Jason Bateman Has a Dark Side

The ‘Arrested Development’ star shines as a money launderer fighting to survive in the Netflix series ‘Ozark.’ He opens up about his journey out of the darkness and into the light.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

“Are you a coke addict?” Jason Bateman asks me, in jest.

The two of us are huddled together in a dimly lit tavern just a stone’s throw from New York’s ground zero, and I’ve informed the boyish-faced actor that, to prep for our interview, I was made to binge-watch all 10 episodes of his new Netflix series, Ozark, in a matter of days.

“It’s not all it’s cracked up to be,” he adds. “No pun intended.”

These days, Bateman strikes the image of a man who’s got it all figured out; a paragon of poise under pressure. He’s a family man with a lovely wife, two kids, and a thriving career acting, producing, and directing. To many of his fans, he is also Michael Bluth, the besieged scion of a deliciously corrupt—and clueless—real-estate family that’s holding it all together by the thinnest of threads on cult favorite Arrested Development.

But in the ’90s and early Aughts, in between memorable television roles on The Hogan Family and Arrested, Bateman lost control. He drank. He drugged. He starred in forgettable made-for-TV films. “It was like Risky Business for 10 years,” he once said of his time in Hollywood purgatory. His longtime pal Jennifer Aniston, who met Bateman on a group ski outing in 1994, even recounted to Details how he was “pretty wild in those days,” but his dimples and innocent face made you think, “Oh, it’s OK that you just drove up the street backwards in a Range Rover with the door wide open.” That cocaine crack earlier? More wry self-deprecation than broad humor.  

“To be honest, I don’t know how much people think about me, period,” he tells me. “I think people maybe see me as someone they might be familiar with, and they’ve seen me in a couple of things, but I don’t think most people are aware that there was a period where I really enjoyed partying instead of working, and then I got a job that really allowed me a second shot and I didn’t throw it away, and I really tried to build on that new relevance and access. I really tried to keep that going so that, now that I’m an adult and need to provide for a family, I’ve got a job after the next one.” 

Bateman’s next job, of course, is the fifth season of Arrested Development. But it’s his turn as Marty Byrde, a Chicago financial adviser who must move his family to the Ozarks—after running afoul of a Mexican drug cartel, natch—that sees him really mine the depths of his soul.  

On paper, Ozark’s plot sounds positively bonkers. Created by Bill Dubuque (The Accountant), it sees Byrde, his adulterous wife Wendy (Laura Linney), and their two young children decamp from the Windy City to a remote town on the Lake of the Ozarks after Byrde’s business partner is caught skimming laundered cartel money. Byrde convinces the cartel middleman (Esai Morales) to spare his life in exchange for his establishing a new money-laundering operation in the unassuming Ozark town, far away from the feds. But the place turns out to be a rural nightmare straight out of Winter’s Bone, teeming with scavengers, wannabe mafiosos, and—wait for it—a murderous crime family that deals heroin in hollowed-out Bibles.

The Byrdes, in other words, find themselves in way, way over their heads.

“It was written before the Trump stuff,” explains Bateman, with the show filming from July to February. “But it’s convenient and unfortunate that it’s a little bit of a microcosm for what’s going on in the country right now—this assumption that you can misread what the middle of the country is all about. He thinks he can go down and big city these country folk, and they’re not to be messed with; it’s a big miscalculation that he makes. And we’re all living with that right now, with what went on in the election.”

In some ways, Bateman’s troubled past—and ultimate redemption—makes him the perfect actor to portray Marty Byrde, a man forced to repent for his sins, and who fights tooth and nail to be the decent husband and father his family once saw. It’s the latest in a string of darker characters for the gifted comedy actor, including his revenge-minded father in Disconnect, mischievous man-child in Bad Words, and callous bully at the center of The Gift.

“I haven’t been asked to show that side that was in The Gift. My wife’s seen it. She’s like, ‘Now everyone knows the guy I’m married to,’” he says, laughing. “We all have tons of sides to ourselves—half-dark and half-light. If I were to play the real dark, sinister side in other jobs, I wouldn’t be doing the right job for that character. So when it fits the project, I’ve got plenty in me that’s appropriate for that character. And I think that’s the case with Ozark. There’s plenty of me that is this guy, and that’s why I enjoy playing him.”

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Ozark largely succeeds thanks to Bateman and Linney’s remarkably compelling performances, navigating perhaps the knottiest small-screen marriage since Walter and Skyler White. And, though it falls victim to the occasional cliché, it’s also a triumph of atmosphere, with Dubuque and Bateman—who directed four of the 10 episodes, including the pilot—fully transporting viewers to its rustic carnival of horrors.

According to Bateman, the look and feel of the show was inspired by films like Winter’s Bone and Out of the Furnace, as well as the miniseries Top of the Lake.

“There’s atmosphere and dirt under the nails of this thing that was important to get, because that’s where we’re going to be satisfying for the audience. We don’t have any other bells or whistles. It’s gottta be feral and raw as its best attribute or it’s nothing,” says Bateman.

“Unfortunately, we couldn’t create enough pre-production time for me to direct all 10 episodes,” he continues. “I asked Cary Fukunaga [of True Detective], ‘How did you direct all eight? How did you create enough prep time?’ and he said, ‘I didn’t. We only had enough time to prep five of them, and we prepped the last three while we were shooting. It’s a nightmare. You shouldn’t.’ That was one of the big reasons I powered back and said, ‘I’ll just do the first two, hire some people to do the middle six, and I’ll do the last two.’”

As Marty inches closer and closer to his money-laundering mark, cajoling and conning townies left and right—from a virtuous preacher to a sleazy strip-club owner—he begins to ponder if any of this, this mercenary pursuit of the American dream, is worth it, or is all this desperate dealing only bringing him closer to damnation?

“He’s not as smart as he thought he was, and his decisions and his overestimation in his abilities to handle things have huge ramifications with the people that he loves—with his family, and with people that he respects,” says Bateman. “It’s fuckin’ sad when people get the memo where the word back is that you’re not that great. I’ve certainly gotten that memo a few times, and it’s only those memos that really demand that you dig down and fill those holes.”