A version of this story about Laura Linney and “Ozark” first appeared in the Comedy & Drama issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
Looking back, it’s hard to believe there was ever a time in “Ozark” when Wendy Byrde (Laura Linney) wasn’t in the driver’s seat. The Netflix drama kicks off when Wendy’s husband Marty (Jason Bateman) relocates his family to Missouri to launder money for a Mexican drug cartel. By the series finale, which aired this April, it was clear who the real kingpin was: Marty may have dragged them into this mess, but only Wendy was willing to do whatever it took to survive.
Throughout four seasons of violence, betrayal and near-death experiences, that quality made Wendy one of Ozark’s most ruthless, unpredictable characters — and Linney one of its most compelling performers.
“From day one of the show, it was all about survival,” said the Emmy-winning actress of “Frasier” and “The Big C.” “And it was also a group of people, meaning the Byrde family, who really didn’t know each other, and really didn’t know themselves.”
Over time, Linney got to know her character to the extent that Wendy’s next move “just (became) clear,” even when she had no idea where the story was going. “Because she was someone who was so impulsive, that gave me a lot of leeway in which to behave,” she said. “Nothing I did was really wrong, because the template was set to hold the logic of whatever happened.”
That side of Wendy became especially important in the later seasons, when her past begins to intersect with the narrative. The arrivals of her mentally ill brother, Ben (Tom Pelphrey), followed by her abusive father, Nathan (Richard Thomas), serve as emotional landmines, setting off a chain of explosive interactions.
As always, Linney took a measured approach to Season 4’s most charged moments, such as the devastating scene in which Wendy and Marty lose custody of their children. “I was always concerned about the balance of things, you know, threading the needle with certain qualities of hers and not tipping too far in one direction or the other,” she explained. “I was very aware of that and hoping that I hadn’t overplayed something or underplayed it.”
Working with the same cast and crew for so many years fostered a safe environment for risk-taking, and not just in front of the camera. Since Season 1, Bateman and producer Patrick Markey were “hell-bent” on Linney directing an episode. It was only when the final season rolled around that Linney gave in, making her directorial debut with Episode 11. “It’s wild to go outside your comfort zone, which it really was for me, and to sort of see what I know,” she said. “When I didn’t know what to do, I had an army of people waiting to help me. It was a wonderful situation.”
Does she see herself sitting in the directors’ chair again? While she “certainly wouldn’t say no,” Linney said, emphasizing that she is first and foremost an actor. “I love being an actor in a big company of people. That is always my favorite thing to do.”
It’s not hard to love going to work, she added, when the company is as good as the team behind “Ozark.” “It was one of those rare experiences where everything aligned so properly, as far as cast and crew and production and network and studio, that it was such a joy,” she said. “I loved being on a show that confirmed to me that good work can happen, you can be well taken care of, there can be an environment that is creative and responsible and efficient.”
As of this writing, “Ozark” has remained in Netflix’s Top 10 for 13 consecutive weeks, netting billions of viewing minutes since Season 4 premiered. Fittingly (spoiler alert ahead), both the show and the Byrdes went out on top, the final scene cutting to black as they eliminate their last obstacle to total domination of the Ozarks.
On the other side of the screen, meanwhile, Linney likened saying goodbye to standing on a shore, watching Wendy recede into the distance. “It feels very strange,” she admitted. “I’m just watching her float away.”
Read more from the Comedy & Drama issue here.