If you grew up in the 1980s, and you were a connoisseur of small-screen culture, then you remember Jason Bateman as the preppy, freckled and precociously winsome Derek Taylor, the comic foil to Ricky Schroder’s tow-headed teenage heartthrob on the NBC sitcom “Silver Spoons.”
“I was still just a little kid, kind of a wise ass in my normal life and kind of troubled around school, and there was a natural mischievousness to me, and I remember that character sort of lent itself to that part of me,” says Bateman, who is receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on July 26. “I enjoyed that role, because I could be that kind of kid and not get in trouble for it. I could actually get compensated for it, which was kind of nice. I was like, ‘OK, maybe I’ll be a character actor, I’ll be in comedy.’ I was 12 or something, and you’re trying to figure out who the hell you are. Are you funny? Do you have confidence? Do you have stage fright? At that point in my life it was all these things that I did not yet know. You just kind of embrace it.”
Still in the flush of messy adolescence, Bateman was acutely aware of the business swirling around him, so much so that he read Army Archerd’s famed
column in Variety.
“Even as a young kid I guess somebody turned me onto who Army Archerd was and I would kind of look at his column or my parents would read it to me, and I remember that being a real point of relevance for what was going on in the business,” says Bateman. “I remember once we were on the set of ‘Silver Spoons’ and Ricky [Schroder] got in trouble for something and it was mentioned in Army’s column, and I remember thinking, ‘Oh, shit, that’s some dirty laundry — he’s going to get kicked out of the business.’ ”
Of course, Schroder never did get kicked out of the business and, decades later, Bateman is lesser recognized for his pedigree as a child actor (he also appeared in two seasons of “Little House on the Prairie”) and more deeply appreciated for his work as a director, producer and star of such popular — and wickedly subversive — comic series and films as “Arrested Development,” “Juno,” “The Break-Up,” “Horrible Bosses,” “Bad Words” and “This Is Where I Leave You.”
|In “Ozark,” Jason Bateman stars as a wealth manager who moves his family to rural Missouri.
Courtesy of Netflix
In 2016, Bateman also voiced Nick Wilde, the sly, con-artist fox in Oscar animated picture winner “Zootopia,” which Bateman describes as “completely satisfying for a 4-year-old, but also timely” in its depiction of political unrest and racial inequality in America.
Nick is the kind of character for which the actor has become synonymous: Glib, wry, smart and darkly funny, Bateman is the leading man’s everyman.
“Growing up, my idols were Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino. That triangle was always sort of the three wise men on top of the mountain,” says Bateman. “As I became older, the character actor route was something I lost a little interest in as the style of acting that I liked switched into more of the everyman as opposed to the leading man. I really enjoy doing these characters that are the proxy for the audience. I am sort of your representative in this world next to these crazy people. The closer I am to behaving like an audience member the easier access I have to your funny bone.”
As with acting, directing came relatively organically to Bateman. He first jumped into the director’s chair when he was a teenager acting on the comedic series “Valerie.”
“It just came up naturally, with the executive producer asking if I ever thought about directing,” he says, a skill he most recently applied to helming duties on “Ozark,” the dark and suspenseful Netflix crime drama that stars Bateman as Marty Byrde, a Chicago-based wealth manager who frantically moves his family, including his philandering wife, played by Laura Linney, to the rural mountains of the Ozarks after a deal laundering million of dollars for a Mexican cartel goes awry.
“The thing that attracted me to do it is the challenge of basically directing a 600-page movie,” says Bateman of the series, created by Mark Williams and Bill Dubuque. “The project came to me as an actor, and I knew I wanted to play the part, but I also knew that I wanted the responsibility and challenge of directing and executive producing as well.”
Bateman directed four episodes of the 10-episode series, the first two and last two.
“I tried to direct all the episodes, but we got into scheduling and budgeting and couldn’t create enough time to prep all 10 episodes prior to shooting,” he says. “But I was able to hire the other directors and oversee their work to make sure there’s a continuity throughout the series in terms of structure and tone and genre and aesthetic.”
What was fascinating to Bateman about “Ozark” is that it places what appears at first to be an average, everyday American family into circumstances that are from the mundane.
“We’re asking the audience to understand this challenging space that a seemingly normal guy and his family are forced to navigate, and it’s a world that is very raw and dangerous,” says Bateman. “But you have to go through this perspective of normalcy in order to get there.”
Bateman calls “Ozark” one of his “proudest moments” of his entire career.
“It was a great big project to take on and the work that everybody did was super high quality,” he says. “It’s the thing I’m most excited about in these past 38 years or so of working in the business.”
As for whether or not he’d encourage his own two daughters with wife Amanda Anka to pursue a career in showbiz, Bateman balks.
“I would probably ask them to put a pin in it and talk to me after you turn 18, which is a time when you know a little bit better who you are and who you want to be,” he says. “I think for any parent you want your child to go into a profession where if you work hard you can lock down some sort job security, and I don’t know if it would be the first choice on most parents’ list.”