Jason Bateman on Saying Goodbye to ‘Ozark’, Fate of the Byrdes and His Directing Future

Photographs by Dan Doperalski

For four seasons, Marty and Wendy Byrde were in survival mode.

They’ve tangled with cartels and crime syndicates, petty crooks and CEOs who bend the law, compromised law enforcement officials and even members of their own family, all while running a money laundering scheme that threatens to implode at any minute. And yet, as the hit Netflix show wrapped up its 44-episode run, both Marty (Jason Bateman) and Wendy (Laura Linney), as well as their two children, were miraculously still standing. That, in and of itself, would be a remarkable achievement given “Ozark’s” high body count. But as the show fades to black, the Byrdes are in surprisingly good shape. They’ve outrun the law, built up a base of political support and outmaneuvered their enemies.

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Dan Doperalski for Variety

Bateman, who played a key role both in front of and behind the camera as both the show’s star, executive producer and the director of nine of its episodes, hesitates to declare that the Byrdes are winners. Rather, he claims that the show gives them a happy ending — one that comes with a caveat.

“There’s a scarlet letter or a black eye attached to it,” he says. “In true ‘Ozark’ fashion.” In a wide-ranging interview, Bateman didn’t just weigh in on the fate of the Byrdes, he also talked about his passion for directing, his willingness to return to the world of “Ozark” and the guest he’s hoping to land for “Smartless,” the podcast he co-hosts with his friends Will Arnett and Sean Hayes.

How does it feel to say goodbye to “Ozark”?

It felt really good to finish something that we all worked so hard to try to do in a somewhat specific and precise way. I’d like to think everybody got pretty close to the ambitious target we were looking to hit with the show, but I also realize that it gets progressively harder to end on a high note the longer you stay. You’re bound to plank it eventually.

When people talk about binge watching, “Ozark” is one of the shows they most frequently mention. Was the show designed to be consumed in that way?

Not really. There’s a lot of good shows on right now that are taking advantage of this long-form style. [Showrunner] Chris Mundy and his group did a great job of making each episode satisfying in a self-contained way, but also putting in the requisite — I hate the word cliff-hanger, but stuff to get you eager to see the next episode. There was always something that left you needing more. They really took advantage of just how broad and deep this ensemble is. They created a lot of compelling storylines and characters. There was something in there for everybody, so even if you were bored by one storyline, there was always another one that might be more up your alley. And there was also just the general relatability of the whole thing. At its core, “Ozark” is a show about a family. Everybody’s got one of those. In our show, a bag of money and a gun are just the things that makes all those family dynamics more complicated, and that’s kind of a fun thing to watch.

Did you always have a plan for how you wanted the series to end?

It wasn’t mapped out at all. One of the advantages of doing something without a predetermined ending is you can react to the actors and the characters and the audience and see what storylines and what characters are getting attention and which ones aren’t working. Then you adjust accordingly. In terms of how it all ended, Chris and I talked about whether we should have the Byrdes pay a bill or not? Do they get away with it or don’t they? We kicked around a bunch of different endings. Laura [Linney]chimed in with one, as well. Ultimately, we wanted Chris to make the decision and he was really excited about coming up with a happy ending, but adding some sort of smudge on it. There’s something sticky about it. Because once we fade to black, we see that they got away with it but at what cost?

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Dan Doperalski for Variety

Mel Sattem, the investigator who has been tracking the Byrdes for most of the final season, has a great line at the end: “You don’t get to win.” Of course, that’s right before Jonah Byrde kills him, so we know how that turned out. But are Marty and Wendy really winners?

Everybody has their own answer. For me personally, I don’t think it’s much of a win if your son has just committed murder and he’s killed a cop to boot. Yes, Jonah did declare allegiance to the family and he’s showing his deference to his parents and trusting the ends will justify the means, but we’re not sticking around for the ends; we are leaving right at the means. Maybe Wendy’s plan to gather enough political capital so she can turn their money into something helpful, something altruistic, will work. Who knows? But that is a big question.

As the credits roll on the series, a lot of people are dead, but at least four of the central characters are still alive. Is this a show you’d return to in some way? Could there be additional seasons or an “Ozark” movie?

Any job or work environment that was positive, and where you loved the people you were working with and you loved the product you were creating, you’d love to return to it. It’s hard to maintain something that is really pleasurable all the time. And we had that with “Ozark.” So I’d do it again in a second, because what we had just doesn’t happen often.

When “Ozark” started, Wendy was having an extramarital affair, but the Byrdes’ marriage seems to endure, and even to strengthen, over the course of the show. Why?

Their priorities switch. It’s partly out of necessity, but when they leave Chicago [for Lake of the Ozarks], their priority became ambition and power. Maybe there was a lust for something a little bit more complicated than what they were doing in their previous life. That took over for a bit, and they enjoyed the partnership that they created and that carried them for a few years. But now that this stage is over, they can get back to their marriage. If the cameras stuck around for the next year or week or month, that’s when you’d see them dig into it. What’s left there?

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Jason Bateman directed nine episodes of “Ozark,” including the series finale. Tina Rowden/Netflix

Marty and Wendy always maintained that they laundered all this money and got in league with the cartel for their family. But didn’t they kind of enjoy it too?

I was always allergic to that notion, because “Breaking Bad” did that so well. I was obviously very aware of all the comparisons, deserved or not, that would be made between that show and ours. I didn’t want to be repetitive or redundant, but the fact of the matter is that lust for power is not unique to the Walter White family or the Byrde family. And once obtained, power can justify a lot of questionable decisions. The truth is that Byrdes are arrogant enough to think they can maintain all of this a little bit longer than they actually can. If there was another year of the show, they’d either be dead or in prison. It’s good for them that the camera shut off now.

You’re going to be directing a movie with Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson and you directed several episodes of “Ozark.” Are you moving away from acting?

I still love acting, but I think I may love directing even more. A lot of that has to do with everything that I’ve been able to absorb as an actor over 40-some years. You watch what everybody is doing on the set to create what the audience is enjoying, and the actor is just a part of that, but a director gets to play with every department including the acting side. I’m just enjoying a more 360-degree view. Acting is still enjoyable, but I’m a bit of a hedonist and right now directing is where I’m getting the most pleasure. But nothing is more exciting than directing and acting, so that was really fun on “Ozark.” This next thing I’m going to do is probably just directing. I don’t think I’ll play a part in it.

What’s your next movie about?

It’s about the moon landing. The working title is “Project Artemis,” but that will probably change.

You’ve had some eclectic guests on “Smartless,” from Paul Thomas Anderson and Tom Hanks to David Remnick and LeBron James. Is there anyone you’re dying to book?

It changes all the time. I’ll be sitting at a red light, and something will pop into my head. Or, for instance, yesterday I was listening to Elton John with my 15-year-old daughter and thinking he’d be a great guy to talk to. So, I’m going to text our producer and at some point, maybe he’ll come back to us and say Elton is in. It’s such a thrill. It’s like getting stuck on an elevator with an icon for an hour and you have their full attention, and you can ask them anything you want.

“Ozark” had such a distinctive look — everything is saturated with a bluish tint. Did you play a role in creating that aesthetic?

I directed the pilot. So, I scouted locations and came up with how it might look and feel. I wanted the look of the show to be adjacent to the story. I wanted to convey the danger, the unsettled life that the Byrdes are backing into. If things were super clean and the color was super-saturated and camera angles were wide, it would look like a Disney show. You might not be as worried about what’s coming next. But if it looks a little malnourished, you might be more properly prepared for the kind of place we’re asking you to hang out in for a few seasons.

Marty seems implacable. Nothing really fazes him even when there’s all this death and chaos around him. Why did you decide to play him that way

I’m the lens through which the audience is experiencing all these challenges, so I felt that I shouldn’t play Marty in a hysterical way. He should be somebody who is trying to keep it together. Otherwise, it might start to get a little annoying to have your proxy be somebody who is falling apart or hanging on by his fingernails. That wouldn’t be a sustainable and relatable protagonist. The more measured the center of your story is, the bigger swings you can take with the people and situations he’s dealing with. Marty is a counterbalance. He’s sort of processing all this for the viewer. I play that character a lot in films or TV. I really like to be the audience’s POV. I’m good at playing the straight man.