By Yvette Chen
Photography: Skylar Reeves
He has that persona that makes you want to take it seriously, to be better at what you do. He deserves carefully chosen meaningful questions because you know you’re going to get thoughtful and valuable replies. I think it’s called respect.
“… I mean the truth is that the process kind of begins and ends with the script. I firmly believe that that is the blueprint of the house. That is the architecture, that is the plan, if that is excellent then we have a chance to make something excellent…”
Tom Pelphrey was not just good in Ozark. He was mesmeric. Stealing scene after scene as Laura Linney’s troubled brother Ben on season three of the the hit Netflix series starring Linney and Jason Bateman as money launderers.. You just couldn’t get enough of Pelphrey on the screen, he took the air out of the room every time he entered and carried you through the story knowing it would end badly. Let’s just say he’s brilliant.
Pelphrey is East Coast, New York but born and raised in New Jersey. He always wanted to play football when he was young and his mom wouldn’t let him until he got to high school where he promptly got injured… playing football. “I was a terrible athlete anyways so it all worked out in the end. I was on crutches and I couldn’t play anything anymore so a friend of mine told me to try out for the school play, or musical, it was Pirates of Penzance. I can’t sing, I can’t dance, you know but I tried out anyway and I couldn’t sing the numbers or dance the routines but I guess they just needed bodies so I got a little chorus part. My drama teacher however, he just changed my life. I went into rehearsal and he was truly scarier than the football coaches, you know. There was a lot of discipline and he took it very seriously and I think your first experience with something is pretty important because it sort of immediately framed the whole thing to me in a way that was serious and something you could pursue and is worth doing and is worth doing the right way.”
The work ethic is what drew him to acting. The preparation, respecting everyone else’s work and the fact that you’re always a part of a team. Pelphrey would then go to a performing arts school after auditioning and that same drama teacher also happened to be there and it was just one of those things even if you were the lead in the play, and you had a day off you stayed after and helped build the set because you were all part of the team. “I loved it,” says Pelphrey. “It’s the first thing I could say I truly loved doing and I’m also so grateful that it was my first experience because a lot of those values that he instilled have served me well.”
Pelfrey’s current room is in Austin, Texas, where he’s working on a new HBO mini series called Love and Death in Silicon Prairie.
Real-life experiences are what paved the way for him. Today’s educational structure is far too complex. “The exponential growth of technology has far exceeded our ability to understand what it’s doing to us or our brains in any real way. And because it keeps growing that fast I don’t think we’ll ever be able to know in real time how that’s affecting us,” says Pelphrey. “Somebody was talking about children, I think it was a podcast I was listening to or perhaps it was a university professor, and they thought that maybe the best way to think about it is that you want to instill in children the sense of being very special and a sense of not being good enough. There’s inherently something that is special and perfect because of course there is, in every child, and that’s good and that’s necessary for confidence and for discovering yourself. And at the same time we could all be better. And I think if you could instill that, the sky’s the limit.”
Ozark was the last piece that I watched Pelphrey in (planning to binge on Outer Range, but that’s not to say he hasn’t had other key roles. One of his best for me being Banshee (2013-2016), the Cinemax series that featured gangsters, the Ukrainian mob and mistaken identity. Pelphrey played a former neo-Nazi working in the sheriffs department in Banshee, Pennsylvania and again, a he was the ultimate scene-stealer. When Ozark came along, the script and his character were a perfect match. “When I had conversations with Chris Mundy (Ozark writer and executive producer), he pulled me aside before we started filming anything and told me the arc of the season. He talked about the character choosing to eventually stop taking his medication and what that would sort of trigger. Then I went away and did a bunch of research and it was obvious there was going to be periods where I’m going to need to be at maximum energy, and sometimes they would be like 20 times in a row. I need ed to train my body to do bursts of energy so when we get to those scenes. For instance, there is the scene with Janet McTeer [cartel lawyer Helen Pierce] down by the water with her daughter. It was so hot and we had to do it so many times. And I was there and I never felt like I let anybody down. And as soon as we were done I could have fallen on my face. I was so tired. But it was there. The energy was there. And that feels good.”
Pelphrey currently stars in Outer Range on Amazon Prime (Brad Pitt is one of the executive producers), a story about a rancher played by Josh Brolin fighting for his land and family in Wyoming under very mysterious and spooky circumstances. The cast includes Pelphrey, Brolin, Lili Taylor and Imogen Poots and again he plays a very serious and intense character.
“Josh Brolin plays my dad, Lily Taylor plays my mom. It’s sort of set now, set today in one of these old school ranch families, and we’re in a bit of a thing, a bit of a tension with the neighbors, so I won’t go too much into it. And then something mysterious slash metaphysical enters the equation and seeing how that plays out and influences all of the characters. The writing is truly special, but also the cast was incredible.”
Filming was out in New Mexico, in a desert, which is a different energy. “It is a really different energy. And I never understood what people talked about when they talked about the desert until filming in New Mexico and it’s so beautiful and full of power and sort of scary and magical really. It was like the perfect place to be filming that story I felt.”
Years ago Pelphrey went to see a friend in a play in the East Village and was so blown away by the writing, the acting, everything, that he found out who the writer was with the help of his friend and just told him, “Well done.” Pelphrey was so impressed they started interacting and he [Brian Watkins] would write all these new plays and he would go workshop them with him—Labyrinth Theatre Company and New Dramatists—and just sit down with a writer and a table full of actors and just work.
Throughout his journey, Pelphrey has learned a lot and he’s blessed, humbled in fact, by the actors he’s worked with. Every single one leaves an indelible impression on him that makes him strive that much harder. “Each person kind of teaches me a different thing, and they have been incredible people and I’ve been doubly blessed because they’re all very talented actors and I can learn from that, and they’re all very good people,” says Pelphrey. “ A lot of them, we’ve become quite close. For instance with Laura Linney on Ozark she helped me, she shared with me a way of working with scripts that I found highly productive that I still use now. I definitely feel enriched by all of these guys.”
So what’s next for Tom Pelphrey. Outer Range, Love and Death on HBO. Not too shabby. But a side passion he’d like to explore is storytelling which has been a wonderful discovery. “I just love stories. I was talking to somebody about this the other day, similar to why do you want to be an actor? And was that the first love? And I used to think it was when I was younger. But I realized something many years ago. I like, way before I wanted to be an actor. I love stories. I was reading so many books when I was so young. I was always reading. If you understand how difficult it is to write something and you understand how much attention and time goes into crafting a story. Then from that point of view it sort of helps you understand that everyone there is coming to play a role in fulfilling the story. I just love that I get to do this for a living. I love that, you know, some aspect of storytelling is something I get to do a little bit each day, and I’m just grateful for that.”
MUA: Billy Mercer, Hair: Ange Beddington, Clothing: Maven Maintenant, Location: Two Wishes Ranch