When Helen came onto the scene in the second season of Ozark, she immediately terrified audiences. Her ice cold disposition sent shivers down the spines of viewers as they desperately tried to understand this mysterious woman who rolled into the Ozarks in a sleek pantsuit, never raised her voice, and doesn’t even bat an eye when she has someone killed. It’s the type of villain that any actor dreams of playing.
For Janet McTeer, the real challenge came in the third season when those layers are stripped, and we discover that she is a lot more interesting than one would imagine. The Oscar noninee spoke with Awards Daily about what it was like to explore the more vulnerable side of Helen. How does one spend her day making deals for the cartel and sending people to their death only to go home and deal with a combative ex-husband and two teenagers? For McTeer, that was the challenge of the season, tapping into how a seemingly normal person finds themself in this predicament.
Awards Daily: This is now your second season portraying Helen and exploring the world of Ozark. What first drew you to her and made you realize that this was a role you wanted to take on?
Janet McTeer: It was a combination of things. My greatest love is great writing and this show is so well-written. My second love is working with great people and there are some great people involved in all aspects of Ozark. When I spoke with Chris [Munde, showrunner] about the character, it just sounded so… well it was a character I had never played before. I had never played with someone involved in that shady world. I love doing things I had never done before. I had no idea how to get into the mindset of somebody who would do that for a living. What kind of person would enjoy that? I really enjoy that kind of challenge and it sounded like I was going to have an interesting time and that Helen would be a fun character to play. That’s what it proved to be in season two. I was really happy to explore her even more when they asked me to come back for season three.
AD: Helen was such a compelling villain throughout her first season in part because we didn’t know anything about her. She was this mysterious figure that showed up that did these terrible things with such a chilling disposition. What was that like as an actor?
JMT: I felt a little bit like the only way someone could do that sort of thing was whether they loved it and they got a kick out of it or whether they were fueled by hatred or whether it was that somehow they were disconnected. I decided she was the latter. I thought I would treat her like a negotiating tactic, like it was just any other piece of business like delivering goods or firing somebody who wasn’t very good at their job or simply deciding a deal wasn’t worth taking. So in other words if I dealt with it like that, as if it was much smaller than taking somebody’s life, I felt that then two seconds later you could react calmly as if it was business as usual. I felt like it could be chilling and weird. If I thought about it like that then I realized that’s how I would be able to wrap my head around it. Now I can say because it wasn’t real life I found it to be immense fun.
AD: Going into the third season we see a completely new side of Helen. She upends her life and moves to the Ozarks. We are introduced to her family and given some insight on what that dynamic is like. Because we learn so much more about her was your process as an actor different this season?
JMT: I thought it was the challenge of this season. The reason she worked so well in season two was because we didn’t know anything about her besides the fact that she shows up in great suits and kills people. She was really smart, and I thought of her like a shark. To find out now that she wasn’t totally a shark she was in fact a bit of dolphin was a challenge and that’s what made it all interesting. If I were doing the same thing I did in the second season it wouldn’t have been compelling to play.
To have that side of her and then maintain the sense of a shark while showing these new sides of her was the challenge. How do I show these normal every-day aspects of who she is, someone who really loves her kids and someone who is pissed off at her ex-husband, without making her soft and nice. That was the fun and challenging part of season three.
AD: One of the things I found so interesting about the third season was how it explored the theme of parenting and the sacrifices that are made and how these different characters react to that. What stood out to you thematically about Helen when it came to that?
JMT: That’s a very perceptive question because one of the major themes of the entire piece is family and how they all deal with this bizarre strange profession. There is the Byrde family. There is Darlene and her making a family. There is Ruth’s family. And of course there is Helen. The Byrde’s tell their kids everything and Helen tells her daughter nothing and of course that leads to some dramatic bits of fun. In general, when it comes to parenting don’t do it like anyone in Ozark!
AD: One of my favorite relationships this season has been the rise and fall of Helen and Wendy. What has that been like working with Laura Linney and creating this dynamic that is so crucial to the season’s success?
JMT: We knew going into it that this would be major part of the season watching these women become friends and everything that stems from that. That relationship was really good fun to play partly because it is interesting and because both characters have no other person that understand what they are going through. We all need that in our lives; someone who understands what we are going through and experiencing. They can’t share what is going on with the other mothers at school so the fact that they have this shared experience is a real connection.
The other joy is that of course Laura Linney is the most fantastic actress. Working with a fantastic actress is great on its own but she is also a friend. We shared a house together while we were filming which only added to the experience.
AD: Ozark is a show that has bred a lot of excitement in an almost surprising manner. Everyone I talk to from all walks of life have been obsessing over the new season. We’ve seen these themes explored a lot lately in shows like Breaking Bad and Bloodline but there seems to be this fresh excitement for Ozark. Why do you think the show is resonating so strongly right now?
JMT: I think it is just incredibly well-written. You can have strong actors but if the writing isn’t there it’s not going to go that far. The characters are well-written. They are surprising. They’re multi-faceted and you don’t necessarily know where these people are going to go and you definitely don’t know how they will evolve. That’s always interesting to watch and it is what brings people back.
There is this element of normal family house-ness about it. Breaking Bad had that too. It’s fascinating watching families that you can relate to. It’s not that they are weird; they are normal families doing these unbelievable things. It’s addictive. To a certain extent there isn’t huge action, it’s all about the drama that goes on between the machination of people.
AD: As a viewer that is one of my favorite aspects of the show. Every time I think I know one of these characters they react in a way that leaves me with my jaw wide open. I’m addicted.
JMT: Exactly. Just when you think you know a character they’ll show you a different aspect of themselves. That’s the challenge of the piece and it is what keeps it interesting and sharp and fun.
AD: Ozark is a show that continuously shocks audiences, especially the final moments of the season. Was there anything about Helen that surprised you the most or a moment that sticks out in your mind?
JMT: I think the thing that was hardest to play was knowing how she was with her daughter. She’s a little bit like the Helen we were introduced to but she is also completely different. That normal dynamic was weird for me. Do we ever see her in sweatpants cleaning the toilet? She is such a polished, public person. She is someone who always has a front. To see her vulnerable was challenging.