As ‘Ozark’ ends, Jason Bateman wants to stay behind the camera

He exudes the everyman on screen, but the challenges of directing get him going

“Ozark” star Jason Bateman, in New York on April 20. The show’s final seven episodes arrive April 29 on Netflix. (Celeste Sloman for The Washington Post)
“Ozark” star Jason Bateman, in New York on April 20. The show’s final seven episodes arrive April 29 on Netflix. (Celeste Sloman for The Washington Post)
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In Los Angeles

Jason Bateman reads the reviews. Even the negative ones. As he pulls his dark gray Tesla into a parking space at Dodger Stadium, he mentions a particularly savage write-up. There’s no bitterness, more a respectful appreciation.

The review ran in the New York Times upon the 2017 premiere of “Ozark,” the dark Netflix drama in which Bateman stars as financial adviser-turned-money launderer Marty Byrde.

“There were good, there were bad, but what I did not anticipate was the creativity of criticism Mike Hale put together when he described me,” says Bateman, 53, his thick hair tucked under a Vin Scully baseball cap. “He basically said, this guy Jason Bateman is so boring in this character, he is like the guy who works the counter at the airport when you go to buy a ticket.”

(Hale’s actual language: " … played by Bateman with the aggressive blandness of an airline gate agent. “)

He laughs, and it’s not the gloaty, told-you-so snicker that would be absolutely acceptable considering what followed Hale’s review: 44 episodes of “Ozark,” a loyal audience and several Emmys, including one for Bateman for directing. What matters is that the airline agent line was a joyous slice of writing. “He just shaped that sentence in such a beautiful way,” he says.

One thing the review didn’t make Bateman do is question or change his performance. In the early days of “Ozark,” Marty couldn’t be screaming or throwing his drink across the room. The magic would be in the build, the methodical nature of his reflexive calm even as he watched his business partner get shot in the head and his wife have sex on camera with another man.

“There’s a reason Marty is not hysterical,” says Bateman. “Because he’s the center of all the madness. I knew why I was playing it like that and where I was going with it and how that, hopefully, is going to be satisfying by the time we get to the end of the season and end of the series.”

This approach to character-building has defined “Ozark” over five years of plot twists and as the series concludes — the final seven episodes arrive April 29 — it’s hard to imagine anyone snoozing during a screening. “Ozark” tells the story of the Byrde family as it relocates from Chicago to Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks so Marty can get to work laundering millions for a Mexican drug cartel. The series is packed with violence, dark humor and the not-so-passive aggression between Bateman’s Marty and Laura Linney’s Wendy Byrde. Early on, the couple seem to almost believe that everything they do is meant to keep their family safe. By this fourth and final season, Marty’s teetering master plan has begun to collapse and his impulses finally overtake his tranquilized id. In one of the show’s last episodes, he snaps in an afternoon traffic jam, springing out of the family minivan to violently beat a stranger, all to the soundtrack of Todd Rundgren’s “I Saw The Light.”

Again, there’s no blurb-worthy self-praise from Bateman. He actually downplays his performance, describing his decision to step in front of the camera as merely practical. Overseeing “Ozark” with showrunner Chris Mundy demanded so much focus, he found playing Marty a “time saver.”

“I wouldn’t have to direct that actor or get into his head,” says Bateman.

Not everyone agrees with that review of his performance. Actor Ryan Reynolds, a longtime friend, had a different take after watching an advance of the final episodes. That led him to text Bateman.

“You are so f---ing good at your job, it’s frightening,” Reynolds wrote. “Even the moments I’m expecting a perfect Bateman comedy layup, you have the mental temerity to resist and stay with the character. It’s a master class, pal, and if I actually cared about acting enough, I’d apply so many of these principles that you’re laying down for me.”

On a crisp April morning, Bateman walked from his house, across Mulholland Drive and into a conservation area with hiking trails.

He had already driven his girls to school and, later, he’d run his usual six miles on the treadmill above the garage. His other plans for the week would be done from a box seat behind the visitor’s dugout. The Dodgers were playing the Reds in their home opener, and he would be there, consuming a couple of veggie dogs and scattering peanut shells. There was a time when Bateman got to all 81 home games, but that ended when he and his wife, producer and actress Amanda Anka, started a family. They have two daughters, Franny, 15, and Maple, 10.

Taking a seat at a picnic bench, Bateman first commiserates about how entertainment coverage has changed over the years. So much clickbait, so many minefields. Not that he reads Us Weekly. He calls himself a fanboy of Washington Post political columnist David Ignatius.

That desire for serious conversation can backfire amusingly. When “SmartLess,” the podcast he does with Will Arnett and Sean Hayes went on tour earlier this year, Arnett recruited Will Ferrell as their surprise guest in D.C. and Bradley Cooper for Brooklyn. Bateman’s selection for the Boston stop? The Swedish-born Massachusetts Institute of Technology physicist and artificial intelligence expert Max Tegmark.

“Just a 1 hour talk with a professor,” one attendee tweeted. “No music from Sean, no fun guests, nothing extra. My wife and I flew from atlanta. Now we feel stupid.”

Lately, Bateman has been re-watching “Ozark” with Franny, but that’s mainly because he wants to catch her up before the finale. His own viewing habits are more limited. He says he’s seen maybe three episodes of “Friends” and never caught “Breaking Bad.” He started watching HBO’s “The Wire,” but stopped after six episodes because he found it hard to get into.

“I watch MSNBC all day, until the Dodger game starts,” Bateman says. “And then I watch that until I pass out and then finish the last few innings first thing in the morning, rolling into ‘Morning Joe.’ That’s it.”

His friends fittingly call him Grandpa. They take note as he comes over for dinner and searches out the microwave because, even when the food comes straight out of the oven, it could be hotter. They also laugh as he and Anka arrive for a night out in two cars, allowing him to go home early.

“Delightfully boring” is how Jimmy Kimmel describes Bateman in a phone call. “We’ll go on trips together sometimes, and he’s really good at putting the kids to bed because it means he gets to go to sleep at 9 o’clock.”

“He likes to talk but there’s a limited window,” says Jennifer Aniston, another close friend who has been in five movies with Bateman, including “Horrible Bosses” and “The Switch.” “When you’re gathering in a group, JB gives you maybe an hour. But all of a sudden you can see that imaginary window shade sort of pull down. He’s like, ‘Okay, that’s it. I’ve got my time in.’ ”

Bateman describes himself as an introvert. He listens mainly to classical music and does tend to prefer staying in. Part of this is rooted in his decision to quit drinking in 2002, but it also speaks to a lack of pretension, and a perspective he formed years ago.

Hayes remembers going to lunch with Bateman during the late 1990s. At the time, Bateman’s career had stalled and Hayes was receiving acclaim for his role as Jack on “Will & Grace.”

“He said one quote that I’ll never forget,” says Hayes. “ ’None of this is up to you.’ And I go, ‘What do you mean?’ He goes, 'We can only go on auditions, make content, create stuff. The rest isn’t up to us. And if we try to control it, it’s a waste of time.’ ”

Bateman started acting as a child. He made his debut on “Little House on the Prairie” at 11, playing the orphaned James Cooper Ingalls, before landing on “Silver Spoons” in 1982 to play Ricky Schroder’s pal Derek. (At the same time, his older sister, Justine, starred in “Family Ties.”) Bateman tried to keep up with his schoolwork but eventually gave up, skipping finals to film “Teen Wolf Too” and a hit sitcom, “The Hogan Family,” which ran from 1986 to 1991. During the its run, Bateman got a chance to direct three episodes. He was just 18, making him at the time the youngest member of the Directors Guild of America.

But “The Hogan Family” didn’t lead to more work. By his early 20s, Bateman found himself living alone — he no longer had his father, Kent, a director and producer, managing him — and trying to reinvent himself as much personally as professionally.

This is when he’s hard on himself. Bateman mentions one old clip in particular, which he recently saw thanks to the steady stream of mocking text threads circulated by Kimmel and Arnett. They love to highlight Bateman’s cheesier past, whether playing Nintendo on “Ice Capades” or wearing a jumpsuit and sporting a mullet while participating in a celebrity car race. The clip he’s fixated on is from his first “Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” appearance.

He is 15, and the legendary Carson flubs his first name when introducing him, calling him Jonathan Bateman. So Jason, wearing a multicolored sweater straight off a “Punky Brewster” wardrobe rack, responds by calling Carson Jack. That glibness makes him groan today.

Come on,” Bateman says. “The fact that I thought I was that quick and I could do that, that is so douchy. It’s kind of like, if you’re the guy, then you need to kind of have a swagger. That kind of snap, point, wink type of guy. There was a confidence there that was unappealing.

Bateman uses the example as an illustration of who he didn’t want to be, and the realization that he needed to grow and be more genuine. He watched young actors in his orbit acting obnoxiously — he won’t name names — and the adults who had to tolerate them. He did acid around his 20th birthday and remembers an unpleasant trip marked by an awareness of his own lack of humility. Then there was the ultimate humbler: failure.

Bateman remembers sitting in a hotel room in New York in the early 1990s. “The Hogan Family” was done, and he was on the phone, grumbling to his lawyer about a lowball offer to make a pilot.

“And I said, ‘How come they’re not coming up on this?' ” Bateman remembers. “And he said, ‘You know, Jason, I just have to tell you — it might be tough to hear, but I’ve been your attorney since you were 12: You’re just not as hot as you used to be.’ ”

The wilderness years extended throughout the 1990s. The pilots, the occasional part in a failed series, a bit part in a “Hart to Hart” TV movie. He auditioned for a role in a Coen brothers film, “The Hudsucker Proxy,” and agreed to be a guest reader for a Quentin Tarantino movie, secretly hoping the director would consider him for a role. (He didn’t.) It wasn’t until 2002 that Bateman made his comeback, and even then, he almost didn’t.

Mitchell Hurwitz was casting for a show on Fox called “Arrested Development.” The idea would be to transform and poke at the traditional family sitcom. There would be countless winks to the format, including having it narrated by director Ron Howard, whose TV career included playing Opie on “The Andy Griffith Show” and Richie on “Happy Days.” Hurwitz cast the Bluth family to include Arnett, Jeffrey Tambor and Portia de Rossi.

Hurwitz admits he was not thrilled when casting director Deborah Barylski brought him a list of potential Michael Bluths.

“I saw Jason Bateman was the fourth name,” he says. “And I remember saying, ‘Don’t bring in Jason Bateman. If you bring in Jason Bateman, he’ll be good, the network will insist on me making the Jason Bateman show.’ And at that time, he was at risk of being an actor who just does pilots that don’t go forward.”

Bateman, though, killed in the audition, and his portrayal of Bluth would prove the rudder of “Arrested Development.” It also led to the creation of the “Jason Bateman character,” somebody with the “uncanny knack of playing the everyman who lets others be wackier around him,” says Seth Gordon, who directed Bateman in “Horrible Bosses” and “Identity Thief.”

To hear Bateman describe it, these performances are almost easy. “No one’s swinging for the fences at all,” he says. “It’s just purely there to service the story and just sort of disappear, just being some sort of a proxy for the audience.”

Arnett, who met him on “Arrested Development,” believes Bateman is downplaying the skill and ability it takes to play the everyman.

“I think he is mistaking easy with second nature,” he says. “He’s been doing it for so long that it’s almost instinctive. For a lot of people, it’s not easy to do what Jason does.”

“That character is not just a normal guy,” says Hurwitz. “It’s a normal guy trying to be a normal guy holding it together. There is turmoil being suppressed in this normal guy. And that’s what makes it compelling and funny.”

Michael Bluth never shot anybody or watched a Mexican drug lord gouge out the eyes of a man who betrayed him. But Marty Byrde does provide “Ozark” with a similar center to what Bateman delivered in “Arrested Development.”

It wasn’t the role that excited Bateman when he saw the first script from writer Bill Dubuque, best known for “The Accountant.” It was the opportunity to direct “Ozark”; that’s why he agreed to star. (In the end, Bateman directed only nine episodes, including the first two and the series finale, because the shooting schedule didn’t allow him to both act and direct more.)

When he talks about acting, he describes a process that he’s almost too comfortable with. When he talks about directing, he gets excited, talking about the challenges, the problem-solving. He takes particular pride in an early scene in “Ozark” that featured Linney behind the wheel of a boat. He sketched out the single shot on a napkin for the camera operator.

“To me, the creative challenge is bringing millions of people who have had a different day than the person sitting next to them into the theater and to have the same sort of shape curating their experiences,” he says. “When does the music come in? How long are we on that shot? What’s the color saturating do to set the mood? It’s the difference between being first violin or the conductor.”

Linney says Bateman’s enthusiasm for directing extended to his pushing her to do it, too, even though she had no interest. Her first directing gig is the 11th episode of this final season. When Bateman was directing, she says, his experience and temperament allowed everyone to “take a deep breath, a deep sigh.”

“There are hundreds of people on set, and he can point to every single person and tell you what they do,” she says. “Most directors are strong in one area or the other. You can have a shot in something that overpowers a scene and competes with an acting moment. Then you have some scenes that are kind of dull and need a visual uplift. And he knows exactly what do to, how to balance that out.”

Which is why, now that “Ozark” is done, Bateman doesn’t want to talk about acting. His next job is “Project Artemis,” a $100 million-plus space movie he’s directing for Apple that stars Scarlett Johansson and Chris Evans. But Anka says she already sees a small, on-screen role for her husband.

“I don’t want to not see him for five years acting, because he’s special and I think what he does is hard to do well,” she says.

That’s also Aleen Keshishian’s feeling. Bateman’s manager, who began sending his directing work to Johansson’s production company during “Ozark,” does not believe he is done acting.

“Not if I can help it,” she says. “I’m going to beg him to keep acting.”

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