“Money makes the world go round, the world go round, the world go round,” intones the Master of Ceremonies in Cabaret. It as much a truism now as it was in that musical’s Weimar setting, though in the case of the family at the center of the new Netflix series Ozark, money makes the world come crashing down. Created by Bill Dubuque and co-produced and directed by Jason Bateman, Ozark, which drops today, opens as the Chicago-based financial advisor Marty Byrde (Bateman) finds himself in massive debt to a Mexican drug lord, who is also one of his top clients. With his and his family’s life at stake, he moves to the Ozarks, a summer resort community in Missouri and sets up a laundering business in the hopes of repaying his multi-million dollar obligation. Marty’s vision of an easy assimilation (and pay off, based on his unrealistic perceptions of the locals’ gullibility) quickly turns sour as he and his family face push-back from the community and its own nefarious ecosystem (needless to say, the body count in Ozark is high).
Along for the ride of her life is Marty’s wife, Wendy, played by the highly estimable Laura Linney, fresh off a Tony-nominated performance in The Little Foxes. With their marriage in straits—Wendy’s infidelity is a central point in the pilot—and a teenage daughter and younger son to tend to, Wendy proves a quick study in adapting to her new, questionable lifestyle.
Here, Linney discusses the American obsession with money, the politics inherent in art, and the inevitability of falling off the edge.
This is the first time you’ve done a TV show in a while. What made you want to go back to this medium?
I wasn’t looking to do television to be honest. But I met with Jason [Bateman], whom I’ve known socially just very little; I’ve always really liked him and I’ve always been curious about him. There are a lot of comedians who are known for one very narrow type of work, but who are capable of much, much more. And I’ve always suspected that Jason was one of those people. So I was very curious to talk to him about this, because I could see what a very good match this material would be with him. And I went and sat, and I’m just at the point where I make my decisions based on the people, really: Who do I want to spend a lot of time with? Who do I want to be in the trenches with? I had lunch with him and I thought about it for a while and I talked to my family about it and then I was like, "Sure, let’s go." I saw the potential for not only the story as a whole, the narrative, but also the character they wanted me to play.
In the beginning we see Wendy more as a victim of her husband’s professional life before she goes into survivalist mode. But there are also inklings that she’s been in the know for a while. How would you describe who she is and the journey she goes on?
I think she’s savvy, capable. I think she doesn’t know herself as well as she thinks she does, which I think a lot of people suffer from. And what I love seeing is how within the family, the four of them, none of them really know each other. And none of them really know themselves. And I think through the course of the series, all of that will play out. So she’s very contemporary, she’s privileged, she has everything you would think one would want, but she’s dissatisfied on a core level about something, which causes her not to make the greatest decisions. She doesn’t apologize for it, either. There’s just a reality—this is what happened, this is the choice I made and there’s a reason I made that choice. There’s just a lot to play, so it’s interesting. She’s not just one thing and she’s passionate and she’s smart and she’s capable and she has a lot of secrets.
There’s something very Darwinian about what they’re going through.
She knows how to survive in that world.
Which is so fascinating because you would never have thought that from the pilot, that she would understand how to make these deals.
She knows how to talk to these people.
In some ways, she does it better than her husband, who has been doing it for so long.
The issue of money is prominent. It exists on so many planes—it’s about survival, but it’s also about hubris and greed.
On the family level, for most of the show, it’s about making money so they don’t end up dead, but before that, they weren’t exactly impoverished.
Not by the world’s standards.
Not even by American standards.
I think for the educated population of America there is a sense of being successful. And unfortunately in this country, success is equated with money. It’s not equated with skill, it’s not equated with experience, it’s not equated with someone who is evolved as a person. It’s equated with money. So I think there is a constant desire for more and they get caught up in that and make some decisions because of that instinct. And they want their children to have more.
In that language it’s almost like a disease in the way addiction is a disease.
Well, it’s a desire.
That can become…
That can become something else. I don’t know if it’s so much that. But I think a lot of people make decisions, whether they have to or not, to make more money. And they get away from themselves in the process. The person who they really are gets sort of submerged because they have to go a certain route.
So for the Byrdes, they’re able to fully justify their decisions.
Oh, I think everybody does. I think most people do justify the bad decisions they make, the unethical decisions that they make, the little ones that then lead to bigger ones. I mean, look at corporate America; business in general is conducted in a very ruthless way and it’s not ethical. It might be business and there is this sort of blanket get out of jail free card, that business is business. And yeah, but how is that okay? Is that okay? Really? What does it cost? It might not cost the person who’s doing it, actually, they get rewarded. But what does it cost? Anyway, that’s a whole other conversation, but it does lead to those thoughts for me.
I think it’s impossible not to watch this show and think about the political climate.
Absolutely. And the election happened while we were filming this, late in the process. And I think with everything now, particularly everything that’s trying to be artistic, the election has changed the prism through which everyone sees everything and things are much more potent. I just did a production of The Little Foxes and who would have thought that that would be on point now. There are lines in that play—it was written in 1939, and it just makes your head spin with the relevancy of that family and how they behave versus what’s happening in America now. And the arts and politics always go hand in hand. When people say to artists “Don’t be political,” it’s sort of like saying to a doctor, “Don’t heal people.” The arts are inherently political, they always have been from the beginning of time.
Does that affect the choices you make professionally?
Well, sometimes. And then sometimes you just want to do something because it seems like fun. But the work that tends to be the most effective tends to have a very specific point of view that pushes things a little further. And it tends to have some connection to politics. Because people have connections to politics and the arts are about people, so there you go.
There's a kind class warfare in this show, too. The Byrde family is coming from a city, urban life, into this very different setting and people.
And there are stereotypes and prejudices that they have about each other.
What kind of portrait of America is the show painting and what can we take away from that?
I think people will take away from it what they want to take away from it, and I haven’t seen the whole series so I hesitate to really talk about that specifically because I haven’t experienced what it is to watch it yet. No one knew this when we were filming it, but it’s hard now not to make the issue of how many different cultures there are within the United States. And one is not better than the other, but they are very different. The lifestyle and the worldview and the politics and the religion and the philosophies of all these different cultures in the United States are wildly different and people are very passionate about how they feel and what they want their world to be. The United States is huge and the fact that it’s functioned as well as it has for as long as it has is remarkable. The myth that our country has made no mistakes is immature at best. A lot of people would argue that with you. So I think that’s where people get into real shame.
As Wendy, you ask Marty if your marriage would have survived had this predicament not come along. What kind of family portrait do you think this show presents?
I think it’s not atypical to see a family that has matured to this level, and then people drift apart. People get frustrated and what they were able to provide for each other, they’re not able to provide for each other anymore because they’ve evolved into a different place. Because somehow they’ve grown apart. So I don’t think that’s unusual. And then people become involved with other people. Because they’re lonely. Because they’re angry. There’s a reason why that happens. And a lot of times people don’t explore why did that happen. And I don’t think they would be together if they weren’t forced to make this change. And they’re not really together. They’re just partners in surviving. And they’re partners in keeping their children safe.
There are multiple people who point out that the arrival of the Byrdes completely upends this Ozarks society, which wasn’t the most altruistic society, but still. What do you think of this family arriving and just throwing a complete ecosystem into disarray?
Yeah, they’re the foreigners. And I think everybody can smell, Why are they here? Like, what are you doing here? The people who live in this area are not dumb people. And I love how with addicts, you’ll see addicts who really think nobody else can tell they’re all messed up. The alcoholic, the drug addict… they think they’re facing their passing. Nobody knows that they’re using. And everybody knows that they’re using. They don’t know what or how much, but everybody knows that something is wrong. And similarly, not that they are addicts, but I think there was a similar self-delusion they have, an arrogance they have that they can just come in and blend in and make this all work easily. It’s going to be much tougher than they realize. And they’re going to be called to the carpet on a lot of their preconceived notions of other people.
That clashing and the chain of events that follows in its wake, do you think those are negative things? Can they potentially have positive ramifications for everyone involved?
We’ll have to find out. At this point I don’t really know what will happen. But it’s traumatic, regardless of where they end up with it, regardless of what survives and what doesn’t, regardless of what new skin they all have to grow, it’s traumatic. But it is the end of one thing and the beginning of something else.
Sounds pretty familiar.
Yeah, yeah, for all of us. We all get to some variation of that. Not everybody, but a lot of people do, if you’re really striving for something, if you believe in something and you’re pulled in that direction, you’re going to fall off the edge occasionally. And then life just throws you things that you think you’re ready for and no one ever is: the death of a parent, the loss of a relationship, a change in friends. No one is immune for those changes. And they come for everybody. And these people are just in a much, much, much more extreme place of that. But they are living in that vulnerable, primal time. They’re primal and they’re grasping to hang onto something. And they can’t quite hang onto each other—they want to, but they can’t.