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Tom Pelphrey Talks About His Time On Outer Range And Ozark — Exclusive Interview

Tom Pelphrey got his start on soap operas in the early 2000s, having appeared on both "Guiding Light" and "As the World Turns," even winning a Daytime Emmy Award for his role on the former. By 2017, he found himself starring on Marvel's "Iron Fist" as Ward Meachum before landing a star turn on Season 3 of "Ozark," playing Laura Linney's bipolar brother Ben.

Pelphrey's latest project finds him working alongside Josh Brolin and Lili Taylor on "Outer Range," a sci-fi drama series that's now streaming on Prime Video. The story focuses on the Abbott family ranch, where a giant mystery hole materializes just as the family begins to fall apart.

Brolin plays patriarch Royal Abbott, who discovers the hole and subsequently uses it to help dispose of a body in order to keep his sons out of jail. Pelphrey plays Perry, who drunkenly beats a competing rancher's son to death over an offhand comment about his missing wife, setting in motion a series of events that lead the Abbotts on a journey of both anguished uncertainty and self-discovery.

During an exclusive interview with Looper, Pelphrey opened up about "Outer Range" — discussing the challenges of filming such a complex series, what it was like to work with Brolin, and whether there might be a second season — and reflected on his role on "Ozark," including the time Jason Bateman skewered him on set.

Filming Outer Range 'felt like a physical trial at times'

"Outer Range" is its own thing but it's hard to ignore the comparisons being made to "Yellowstone." Do you see similarities between the two shows?

Honestly, I have not seen "Yellowstone," although all of my friends who have, love it. I would imagine that the similarities are probably on the surface in that there's a lot of people riding on horses and a decent amount of drama.

Fair enough. I've also seen the show compared to everything from "Lost" to "Twin Peaks." Do you approach the series as more of, say, a ranch drama like "Yellowstone" or a sci-fi mystery à la "Lost" or "Twin Peaks"?

It's interesting. As an actor, I need to find the character and understand the world that I'm living in. Strangely enough — this was true for me and I wonder if the other cast feels the same way about this — this played best as absolute natural reality. I feel like sometimes when you're playing in a certain world that's stylized, you have to be aware of the style as an actor because it changes your choices a bit. As weird as "Outer Range" is, the style is happening to us, in a way. I don't think we play it. Weirdly, with "Outer Range," which is definitely the weirdest show I've ever been on, for me it was to play it completely naturalistically.

Did anything eerie or supernatural ever happen on the set? Or any memorable moments that really stand out from behind the scenes?

There was a lot of extremes of weather. There was one night when the Tillerson boys come to the Abbott ranch and they're looking for [missing brother] Trevor, and I follow them outside to the barn and they're wearing hoodies and coats and I'm wearing a T-shirt because they woke me up out of bed. It was below zero, and we filmed all night until the sun came up, so I was outside with the wind whipping and it was literally below zero, and those were the kind of things that I felt like ... I don't know if it shows up in the show in a way that the audience can appreciate but I know, for us, it felt like a physical trial at times. That added to how close the cast got and how real that world felt for us. It did not feel like being on a TV set most of the time.

Pelphrey sees Perry's 'pain' as the 'catalyst' for the show

Would you say that the weather was the most challenging part of filming? If not, what was the most challenging part?

No. It's interesting. When we get introduced to a character, usually we spend some time with them and we go on a journey with them and then maybe something happens that leads to some sort of culmination and we can take that ride with the character as an audience. With Perry, what was intimidating and challenging to me was that we meet this character in crisis, so the stasis of Perry is crisis. Literally, the first frame we see him, his wife has been missing for nine months. No one knows if she's alive or dead or where she is, and that's his life. That's all he wanted — to have a wife, to have a daughter, and to work on the ranch. We meet this man close to broken, and then in the first episode, we find out they're not going to look for his wife anymore.

He gets drunk. He beats someone to death with his bare hands because that person said the wrong thing at the wrong time about his wife, and now he's completely ruined his life, and possibly completely ruined his daughter's life — total crisis, and that's by the end of the first episode. The challenge for me is, when I first read these things, I try and read them as objectively as possible before I let myself put the blinders on and only think about the character. 

At first, when I'm reading it, I'm like, "Man, that's a lot. That's a lot to ask the audience to go on a ride with while holding them at arm's length." If a character is too much too soon, it can be repellent. It's asking too much of the audience to let them in and go on a ride with them, but I love that about "Outer Range." I love that about the scripts.

I thought it was a very unique way to introduce a character. I thought it was a really cool challenge as an actor because of the pain that he's in and what he does to Trevor. The pain that he's in is the catalyst for the rest of the show because that's what makes him beat Trevor to death, and that's what sets the entire show in motion.

There are two inciting instances. Royal finds the hole, and Perry kills Trevor. We needed that pain because it has to justify what he's about to do, and it was a very beautiful script to work on because you're like, "How do we bring in the colors and put them in the right places where we get to maybe see this man as he was nine months and one day ago, so that he's not just this broken thing?" Of course, he is that, but he is also a dad, a son. He was another guy that we never got to see.

Usually, we get to see that guy and then something happens and then we see the effect of it and we go on that journey as an audience. "Outer Range" comes in with Perry and says, "Here's this broken man." It was beautiful to film the scenes with Rhett, my brother, and especially the scenes with Amy, my daughter, because her feelings are more important to him than his own, where the old him can come out to talk to her and comfort her. That was the challenge for me, and it was exciting.

He's not sure whether there will be a Season 2

I have a lot of questions that are about the plot that I'm sure you can't answer but I have to ask... Where does Perry's storyline go from here? Will we see you in Season 2?

I got to tell you, right now it seems to be the Season 1 party, and I don't know anything about a Season 2 yet. I don't think anyone does. I literally just got to see everybody yesterday, Josh and Lili and Imogen [Poots]. We were at an event together for the show and it was really a feeling of celebration of the first season. In so many ways, it's been such a wild ride. We didn't know what the show would be, and now, to have it come out, it seems like people are really excited about it and enjoying it. The people that I interact with seem to be, and they're texting me theories. 

I've never been on a show where my friends and family are so involved. They're telling me what they think and what their theories are, which is really cool. At this moment in time, I think it's a celebration of accomplishing that first season as a team. I think the possibility of a second season is still a question mark.

What do you think happens in the hole?

It has to do with time. It's fascinating. ["Outer Range" creator] Brian Watkins is someone that I've known for years and years now. He's a New York playwright and I saw one of his plays six, seven years ago and was so blown away that I reached out to him, which I'd never done before or since, and we struck up a working relationship. Over the last few years when he had a new play, I would go in to LAByrinth Theater Company or New Dramatists and we'd work for a week, or we'd do a stage reading, or workshop the writing, and I really fell in love with him and his talent and his personality and his style, and that was all so evident here on "Outer Range."

"Outer Range" is, to me, a perfect natural progression from so many of the plays that I've been lucky enough to work on with him. What I would say about Brian is that if there's anything to me that's very particular to his style or his way of thinking or telling a story, it's that there's always a very deep central metaphor. Usually, it's a magical or supernatural or mystical element that is a physical manifestation of an emotional truth that he's trying to explore. I can't talk on his behalf about the hole in particular and what that means to "Outer Range," but what I was always fascinated by with the hole was, what is it bringing out in each character?

Josh Brolin was 'born' for his Outer Range role

What's it like having Josh Brolin as your dad?

I love him so much. He's my dude. He's such an amazing guy. When I first got the job, we met over FaceTime or something, and he was like, "How old are you?" I told him. I think I was 38 at the time, and he grimaced. Then he meets me in person and he's like, "How tall are you?" I was like, "Six foot two." He grimaces again and he's like, "All right, you're adopted. You're too old or you're too tall to be my son."

Joking aside, he's a very special human being. He's an amazing guy. He's been a dear friend and an actor that I've looked up to for a long time. He's excellent to work with. He is born to be in shows like this. I mean, that guy gets on a horse and moves with that animal like most people would ride a bike. It's so natural. It's so easy for him. When I watch the show, I'm like, "Damn, Josh looks like he was f***ing born with a cowboy hat on his head." I look at myself in the cowboy hat and I'm like, "I don't know," but I look at Josh with the cowboy hat and say, "This is how it was always meant to be." 

Personally, as a fan of his over the years, when I watch the show, I honestly think this is his best work I've seen in years. I think this is a really special project for him and a really perfect role. He knocked it out of the park.

Your role on "Iron Fist" links you and Josh together via the MCU. Have you guys ever talked about your MCU experiences since he's also a Marvel vet as Thanos?

Oh, that's interesting. We never had a conversation in particular or swapped notes about that, but he has told me some interesting stories about filming — some of the weird, strange green screen things they had to do for some of the fight scenes. It's fascinating as an actor hearing some of those stories. It must be so difficult to approximate those things, because what we end up seeing on the screen is about 10 miles away from how it looks and feels when you're filming it.

Do you hope Marvel might tap you again to either reprise your "Iron Fist" role or fill another role? If it were another role, do you have a dream character to play in the MCU?

If I had the dream character to play in the MCU, going all the way back to childhood, it would definitely be Wolverine. He was always my favorite in the Marvel universe. We'll see. When it comes to decisions like that, I truly let myself be led mostly by the story, but I'm always open to anything. "Iron Fist" had a nice little life there. It resonated for certain people, and that's always good.

He cherishes the time Jason Bateman made fun of him

Outside of "Outer Range," your "Ozark" character was brought back via flashback in Season 4. What was it like returning for that show?

It was like getting to go home after you've been away for a while. It was difficult, actually, because of the juxtaposition of what I was feeling as a human being versus what I had to do in the scenes as the character. It was so hard, because getting to go back to Atlanta and being on that set and seeing Jason, Laura, and all the crew, I was so happy.

That job was, and probably always will be in some way, the most special time for me and I'm so grateful for it. I can talk about it forever. Getting to go back and see those actors and that crew, it filled me with such joy, and then, such terror because I was like, "Oh my God, how am I going to get in the car now and do the scene?" There's no part of me that's feeling particularly emo right now. I was smiling and laughing like a goofball.

It's special. I'm sure you've heard all the actors say it, but the whole culture on "Ozark," the atmosphere on set, the way everything was handled was very special.

Any memorable on-set moments from Season 3 you can share? Anything in particular stand out?

Oh god, there's so many. Okay, I got one. When we first started, it's like you're going to meet Jason Bateman and Laura Linney ... so I meet Laura and she's so lovely and kind to me. She immediately made me feel like I've been there from Season 1, and so you're like, "Wow, Laura Linney is everything you'd hoped Laura Linney would be."

Then it's Jason, and Jason was also so lovely and so cool and so chill, but the moment that I knew that Jason was exactly what I wanted him to be was when we were about to film some scene on a dock with Jason and Julia [Garner] and me and Skylar [Gaertner], who plays Jonah. We're all coming in from different directions, so we're all spread out and I'm off to the side of some dock, and it's a really hot day in Atlanta. It's like 105 degrees and the sun is so strong and I'm so pale, and the makeup people didn't want me to burn so they put on some sunscreen. [I was] going to be out there for a few hours, so they were like, "Can you please hold an umbrella over yourself and stay in the shade?" Okay.

I'm standing there waiting to start the scene, holding my umbrella over myself, standing in the shade, and up on the dock, probably 50 feet away or so, is Jason. He's looking around and then he turns and sees me with the umbrella over my head, and that smirk comes across his face, where his eyes start to twinkle, and he cocks his head at me. He's like, "How do you feel about yourself?" You know, taking in the umbrella, and I was like, "Not great." He smirks and goes, "Yeah. Yeah, you shouldn't." I was so mortified and so thrilled simultaneously. I was like, "Jason Bateman is exactly what I would want Jason Bateman to be." I've never been so happy to get speared by someone.

All eight episodes of "Outer Range" are now available on Prime Video.