On 'Ozark,' Tom Pelphrey Challenges The Stigma Of Mental Illness

The actor finds his breakout role in Ben Davis, a man grappling with bipolar disorder amid the tensions of drug cartel dealings.
Tom Pelphrey as Ben Davis in "Ozark."
Tom Pelphrey as Ben Davis in "Ozark."
Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Netflix

Warning: Spoilers ahead for “Ozark.”

The first time Tom Pelphrey watched “Ozark,” he was startled. Actually, “What the fuck is this fucking show?” was his exact thought. He couldn’t believe a script could be so utterly violent yet hilarious at the same time.

“I was obsessed,” the 37-year-old actor told HuffPost of the crime-driven Netflix series during a phone call last week. “To find that line [of tones] and walk it is such a hard balance to strike. And the writing is so good, and the characters are so interesting and full.”

So when he got the chance to audition for the role of Laura Linney’s on-screen brother Ben Davis, he jumped at the opportunity. Little did he know how cathartic the experience of playing someone with bipolar disorder would be. In the morally compromised world of “Ozark,” the character of Ben tests the stigma of mental illness as he is branded the “unstable” one in a group of people who go to egregious lengths to protect their criminal identities.

“Every now and then, you read something and you know that this character is someone you can really embody,” he said. “It wasn’t until later that I understood the depth or the range of what that would require.”

“Ben's story is kind of beautiful, and tragic.”

- Tom Pelphrey

We first meet Ben in the opening moments of Episode 2 in Season 3. He is substitute teaching a high school class when cellphones start buzzing and ringing as an inappropriate photo of a student makes the rounds. After questioning the teens, Ben’s pleasant mood completely shifts. He aggressively takes their phones, goes outside and tosses them in a wood chipper before beating up the campus landscaper.

The next time we see him, he’s in the Ozarks at the Missouri Belle Casino, owned by his sister, Wendy Byrde, and brother-in-law, Marty (Jason Bateman), who covertly use their business to launder money for a Mexican drug cartel. Ben doesn’t know any of that. He’s just looking for a place to crash.

Soon enough, he’s embraced the lake life. He begins bonding with his nephew, Jonah (Skylar Gaertner), and falling in love with the Byrdes’ loyal sidekick, Ruth Langmore (Emmy winner Julia Garner). But Ben eventually becomes a liability when he goes off his medication and discovers his family’s shady lifestyle.

Tom Pelphrey and Julia Garner in "Ozark" Season 3.
Tom Pelphrey and Julia Garner in "Ozark" Season 3.
Steve Deitl/Netflix

“Keep in mind, this is not about a portrayal, necessarily, of bipolar disorder because it doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” Pelphrey said. “He is in an insane situation where there are literally life-and-death consequences ― people are lying, people are doing the most horrible things. That is the environment in which he is experiencing. And, of course, when he goes off his medication to be [intimate] with Ruth, these things all go through the roof. The stress is too much to handle.”

Pelphrey, known for his role in the Marvel series “Iron Fist,” as well as his Daytime Emmy-winning run as Jonathan Randall on “Guiding Light,” feels like anyone in a situation like that would crumble, mental illness or not. But in order to further understand bipolar disorder and tap into what Ben might be facing, he read “An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness” by Kay Redfield Jamison. In the book, clinical psychologist Jamison candidly opens up about her own experience with manic depression and how relationships, medication and stressors can affect the mind. Pelphrey said lots of research helped him prepare, as did the exceptional scripts from “Ozark’s” team of writers, including showrunner Chris Mundy.

“I just gave over to the writing,” Pelphrey said. “The scenes are written in such a way that it will handle some of the complexity for you. You don’t need to be playing everything at all times, you know? We never do that as people; we’re kind of in the moment we’re in.”

Toward the end of the season, Ben spirals and is placed in a psych center by Wendy, who is torn between obeying the cartel and protecting her brother. Ruth finds a way to get him released from the hospital, but it’s all in vain. Ben has already jeopardized the entire Byrde family. Wendy’s final decision is gut-wrenching and, once again, makes viewers ask themselves: Who’s good and who’s bad?

“Ben’s story is kind of beautiful, and tragic,” Pelphrey said. “One of the things that really resonated with me with this character was that his spirit is innocent; his heart is pure. No matter what else is going on with him, he sees clearly and his intentions are good. Ben is actually just telling the truth and doing the right thing, but in that world those qualities, those virtues, are not rewarded.”

Tom Pelphrey and Laura Linney in "Ozark."
Tom Pelphrey and Laura Linney in "Ozark."

Anyone who’s watched Season 3 of “Ozark” is no doubt touting Pelphrey’s nuanced performance. During a monologue in Episode 9, the actor’s vulnerability leaps off the screen as he waxes poetic about life and “putting it together again.”

“I imagine there are days when it’s close. When it’s, like, this close to, like, ‘Oh, I remember what my mind was before the thing happened that ruined my mind,’” he says, tears in his eyes.

Ben Davis is the heartbeat of the new episodes and filled the void left by Buddy (Harris Yulin). But as quickly as Ben came, he went, and Pelphrey has a feeling things are only going to get darker in his absence.

“Honestly I have no clue what they’re intending, but with everything that’s been done and all of the particular characters now that are affected up to this point, I can’t imagine,” he said. “I’m certainly having a hard time imagining any kind of happy ending.”

“Ozark” Season 3 is now streaming.

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