Laura Linney: The Most Delightfully Dangerous Woman on TV
The “Ozark” star opens up about the dark third season of her hit Netflix series, entertaining folks at home during the pandemic, and more.
No one’s doing better work on TV than Laura Linney, whose turn as drug cartel-employed Wendy Byrde on Ozark is a thing of complex, scary, mesmerizing beauty. That’s on full, breathtaking display in the recently released third season of Netflix’s crime saga, which finds Wendy at odds with her husband Marty (Jason Bateman) over the best means of keeping both their Mexican underworld employers happy and their own family safe.
Marital strife has rarely been this thrilling, as Wendy and Marty’s antagonism over strategy thrusts them into thorny peril. In these perpetually harrowing circumstances, Linney once again balances motherly affection and ruthless scheming as a caught-between-two-states character still trying to figure out who she is—an identity-related process that most suspensefully, and heartbreakingly, comes to the fore via Wendy’s relationship with her mentally unstable brother Ben (Tom Pelphrey), whose sudden appearance in the Ozarks spells additional trouble for everyone and, unsurprisingly, ends well for no one.
Though Ozark may have begun as a project built around Jason Bateman (who had a hand in creating it, along with co-starring and directing), it’s now fully Linney’s show, as the 56-year-old actress has transformed Wendy into an entrancing three-dimensional figure, equal parts compassionate, calculating and lethal. The latest season is her finest hour (or 10 hours) to date, allowing her to delve even further into her protagonist’s stew of fear, ambition and self-interest in storylines involving the Byrdes’ contentious plans to expand their casino empire while simultaneously coping with potential threats from the cartel and their lawyer Helen Pierce (Janet McTeer), the Kansas City mob, and the always volatile Ruth Langmore (Julia Garner). All in all, it’s an under-siege role of remarkable depth, and even in a career that’s netted her four Primetime Emmys, two Golden Globes, four Tony nominations and three Oscar nods, it may be her most exceptional performance to date.
Thus, it only made sense that, in the aftermath of the new season’s debut, we chatted with the illustrious star of stage and screen about Wendy’s continued development, the show’s underlying political elements, and the secret to conveying sinister menace with a smile.
As with all interviews these days, I have to begin by asking: How are you doing during this global coronavirus crisis? And are you happy that Ozark got out the door now, so fans can at least enjoy it while being cooped up?
I’m happy that people have found some enjoyment in it during such a horrible, horrible time. This is stress and discomfort and confusion and disbelief and disorientation on a level that many of us have never experienced before. So I’m very happy if people are enjoying it, and if it’s helping at all.
With Season 3, Wendy continues to develop in unexpected ways, even as she keeps struggling to figure herself out. Do you feel like you’re getting a better beat on Wendy, or is she still someone who’s a bit mysterious—to herself, and to you?
Oh no, I’m learning about her every episode! When we first started doing the series, I had long talks with our wonderful showrunner Chris Mundy about what I felt was so compelling about the opportunity to do this series: that it deals with identity, and people who don’t really understand themselves or other people. For Wendy, she’s extremely reactive, and she’s incredibly emotionally immature, but she’s also very smart—and it’s a wild combination. There’s something like a primal instinct to her, which makes her move forward at a vicious rate. But I think she’s constantly surprised by her own actions as well.
One of the things I love most about your performance is the way you use pleasant smiles—and kind eyes—to demonstrate toughness and resolve, if not make outright threats. Is there a secret to conveying menace with pleasantness?
[Laughs] You know, I don’t know—that’s just something that developed over time. Feel free to give it a try, and see what happens!
The third season (especially during its first half) is marked by Wendy and Marty’s marital strife. Did that seem somewhat inevitable to you—and are all marriages, to some extent, defined by that power struggle, to assert control?
With Wendy and Marty, I think it’s also about when two people don’t know each other really well. They think they do; they think they’ve known each other really well, but they don’t. And their survival instincts go in very different directions. So you’re seeing people, or they’re intersecting at such a time, when they’re at the peak of their survival instincts and they want to go in different directions. It’s not just about their own politics within their marriage; it’s literally about how to stay alive. They both firmly believe that the only way to do it is their way. They’re exposing things about themselves at a very heightened point. Plus, they also don’t know themselves. It’s not just that they don’t know each other; they don’t who they are either, and they’re constantly sort of surprised by how their own human nature is developing.
Even with all that, as well as their life-and-death predicament, Wendy and Marty’s marriage has been remarkably resilient. What is it that’s keeping them together?
I think there’s shared experience, and they’re somewhat stuck together. They can only talk to each other about many, many, many things. And in some ways, they’re… I want to say they’re safe with each other, but maybe they’re not. [Laughs] I think they’ve had different lifetimes together. I think if they stopped and thought about the time they first got together, that’s a different lifetime and different people. It’s something they could probably never even relate to, but they hold that within themselves. They still have that. And I think they do love each other. I think they hate each other and love each other.
One of my favorite moments in season three is when Wendy breaks into the family’s old house, and tries—however momentarily—to recapture that feeling of the past she lost when Marty’s cartel trouble threw everything into disarray. Is it important to make sure you, and the show, hold onto that sense of the “old” Wendy?
I love that sequence. And yes, I think she misses that terribly, and didn’t realize how precious it was when she had it. The fact that she can never go back, and now there are other people who are having that life and it’s not her—she deals with it in a typically immature way! [Laughs] Shrewd and stealthy and effective, but she’s never been the most emotionally mature person.
Ozark initially seemed like it was going to focus on Marty, but I’d argue that over the past two seasons, it’s become a show about its female characters—Wendy, as well as Ruth, and Helen…
And Darlene! The squad of blondes on Ozark is a powerful group! [Laughs]
When you first signed on, did you see that potential for the series?
I think we all had hopes that it would be a well-balanced ensemble show, with Jason at the center. This is just how it’s evolved. I think some of that is also just the strength of the casting. You get Janet McTeer, you get Lisa Emery [as heroin bigwig Darlene Snell], you get Julia Garner, you get Sofia Hublitz [as Wendy’s teen daughter Charlotte]—you get all these wonderful women together, and the writers want to write for them. So I think it’s just evolved that way.
How is it working with such formidable actresses, especially on the type of crime saga that’s traditionally been about men?
It’s something that all of us, including Jason, are proud of. Also, Lisa and Janet and I are all theater actresses, so we understand each other in a way that’s just great. There’s a lot we don’t even have to talk about; you just show up and play ball. So there’s an inherent trust that goes with that. And all three of us are over fifty—that’s another unusual thing. So we all bring with us some experience, and we have such mutual respect for each other, that it’s really exciting to be able to go to work with likeminded people.
The show has always had subtle political undercurrents regarding a variety of topics. Does this foregrounding of powerful females—who are at least the equals of their male partners, and adversaries—also feel like part of that political lifeblood, to you?
I don’t know. I think that’s more of a question for Chris. But I certainly love that it’s there. I also love that whatever political highlights you might recognize, or which reverberate through, are never the reason the story has been written. It’s written about a family, first and foremost. It’s really centered there. At times, things with a real political agenda can hijack the richness of a story, and the human element takes a backseat to the more intellectual argument of politics. That’s not the case with our show. We don’t go into it every day thinking anything about politics, really. We just want to flesh out these characters as best we can, and tell the story in a rich and compelling way—visually and technically, as well as with the acting. But it [the political element] does reverberate through, I agree with you.
Speaking of politics, you’ve lent your voice to PBS’s American Experience: The Vote, about women’s suffrage. How did you become involved with that series, and was part of your motivation a sense that the movement hasn’t gotten the cultural attention it deserves?
I don’t think it has by men. [Laughs] I think it has by women who have any sense of history. But for men, I think maybe it’s a bit of a surprise or a bit of a footnote. But it’s also an example of how our system can work.
You’re voicing Carrie Chapman Catt. Did you know a lot about her before working on the series?
I knew of her existence, but I didn’t know much about her. And honestly, it was the type of thing where they called and asked if I would do it, I said yes, and I showed up and did it and I left and said goodbye and thank you.
With both of those projects completed, do you have any idea what the future holds? Or like everyone else, are you in something of a professional holding pattern while the pandemic plays out?
I have no idea. I just hope we’re all going to be okay. And many people will not be. I just hope we’re all going to be okay. This is a terrible, terrible time, and who knows what’s coming. So I think we have to be kind and thoughtful and mindful and ready to do the work that’s necessary to keep our humanity together.