Up-and-Comer of the Month: ‘Ozark’ Star Tom Pelphrey

     April 4, 2020

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The third season of Ozark premiered on Netflix last week, and to say the show returned with a vengeance would be an understatement. Following a second season that many fans found to be a little too bleak, Ozark Season 3 soared to new heights thanks to an engaging story and a renewed sense of purpose. The show’s’ biggest asset has always been its cast, and this season is no different. Laura Linney does Emmy-worthy work as Wendy Byrde, and so does the newest member of the Ozark family — Tom Pelphrey as Wendy’s bipolar brother Ben Davis.

Pelphrey makes his presence felt from his very first scene, when he gathers his students’ phones and then dumps them into a shredder before attacking the school landscaper in full view of his classroom. By the end of the season, I felt he was the lightning bolt this show needed — a wild card whose loyalty was never clear, if only because his mind was never clear. Pelphrey’s performance is absolutely devastating, and I admired the innocence he brought to the character of Ben, who’s initially in the dark regarding the family business.

Pelphrey has been around for more than a decade, and yet somehow, I’ve managed to avoid his work. I didn’t watch Iron Fist or Banshee, and there aren’t many notable features on his resume, but that’s about to change. The New Jersey-born actor has a key supporting role in David Fincher‘s Mank, which chronicles Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz‘s clashes with director-star Orson Welles during the making of that film. Pelphrey plays Mankiewicz’s brother, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who went on to win consecutive writing and directing Oscars for A Letter to Three Wives and All About Eve. It’s a supporting role opposite Gary Oldman, so between that film and Ozark, the sky will soon be the limit for the dashing New Jersey-born actor.

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Image via Netflix

Right now, Pelphrey is laying low up in the Catskills with his girlfriend and their two rescue dogs, but he won’t be able to lay low for long. His performance on Ozark is a true game-changer, and I suspect he’ll be flooded with offers once production resumes worldwide. As soon as Ben begins to spiral in the season’s later episodes, I knew Pelphrey deserved to be Collider’s Up-and-Comer of the Month for April. Get to know him below, and be sure to check out his fiery work on Ozark, because it’s really something special.

Collider: What sparked your passion for acting and made you want to get into this crazy business?

TOM PELPHREY: Well, for me, it was really having a very special man who was my teacher in high school (Howell High School in New Jersey). Growing up, I played sports and I was terrible at all of them. I wanted to try football but I had to wait for high school, and I did that for a few weeks and then I got hurt, so someone said I should audition for the play, which I did, but I didn’t think I could do well. And anyway, I got a little role and I met this amazing man named Steve Kazakoff.

It turned out that the public high school that I was going to had a performing arts program [the Fine and Performing Arts Center] that started the next year, so I auditioned for it and got in, and basically, that changed the course of my life. He was an incredible man, he was disciplined, he was scarier than the football coaches, he was very strict, and it made it feel important, what we were doing, something that perhaps, in different circumstances, maybe I wouldn’t have taken it seriously, He made it very serious and I think I really responded to that, and I responded to the discipline, and I think having him as a teacher kind of shaped the rest of my life. Once I was Kaz’s student, I knew what I wanted to do.

You got your start on soaps, right? Tell us about your big break.

PELPHREY: When I got out of college, I got a job on Guiding Light, a soap that was filming in New York at the time. I was on that show for two and a half years, and it was a great first job, and I learned a lot. Working in front of a camera for the first time, learning those things, and obviously getting paid, which didn’t hurt, was a great experience. I had a good role, we won some Emmys when I was there, and it was kind of like a miniature taste of a lot of different things. So I learned a lot, and then I left the show and have been working my way up, as you do as an actor, ever since then.

So how’d you land this role on Ozark? Tell me about the audition process.

PELPHREY: Alexa Fogel is the casting director for Ozark, and I go back with Alexa 15 years now. I remember the first time I read for Alexa Fogel was on Generation Kill, back in the day, and we’ve had a good relationship ever since then. And over the years, you don’t always book roles, but she’s always been a casting director i’ve really admired, and she has responded to my work, which is obviously something that you need when you’re a younger actor.

Alexa was the casting director who cast me on Banshee, and then I suppose when this role came up on Ozark, she felt like I would be a good fit, so she had me come in and read for it. I also felt like it was a good fit, and then a week or two later, I got a phone call that everybody was onboard with that, which was obviously pretty exciting. I watched the first two seasons of Ozark on my own and I love the show, so I was a big fan. I thought it was amazing. I love the world of the show and I love the humor, and I thought all the actors were great, so it was a pretty exciting job to get.

Did you have to read with Laura first?

PELPHREY: No, I didn’t. I just went in to see Alexa in the city, and she put me on tape, and then  I guess at some point Chris Mundy and Jason watched the tape and were onboard with it. I’m sure on some level it helped that Alexa has known me for as long as she has, so I didn’t completely come out of nowhere. But no, I didn’t get to meet Laura until I met her on set.

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Image via Netflix

Did you do any research or special preparation to play a character with bipolar disorder?

PELPHREY: I did, I found a really great book called An Unquiet Mind by Kay Jamison, and it’s sort of her memoir of being bipolar. It’s a very interesting story because when she was a young woman in college, she was studying mental health, and she actually is a doctor now, but at the time when she was writing the book in the late ’70s, she’s studying mental health and having all these mood fluctuations, and she didn’t understand what was happening even though her focus at the time was bipolar disorder. And a few of her colleagues sort of helped her realize that she actually was bipolar, and got her on the right medication. It’s and up-and-down thing, but the book itself is pretty incredible, because it’s this visceral, honest, heartbreaking memoir of this woman struggling with being bipolar, and how it has affected her family and her relationships and her education and her work life, and yet at the same time, she’s a doctor who understands what’s actually happening. So you’re living through the experience with her, almost as if you’re reading your journal, and at the same time, this doctor is telling you what is happening and why, and how different medications play with each other, and what happens if you don’t get enough sleep or you have too much stress, or if you mix it with alcohol.

So that book kind of became my bible, in terms of having a really good source of information that was also very alive. It wasn’t just a clinical description of what this disorder might be, it was all the medical information combined with someone’s actual story, and that was very helpful to understand how things might happen, and then figure out how to apply that to the script.

I liked how we gradually learned about Ben’s condition over the course of the season, because at first, you’re like, ‘what’s up with this guy?’

PELPHREY: I think the writers did a fuckin’ excellent job of laying out the whole season, and I thought it was very smart the way they revealed that over time.

I also wanted to add or clarify that, obviously, anybody with bipolar disorder, none of that disorder is taking place in a vacuum. Just like anything else going on with anyone dealing with any kind of mental illness, it’s going to be influenced by what’s happening around them and their stress levels, etc. I think it’s obvious, but what happens with Ben on the show is not just a result of bipolar disorder, but also a result of extremely insane circumstances coming to bear.

That’s a great point. Why do you think he stops taking his medication at one point?

PELPHREY: Well, to me, it was just so he could have sex, because a possible side effect of the medication is that you can’t have an erection, and given his feelings for Ruth, he felt humiliated and embarrassed that he couldn’t [perform].

Did you celebrate when you found out you won the role?

PELPHREY: I didn’t. I was pretty happy, but I think something that starts to happen naturally over time the longer you do this — if you’re going to be able to do it and maintain your sanity — is that the lows don’t feel quite as low, and the highs don’t feel quite as high. So there was a bit of that, but I was also very excited. There was also the feeling of like, ‘this sounds like it’s going to be a big role on an incredible show, a show that I watch, and you have some of the best actors there are and excellent writing,’ so I was excited to have the job. But it was also like, ‘alright, I’d better get my ass to work, because you’re going to play on a very high level with a bunch of really talented people, and you’d better show up.’

Is it tough joining a show where the cast has been working together for a while, and suddenly you’re the new guy on set?

PELPHREY: Not there it wasn’t. Everybody was extremely, extremely kind and welcoming, and within a few weeks, I felt like I had been there with them from the beginning. That set, the Ozark set, is a very special place, and I think that was curated on purpose by Jason Bateman and Chris Mundy and certainly Laura Linney. The energy on that set is very calm, very respectful, extremely supportive of everyone, and all of the crew feels very equal and safe. So to be a new person walking into what could’ve been an intimidating environment never felt like that. It very much felt like home. Everyone was very welcoming, including the crew, and I’ve been in situations where it did not feel like that. But with Ozark, it was very welcoming, which goes a long way towards freeing you up to do your best work.

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Image via Netflix

You have some amazing moments with Laura Linney, particularly towards the end of the season. Can you talk about working with her and your final scenes together?

PELPHREY: It was just heaven. We shot the final four episodes as one block, so you’ll notice we had the same director for the last four episodes, a man named Alik Sakharov, who’s a beautiful director and a beautiful human being. So filming those scenes where it was just me and Laura sitting in the car at two in the morning, and you kind of have to pinch yourself, sitting in that van with some of the most beautiful writing, and getting to play a scene with Laura. Every take felt different, and I felt so free and so alive. I also happen to really love and adore her as a human being, and I remember literally saying to her out loud, “I could do this forever.” It was one of those moments where you kind of pinch yourself because it really doesn’t get much better than that.

Are there any actors you admire, or whose careers you’d like to emulate?

PELPHREY: Sean Penn. I love Joaquin Phoenix. My favorite as a kid was always Jack Nicholson. There are so many actors that I love. Philip Seymour Hoffman was somebody I really loved. I also do theater, and I think he was obviously a very special talent.

Are there any directors who you’re eager to work with?

PELPHREY: Yeah, there are a lot I’d love to work with. I recently got to work with [David] Fincher on Mank, and that was pretty fucking special. That was another surreal experience. I think that man is obviously a real master, and it was pretty damn cool to be on his set. The more you get to work with directors like Fincher and see their style and see what makes them them, it does make you more excited to work with some of these other directors whose work you love, like Paul Thomas Anderson. You want to work with these people and kind of see what the experience is, because on that level, the entire experience can be a different thing, because you’re working with a master.

In Mank, you play Herman’s brother Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the Oscar-winning director of All About Eve. How familiar were you with the Mankiewicz clan before you were cast in that movie?

PELPHREY: Not very familiar at all, but as luck or fate would have it, a few weeks before we started filming, a biography was released about Herman and Joe Mankiewicz, a very thick, pretty detailed biography. Obviously, I did research, and I got to see videos online of Joe, but to be able to read the book and have all of the information to fill in the gaps, as the book covers both of their lives, from the time that they’re boys on up, so that was a very useful resource.

I understand that David’s father wrote the screenplay, so Mank was was very personal for him. What were your impressions of the script?

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Image via Netflix

PELPHREY: Without saying too much, I think it’s a very, very, very intelligent script, which I’m not surprised by after getting a chance to know David. He’s a very intelligent man. I don’t want to say too much, but I thought that the script was very intelligent, and very good.

What was something that surprised you about working with David?

PELPHREY: His sense of humor. I thought his sense of humor was excellent. He’s a very funny guy. I don’t know if I was expecting something darker, but he has a wonderful sense of humor and that kind of surprised me.

With the whole country in quarantine at the moment, what are you up to and where are you hiding out? Are you alone or with family? How are you passing the time?

PELPHREY: I’m hiding out at my house. I live up in the Catskills mountains, and I’m up here with my girlfriend and our two dogs. Currently, at the moment, I’m parked on the side of a highway to talk to you, because at my house I don’t get cell service and I don’t get any fast Wi-Fi. But I’ve been up here for a while now, and unfortunately, at this time, it seems like the only thing we really can do is practice social distancing, so I’m trying to do that.

Is there anything you’ve seen or read lately that you’d recommend?

PELPHREY: It’s hard because I can’t really stream too much at my house because of the Wi-Fi.

I hope you have a good DVD collection!

PELPHREY: Well, I’ll tell you what, I’m being slowly introduced to Sex and the City for the first time, and I have to say, I actually like it. I’ve never seen the show before and I think it’d pretty funny and I think it’s pretty good.

What kind of dogs do you guys have?

PELPHREY: They’re both rescue dogs. Mine is a German Shepherd, and hers is… I don’t know. It apparently came from the streets of Egypt, but it’s not the kind of dog I’ve ever seen before. She’d had it for a few years and they get along good, which is a good thing.

Circling back to Ozark, where do you think Marty and Wendy go from here?

PELPHREY: I don’t know, man. I have a hard time seeing the path that they’re going down not ending terribly somehow. I’m not exactly sure how it goes, but it feels like in the best way, the show is having them play with something that could, at any second, get wildly out of their control. That’s why show works so well — because the tension always feels one move away from blowing up in their face. But given everything that happens, the future looks dark to me for them.

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Image via Netflix

Do you think next season will be the last, or do you think it’ll go beyond Season 4?

PELPHREY: I don’t know. I’m not really privy to that. Obviously, I think the show could run for a few more years if they wanted it to. I’m not sure what they’ll do, or what they feel like they have in terms of story, but I also get the feeling that they’re not going to do the show just to do the show. However many seasons they’re going to do, they’re only going to do them if they feel like they have a really good story to tell. It’s an excellent show, and that writer’s room is incredible. They do such a good job of keeping up the tension and keeping the humor there. It’s a perfect balance. I mean, there’s a reason everyone loves the show.

I know you didn’t play sports growing up, but are you a sports fan at all?

PELPHREY: Oh yeah.

Are you going through withdrawals right now?

PELPHREY: Not really, because the sport I’m the craziest about is football, and I’m fucking obsessed with the New York Giants, so I’m on the regular schedule of having to miss them for a while even though they were pretty bad. What about you?

I’m a Patriots fan, so I’ll tell you, Eli Manning is looking pretty good to me right now.

PELPHREY: I bet you wish you had him in 2008 and 2011 as well!

Believe me, I don’t hear the end of it from my Giants fan friends here in LA.

PELPHREY: You have to give it to us, because in every other way, the Patriots have completely dominated.

I do give it to you, and you guys deserve the credit. Before I let you go though, I know the production stoppage has thrown everyone’s schedule into disarray, but do you have anything lined up when production does resume?

PELPHREY: No, everything has stopped. There were talks of certain things, but everything was put on indefinite hold, and rightfully so. So at the moment, it’s all sort of ambiguous, and I think it’s pretty ambiguous for most people. Hopefully, we’re able to keep this thing under control.

Do you think this will all be over by, let’s say, your birthday at the end of July?

PELPHREY: Well, I don’t know if it will all be over, but I think it’ll be much better by the end of July. The worry is that just like viruses in the past, it’s possible that it could sort of recede in the summer, and that it could come back in the fall, so at this point, I think the thing that we really need is a vaccine. But of course, as of a month ago, that’s still probably 18 months out. At this point, who knows? I don’t know enough about it, and I don’t think anybody knows enough about it to predict, but I think the next two months are going to be a hard road. Just looking at these things on Twitter, what the doctors and the nurses are doing is fucking incredible. Can you imagine? That’s what you go to work to do everyday? It’s so fucking brave, and just incredible.

Absolutely, and we’re all grateful to them, but I think we’re also grateful to artists like you who are keeping us entertained through this period and offer folks a distraction from our current nightmare.

PELPHREY: Hey, anything to keep people inside and the fuck away from everybody else is a good thing right now, for sure. It’s a hard thing, but we have to do it.

Ozark is now streaming on Netflix. Mank will be released on Netflix later this year.

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