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Laura Linney navigates emotional terrain as impulsive Wendy Byrde on ‘Ozark’

"Ozark" actress Laura Linney
“To be able to play someone who just acts and moves and reacts in a sort of primal way and follows a very deep instinct instantly without even thinking about it, is pretty fun,” Laura Linney says of her money-laundering character on “Ozark.”
(Steve Dietl/Netflix)

Over three seasons, the character of Wendy Byrde on Netflix’s buzzworthy drama “Ozark” has shown increasingly questionable scruples. She’s dramatically transformed from a stay-at-home mom in suburban Chicago to a shady riverboat casino operator in the Ozarks to finding herself in deep with a drug kingpin. Yet you often can’t help rooting for her to, if not succeed at her schemes, then to at least survive each new predicament, thanks to Laura Linney’s consistently compelling performance. And if you ever wonder if Linney’s having a blast playing her, well, of course she is.

“She’s tremendously fun to play,” Linney says enthusiastically. “It’s actually pretty far away from who I am on a daily basis. So to be able to play someone who just acts and moves and reacts in a sort of primal way and follows a very deep instinct instantly without even thinking about it is pretty fun.”

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The third season of the Emmy-nominated drama found Wendy and her husband, Marty (Jason Bateman), increasingly at odds with each other over their ever-more precarious status as money launderers for the fictional Navarro drug cartel. Complicating matters was the unexpected arrival of Wendy’s brother Ben (Tom Pelphrey), a bipolar loner who becomes an increasing liability, and the fact that Helen Pierce (Janet McTeer), Navarro’s U.S.-based lawyer, relocates to the Ozarks to keep a close watch over the the Byrdes.

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For longtime fans, it’s obvious Wendy’s actions in the third season become more manipulative and riskier than ever before. Many actors who play “bad” characters have to put that aside for context, but in Linney’s eyes that conflict is a key element in her portrayal.

“She knows she’s a mess and I think she’s racked with guilt and she just doesn’t know how to handle herself,” Linney suggests. “She’s an extremely impulsive, instinctive person. She’s reactive but she’s not mature, and she’s smart but not wise. She is not an upstanding citizen, that’s for sure.”

That might also make you wonder why Wendy and her husband keep putting their teenage children in mortal danger. Linney states the obvious, noting, “A lot of horrible people love their children.” And the idea of just trying to get out of the nefarious business operation before it’s too late? That’s not an option for her, at least in Linney’s mind.

“She sees the only way out is to go further in, or she wants to go further in for whatever unconscious decisions she makes there,” Linney says.

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Trailer for Season 3 of Netflix’s “Ozark.”

Without spoiling too much of Wendy’s arc for the third season, it should be noted that a number of the later episodes showcase some of Linney’s best work on the series. It may have been an emotionally grueling shoot for her, but from the four-time Emmy winner’s perspective, it was tough for the entire crew.

“I mean, you really do have to be all in. You have to really show up and really be ready to go and not waste time and be precise and yet free and flexible,” Linney says. “But we were all tired at the end of the season. Actually, Tom Pelphrey reminded me of this. One of our last few days of filming [found everyone battling something]. Someone’s back was out, someone had insomnia, someone had a rash, someone had a twitch in their eyes. Like we were all really, really tired. It was a good tired, but it was physically more challenging than normal.”

Linney credits showrunner Chris Mundy and a crew that’s been constant since the beginning of the series for usually keeping the days “pretty easy.”

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“I always say, and it’s really true, that when things are running well, the work is easy to do, no matter what the content is,” she adds of the series that shoots largely in the Atlanta area. “But I do have to say that those episodes were tough. They were emotionally draining. You have to be very focused.”

The veteran of “Tales of the City,” “John Adams” and “The Big C” says it also helps that “Ozark” is one of the best jobs she’s ever had and its crew is “by far” the best she’s worked with. She knows how rare it is to have such a great production around a series as acclaimed and popular as this one. That simply doesn’t happen very often.

“A lot of times you’ll hear about extremely popular shows and people hate each other and it’s miserable and they’re really unhappy,” Linney says. “And this is not that situation, so I’m just enjoying every second I can get.”

Netflix reported in its first quarter results at the end of April that it expected 29 million members to watch the third season of “Ozark” within its first four weeks. That would be a dramatic jump from its already solid Season 2 results. At the time of our discussion in early spring, however, a fourth season still hadn’t been greenlighted. But perhaps, as Linney notes, it’s because of real-world concerns.

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“I mean, I have no idea how we’re all going to go back to work. I really don’t,” Linney says of the COVID-19 pandemic. “I don’t know what that’s going to look like. Until there’s a vaccine, I don’t know how that happens, but they’ll figure it out.”

Hear interviews with TV stars in the new L.A. Times podcast ‘Can’t Stop Watching.’


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