When we meet Tom Pelphrey’s Ben Davis, he’s a substitute teacher coming to town to visit his big sister, Wendy (Laura Linney). He quickly becomes entrapped in the tangled web of money laundering, drugs, and crime that has taken over the lives of the once innocent Byrde family. By the end of season three, Wendy must make a choice—get rid of her loose cannon of a brother or risk him exposing their secrets.
The tenth episode of Ozark‘s fourth and final season flips the script, showing the audience Ben’s final moments once again. Ben sits alone in a diner, waiting for Wendy. When he goes outside looking for her, a henchman is there to greet him. The truth slowly dawns on him. She is gone. She has abandoned him.
This sequence is even more gut-wrenching shown from Ben’s perspective— the sweet younger brother in the grips of bipolar disorder, making one mistake too many, confiding in the wrong people—sacrificed for his sister and her family. Pelphrey returns to Ben without missing a beat, delivering a performance so finely-tuned it’s as if he’s been playing Ben for years rather than less than a dozen episodes. Ben’s pain is palpable; regret for every wrong choice displayed in Pelphrey’s mounting frustration and sad eyes.
Shockingly snubbed from the Emmys in 2020, Pelphrey’s 2022 guest actor nomination is a welcome and deserved IOU. Pelphrey has delivered something exceptional, precisely the kind of performance the guest categories were invented for: short, scene-stealing, and fantastically-rendered.
Here, Pelphrey joins Awards Daily‘s Shadan Larki to discuss crafting Ben and his unforgettable return to Ozark.
Awards Daily: Tom, I have to tell you, when the Emmy nomination didn’t happen for season three, it was really sort of devastating. I always call it one of the biggest Emmy snubs ever. So to see your name pop up in guest actor was such a wonderful surprise. It just made me so happy. Congratulations! I’m so thrilled for you!
Tom Pelphrey: That is so sweet! You’re just making me smile so big right now. That is so sweet and kind of you; thank you for saying that. Yeah, it was pretty special. I was surprised. I wasn’t expecting it. It wasn’t really even something that I thought could happen. And I was so excited and so surprised and so pumped about it. And it’s really sweet. What you just said, that might be one of my favorite responses to the nomination. [Laughs].
AD: [Laughs]. So, I remember watching the end of season three, we saw Wendy’s decision and everything unfold, and I was stunned. I couldn’t stop thinking about Ben. How does Ben feel in this moment? What is he thinking? What happens when he fully understands the extent of Wendy’s betrayal? That really stuck with me. It’s gut-wrenching, but I was happy we got to see that. What was it like to come back and portray the other side of that?
TP: It was so wild. It was so weird. It was so strange to suddenly be back two and a half, three years later, in the same clothes, hair, and setup with the same actor.
To pick up where we left off, getting picked up outside the diner and sitting in the same booth in the diner that I was sitting in with Laura in season three. It was so trippy; I don’t know that I’ve ever experienced anything quite like that. It felt like a time warp back in that diner wearing the same clothes. Three years have gone by, and yet, no time has gone by, and literally picked up by doing the same end of the scene that I’d done in that spot two or three years earlier. Coming back to Ozark, it was just a matter of, ‘I need to find Ben again.’ And to go inside and find him was pretty easy to do. I started rewatching some of the end of the third season just to remind myself where we were and where we left off. And it came right back. But yeah, it’s very trippy experience.
AD: And to take you back, how did you go about crafting Ben in the first place? And what were some of those things that you then had to tap into once again?
TP: It’s all just coming from the script. You know, I did all the research I could do on bipolar disorder and tried to understand what it could look like and what it could mean. You should do all the homework you can do to feel prepared, and then you throw it all out the window and just try to serve the script. So, it was just a combination of feeling prepared and understanding what I was doing—and then walking into the character the writers created in the room and blending the two. And I think that’s why it was so easy to get back into Ben again. In the fourth season, these writers just seem to understand that character so well, they write him in such a true way. So much of the dialogue and the way his thoughts were cycling in the flashback was so spot on and similar to how they wrote him in season three. So, it felt like coming back to a place I knew.
AD: Do you have a process as an actor that allows you to tap into those really difficult emotional moments and make it feel so lived in?
TP: I don’t know how to answer that, really. [Laughs]. There are certain things you do when you’re younger that you’re taught, and then you do them for a while, then they kind of change, and then honestly, at this point, in the best way for a while now, it’s all a little bit of a mystery and I kind of love it that way. You know, you do whatever you need to do to get prepared and do your research. And then, as I said, if you’re lucky, the writing is excellent, and it’s conducive to the character and to everything you’ve learned, and it feels truthful and dynamic. And then you sort of just try and get out of the way, and something else kind of takes over. And I don’t know; it’s like a weird, mysterious, magical little process that I love.
AD: So much of Ben lives in your body language, across your facial expressions, and in your mannerisms. Is that something you can feel? Do you feel different when you’re in that character?
TP: Yeah, always. Always. That’s the thing, when you’re like, ‘I got to find them again.’ I feel it. You can tell. You can tell if you found it or not. It feels as different as if you were to put on a different outfit or something like that.
AD: There’s this great line in your scene where Ben says something like, “Wendy, she was the thing that really loved me” “I just wanted to make her proud.” That’s so heartbreaking. It’s devastating. Can you talk me through those emotions and being in that moment, delivering that monologue?
TP: I know. Poor Ben. I love him. He’s so sweet. So much of that character, what I loved about him from the very beginning, even at the beginning of season three, before we really understand what the bipolar looks like, before he goes off his medication, is he’s so childlike. There’s a real simplicity to him. It’s very pure. He sees the world in very black and white, and it’s very simple and straightforward. It’s why he gets so upset when he feels like somebody’s being mistreated or something bad is being done. It’s why he gets so angry, you know?
Because it’s very clear to him, there’s right and wrong and good and bad. I feel like, Wendy for him, is kind of like his mom. She was the older sister and she really took care of him when he was a kid before he really knew how to take care of himself. At a time when their actual parents weren’t helping, and his dad wasn’t helping. So, he’s got this relationship with his sister where she was kind of everything to him. She was mom, dad, sister, you know, she was this whole universe, and I think her approval and how she feels about him is probably just about the most important thing in the world to Ben.
So those flashback scenes were especially devastating because I feel like they wrote to that, and I think it’s true. It strikes me as true to that character. He would care about that.
AD: He says, “I try so hard, but I keep fucking up.” And there’s just something so human about that in an atmosphere that feels very heightened and messed up. There’s something so beautiful about his innocence in this world of everything being so corrupt.
TP: Yeah, me too. You know, part of the tragedy of it all, and why the writing is so good, is because you put that character who is sweet and pure in a way and is trying his best and makes mistakes, like all of us do, you put him in a world where that kind of person can’t exist, right?
That world is way too violent way, too dangerous. There’s way too much at stake to have a pure, sweetheart who’s doing his best but fucking up. The character Ben clearly cannot survive in the world of Ozark. And that’s why the writing is so beautiful to me and wonderful from the beginning. And also, there was no other way it could end. He had to die. If you’re honoring the world that they created, which is such a wonderful world. If you’re honoring how dangerous and deadly and violent that world is, then almost as soon as you meet Ben, you’re like, “Oh, this guy can’t survive here.”
Chris Mundy and that writer’s room of his just did such an incredible job with this character. I don’t think it’s necessarily the easiest character to write. And I think that there are a lot of ways that the character could have been written that would’ve been not good. I think they hit it out of the park. I feel like I was given every possible chance to succeed, and a huge part of that is Chris Mundy and the writers.
Ozark is streaming on Netflix.