Tom Pelphrey Talks Ozark, Banshee, and Shares the Inspiring Story That Led to His Love of Acting

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Tom Pelphrey has a knack for choosing incredibly dynamic roles.

You should know him from Ozark Season 3, on which he played Wendy Byrde's bipolar brother, Ben opposite award-winning talent, Laura Linney.

Or perhaps you know him from Banshee or Iron Fist. Pelphrey makes an impression wherever he goes.

Ben's Last Meal

For me, it was the fall of 2004 when he burst onto the scene of Guiding Light as Jonathan Randall. Just out of college, Pelphrey held his weight against a soap-opera great, Kim Zimmer, who played his long-lost mother, Reva Shayne.

The energy he brought to that storyline was infectious. For just over two years, he was part of one of the most riveting storylines in soap history.

Always one to make a mark, Pelphrey joined the Cinemax series Banshee in 2015 as Kurt Bunker, a former Neo-Nazi who managed to change his stripes against all the odds.

Ben Shrugs

With his role on Ozark Season 3 as Ben Davis, Pelphrey once again shook up the joint, and his scenes with Linney and Julia Garner as Ruth Langmore were electric.

So what is it that drives Pelphrey to such excellence? He had a very good teacher.

"It was really a result of having a really amazing teacher in high school," Pelphrey said about getting bitten by the acting bug. "I just had one of those teachers that comes into your life and kind of changes things. His name is Steve Kazakoff."

Pelphrey attended public school in New Jersey that also happened to be a magnet school for the performing arts. Off the cuff, a friend asked him to audition for a role in the school play. Awarded a small part in Pirates of Penzance, Pelphrey was under the direction of Steve Kazakoff.

Uncle Ben

"I was just blown away by him," Pelphrey said of Kazakoff. "I tried playing football that year, which is really what I wanted to do, and I got hurt, but I met Kaz. To me, he was scarier than the football coaches. He was really disciplined. He really was. He was so intense and so disciplined and took it so seriously. It really made an impression on me.

"I was like, 'Wow, this is something that you can take really seriously. This is something that can hold you putting all of your energy and attention on, and that it's something that you need to do the right way and it's worth doing the right way.'

I guess what I'm saying is I think that there's a possibility of your first encounter or first experience with acting or anything like that, that it could potentially be a bit trivial or a bit silly.

"I wonder if I'd had that experience, that perhaps I wouldn't be talking to you right now. But because of Kazakoff and because, aside from the fact he's such a wonderful acting teacher, but he also presented everything in a way that really appealed to me at a young age."

"And then sure, I auditioned and got in the program, and finally felt like there was something I was good at, because I was not good at sports." Pelphrey laughed, "As much as I might've enjoyed playing them, it was not my calling.

Tom Pelphrey as Jonathan Randall

"It's just that wonderful thing that can happen where you say, 'Okay, I'm good enough at this, or whatever, and I really love the person who's teaching me,' and just kind of like that perfect confluence of events. And then yeah, like I said, the high school I was going to anyway just so happened to be a performing arts high school, so it all worked out."

The experience, of course, chanced Pelphrey's life. But he's also the kind of guy who didn't let it go unnoticed. "I recently wrote him a very long letter telling him thank you and sort of just trying to give voice to the gratitude," he shared.

It's hard not to want the best for someone as humble and as appreciative as this young man. When we started chatting about his time on Guiding Light, he didn't play off his work on the long-running soap. He valued his time on the show and in the soap world for the confidence he gained as a working actor.

"Yeah, got it right out of school. To be making some money, it was huge to have a job like that, was such a confidence builder."

His time on his first soap did a great deal to acclimate him to being a working professional actor. "This is something that you're new to, and you're sort of looking around to learn how to be. You're sort of looking at the people around you and sussing out what the acceptable behavior is.

Tom Pelphrey Emmy

"On Guiding Light, in particular, I felt like I had some really amazing role models. Kim Zimmer and Ron Raines and just these real professionals who were always super prepared, always on time, extremely generous with the people around them, and kind, and team players. I think that was a really important part of what I learned from Guiding Light.

"And then in a real sort of practical sense in high school and college, studying acting was always theater. So with Guiding Light, I was suddenly getting paid to learn how to be in front of the camera and learn how to be on the set and learn how to prepare for that style of working, which is very different than in theater, where you have the rehearsal process, obviously, and then you're running the show live.

"So Guiding Light taught me so many things that I guess you would consider sort of basic. It was a great place to learn."

There is a theme that runs through Pelphrey's characters. They arrive shrouded in the bad-boy mystique only to reveal many layers that Pelphrey beautifully brings to life.

Tom Pelphrey Ozark Season 3

"Yeah, it's interesting sometimes. It always feels like on some level, some of these things are a bit... It's a weird sort of magic that happens where you wonder, 'Are the roles mirroring my life, or is the life informing the work? Or what is the weird balance?'

"I mean, I've heard so many actors say that they sort of get roles... And it's not even in a literal sense, but you sort of get roles sometimes that are perfect for where you're at in your life or in your experience. So I've felt that way, and I've heard so many other people speak that way that there must be something to it. I'm not sure what it is.

Pelphrey sums his process of choosing roles as determined by the writing. "To me, if the writing is good, you have a really good chance of coming out with something good. If the writing is bad, regardless of how many great people are involved, it's going to be an uphill battle.

"It's like, to me, the writing is sort of the architect's blueprint. So many people are coming to build this house. What is the thing we're all working from? So as much as I can, I just try and focus on what I think of the writing."

Beginning his Descent

For his time on Ozark, Pelphrey had already binge-watched the first two seasons. He was very much a fan and very aware of the series when he got the call to audition.

"Maybe a year or so later, I got a call to come in and audition for Alexa Fogel, who I'd known for years. She had this role come up on Ozark, and it was to play Laura Linney's brother. I was excited to read it, and I read it, and it just felt like it made a ton of sense right away.

"Every now and then, you'll just get an audition that you just go, 'I understand that.' Whether I'm right or wrong, that'll be for someone else to decide, but at least it feels like I really understand this. That was the case with Ozark, and went in and went on tape with Alexa. And then a few weeks later, they called and said I got the role."

Not aware of the full arc of his character before taking the part, Pelphrey was aware that Ben would be suffering from some sort of mental illness and would arrive in town to stir things up. But once he got the role, he learned a lot more about Ben's arc.

Getting Answers on Ozark

"Everything that they do at Ozark, in my opinion, they do the right way. One of these things was before we started filming, without me even soliciting, Chris Mundy, the showrunner of Ozark, called me and basically just walked me through the entire season. He told me all about Ben and told me what was going to happen.

"That does not happen on shows, let alone shows where I'm the newcomer. To be sort of walked through the entire season and given the character breakdown, that is a very generous thing for a showrunner to do.

"Ultimately, I think it's smart. I think it makes it a lot easier, for sure. It makes it a lot easier for me to do my job if I have all that information. I think most actors feel that way. But it doesn't always happen.

"That gave me plenty of time to go and research these things, do as much as I could to try and understand what I could of bipolar disorder and really feel prepared to come to work to do a good job," Pelphrey admitted.

His work with Linney was amazing, and the magic of what was happening didn't escape him at the time.

Davis Family Dilemma

"Yeah, it was just heaven. I mean, Laura Linney... That lady is such a class act.

"She's obviously so talented. She's been an artist that I've admired for a long time. I've seen her on stage. I've seen her movies. I've seen her television shows. But then you meet her in person, and it's just another layer.

"She's such a generous, generous artist. A very kind, supportive, nurturing, generous partner. She makes you better. And she's so humble and down to earth. Very much like Kim. Very much like Kim. But yeah, just so grounded, and straightforward, and kind, and supportive.

"Man, those things go a long way to creating an atmosphere that feels super conducive to doing the kind of work you want to be doing. When the environment feels so safe and supportive, you feel more free to take risks, you feel more creative, you feel safer to be vulnerable.

Ben Holds Wendy

"Again, those are the sort of like invisible ingredients in the soup that goes such a long way and don't always get talked about. That's all a credit to Laura because she and Jason, that whole set, that's kind of how they operate, and that's a real gift."

There is one particularly devastating scene in which Ben attempts to work out the details of his life during a manic episode in the back of a cab. The way Pelphrey manifests Ben's complicated view on himself and life highlights Ben's descent.

Pelphrey credited his performance, his ability to ride the emotional roller coaster that was Ben Davis through some devastating peaks and valleys, once again, on the writing.

"Again, this is why you always want to be looking at the writing. You understand where the character lives, and then you do as much research as you can. But ultimately, the writing is going to provide you the opportunities to live that out, or it doesn't.

"But I thought that this writing and this writers' room, Chris's writers' room, that they clearly had a real understanding of bipolar, and I think a kind of compassion for it, but also just an understanding of how it might manifest.

"So that in the writing, having done the research, as I'm reading some of these scenes, it's clear to me what might be at play in that moment. And then you're sort of just piecing together a sort of...

"Because you can never fully understand something like that or fully express it, probably even if you have a hundred hours with a TV show. So what you're wanting to do is bringing to life the moments, almost like making a collage of something.

Ben in Jail

"Certainly as the actor, you want to be able to bring as much as you can to that and bring as many ideas as you can to that. And the ideas that you do bring, you want to make them as honest and as full as you can.

"But it's really the writing that is giving you the opportunity to do these things. It's the writing, and in this case, the really wonderful writing that is giving you the blueprint or the guideline for what it wants.

"It's sort of saying like, 'In this scene, let's see this.' And then, when we take it all together, we sort of step back, and we have a representation of Ben and the bipolar, which is one small part of the whole quilt."

Taking some time to step away from the mental-illness driven Ben, we moved on to Banshee's Kurt, another character who put Pelphrey's talent to the test.

Kurt Bunker on Banshee

"Oh God, Banshee was so much fun," Pelphrey laughed. "That was a great group of people. I mean, Banshee, to me, was kind of like a graphic novel. It almost felt like we were doing a superhero show without superheroes. Everything was just like a comic book.

"It was like in the world of Banshee, all the rules made sense, but everything was allowed to be kind of larger than life, and you had these amazing characters, and amazing fight scenes, and wonderful choreography. Just so colorful, just all the different groups and characters in the show. That, to me, was a lot of fun.

"There was nothing about Banshee that felt like sort of kitchen sink realism. It was sort of heightened.

"So that was a blast. It was fun to live in that world as an actor, but then all the other actors I was working with, Anthony Starr, and Hoon Lee, and Rus Blackwell, and Matt Servitto, and Matt Rauch, wonderful people. We all got along really great, which is another rare thing.

"That Banshee cast, man, we would all just spend all of our time together. Really supportive, happy group. Which is, again, just something you know is kind of special while it's happening, so you try and soak up every moment. But yeah, that was a great job and a great opportunity."

This Is Who I Am

With so many tremendous roles under his belt, where does he go next? Why, to a David Fincher film about Herman Mankiewicz, of course. Mankiewicz wrote Citizen Kane, starring Orson Wells. Pelphrey plays Joseph Mankiewicz, Herman's younger brother in the movie, which explores the time when Herman was working on Citizen Kane.

"At that point in time, it's a much younger Joe. It's not the multiple Oscar award-winning Mankiewicz, the later years. It's kind of cool. We get to see more of the sort of older brother, younger brother, relating in that way, especially when the younger one is just kind of starting out.

"I mean, the script is super, super, super smart. It's beautifully shot. You get to do a movie with David Fincher, who I think is one of the true masters of what he does. I learned a ton from working with him. I really enjoyed it. And then I got to work with Gary Oldman, who's somebody that I've looked up to since I was that 17-year-old kid in acting school."

Pelphrey reflects, "Well, it was just one of those things where last year you're like, 'Well, this was a good year.'

Ben Laughs

"A very good year, and you're working with... Some of these people are the best and some of the best at what they do. Yeah, when that happens, I just try and shut up and listen and learn as much as possible. Yeah, very great experiences, both of them."

The COVID-19 situation has provided Pelphrey with some time for introspection. "Right now, I'm just taking this strange moment in time to focus, and center, and ground myself and be grateful for what I have. God, hopefully, for the sake of all of us, we can figure this thing out. So I guess, right now, work feels like a less of a priority, but we'll see.

"When so many people can't go to work, and so many others are scared to. There are some really big questions on the table right now. Yeah, it feels like a real moment to sort of take in, and heal, and reflect, and be grateful."

That's how I feel having finally had the opportunity to share a little time with someone as talented as Tom Pelphrey.

If you are, as yet, unfamiliar with his work, you can find Ozark and Iron Fist on Netflix, and you can immerse yourself in the crazy world that was Banshee on MAXGo.

Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer and critic for TV Fanatic. She's a member of the Critic's Choice Association, enjoys mentoring writers, cats, and passionately discussing the nuances of television and film. Follow her on Twitter and email her here at TV Fanatic.

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