The introduction Ozark, the new Netflix drama starring Jason Bateman and Laura Linney, offers the scene-stealing Julia Garner‘s Ruth Langmore is an unassuming one: Clad in cutoff denim shorts, she pushes a housekeeping trolley along the second-floor balcony of a motel. But Ruth, as played by the 23-year-old actress, quickly establishes herself as a devious “criminal mastermind-in-the-making,” as Garner described her on a recent afternoon.
Charlotte Byrde, the daughter of Bateman and Linney’s characters Marty and Wendy, played by Sofia Hublitz, warns Ruth not to enter their motel room; Ruth, her interest piqued, steals into the unattended room later in the afternoon, where she finds a suitcase filled with cash. So, naturally, she makes off with it—and in doing so, immediately becomes complicit in a far-reaching money-laundering and drug-smuggling scheme that threatens to overwhelm the small Missouri town where she and the Byrdes first clash.
Supporting Linney and Bateman is no small feat, but Garner capably holds her own as Ruth Langmore, the 19-year-old Ozark native who butts heads, and eventually allies herself, with the Byrdes. Ozark is, in many ways, a natural successor to series like Narcos and Breaking Bad. Jason Bateman’s character Marty is the Walter White—and Ruth is his reluctant Jesse Pinkman.
But the series also sets up a dialogue between socioeconomic classes—between the Byrdes and the Langmores, between the summer tourists just visiting the Lake of the Ozarks and those who have to survive in the off-season. The series is relentlessly dark—at risk of giving too much away, there’s an impromptu C-section, several unexpected murders, and the electrocution of a rodent. But it’s not without its comedic moments, many of them courtesy of Ruth, who rapidly ascends from working as a motel’s housekeeping staff to managing a strip club as Marty’s unexpected right-hand woman.
How did you get the part?
I auditioned in May last year. My character, Ruth, wasn’t in the pilot. But reading the character of Ruth from the audition sides, I wanted to get that part so bad. I remember thinking, I have to get this part—I was obsessing over it for like two weeks. I was really nervous. The first audition was in this tiny casting room in New York, and you could hear the other people reading the same lines in the room while you’re waiting. I did the scene one time in the first audition and I was thinking, Oh, my god, that was terrible. I only did it once, the casting associate just said ‘”Thank you.” Then I got a callback with Jason Bateman and the showrunner, Chris Mundy. I don’t get like this often, but I remember thinking, If I don’t get this part, I would have a hard time. I’m very good in letting things go; there’s always new things, and I’m a big believer in everything happens for a reason kind of thing. But I remember thinking, if I didn’t get this, I would be upset. [laughs]
What was it that made you think, I need to have this?
The thing that drew me was the dialogue, and how I got a sense of the character through what she was saying. It was very complex—even though I didn’t know the context of what happened in the show apart from the pilot, I figured out quickly, this girl is this, and this, and this. It was very clear.
There are so many different sort of facets of her, built around the context of who she’s interacting with. I think of her going to visit her dad in prison; she’s a different person from the girl who’s sitting in the chair running the strip club.
Yeah, because I think her dad has power over her. She seems to have power over everyone because her father is in prison. She definitely has daddy issues. I think that’s why she is drawn towards Marty.
What did you do to prepare for Ruth?
Obviously, she had an accent. I wanted to make sure that I did it right, so I just spoke with the accent the whole month before I was shooting. I would go to restaurants and I would speak in the accent. When you speak in the accent, the part also gets in you because you’re not talking in your regular tone. I also have an acting coach, so I worked with her. Then, I do this thing where I write; I don’t write a journal personally, but I have an acting journal where I write as the characters that I’m playing. I would be writing, “I don’t know how I’m feeling about Marty,” or how I’d be feeling, what’s my objective—how you would write personally in your journal, but as the character.
What was the most challenging part of getting the accent right?
The good thing was, I did pretty much the same accent the year before for a different movie, Tomato Red. When I went to the audition, it was… not easy, but it was familiar. I think the hardest thing about doing an accent, especially with a Missouri accent, is making sure that you’re not mumbling with the words, so your diction is clear. I prepared a lot—so by the time I was shooting, I didn’t have to worry about the accent and the lines.
There’s been a lot of conversation about these rural, impoverished, predominantly white communities, especially in the South, in the wake of the election. Those are the places that voted overwhelmingly for Trump. Ozark is set firmly in the middle of one of those areas, and in a lot of ways the show is a dialogue between the upper-middle-class Byrdes and the Langmores. It seems almost like a proxy for what’s going on right now. I know the show was conceived and shot before all of this happened—
Oh, we were filming while the election was happening. We were in Atlanta the day that it was the election. I remember everyone coming back the day after the election and filming.
Did that change how you were thinking about what the material meant?
Kind of, because we were shooting in the South. But again, when I was shooting, I was in a completely different head zone. With the election, everyone was watching—including me—but the next day, I was like, “Okay, Ruth is not going to be thinking about the election, so I’m not going to be thinking about the election.” I was just concerned with what Ruth was feeling in that moment. But no one really talked about it because people were all over the place with voting. We were in Atlanta, too. It’s kind of a touchy subject because you’re working with people and you like the people. You don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.
Do you see the show as part of this conversation about communities like the one Ozark takes place in?
Yeah, definitely. Like you said, it separates the poor and the upper-class, the Langmores and the Byrdes. I remember when I auditioned for Ruth, I had a southern accent. I just felt like it was very clear that the Langmores would have a southern accent. First of all, they’re uneducated; they’re not literate; they’re from the Ozarks. They’re going to have an accent more than other people. It definitely separates the Byrdes and the Langmores. You can see, [pantomimes Marty] “Oh, I’m from Chicago, I’m an accountant.” And, [nasal] “Yeah, I’m Ruth.” It’s very clear.
The show has so much empathy for the Langmores, too.
Yes, I think so, which I like. There’s a lot of funny moments with them, which I think is really important for the show. They’re smart. They’re very smart. Well, Wyatt’s the literate one from the bunch, but Marty probably always thinks he can outsmart everyone, and then he comes to this new town and he can’t because there’s someone like Ruth and Russ and all those Langmores. The uncles are great. Marc Menchaca and Christopher James Baker are so good in the show, and we have the best time on set. The whole Langmore family has a group chat called “Langmore Familia.” [laughs] We had a good time.
Ruth’s also a bit of a survivor. Where do you think her alliances lie?
I think in the beginning, she wants to take Marty’s money. She doesn’t care. She’ll let anyone do the dirty work. [laughs] It’s so fun, playing this character. But she will make anyone do the dirty work. She doesn’t want to get her hands dirty, but she has ideas—very criminal-mastermind in the making. Then she sees that smarty—Marty!—that smarty Marty is a really smart guy and he grows on her. She doesn’t know what to do. I think she’s very conflicted because she has a lot of respect for Marty, and he gives her that respect and she’s not used to that. So that’s refreshing to her. He acknowledges her, and she never gets acknowledged, and I think the Langmores is the type of house where she’ll probably be a little woman, for sure. I remember talking about that with Jason once—so I think Marty gives her that respect. So she’s very conflicted—she knows that she has to take his money, but I think she doesn’t know what to do. Even though she thinks ahead of time and she’s calculated, she’s impulsive at the same time.
There’s the scene in the fourth episode when she’s auditioning for the strip club as a cover—she knows, and the club owner knows, that her giving him a blowjob is part of the process. I thought she was going to do it, and then she totally flips it. How important was that scene for you in understanding Ruth’s motivations?
That scene was crazy to do. It is really important because that shows who Ruth is—at first, she’s kind of giving him goo-goo eyes, flirting, teasing him. Then, he’s like, “Turn around, let me see the back,” and she turns around, and she really is mask-on, mask-off. You don’t really know what she’s thinking. And I think that scene is important because it really shows, [flirtatious] “Oh, I really need a job, can you give me one?” And then she turns around, like, “This guy is gross.” You really don’t know what she’s going to do next, and you don’t trust her.
What was the most memorable scene for you to shoot?
All of them. [laughs] Honestly, all of them. Some were more memorable—that club scene; those scenes with my father. While I was shooting Ozark, I was never sitting down. I was always doing something. I was always rigging a dock or driving the motorboat or spitting in someone’s face, punching someone, or shooting a gun.
Had you done things like that?
Are you kidding me? I’m from Manhattan. I’m some Jewish girl from the Upper West Side. Like, I should not be here. The first time I fired the gun, I literally screamed. It was like, Okay, now shoot into the ground, and I shot it, and it went, ‘pew,’ and I was like, “Ah!” [laughs] I’m so different from Ruth.
The most memorable day, for me, I nearly got a panic attack. The day we shot the scene with the mouse. Now, the thing with me is, I hate bugs and stuff—how any person does. I hate rodents. I cannot stand rodents. I couldn’t even watch Ratatouille, which is an animated film.
That’s about the most endearing film.
Yeah, but it’s gross. A rat cooking in the kitchen? Anyways. So when I read this, I was like, I really hope they’re going to have a toy. I can’t even look at a toy mouse—I hate rodents this much. They said there was a mouse wrangler. It was so bad. They were like, “It’s not a big deal.” I was like, “I can’t.” They were like, “Just pet the tail.” I couldn’t breathe. They were like, “It’s like a phone charger, it’s like spaghetti.” I was like, “I’m never going to want to charge my phone or eat pasta ever again. This is gross.” The whole crew was laughing at me. It was so embarrassing, and I couldn’t even lift it. It was just moving, it was so gross. So they ended up having a hand double. I couldn’t do it—I couldn’t even use the toy one. Then, I went to the bathroom to wash my hands, and then I realized I couldn’t breathe. I was like, “Oh, my god, I was seriously going to faint from this little mouse.” So that’s not really me putting that poor little mouse in the water. I got a text from some of the writers of a picture of Mickey Mouse, like, “Heard you had an interesting day.” I was like, “Really? Who texted I was getting a panic attack?”
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