Jason Bateman Embraces His Darker Side In 'Ozark'

Apr 14, 2020
Originally published on May 6, 2020 9:54 am
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Jason Bateman stars in the Netflix series "Ozark." The third season has just been released - perfect timing for streaming while you're isolating at home. He was also in the first two episodes of HBO's recent adaptation of the Stephen King novel "The Outsider" and directed those episodes, too. In "Arrested Development," he played the level-headed son Michael Bluth. His films include "Juno," "Bad Words," "Identity Theft" and "Horrible Bosses." Bateman's career started when he was around 10. He was the son in "Little House On The Prairie" and the wiseguy best friend in the sitcom "Silver Spoons." When he was 18, he became the youngest member of the Directors Guild of America.

In "Ozark," he plays Marty Byrde, a financial adviser in Chicago who's also an expert money launderer for the second largest Mexican drug cartel. What he didn't know was that his business partner was skimming millions from the operation. When the cartel leader finds out, he executes the partner while Marty watches on his knees. As the cartel leader turns and points his gun at Marty, Marty talks his way out of being killed. He suggests that they move their money laundering operation to the Ozarks in Missouri, where they'll be out of view from federal investigators who are focusing on Chicago. Marty promises they'll make even more money there. Marty and his family move to the Ozarks, where he and his wife start targeting businesses to buy that are good for money laundering while doing their best to protect themselves and their two children. But as they get deeper into the criminal world, they become involved with more and more violence.

In the opening of the second season, the episode for which Bateman won an Emmy for directing, they witness a murder that helped solve a problem between the local heroin ring and the cartel. They're shocked and terrified by this unexpected brutal killing. But they also know the murder has gotten them out of harm's way, at least for the moment. In this scene, Marty and his wife, played by Laura Linney, are talking over what they just witnessed and its possible consequences.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "OZARK ")

LAURA LINNEY: (As Wendy Byrde) Is that what we wanted?

JASON BATEMAN: (As Marty Byrde) We didn't want anything.

LINNEY: (As Wendy Byrde) So that's it? We go back in that house? We go to bed? We wake up in the morning? We kiss the kids?

BATEMAN: (As Marty Byrde) That's exactly what we do. We make the pancakes and ask the kids what's going on with school. And we just keep trying to figure out a way out of this, Wendy.

LINNEY: (As Wendy Byrde) We're responsible.

BATEMAN: (As Marty Byrde) What for?

LINNEY: (As Wendy Byrde) All of it.

BATEMAN: (As Marty Byrde) No, we're not.

LINNEY: (As Wendy Byrde) Another man is dead.

BATEMAN: (As Marty Byrde) Because of his choices. You know, he didn't have to try to cover up a murder - OK? - just like Darlene didn't have to kill Del in the first place or Russ and Boyd didn't have to decide to try to kill me or Mason. Should've stayed out on the water. Should've stayed on the [expletive] water. And, you know, people make choices, Wendy. Choices have consequences. You and I, we don't have to live under the weight of those decisions.

LINNEY: (As Wendy Byrde) At least admit it was good for us. If that man hadn't died, the casino would be dead. So would we.

BATEMAN: (As Marty Byrde) We got lucky.

GROSS: Jason Bateman, welcome to FRESH AIR. So before we talk about "Ozark," I just want to say, the release of the third season is really good timing for people at home who are looking for things to stream. It must be so odd for you to have it released when people are watching, basically forced to stay home.

BATEMAN: Yeah.

GROSS: It's, I'm sure, not the way you wanted people to watch your work.

BATEMAN: No. Well, I mean, were we a bubbly, light comedy, I would say, you know, it'd be a nice sort of respite. But this is sort of a dark, moody show. But maybe that's helpful, too, because at least people can think, well, I'm trapped in the house. It feels bad, but at least my life isn't as bad as these characters. And also, as far as the quality of the show goes, I mean, you know, we're very, very proud of it, for sure. But if you're like me, when you're trapped on an airplane, you've never seen a movie that was bad.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BATEMAN: You always love - you love anything you're watching if you're trapped. So I'm prone to deflection. But still, I'm taking all this praise with a big grain of salt.

GROSS: How are you, and how is your family?

BATEMAN: We're doing well. Thank you very much. I trust the same with you. It's - if you're like me, you're really overtaken with all of this grief and struggle and all the bravery of the health care workers. And I love trying to educate myself as much as possible about what's going on in every other area except our little Hollywood bubble. This is affecting all the economic areas, all the political areas, the health areas. It's just, obviously, a stunning global event.

GROSS: Are you teaching your kids at home?

BATEMAN: Yeah. That is not - I have even more respect than I ever had for second grade teachers. I'm trying to corral my 8-year-old daughter and get her excited about learning about ants and arachnopods (ph) or whatever the heck they are. I don't know. And I'm shocked at how terrible my math is, how bad my handwriting is. I mean, when's the last time you wrote anything in long form, you know? Everything is always - is typing. Like, I've forgotten how to draw cursive. And, I mean, it's - so I'm learning as well. My 13-year-old daughter is - her classes are much more online, and there's sort of that video kind of interface there. So she's much more self-sufficient. But I am a second grade teacher for the foreseeable future.

GROSS: In "Ozark," your character is a money launderer. And in the first season, there's a very concise explanation of how money laundering works. So I'm going to ask you to explain the basics kind of the way your character does on the show. And along with that, I'm going to ask you if your role in "Ozark" as a money launderer helped you understand how Paul Manafort laundered his money.

BATEMAN: (Laughter) This is why you get the big bucks, Terry, you know?

GROSS: (Laughter).

BATEMAN: You're not asking about - you know, this it isn't low-hanging fruit. Well, I'll qualify this answer by saying I don't do a lot of things well. But the few things I do do well, one of which is remembering lines - but also a good quality is forgetting lines. So my ability to upload is as quick as my ability to delete, so I've forgotten that particular line. But my general recollection is that money laundering is somewhat reliant on fake receipts. In other words, if you can present to whoever is watching that you did receive X amount, therefore, you can excuse this amount that is in your bank account kind of thing. So it's a shell game.

GROSS: So I want to get back to the scene that we opened with. And you directed that episode. You won an Emmy for directing it. In that scene, you're really rationalizing that you're kind of implicated, in a way, in this murder that you just witnessed with your wife that was, like, so upsetting. And I'm wondering about the difference between, like, acting in that scene and directing that scene. For instance, in that scene, your face has to register a lot of different emotion. You know, at first, you're really trying to convince your wife it's his fault that he's dead, that he's murdered. It's not on us. We're not responsible. And all these other deaths and all this other violence that happened, like, that's not on our hands either. It's, like, their fault.

And then when your wife kind of walks away, we're seeing your face. And your face is registering that you really are actually very troubled by all of this. But you can't deal with it. And you can't really admit it to yourself. So you're doing that as an actor. But then when you saw it as a director, when you actually were looking at the scene, is what you saw what you thought you were doing? Did you - you know, was what you saw what you hoped you were conveying?

BATEMAN: Yes. There's sort of a muscle that you kind of grow from doing a bunch of acting for a long time. You kind of develop an ability to observe yourself while you're actually still in it doing it. And that's one of the things that enables or allows me to be able to do the acting and the directing at the same time, I think. I hope. I mean, you'd have to ask other people if that muscle is any good. But I have a pretty good idea about whether I'm communicating what I'm hoping to. And if I kind of clank it, I'll kind of know it. And we'll just do another take. I won't check it.

GROSS: Do you feel that playing this role on "Ozark," which is a much darker role than people associate you with, is bringing out a darker side of you, getting in touch with stuff that you typically didn't get in touch with in the past for roles?

BATEMAN: I mean (laughter), not - I mean, I'm plenty dark. It's always been in there. I enjoy getting to unapologetically speak some of that and behave some of that through this character. But I've always tried to put a little bit of darkness or - I don't know if darkness is going to be the right word. But in the characters that I play, even in comedies, I'll rarely be the wacky guy.

I'll be mostly us. I'll try to be the somewhat tortured or unsettled Everyman or protagonist. And I like doing that because I'm us. I'm the proxy. I'm sort of the portal that the audience receives all the craziness. Whether it's an eccentric comedic character or a scary dramatic character, I'm the person that represents the audience. So when the camera goes to me, I'm reacting for you in the audience to keep it relatable.

GROSS: In Season 2 of "Ozark," the murder that you and your wife have witnessed, it's a really gruesome murder. Like, first, the guy who is killed is whacked over the head with a big piece of wood. And then, I guess it's, like, a fireplace poker is used to, like, stake him in the heart. It's pretty gruesome - not that graphic, really, but it's very upsetting for the characters. And it's very surprising. Is that the first time you've directed a scene like that? And I'm interested in hearing, like, how you thought through what to show and what to happen off-camera in the scene.

BATEMAN: Originally, it was written where that character would get shot in the head. And there was another character that got shot in the head in a room just around the corner from that room in another episode. And so I said to the writer, I said, you know, I'd love to come up with another way to kill this guy. And so I kind of gave it some thought and pitched to Chris Mundy, our head writer, our showrunner, you know, this idea. And I kind of walked him through, you know, how I would do it. And he's like, great, you know?

We have these fun conversations about all the deaths on the show. And I'd come up with these weird ideas. Some of them are - some of them work, some of them don't. But - so this particular one was as a result of what the set is there that he might not be aware of because he does the writing here in Los Angeles - but sort of put together all these elements that were right there in front of us.

And then I worked with the camera operator, Ben Semanoff, on how we would shoot it in such a way where it would feel like one take, where we would take the Steadicam and you do these sort of - these - what are these called? - these whip pans, where you turn the camera so quickly from left to right or right to left that you can actually put an edit, a cut in the middle there, because you're swinging the camera so fast that you - that can be your endpoint and your in point on the next piece.

So by having the camera kind of be like a head on a swivel, where you would - oh, my gosh, what's happening over there? Oh, my gosh, what's happening over there? - you could kind of build this singular take. That's kind of how that scene came together. And fortunately, it, you know, was done by a great crew.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Jason Bateman. He stars in the Netflix series "Ozark." The third season has started streaming. He's also on the first two episodes of the HBO series "The Outsider." We'll talk more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUDY ROYSTON'S "BED BOBBIN'")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Jason Bateman, who stars in the Netflix series "Ozark." He plays a financial adviser who's laundering money for the second-biggest Mexican cartel. He was also in the first two episodes of the HBO adaptation of Stephen King's novel "The Outsider" and was one of the series executive producers.

I want to ask you about "The Outsider." Let's hear a scene from it first. You play - you're a teacher. And you're the coach of the Little League team in a small town. A child is found not only murdered but mauled. And it's really a horrible, gruesome murder. There's evidence at the scene of the crime that you were there at the scene of the crime. At the same time, there's contradictory evidence that you were 70 miles away at a conference at the time of the crime. And so these two things are irreconcilable. How can you be in two places at once? The detective on the case, Ralph Anderson, which is Ben Mendelsohn's character in the series, he's pretty sure you're guilty.

And because he lost his son a few years ago and is still mourning his son, the fact that he believes that you killed a child is just - it's just an unimaginable crime to him. So he's particularly upset with you also because you coached his son on the Little League team. And so he demands to know if you ever touched his son. And then later, when he's questioning you right before your arraignment, you bring that up, about his question - did you ever touch his son? And here's what you say.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE OUTSIDER")

BATEMAN: (As Terry Maitland) In all the years I've been coaching Little League, your son Derek was the best drag bunter I ever had. And he was just a little guy. You know, he was very small - smallest kid on the team. But he had a lot of guts. He was never afraid to crowd the plate, even if there was some great big eighth-grader throwing heat. And most kids that short, you just count on them for walks. That's all you can expect. But he wasn't having that. He just kept swinging and striking out. And the kids even started calling him the whiffer (ph) secretly. They called him whiffer. I asked them to stop, but they're 12 and 11. Only time he got on base was when he got hit by a pitch, so tough to blame them.

But when I saw that he wasn't going to quit, he was going to just keep swinging and striking out, I taught him how to bunt. And not a lot of kids like to do that. They're afraid they'd drop that bat over the plate, fastball comes in, they get their fingers smashed. But not him. He never flinched, not once. And he flew down that first baseline. You remember how many bunt singles he got? A lot more than I expected. But those kids stopped calling him whiffer, and they started calling him push it, right? He'd come up to the plate. Runners on the corners. And they'd start saying, push it, Derek. Push it. So he had a new handle that year when we almost won district.

You must've noticed a difference in him, right? Did you notice that that summer, how confident he was, how proud he was? He was a big little guy. And, you know, I don't want you to get the wrong impression. He practiced a lot. But I taught him that. I taught him how to bunt. So when you asked me if I ever touch your kid, well, I really hope I did.

GROSS: Jason Bateman in a scene from HBO's "The Outsider." Oh, you're so good in that.

(LAUGHTER)

BATEMAN: Thank you.

GROSS: Yeah. So this is a adaptation of a Stephen King novel. Richard Price did the adaptation. Richard Price is - he's such a good writer. I mean, he wrote for "The Wire," and he's written some great novels. He wrote the movie "Clockers." Part of what makes "The Outsider" interesting is you have this kind of supernatural element from Stephen King, and then Richard Price brings much more of a, you know, detective noir aspect to it. So you have two genres coming together in it. And how did you try to express that as the director, to bring those two genres together?

BATEMAN: Well, I think they're mutually beneficial. The procedural elements of the show, of the book, helped to ground the fantasy elements of it, the supernatural elements of it. And on the other side, the supernatural elements helped to keep some of the kind of linear procedural elements a bit more buoyant and interesting and compelling. So there's a directorial element to that, too, and what is the combination of those two polarities from a visual standpoint, from a musical standpoint, from a performance standpoint, an editorial standpoint. There - you're trying to constantly ground yet get weird all the time. You're trying to find the right ratio in each scene. So that's the overall basic challenge that I was really excited about with this.

GROSS: Your father was a director and writer. Did you watch a lot of movies with him when you were growing up? And did he talk with you about what made a movie good or bad? And did he give you advice about things to look for in the film?

BATEMAN: Yeah, that's actually exactly what he did, and that's the reason I love doing what I do. Some fathers may take their sons to a park and teach them how to throw the ball, but - my dad did some of that, but what he did more was take me to some art house, you know, movies and show me what's good, what's bad and why and what acting is and what directing is. And so I got very, very interested in that.

And then when I had an opportunity to become an actor, just starting out doing commercials, I jumped at it. And once I was on a set, I started asking questions and watching crew members work to create kind of this fake life. You know, it's said often, but it's true, this - sort of this magic trick and what the different elements are to keep that ball in the air and how difficult it is to keep that in the air and for it not to fall. It's sneaky complicated just to make something look normal, and I love that.

GROSS: Jason Bateman, thank you so much for talking with us. Please stay well. My best wishes to you and to your family.

BATEMAN: Thank you, Terry. Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Jason Bateman stars in the series "Ozark." Season 3 is streaming on Netflix.

After we take a short break, we'll remember a mother of the gay rights movement, Phyllis Lyon. She died Thursday at the age of 95. She co-founded the first national lesbian group in the U.S., the Daughters of Bilitis. We'll listen back to a 1992 interview. And film critic Justin Chang will recommend some movies to stream at home. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAYLOR HASKINS' "ALBERTO BALSALM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.