Star and director Jason Bateman hopes Ozark finds enough audience for renewal

In the drama series Ozark, Jason Bateman plays Marty Byrde, a financial planner who turns to crime to protect his wife Wendy (played by Laura Linney) and their two children.
In the drama series Ozark, Jason Bateman plays Marty Byrde, a financial planner who turns to crime to protect his wife Wendy (played by Laura Linney) and their two children. PHOTO: NETFLIX

Actor Jason Bateman has gone from teen idol to funnyman and, now, takes on psychologically darker characters in dramas

Most actors would be happy to pull off one career reinvention; Jason Bateman has somehow managed two.

Like many former child stars and teen idols, Bateman found himself in a bit of slump professionally when his sitcoms Silver Spoons (1982 to 1987) and Valerie/The Hogan Family (1986 to 1991) ended their runs.

That changed in 2003, when he bagged the role of Michael Bluth in Arrested Development (2003 to 2006, and 2013 to present).

The cult comedy series, about a quirkily-dysfunctional family, won him the 2005 Golden Globe for Best Actor in a TV Comedy and also carved out a niche for him playing the straight man.

He put this to good use in the Horrible Bosses films (2011 and 2014) and Identity Thief (2013), which established him as one of Hollywood's most bankable funny men.

Yet Bateman's tastes have increasingly veered away from his bread- and-butter, with more dramatic turns in films such as the psychological thriller The Gift (2015) and, now, Ozark, a new Netflix crime drama which he also co-directed and produced.

Speaking to The Straits Times on the telephone from New York last week, the 48-year-old actor admits it was the prospect of directing Ozark that got him excited about the story of financial-planner- cum-money-launderer Marty Byrde, whom he plays.

"That was the draw for me. The actual part and the storyline were secondary to what I was getting excited about just as a director," says Bateman, whose voice has the same deliberate cadence and hint of world-weariness fans associate with his characters.

He had previously directed the dark comedies Bad Words (2013) and The Family Fang (2015).

With Ozark, there was a chance "to build this environment where the story and danger can exist in a visual, musical and editorial way - and all those things are a very exciting challenge for me as a young director".

Influencing his vision for the four episodes he helmed were the gritty crime dramas Top Of The Lake (2013 to present), Out Of The Furnace (2013) and Animal Kingdom (2010).

"I like things that are somewhat quiet and restrained in their danger - it just feels a little bit more raw the more tamped down things are.

"Sometimes, that's not as exciting to certain people, but those three projects took a very measured, realistic and feral approach to many elements, and I like that level of restraint."

One show that was not a source of inspiration was the acclaimed series Breaking Bad (2008 to 2013), the tale of high-school teacher- turned-drug-dealer Walter White.

Many viewers have compared it with Ozark, which sees Marty, like White, turn to crime to protect his wife Wendy (played by Laura Linney) and their two children.

"I can only just say how flattered we are to be compared to that. We would like to be half as good," Bateman says.

But the key difference is his character will never fully embrace the criminal life, something he pushed for personally.

"That big turn for Walter White in Breaking Bad is that he leans into the crime as seasons go on. I said, 'Let's make sure we don't take the show in that direction because they did that so well. Let's focus on other things.'

"So that's not something you're going to see Marty or Wendy do. They come at it from a different perspective - they're kind of trying to cut a corner on the American dream."

The audience is going to have to make up their own minds about Marty and his actions, though.

He says: "I am attracted to stuff where you've got to lean in a little to try to figure out what's going on with certain characters - I don't like to help the audience that much with performance or story or exposition."

And whether the narrative or Bateman's approach resonates with viewers will come down to taste - a word the actor uses a lot.

"Visually, there's a certain colour palette that I like and there's a certain way I like music to work or not work with certain things, and it's all just taste, really.

"Hopefully, my taste aligns with enough people that it makes Netflix happy and they ask us to do more - that's all you can really hope for. It doesn't need to be everybody. It would be foolish to think everyone's going to like what you're doing."

The show being on Netflix is a good start in that regard. Unlike with a traditional network, fewer people have to watch it here for it to be viable because the streaming service does not have advertisers.

Bateman says: "You hope that the show will live or die based on just its merits, as opposed to its ability to recruit and hold 20 million people like you might need to on a network show because the advertising dollars are based on the number of eyeballs.

"I thought if I'm lucky enough to hit my target, I think the people who watch Netflix will like it or, at the very least, the people who run Netflix would respond to it and wouldn't ask me to water it down or make it more generic or populist."

After 35 years in show business, he concedes that he is none the wiser about knowing if a project will succeed. What he has learnt is that "the trick is to not try to please everybody".

"If you do that with the things you're creating, you can end up making it for no one because it ends up being just so generic," says the star, who is married to actress Amanda Anka, 48 and the daughter of singer Paul Anka, and has two daughters aged 10 and five.

"Ultimately, I'm making something I love more than anyone that's going to see this. You really can't guide it for anybody else's taste because you don't have anybody else's taste. You just cross your fingers."

•Ozark is available on Netflix.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 14, 2017, with the headline 'Changing tastes of Bateman'. Print Edition | Subscribe