Jason Bateman appears on a Zoom screen from Los Angeles, bespectacled, calm and in uncluttered, butter-coloured environs. It's as if Michael Bluth, the character he played in Arrested Development, had dressed up as a therapist for some hilarious purpose. To fans of the show, its entire cast will always have traces clinging to them, as if they have all been, well, arrested in that dysfunctional family. But today we're here to talk about Ozark, a drama with a reputation that has been climbing each season (it's now in its fourth and final) and so has, arguably, become even more defining for Bateman.
Tense and lingering, Ozark has the dizzying pace and visual sumptuousness that the modern long-running box set demands. What was haunting about it from the start were the subtle performances of Bateman and his co-star, Laura Linney; just a regular, affluent, middle-aged couple, except he was about to launder $500 million for a drug cartel and she'd just watched the murder of the lawyer she was having an affair with. They were on the run, but only sort of. They hated each other, except they didn't. What passed between them gave such propulsive energy to their characters that from the very beginning you could trust one thing: it might be improbable, but it was never going to be boring. But all that nuance was a double-edged sword. "Marty and Wendy are really intelligent characters," Bateman says. "Sometimes that narrows your options as a writer, trying to keep things plausible. They can't do really stupid things. The smart thing to do is to turn yourself in. Then the show's over."
Typically (although not this time because of coronavirus) Bateman would direct the first two episodes of each season. He starts off describing the appeal of being an actor/director quite neutrally. "It's more efficient for me to be playing a character in something, because that's one less person I need to direct," he says. "I don't have to have any sort of creative negotiation with that actor." Then he slides into the territory of the self-aware control freak: "Especially when I'm the lead character, I can just adjust my own performance to motivate a different performance out of the other actor. I can get them to speed up or slow down or trick them by being more emotional." Finally, he clarifies forcefully and winningly, he's not a control freak at all. "I had a very fortunate first experience. My first big job, Little House on the Prairie, had Michael Landon as the director, actor, producer – and sometimes writer. There's this theory that you need to scream at people to get them to work their hardest. I saw by example there that the opposite is true."
It's pointless of course to pretend not to have been a child star if you were one, but it also takes a certain kind of comfort in your skin to underline immediately how incredibly long your career has been. Little House on the Prairie first aired in 1974. Bateman didn't join the cast until the early 1980s. His career dates officially from a Golden Grahams advert in 1980, when he was just 11 (he's now 53). He talks about his mother – a Pan Am flight attendant, originally from the UK – a lot. If something is hilarious to him, it's because "my mother is British and everything is dry to her". His father would be the more obvious role model in professional terms. Kent Bateman was an actor, writer and director, and the producer of the 1987 fantasy comedy sequel Teen Wolf Too, the lead role that sealed his son's teen-idol status as mischievous, unthreatening and very 1980s.
Bateman became a complete sitcom fixture in titles that are familiar to US viewers but less so in the UK (TV didn’t travel so much then). Silver Spoons, the Hogan Family, “these shows in front of a live audience, where there’s a performance type of obligation: you’re incorporating their laughter, it’s more like being on stage”. Inevitably, trying to make the transition from child to adult, while simultaneously trying to morph for audiences from cute kid to serious actor, was fraught.
'I'd lost my place in line in the business; it was a case of trying to claw that back towards the end of the 90s, and not getting a lot of great responses'
He describes the 1990s as effectively wilderness years, while robustly objecting to the term “wilderness years”. “It was a combination,” he says. “Me stopping everything on purpose, to catch up with all these inabilities I had as a kid, because I was always working.” (“Inabilities” is a curious word – he’s saying his early career meant he missed out on a carefree childhood and teenage years, trying not to offend his parents, perhaps.) “I wanted to get the wiggles out.”
He has described in the past how his wife, Amanda Anka, also an actor and mother of their two daughters, Francesca and Maple, gave him an ultimatum about his partying. It's such an imprecise term, "partying" – it can mean anything from too many beers to a heroin habit, but it's nothing like as imprecise as "wiggles". He has been less oblique in the past, describing all-night booze and drug binges ("It's like French fries and ketchup – I don't want one without the other") before he finally decided to go into AA. Information, it seems, is often sprinkled, rather than hosed, with Bateman.
Later, talking about Smartless, the podcast he started in 2020 with Will Arnett (a magnificent comedian and ex-alcoholic, who played Gob in Arrested Development), he says: "Will started everything by saying, 'Who's gonna listen to some boring thing about sobriety?' And I said: 'At least let me be on it, so we can talk about sobriety and the journey'." When Smartless arrived, also featuring Sean Hayes (from Will & Grace), it was nothing really to do with partying, it was all about friendship. It's also absolutely stop-in-the-street-to-laugh brilliant.
Back to the lost decade. “Having thought, ‘This is really fun’, and staying at the party a little bit too long, I’d lost my place in line in the business; it was a case of trying to claw that back towards the end of the 90s, and not getting a lot of great responses.” The official end of that dry spell was Arrested Development, which first aired in 2003, but also, Juno, in 2007, a fascinating indie film about a teenager who gets accidentally pregnant and agrees to have the baby adopted. It’s quite an uncomfortable movie, seen, at the time, as implicitly anti-abortion, and deliberately vague and airbrushed on what the experience of giving a baby up for adoption is actually like. But the characterisation is complex and interesting, in large part because of Bateman’s prospective adoptive dad, reversing and messing with expectations.
He starts out as something you think you understand – a wholesome everyman – then becomes a much darker character, on whom the coating of nice-guy shellac shimmers somewhere between shtick and active deception. It’s not a huge role but is a perfect distillation of Bateman’s mature performances; the guy who uses his everyman face like a Trojan horse. He says he likes to play characters as “not too far from the average person. Even if the part is not right in that lane, but maybe adjacent to it, I will pull the character into that. Even if they’re not vanilla on the page, I like pulling them into vanilla.” He has said before that he only took the role in Juno because Francesca, recently born, had colic, and it was a guaranteed three weeks out of the house. “No, no, no,” he now says, disapprovingly. “I said that to be fun. I said it with, hopefully, an obvious wink.” There he goes again, pulling himself back into vanilla.
To rewind to Arrested Development: it started at Fox and was an immediate success, winning five Emmys for the first season. It was cancelled, because Fox is crazy. The first three seasons were breathtakingly good – and surprising. The way each actor was so distinct and yet so locked together in the ensemble, the sheer quality of the cast – Jeffrey Tambor and the late Jessica Walter as the parents, Bateman, Arnett, Portia de Rossi and Tony Hale as their adult children – was remarkable. Bateman is very clear about what made it funny: "This is not funny to anybody inside the show. This is a drama to them. Almost like an animal documentary, where you're watching these freaks, and how they gather their food, and how they make their house. And let's make sure we all whisper because we don't want these folks to know how much we're laughing at them."
Having been dropped, it was picked up six years later by Netflix, back when the streaming behemoth had no real track record of programme-making, except for David Fincher's House of Cards. "What's good for David Fincher sure as shit better be good enough for us," is how Bateman describes the united attitude of the cast.
'In a drama, I'm not the person with a knife, I'm the person getting chased. In a comedy, I'm not the person farting, I'm the person who smelled it'
There were plenty of people queueing up to say it wasn’t as good at Netflix, and truthfully, the fourth season wasn’t. Critically, the reception went up and down – at its putative worst, it’s still funnier than most things – and career-wise, he says: “I will always respect the access and relevance that that show gave me, and try not to take that for granted again, and do everything I can to earn this place in the business that I love. It created an environment; I loved going there every single day.”
This is surprising, since if Arrested Development is famous for one thing, other than itself, it’s for a terrible atmosphere on set. Or at least, that was the story in a New York Times cast interview in 2018. Walter, who died in March last year, said of Tambor: “In almost 60 years of working, I’ve never had anybody yell at me like that on a set.” Bateman and Hale tried to damp down the situation, and the whole thing – particularly coming when it did, when the lid was just being lifted on Hollywood harassment, sexual or otherwise – saw them accused of minimising.
Bateman remains adamant about his original stance and says of that interview: “Things got misinterpreted and there was a fallout – it was unfortunate. But it was an anomaly. Any family work environment, you’re going to have situations where things go a little pear-shaped every once in a while. I just have the fondest memories of 100 per cent of that experience. You know, the ups and the downs, the good, the bad, the funny, the sad: all of it was a positive to me.”
There's a lively internet chat scene on the similarities between Marty Byrde in Ozark and Michael Bluth in Arrested Development – that they are morally so alike, Ozark must have been (consciously or not) conceived as a prequel to Arrested Development. In this fan-fictional universe, Michael is actually Marty post-witness protection scheme. I disagree with that. Part of the genius of Bateman's Arrested Development performance is how completely, learning-resistantly hapless he is, while as Byrde he can see round corners and get the better of any situation. He doesn't really want to adjudicate on this question and ruin any fan debates, so says mildly: "I think they have similar blind spots. Their arrogance and hubris leads to early decisions. Perhaps they should think a little bit longer about what they do."
If there’s another through-line, Bateman says, it’s that: “I’m not too far removed from a drama when I’m doing Arrested Development and I’m not too far from a comedy when I’m doing Ozark.” He reaches to describe some quintessence to his acting another way: “In a drama, I’m not the person with a knife, I’m the person getting chased. In a comedy, I’m not the person farting, I’m the person who smelled it.” It’s so neat, so succinct, and so drolly sums up the paradox: it’s actually terribly rare to meet an everyman, almost unique to meet one who’s everymanning on purpose. – Guardian
Ozark is available to stream on Netflix. The Smartless podcast live tour kicks off on February 2nd with sold out shows across six cities in the US