I was making sure I exercised and got out some stress and got enough sleep and took my dog for walks and to the park when I wasn't working.
At a certain point, it is just a lot of energy to expend, and it's your responsibility, because it's your job, to make sure you're taking care of yourself so you have enough energy to get through it.
By the end, I remember being in the trailer with Laura and some other people and just all of us saying we felt like we were physically falling apart. (Laughs) We all wanted to sleep for. like, a month when we got to the end of the season. I felt so relieved, because I felt like my body was falling apart, but I didn't want to say anything about it. And Laura's like, "Are you kidding me? I've got this, I've got that." And I was like, "OK, I feel better." (Laughs) "It's not just me!"