[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers from Season 1 of “Ozark.”]
When Julia Garner went out for the “Ozark” role of 19-year-old Ruth Langmore — a no-nonsense local girl who gets mixed up with newcomer and money launderer Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman) — the actress had a secret weapon at the ready. She had just used a Missouri accent for her role in the film “Tomato Red” and decided to dust it off to read for the Netflix crime drama. Once she arrived for the audition, however, she had second thoughts.
“When you go to a New York casting office, a lot of them are really tiny, so you can hear the other people that are reading their lines. And I remember there were other people [auditioning] with no accent,” Garner said in an interview with IndieWire. “And I’m like, ‘Oh my god, no one’s having an accent.’ I couldn’t do the lines without the accent because I was so used to doing the accent already. I was like, ‘I’m not going to get the job. Everyone’s doing a regular accent.’ I guess it ended up working.”
At an Emmys For Your Consideration screening and panel on Saturday, Garner revealed that once she landed the part, she made sure that sounding like Ruth would become effortless. “I wanted to sound authentic, so a month before doing ‘Ozark,’ I would only speak in the accent,” she said. “I would walk around everywhere [using the accent]. I’d order my food with the accent. You kind of get a sense of the character [that way].”
Once Garner opened her mouth, Bateman — who executive produces, directs, and stars in “Ozark” — knew Ruth was destined to be a breakout character. He said, “As soon as Julia started, we were like, ‘Oh, this is going to be a much bigger character than was even in the [show] bible.’”
Executive producer Chris Mundy added, “In the writers’ room, Ruth was our favorite character — just the idea of this sort of feral 19-year-old girl in the world of men that still dominates it. Julia was so much better than what we could’ve imagined that [her role] really grew. We’re smart enough to start feeding that as much as we can.”
Ruth Langmore’s “Audition”
In the fourth episode of the series, Ruth has a far less pleasant audition when she tries out to be a dancer at the Lickety Splitz strip club. She’d rather be anywhere but in the office of owner Bobby Dean (Adam Boyer), but fortunately, he can’t tell that from the docile expression on her face.
“There are two scenes in Season 1 that really describe Ruth so well, and that’s one of them,” Garner told IndieWire. “It’s my favorite Ruth scene, character-wise, because she always has a mask on and then the mask comes off.”
The audience knows Ruth’s meekness is suspicious since earlier in the episode, she’d been hired by her real boss Marty to rob Bobby Dean’s safe. Furthermore, she’s not the kind of woman who puts up with sexist crap in her everyday life — not from her all-male family members nor from Marty, either. Nevertheless, she doesn’t blink an eye when Bobby Dean leers at her body and mansplains stripping.
Every time she turns away from him, however, Ruth’s face shifts just enough — her eyes and jaw tense up — to reveal her true feelings of annoyance and resentment. It’s not am extreme, Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation, but she allows herself that brief respite of dropping the facade before putting it back on when she faces him again.
“She’s doing something to get her way, whatever she’s going to do to manipulate Bobby Dean,” said Langhorne. “When she turns around, she has a completely different face, and then she turns back she turns it back on. You really see her, who she is in that scene.”
Ruth is a young woman of contradictions, and that scene also reveals her ambivalence when it comes to her vanity. When Bobby Dean tells her, “Well, you know you’re not a fucking beauty. You know that, right?” she’s quiet, but can’t shake off the insult easily. “It hurts, yeah, because no girl wants to be told that they’re ugly,” said Garner.
And yet, Ruth doesn’t exactly dress the part for a woman who wants to get a job that’s all about exposed flesh. Bobby Dean calls her out on her odd wardrobe choice: battered jeans and a sleeveless Tupac t-shirt, which is what she was wearing at her earlier job as a dishwasher. “For a stripper job, you probably should’ve come dressed a little more provocative,” he lectures.
Garner said, “It’s kind of weird because, on the one hand, she carries around that fake pink leather handbag because she wants nice things, but at the same time, sometimes she dresses like a boy. Maybe it’s a conscious thing; she doesn’t want people paying attention to her or belittling her because she’s a girl in a way, so it’s a weird combo.”
As the tension builds in the scene, Bobby Dean finally asks her to for the real “audition,” aka sexual favors in exchange for the job. Just as it looks like she’ll comply, though, she glimpses the safe behind him, makes a split-second decision, and punches him in the crotch instead. As she saunters out of the office declaring, “Guess you’re right. Stripping isn’t for everyone,” this time the face she turns away from him isn’t angry, but triumphant.