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Multiple nominations for the dark 'Ozark' light up Jason Bateman's outlook

Multiple nominations for the dark 'Ozark' light up Jason Bateman's outlook
With so few Emmy slots available, it seemed to actor-director Jason Bateman that “Ozark” would just miss the cut. Instead, the series earned five nominations, two of them for Bateman himself. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

Jason Bateman has been a professional actor for more than 36 years, so he’s no stranger to receiving kudos from his peers, including the highs and lows of awards season as a two-time Emmy nominee, five-time SAG Award nominee and Golden Globe winner for “Arrested Development.” Despite that Emmy experience, however, he says learning last month that he was a double nominee in both the actor and directing categories for Netflix’s “Ozark” hit close to home.

Frankly, the 49-year-old Hollywood veteran insists, he didn’t expect the drama would earn any Emmy nominations whatsoever. He knew the show had received a fairly warm embrace from critics and audiences (as much as the streaming service will tell you), but with so much good stuff on television and so few slots available, it seemed that “Ozark” would just miss the cut.

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“Then I saw [I was nominated for lead actor in a drama series], and my daughters were looking at me like I was some sort of narcissistic monster that I was not in the car yet to get them to camp,” Bateman says. “You know, because they were late. As soon as I heard my category announced I slammed the computer, jumped in the car and tried to get them there on time.”

That’s it, he was thrilled with the nomination and had shifted back into Dad mode. “When I talked to my publicist later, she said, ‘You know you got director too,’ and I actually got pretty close to crying. It was such a surprise even though the entire draw for me to the project was as a director. That was just really nice of the directors in the television category to say ‘good job.’ ”

Created by Bill Dubuque, “Ozark” finds Bateman playing Marty Byrde, a Chicago-based financial advisor who is forced to move his wife (played by Laura Linney) and family to the Missouri Ozarks after his dealings with a Mexican drug cartel take a dangerous turn. Bateman has directed himself previously in the features “Bad Words,” “The Family Fang” and on numerous TV comedies, but this was something completely different, effectively a 10-hour movie.

Originally, he was set to direct the entire series, but there wasn’t enough time to prep all the episodes, so he was limited to the first two and the last two. That included his Emmy-nominated episode, “The Toll,” which was also the season finale. The episode includes a memorable 10-minute sequence that features one of the most dramatic moments in the entire series.

This particular portion of the episode finds Pastor Mason Young (Michael Mosley) a widower and father of a newborn child after his wife (Bethany Anne Lind) was gruesomely murdered. Bateman directs the sequence with a sure hand and strong vision. It begins with Marty visiting the emotionally shaken pastor delicately as a “breadcrumb” for the audience is dropped into the conversation. Pastor Young says, “I haven’t named the kid, why would I have a baby in this world?”

Jason Bateman in the Netflix series "Ozark."
Jason Bateman in the Netflix series "Ozark." (Jackson Davis / Netflix)

As Bateman recalls, “There’s a look on my character’s face of like, ‘Oh God, are you talking about killing this kid?’ So, that’s sort of planted there so when you see him walking that child somewhat aggressively down to the water’s edge, you think, ‘Oh no, he’s gonna take this kid out.’ It’s all in the script that writer Chris Mundy wrote that he submerges the child underwater, and it’s still underwater. And it’s still underwater.”

Bateman framed the sequence almost completely in one shot, leaving you breathless and in the dark as to what is actually happening to the baby. It’s accompanied by Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2. “I love when films can grab a piece of score, and some type of needle drop that links all of those things together, and gathers that coda package into one piece that can send you out into the parking lot with a chunk,” Bateman says. “If you can link that with one piece of music, it’s really satisfying.”

Many actors find it difficult to direct themselves on screen, but Bateman says it allows him to assist his crew more than he would if he wasn’t helming the episode.

“I’m just very grateful that I have some sort of weird ability to have one eye, one ear, one foot, in it and the matching set on the outside kind of watching and being aware of how the scene is going,” Bateman says. “After this amount of time [as an actor] it becomes an educated guess that’s informed by knowing what the lens is and the lighting. If I’m playing the emotion by picking my fingernail but the camera [is far away], then you’re not doing it. You try to inform your performance decisions based on all the stuff you’re aware of technically.”

Along with the show’s subsequent nominations in production design, cinematography and Daniel Sackheim’s directing nod for the episode “Tonight We Improvise,” Bateman is just hoping that the Emmy attention leads to more people finding the show before it returns this fall for a second season.

“Hopefully some people [on the series] you might recognize as some of your neighbors,” Bateman says. “Just normal people going through a very raw experience that’s unraveling faster than even their intellect or their hubris can manage.”

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