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Ozark’s Julia Garner Doesn’t Want ‘Hollywood-Standard Beautiful’ Roles

Photo: Timothy Norris/Getty Images

At 25, Julia Garner has already carved out a career by playing anything but the girl next door. In her early days — that is, a mere eight years ago — she was part of the ensemble of 2011’s Martha Marcy May Marlene before her indie breakout came in Electrick Children a year later. She then nabbed small parts in bigger movies like Sin City: A Dame to Kill For and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, followed by a critically acclaimed recurring role on FX’s The Americans. Now she’s gotten her first Emmy nomination for her role as Ruth Langmore in Netflix’s Ozark. Though Garner isn’t the “It” girl of yore, she’s got “It” and manages to bring “It” to every one of her “weird roles,” as she’d call them.

“The first place that I was getting recognized was in coffeehouses in Brooklyn. It was film students and hipsters in Brooklyn referencing Electrick Children or We Are What We Are,” she tells me. “But if I was on the Upper West Side or near Lincoln Center, people would recognize me for The Americans.” Nowadays in her native New York City, Garner says she gets recognized most for playing Ruth, the spicy townie to Jason Bateman’s Marty Byrde in Ozark. The drama received three Emmys in 2018 and nine nominations this year, including a second for Bateman’s directing.

Beyond Ozark, Garner has been busy this year: In February, she was filming Kitty Green’s The Assistant, in which she plays the titular aide to an abusive producer in a toxic work environment in the entertainment industry. But she’s quick to correct that it’s not about Harvey Weinstein.

“This girl is fairly new in the business,” Garner explains about the role. “She probably just got out of school and she’s struggling with what’s right and what’s wrong, but she still wants to keep her job. For people who maybe have worked in an abusive environment and they are like, I said something! I’m like, No you didn’t, you wanted to keep your job. It’s about that. It’s not about Weinstein. There [have been] so many cases, so it’s about not forgetting them, not having to go back to square one, where we were.”

In between late-night shoots for Ozark, Garner spoke with Vulture about Langmore’s identity crisis, the show’s upcoming third season, and why she’s okay never playing “shy girl in the corner reading a book at a party.”

“Fuck nugget” is one of my favorite swears from Ruth. Do you have a favorite?
“Skinny bitch.” Remember in season two, when she kicked that guy in the wheelchair and then she kicked the other guy? She was like, “Shut up skinny bitch!” That was pretty funny. But it has to always come down to “fuck nugget.” Out of respect for the writers, I had to deliver that line perfectly [switches to Ruth’s twang]: “Shut your fuck-nugget mouth and get the hell out!”

I love how you go right into her voice.
When you know somebody for so long, you can just tap right into it. When I’ve been doing other things for months and then go back to Ozark, I’m like, Oh my God, what if I forget the character? But then once I do it, it’s fine. I know this person.

Whose idea was that accent? Or was it written into the script?
The accent happened by accident. About a year before, I’d done a movie [Tomato Red] with a Missouri accent, so reading about Ruth and knowing that she grew up in a trailer, I just thought, This girl’s got a Missouri accent. I went to the audition, and they were in tiny casting offices [where] the walls are so thin that you can hear other people saying the lines that you’re going to do in five minutes. It’s really nerve-racking and terrible. So, I’m in the waiting room and I can hear everybody saying their lines and they don’t have an accent. I had memorized my lines with an accent, and I just couldn’t do it without it. I thought that I wouldn’t get the job because of it. Then, a week later I got a call back. Now, it makes perfect sense that she has an accent. The show is so much about class system and identity, and I feel like [the accent] adds an extra layer.

Do you think audiences feel conflicted about Ruth? Not that anyone is particularly moral on this show, but she’s certainly not moral either.
The audience sees Ruth constantly take her mask on and off. She’s always trying to play like she’s okay and she’s tougher than she is, but once she’s left alone in a room, there’s always a very sad look lingering on her. It kind of naturally happened. When you play a character for so long, you start feeling what that person’s feeling.

Ruth’s arc has changed so much from between seasons. What’s it been like to develop her like that?
I love it. You don’t want the same arc. I feel my characters are not characters; I see them as people. You can’t really judge them. And I love that [the writers] change her all the time. Well, I don’t want to say “change” because every year, people evolve, good or bad.

I’ve heard Ruth might “evolve” into the Byrde family in season three …
The Langmore breed is dying out and I think Ruth is struggling between her identities. Last year, she was losing her sense of self, which is kind of an identity crisis. But this year, she’s conflicted about whether she’s a Byrde or a Langmore. She hasn’t processed her father’s murder, but then again, that’s a given that she wouldn’t. Ruth doesn’t process anything dramatic that happens to her — then it catches up to her and she explodes. It didn’t sink in that she killed her uncle and that she was living a lie and then it exploded. It’s going to be a similar thing in season three, but in a different way.

You’ve been acting for less than a decade, but you have done so much in that time. Has there been a method to the madness?
I feel very lucky. There are always parts for young girl love interests, or cheerleaders, or mean girls, or the shy girl in the corner reading a book at a party who doesn’t know how pretty she is, but she’s really a beauty. You know what I mean? That’s unrealistic. I’m really happy that I’ve never gotten those. At an early age, I knew that I wasn’t going to get those roles. Not that I’m ugly, but I’m not Hollywood-standard beautiful or that simple beauty. I was kind of weird looking, different looking. Especially at 16, I had weird curly hair and I had a gap tooth. I still have my gap tooth. I still look the same. So, I get cult members. I get pregnant Mormon girls. I get cannibals. I got a girl who was in love with a KGB secret agent who wore weird glasses. And even now, I’ve got Ruth.

Another word for “weird” is complex.
That is a better word — complex parts. My most normal part was probably in Grandma and still, something was off with her. I still had to get an abortion.

And now you’ve got your first Emmy nomination. How does it feel?
It’s just so surreal, I can’t even wrap my head around it. When I was a kid, I knew about the three big awards shows — the Oscars, the Emmys, and the Tonys. It just doesn’t feel real. The months leading up, I’d been in work mode — I’m still in work mode — but I just wasn’t thinking much about the Emmys. And then two days before [the nominations], I got really nervous. I didn’t even think about me, it was more worried for the show, like, What if the show isn’t even nominated? That would be terrible. The day of, I put my phone on airplane mode. Later that day, my friends FaceTimed me and they told me.

Ozark’s Julia Garner on Her Memorable, Unconventional Roles