Whether you remember him from his child-actor days on “Silver Spoons” and “Little House on the Prairie,” his role as the long-suffering Michael, the only sane member of the Bluth family on “Arrested Development” (the original and the Netflix reprise, which just got a new season), or any number of comedic and dramatic film roles from the last few years including, most recently, the voice of Nick Wilde the fox in the Oscar-winning “Zootopia,” you know Jason Bateman, the elastic Everyman whose cool facade often masks an inner meltdown.
And before he reunites, yet again, with his nutty siblings and parents on “Arrested Development,” viewers will see the 48-year-old actor-director, in “Ozark,” premiering on Netflix July 21. Bateman not only stars in the story of a milquetoast Chicago financial adviser who runs afoul of a powerful drug lord, he also executive produces and directs multiple episodes.
You have acted in and directed so many projects centered around family with varying degrees of dysfunction — are you trying to work something out?
It’s no secret that my family was very atypical and that [sister and “Family Ties” star] Justine and I were both working from a really young age. My father was a writer-director-producer of independent film and television. He was a bit of a bohemian with his schedule and his work. My mother was a flight attendant for Pan Am for 30-some years, so she was flying two weeks of every month when we were growing up. Christmas was often celebrated on the 18th or the 30th. Just to hang out with her, I’d go with her on one of her trips to Tokyo and I would be serving food trays down the aisle. There were times of high function and times of dysfunction by virtue of it being nontraditional. Whenever somebody comes to me with an unconventional or dysfunctional family premise, it sounds very interesting to me.
You also have often played characters who are the stable one in a world of crazies, yet you can see a rage simmering inside them at having to fill that role. Marty Byrde in “Ozark” is another that vein. What appeals to you about having to be contained?
Somebody who’s got the gun pointed at somebody and their finger is on the trigger, you can’t look away because you might miss the shot. This guy’s going to kill that person, right? You’re staring, you’re not going to buy popcorn or you’re not going to the fridge. As soon as he pulls the trigger, now you can go carry on and kind of reset and take a breath. With the characters that I’m really drawn to, I am the audience.
If I’m showing a little bit more control and restraint and stress than the audience is or would in that situation, then they are compelled to watch me, the proxy, pick the moment to release the valve. Because I am their valve. I just think it’s more interesting. I like having the audience in my hand. That’s probably why I’m drawn to directing. Where you are controlling the audience’s experience. You’re shaping it.
You’ve now directed yourself in several projects, including “Ozark.” What does Jason Bateman the director think Jason Bateman the actor needs to work on improving?
Well, if my wife has anything to do with it, it would be to be less the simmering person that you were talking about and let the kettle pop a couple of times.
I would too. I’m with your wife.
I would too.
In the role that calls for it.
Exactly, that’s exactly it. It’s a tough thing for me to pursue those kinds of roles because, as I’ve gotten older, my tolerance for me, or anybody, being full of ... becomes less and less. To pursue roles that force me to “act” more is at odds with that. I don’t want to pretend to be somebody else. I really like being as not full of ... as possible.
I just don’t want to be a character actor. I don’t want to be the guy that explodes and does a bunch of acting. I like to be somebody who’s a little bit more of a tour guide for the audience and observes those people that are doing a bunch of acting.
Given that show business is the family business, if your kids expressed interest, would you want them to go into it?
I mean, as soon as they’re old enough to understand what it means when I say it’s not a meritocracy, then I’ll let them.
I’ve been doing this 38 years, and if you put that much time into any career, you can feel pretty confident about your job security or your pension.
I think any parent would want their child to put that much time into something that’s a little bit more reliable. I’m still two years or three years of no work away from not ever working. How do you recommend that for a child?
Yes, “Here, have some anxiety!”
Yeah, so the good part about it is it keeps you humble and it keeps you diligent with what you’re doing with your career, making responsible choices, hopefully, and not grabbing the low-hanging fruit. It took a moment of quietness in my career to learn that. I’m really lucky that I got to learn that lesson that it’s not as guaranteed and as solid as a naive actor might think. When things leveled out for me in my 20s, I just said to myself, if I ever get another chance with this thing, I’ll do differently with the capital.
Bonus question: What are you watching?
To be honest, I’m not great at watching stuff. I really should be much, much better for many reasons. I’ve got a 10-year-old and a 5-year-old, two girls. We’re screwing around till 7:30. I’m a Dodger addict. Between hanging out with them and then watching — I don’t even get the whole game watched. I save a little bit for the morning. I need to create more time to watch. I’ve got to see “Handmaid’s Tale.” I’ve got to see a ton of things.