Katrina Lenk huddles over a cup of coffee on one of those makeshift sidewalk eating areas that have become a staple of New York City pandemic life. It’s chilly afternoon, but the actor, who recently recovered from a bout of COVID that forced her to miss several performances of the Broadway revival of “Company,” isn’t taking any chances. She’d prefer we meet outside, a concession to the stringent protocols that are in place to try (and often fail) to keep shows like “Company” free from the virus.
But Lenk isn’t shivering outside a Le Pain Quotidien in order to talk up her latest stage success. Rather, she’s here to dish on her role on “Ozark” as Claire Shaw, a morally compromised pharmaceutical CEO. On the Netflix series, Shaw becomes drawn into the orbit of Marty and Wendy Byrde, the money laundering couple at the center of the show. They want to join forces to launch a legitimate charitable foundation, and they’re offering Shaw access to their contacts in the cartel world in order to her with a link to cheaper, albeit illegal, supplies for the drugs she manufactures. It’s a Faustian bargain that probably won’t end well, but Lenk isn’t spilling any secrets. She insists that “Ozark” fans will have to wait until the second and final half of the show’s last season starts streaming on April 29.
How did you join “Ozark”?
In the middle of lockdown, there were a couple of Zoom auditions that came out of the blue. I’ve been obsessed with the show and was such a huge fan that I never thought they were going to let me on. But I was intrigued. They told me that Claire was going to be stepping into her brother’s shoes as the head of this pharmaceutical company and there was some scandal involving her brother and their involvement in the opioid epidemic. And she’s been brought in to redeem the company and salvage what she can and try to turn things around.
Is Claire’s story supposed to mirror that of the Sackler family and the involvement of their company, Purdue Pharma, in pushing addictive drugs that got a lot of people hooked on opioids?
Yes. A lot of the back story is based on true events, so I did a deep dive into what actually was happening in the opioid crisis and with the Sacklers. But it goes beyond them. The whole pharmaceutical industry is really a part of it.
Claire does some terrible things in an effort to keep her company afloat. How does she rationalize her choices?
She’s under a lot of pressure. The idea for her is that she came over from the philanthropic side of the company, so she is just approaching it with a socially responsible point of view and is a little bit in over her head. For Claire, it’s all about, “how do I just get through a particular crisis?” — and just hoping it won’t get any worse. We do that a lot in stressful situations — we have that flight or fight response where we do whatever we have to in order to solve them in the moment. It starts small for Claire, and then she slips down the slope and she gets closer to the bottom. It’s a little bit like slipping into a toxic relationship where you keep seeing all these red flags, but you’ve already endured so much that you can’t back out now.
But she’s getting in bed with a brutal cartel. Doesn’t that bother her?
There’s definitely a moment of realization that she is in business with the cartel, but she can’t back out now because lives are going to be in danger. And she has her own complicity in a kind of corporate drug culture that’s condoned here in the States, so she understands there’s some hypocrisy if she tries to throw stones.
Why does she fall under Marty and Wendy Byrde’s influence?
I dare anybody to resist the allure of Marty and Wendy. There’s something about them that’s so seductive. Wendy seems so approachable and warm, and there’s definitely a connection between Clarie and Wendy because they’re both women who are operating in positions of power. And Marty will throw out numbers at you in a way that you can’t really argue with, and that’s really impressive. They seduce her.
How did you prepare to play Claire?
I looked at a lot of interviews with female CEOs like Heather Bresch from Mylan, and watched how they moved in this world. I worked closely with our hair and makeup department and wardrobe supervisor to get her look right. We drew on how people like Sheryl Sandberg and Amal Clooney dress. It was super interesting to see how these different women would present themselves in male-dominated spaces. You have to be elegant, but not too elegant. You have to be classy, but not elitist. You have to be approachable, but not smile too much. It’s a tightrope they have to walk.
There are so many shocking moments in “Ozark.” How do you play those scenes when you, Katrina, know what’s about to happen because you’ve read the script?
There’s twists all over the place. You have to pull off that trick of being in the moment because your character doesn’t know what’s about to happen, which is sometimes easier to pull off than it is at other times.
What can viewers expect for Claire in the second part of the final season?
In the first part she’s really trying to find her footing and in the second part she does, but it’s maybe not the footing she thought she would have to maintain. Everyone on “Ozark” is a chess player. Claire wasn’t sure she was going to play chess, and I don’t think she knows all the moves. She’s learning the game as she plays it.
When you got cast did friends and family pump you for information about what to expect during the final season?
Yes, but I would never spoil it for them. I’ve told nothing to no one.
This interview has been edited and condensed.