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Jason Bateman Recalls His Roots as a Child Actor

Jason Bateman is best known as a comedic straight man, earning raves in critically acclaimed projects such as “Juno,” “Zootopia” and “Arrested Development,” which will be returning to Netflix this summer. “Without question that was the most important role I’ve ever had,” says Bateman of his portrayal of family mainstay Michael Bluth. He’s also starring in (and directing four episodes of) “Ozark,” the moody, intense Netflix thriller that he also exec produces.

Bateman has been acting since childhood. His first Variety mention was on Nov. 16, 1979, when he signed with the Dorothy Day Otis/Jack Rose Agency at age 10. Two years later, he had his breakthrough when he joined the hit series “Little House on the Prairie,” followed by “Silver Spoons,” then moved into TV leads with “Valerie.” He made his directing debut in that sitcom, renamed “Valerie’s Family” and then “The Hogan Family.”

Do you remember your first signing with an agency?

It was a big moment. Just kidding — I don’t remember the feeling specifically, but I do remember getting an agent. My dad had a friend who lived next door to us — he was an actor — and I was out washing the car with my dad, and this actor neighbor was going to an audition, and he asked if I wanted to go along to see how an audition went. They were looking to cast a 10-year-old for a part, and he put some sides in my hand to make it look like I knew what I was doing. Then my dad took some pictures of me and sent them into an agency, and I guess the Otis/Jack Rose agency was one of them. I looked like a kid who could sell hamburgers, so they brought me in, gave me some copy for a burger commercial and said, “Great,” and signed me up. I did a year’s worth of commercials after that.

Did you have any mentors who taught you about acting — or about the business side?

The only thing that I remember really soaking in was that first big job on “Little House on the Prairie.” That group of actors has been together since “Bonanza,” and the way in which everybody functioned was very familial. It was a warm place, and I remember in the few years that followed, when I would end up on sets that were less functional. Michael Landon was somebody who had a huge influence on me in the way he led that set as a director, as an exec producer, as a writer and actor and as somewhat of a father figure for me. He was the George Clooney of that time: The crew loved him, the industry loved him, guys wanted to be him and women wanted to be with him.

Growing up, you were nominated for a bunch of awards and walked the red carpet. Was that fun or surreal for a kid?

It’s always nice to get one, and as a little kid it was definitely encouraging because I didn’t know what the hell I was doing or if I was any good at it. But the awards were always given out at some banquet room in a hotel, and to me it wasn’t that significant.

Did you audition for everything? Or after “Little House” and “Silver Spoons” were you just sought out?

It was always more and more auditions. You’re constantly trying to get hired, and if you do get the job, that job ends in a matter of weeks, and then you’re going on another job interview. An actor is constantly faced with those stakes, almost on a daily basis, and it’s a pressure cooker. Less so for a kid, because you’re not supporting a family, but you start to understand how things work pretty quickly. When it comes to the entertainment industry, you sort of have to go all in.

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