Tom Pelphrey Knows Where the Cookie Jar Is

This story contains spoilers for Season Four, Part Two of Ozark.

Hollywood’s new favorite cowboy is a Giants fan. We talk about… well, Tom Pelphrey and I speak about a lot of things. Cookie jars, iPads, work, quarantine, fathers, dreams, dreams about our fathers, more that won’t fit here. In one story, Pelphrey tells me about the night of Super Bowl XLII, in 2008, when he flipped his shit so hard at a bar—17-14, Giants over the Pats, remember?—a bouncer nearly threw him out. Dead sober. Hatred of Tom Brady does things to a man.

“My feeling is some people never get anything even close to that,” Pelphrey says when we talk over Zoom in late April. “It’s like, you can’t complain. For the rest of your life, you can’t complain. I can bitch about the Giants. But most people never get better.”

Pelphrey, 39, can’t grumble about anything, really. Well, he could. We all could! Tom doesn’t. A lot to be thankful for. Ozark brought him on board in Season Three as Wendy Byrde’s brother, Ben, and he was so ridiculously magnetic that, even after the character’s death, his ashes had more presence than a sizable percentage of working actors in Hollywood. Pelphrey nabbed a Critics’ Choice Award nomination for his turn in Jason Bateman’s gritty drama, and he may very well earn another for his role as Perry Abbott in Amazon Prime’s sci-fi-meets-western series Outer Range, which will drop its last two episodes of its first season this Friday. Add appearances in HBO’s upcoming true crime epic, Love and Death, and Maria Schrader’s Harvey Weinstein investigation feature, She Said, and, yeah—not much to whine about.

But that’s the work. These days, his thoughts are somewhere else. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.


Esquire: What’s going on? How are you?

Tom Pelphrey: I’m good, man. I’m down in Austin right now. Just finished up a job, hanging out with some friends. Yeah. Like feeling good. Happy to have some time off.

skylar reeves

In the final episodes of Ozark, we see Pelphrey return to the role of Ben, which previously earned him a Critics’ Choice Award nomination.

Skylar Reeves

I heard Austin’s fun. I’ve never been.

It’s a really cool city. I’ve heard all about it. Obviously there’s a tech boom. And there’s all these new houses. When you’re here long enough and you go to Barton Springs and stuff, you realize the heart of this place is old hippie. Like, let’s go swim naked in the river.

I’m from Pittsburgh, and it’s almost like Rust Belt version of that.

I love Pittsburgh, man. I got to work there once. I loved it. It was during the baseball season. Just walk down across the river, go to the park, get a seat right off third base. Beautiful. The sun’s setting as they’re playing the game. Right on the river. So great.

How has life been for you the past year so far?

It’s been all work, really. Experiencing the pandemic through the lens of work. I’m sure everybody feels a responsibility to not get anyone else sick, but it’s heightened when you’re working because you don’t want to shut down a production. I really want to go to the gym and I need to work out and stuff. You are like, “Is this being irresponsible?” I got to be home in December, in the beginning of January. The thing we’re filming down here had a longer holiday break. Other than that it’s been back to back, literally since October of 2020.

What’s on your radar past this?

God, it’s so interesting. When I was in my 20s, the work and career and all those ideas were in the first position. I got to a point where I’ve had this sort of awakening and realized that that can’t be, because when you put that on the altar, it’s like, how would you not expect that to make you crazy?

tom pelphrey

“When I was grieving, an acting teacher of mine sent me a card and it just said, ’You never have to get over this.’ For some reason, that brought me peace.”

Skylar Reeves

Is that partially because your work is fulfilling and you’re filled up in that way?

Yeah, totally. I wrote an email to Jason Bateman when we finished Ozark, and I’d said this in person to Laura [Linney]. What I was trying to articulate, and I think that’s what you’re saying, is that the thing that I hold the closest to my heart about that job was the opportunity. The moment in time to be doing that work in that setting, [that] is the means to the end. That experience is what all holds sacred, and everything else is gravy.

If you started thinking too hard about the doors that it opened and what you got from it, you would lose the original thing that gave you it.

Yeah, because I imagine for you too, like, what was in the heart of the 14-year-old that even wanted to do this?

It was going to those baseball games we talked about. I always loved sports and I stopped being athletic when I was little. I was like, “Okay, what’s the next closest way I can be that? And it was writing for my middle school paper about it. The sooner you realize all of this, the sooner you’re happier.

It is true. My father passed away suddenly when I was 25. It brings up a million different things and I won’t even try to articulate them all. One of those things that brings up is this shocking realization of the preciousness of time and your relationships. We all are on a different journey and these things happen at different times, but the sudden realization—perhaps that there’s nothing guaranteed. It really puts you into a whole different orbit. In a way that, after you go through the tunnel and when you come out the other side, for me anyway, there’s a deep gratitude. I look back on that period and, man, I was struggling and I was in a lot of pain. I miss my dad, but I’m grateful for the man that lets you become.

I recently lost my dad—it changes you instantly. The moment it happens, you go to that other place.

I’ll share something with you. I don’t even know if this’ll make any sense. When I was grieving, an acting teacher of mine sent me a card and it just said, “You never have to get over this.” For some reason, that brought me peace.

Wow. Yeah.

There’s not a timeline on the grief. It never needs to be fixed. It’ll never go back. This is just part of your journey now. I feel emotional even saying it, but for some reason, that gave me peace.

For the sake of my job, I do have to ask about your return to Ozark. Tell me where the goat cookie jar is.

Dude, I just found out the answer to this. We had the Ozark premiere the other night. I was standing outside the hotel afterward with Skylar [Gaertner, who plays Jonah Byrde] and his mom and dad. His mom was like, “We took you home.” And I was like, “What do you mean?” She’s like, “We took you home. We took the goat home.” I was like, “Really?” And they were like, “Yeah. They asked us if we wanted to take anything, and we wanted the goat.” I was like, “This is perfect.” I can’t think of a better place for it to be than with sweet little Skylar at his house. That thing looks fucking creepy too.

I did a hard Google search to see if anyone made one on Etsy and there’s nothing even close to it. When did you learn that you would come back in that last batch of episodes?

It wasn’t like a direct call from any of those people—it was just a flashback, which I was so grateful for. Like we were talking about, you get to have an experience that is perfect unto itself and I didn’t want to disturb that. People are like, “Oh, could he be alive? Would you want that?” I was like, “No.” Of course, there’s a part of Tom that would want nothing more than to work with those people forever, but the part of me that can appreciate a story is like, “No, that’s exactly how that has to end.”

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What did Ben’s last words mean to you? “Wait, this is a dream.”

When my father passed away, I started to have the most realistic dreams I’ve ever had before. It was him. The dreams were so striking because they were perfectly naturalistic. It was exactly him in every detail, and we’d be, maybe driving in his car and just talking. Like, I remember one— sitting at a picnic table and just having sandwiches in front of us, we were having lunch and just talking. At the time, I would wake up and the dreams were so real that, for a moment, I would think he was still alive. And then five or 10 seconds, I would realize that he was gone and it would just break my heart all over again. The dreams continued and it always felt undeniable that he was still alive. Finally, I came to a place with my own understanding of it that was just subjectively speaking in my experience, those dreams, and while I’m having them, are just as real as anything I’m experiencing during my day.

If the brain is perceiving it and feeling it, that is real, how can you argue they aren’t?

That was how I came to see those dreams. Saw them that in some way he is still alive, even if it’s just in me, and that part of him is coming to me in the only way he can and that’s sacred to me and real and true. When I would have those dreams, I would wake up in the best mood. Last night I got to hang out with my dad again.

When Ben says, “This is just a dream, this is just a dream,” there’s like a real beauty to a mind like that, and I can easily see how somebody could be flirting with different levels of reality. I thought it was so beautiful.

Have you seen the finale?

No. When I went back on that set, I was like, “Guys, please don’t tell me anything. I really want to experience this as a lover of the show.” It’s a product of the writing. [Ozark show-runner Chris Mundy] is super fucking smart about how to get the maximal juice for the squeeze. So you’re plugging that character into that world, you see Wendy becoming colder. I think introducing Ben was a way to crack that shell—just hit her where she’s still really human and really vulnerable. I think that had such a strong effect on all the characters that everybody really cares about. When you can deliver the fucking hit that can play for everyone, then you can keep playing it.

tom pelphrey

In Outer Range, Pelphrey plays Perry Abbott, who has long been grieving the mysterious disappearance of his wife by the time we meet him.

Skylar Reeves

It’s interesting that you go from Ozark, being the lost character, to Outer Range, where you are the character dealing with loss.

Right off the bat, [my character, Perry] fascinated and scared me a bit, when I read that first pilot episode. Brian [Watkins] is a writer that I’ve loved for years as a playwright. I would workshop his plays with him in New York over the years. The thing about Perry that scared me is, basically, you come into a world where his stasis is broken already. He’s barely holding on. That’s fucking tricky in storytelling, because we as an audience can go anywhere with a character, if we are allowed in, and then we’re allowed to take the ride with them.

Right in the first episode, he does a thing that basically sets the rest of the season in motion. It was like carefully tracking a man who is on the brink. Obviously, when he finds out they’re going to stop looking for his wife, life pushes him even further over. He’s at the bar, drunk. We see that he’s really broken and then the fight happens. [Watkins had a deleted] scene where after Perry finds out that they’re not going to look for his Rebecca anymore, he goes out to his truck. He sits in his truck and he’s blasting cowboy death metal so loud that the fucking truck is vibrating and he’s just staring.

I would’ve loved that.

An old teacher used to say this all the time in terms of storytelling. He’s like, “We want to be shocked, but not surprised.” We never want the audience to feel like we’re fucking with them or that somethings cheap, that somehow, even if it’s shocking, it’s true.

It sounds like filming Outer Range was a seven-month, quarantined, wilderness retreat.

Yeah, man. It was intense and difficult and so beautiful. Everybody really bonded and I think it was partly the circumstances. We’re out in New Mexico in the middle of nowhere, pre-vaccines. We’re riding horses every day. Then, we go over to a huge field where they have 30 cattle and we’re literally learning how to drive cattle. Because we had some time there, before we started filming at night, we would rehearse. And that is a fucking luxury that you almost never get. I couldn’t believe it. I felt like I was doing a play.

I know a lot of people can relate to this, but pretty much everybody was alone, regardless of whether people had family or girlfriends, boyfriends, spouses. Because of the nature of the thing, everybody was by themselves. Two months in, I was like, “Think I’m going a little crazy.” And everyone was like, “Wait, me too.” I’m like, “Okay, good then.”


Photographs by Skylar Reeves

Makeup by Billy Mercer

Hair by Ange Bebbington

Clothing by Maven Maintenant

Location: Two Wishes Ranch

Horse: Elevated Equine

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