When Wendy Byrde fled her Chicago suburb with her husband and two children at the start of Netflix’s Ozark in 2017, she couldn’t have known where the trip would take her. Over the three-and-a-half seasons of the show, Laura Linney’s matriarch has evolved from the support structure to husband Marty Byrde’s money laundering scheme to a criminal mastermind on her own terms, a woman who pulls the strings of an international drug operation and is starting to muscle into politics.
The first half of the fourth and final season clarifies Wendy’s ascension to the centerpiece of the show: Jason Bateman’s Marty is reduced to sputtering at her audacious moves, while her ruthlessness has become so extreme that it even startles a murderous drug kingpin like Omar Navarro. In the mid-season finale, Navarro tells her that he sees a reflection of his cutthroat nature in Wendy. However, when she threatens his family to ensure the safety of her own, he finally understands that she has no rules. There is nothing that Wendy Byrde wouldn’t do to keep her family together, even as she struggles to keep her son Jonah from joining the competition.
Linney spoke to GQ about whether Wendy is the real villain, , her struggles with her children in season four, and how Ozark reflects the dark national mood of the last few years.
Do you think it’s fair to call Wendy Byrde a villain? Are we supposed to root for her to succeed?
I don’t know if she’s the villain. She certainly does not behave well (laughs.) It is not a character who you aspire to be, I hope. I don’t know if she’s the villain because she’s not trying to hurt her family. She’s trying to save her family. I think if she were actively, intentionally trying to derail her family then she would be a real villain. Normally, the villain is the person who goes after the protagonist, tries to thwart the protagonist. That’s not who she is. I don’t know quite what she is but she’s not that.
But it is an interesting question because she’s not one thing. When we first started doing Ozark, the thing I was most interested in examining was the whole issue of identity within a character, within a group of people, within a family, within a state—how people view themselves, what they present and what they are. How hard some people can work at not being who they really are, which is where I think you first meet Wendy Byrde. She’s worked really hard to be something different than what she came from, for the right reasons, and then when she’s sent back to the Ozarks, she’s put back in a situation that’s too familiar. And, slowly, she becomes more aligned with a lot of the values that she experienced growing up. Then with the threat of danger and survival being on the line and possibly some mental illness sprinkled in there, which we learn does run through her family, I think she’s very reactive.
And she’s not very mature. She’s not. I loved playing that. She’s shrewd and she’s smart, but she’s not mature. And she’s not evolved.
How so? The way she overreacts to things?
Yeah! Absolutely. The anger management issues. Entitlement issues. Jealousy. Wanting things the way she wants them. Losing perspective completely.
She presents herself as this political animal, this creature who knows how to manipulate people, but that’s often just a presentation and not the truth.
I think she knows how to survive. [She’s] someone in the political arena who doesn’t come from an academic background, who doesn’t come from a historical background, who comes from someone who’s trying to survive, who believes there is something better for everybody. I think she really does believe that. It’s just her. She doesn’t have the tools to do it in an ethical, dignified way. She does it in a messy, hot mess, really warped way.
I think some people see her as calculated, but she’s so often making mistakes that come in moments in which she did not stop to calculate.
Absolutely. She’s reactive. Her instincts are so good—they’re shrewd. They’re not the best choices, but they work. And she doesn’t think deeply—she acts. She’s primal that way. She starts to trust her own power. “I’m right. It might be messy and awful, but I’m right. I know I’m right.” And she is right most of the time.
That happens pretty early in the run of the show.
How long ago did you know Wendy’s arc, from the beginning to where she is now?
Chris Mundy [Ozark’s showrunner] and I talked early on. When you’re playing the wife of the main character of the show, it can be wonderful or there can be not a whole lot to play. I didn’t care how big my part was, I just wanted to have something that I could really play that would help move the narrative of the story forward. Chris and I talked a lot about identity. I think at the time, I was questioning that—who are we as Americans? Who are we? As an American citizen, who am I? Who did I think I was? Who did I want to be?
And then I started thinking about that family and how they really don’t know each other very well. They functioned well enough to have a solid middle-class life, but they didn’t know each other well and they didn’t know themselves well. In the course of the show, they all get to really learn about themselves and learn about each other in a very different light.
When we shot the episode where she twirls the possum and it goes on top of the roof—I had a moment when I got that script where I thought, “How does she know how to do that? How would a woman from Chicago know how to fling a possum by the tail and not be afraid of it? And how is it that she knows how to talk to all these people in the Ozarks in a way that is blunt and cuts right through and she’s not scared of them? What is that?” She’s a foreigner, but I could smell something familiar there. Chris and I talked, and I said, “She’s not from Chicago. She’s from a variation of the Ozarks, and now part of the reason that she has resisted going there is because she’s right back where she started.” She fought so hard to get out of that environment. And then the whole character…the kaleidoscope shifted and I could just see it all.
Did you ever say, “I don’t think Wendy would do that”? Maybe you never had to, but could you have?
I never had to. I never had to. Part of my job is to fuel it so they would do that. I don’t mind doing anything as long as it makes sense to me. That’s the challenge some days. Sometimes you get something in the writing and you’re like “Why would that happen?” As opposed to “I wouldn’t do that,” you need to ask, “Why would I do that?” And then find the answer, and then it will broaden your understanding of your own character in a surprising way.
I feel like season three really elevated because of how much I bought your relationship with Tom. How much of the biography of Wendy Byrde you know?
I know it pretty well (laughs.) I know it really well. No one else needs to know it.
How much of that influences your performance?
Oh, it does. Absolutely, it does. The joy for me is figuring all of that stuff out and getting as close to the story as I possibly can, and then you throw it out, and you walk on set and see what bleeds through. The catch in a voice, the way you look at someone, the way you discuss something or reference something in your past—it will have a little more meaning because you’ve done that work.
Do you do that with every project?
I tend to. It’s the nerdy actor in me. It’s not right for everything. But for material that is helped by it, it’s just fun. You get to pick a story apart. You get to learn about worlds that you don’t know. You get to be creative with things. You get to fantasize about what this is and what could that be. And then there’s the magical moment of throwing it all away and seeing what translates. How do you execute an idea? Ideas are great, but they don’t really have a place while the camera is running (laughs.) No one wants to see an idea acted.
The dynamic with Wendy’s children, Charlotte and Jonah, is essential to the show this season. It almost feels like Wendy is pulling Charlotte closer as Jonah is going the other way. She’s like a political creature who knows she needs another vote. Can you speak about how those dynamics developed, both with the actors and on camera?
Those actors—Skylar [Gaertner] and Sofia [Hublitz]—were so young when we started that there’s something that just sort of happens in the reality of time passing. Five years! Five years for me is not significant. Five years for them is significant. We watched them grow up. So some of it is also just naturally what was happening in front of our eyes. Skylar grew two feet. He’s unrecognizable. Sofia matured in a beautiful way. It was wonderful to watch them navigate being on-set as a young person and then navigate the success of the show. The final season is at a time when they would be adolescents anyway. In some ways, they hit the right age to play a lot of that stuff.
Wendy has tremendous fear and tremendous guilt about her parenting. She knows she’s not a good parent. She knows that. She was not parented well. She’s not parenting well. She thought she would be better and she’s not. She’s peeved and she’s not happy about that. And she’s trying to devour her kids. She keeps them close and keeps them safe. She’s trying to eat both of them (laughs.) Desperately hanging onto them. It justifies all the behavior. If they’re not aligned with her then she’s really up shit’s creek.
What’s she doing it all for if she can’t protect her family? She’s at least told herself that this is all in pursuit of family, and if that doesn’t work…
That’s right. If that’s not really the case, then she has to face something about herself that she just can’t. You know the people that if they’re confronted with the truth, then they become a feral cat? She’s one of those people.
Anxiety makes us all over-reactive, and this is also a time of heightened national anxiety. I’ve seen a lot more temper even in myself.
Absolutely. There’s been permission to have a temper in a way. It’s seen as strength. Kindness is seen as a weakness. Anger and drama and flair is seen as strength. Posturing. Who are we as a country? We are different than we were ten years ago. Radically different. What does that do to your subconscious when your identity and your accepted persona of what your country stands for is shifting and changing in a way that feels uncomfortable?
We can all try to understand Wendy’s need to hold her family together through all of that national anxiety and stress.
I hope so. I hope so. That’s the challenge of it. The challenge is to be able to go as far as you can while hanging onto the humanity of someone. You don’t have to like her. I wouldn’t like her (laughs.) I wouldn’t want to have dinner with her. But she has to be a character that helps to move the story and the narrative forward and keep the audience in the story instead of busting them out. People can hate the character all they want to as long as they enjoy the story.