Tom Pelphrey Talks Trying Out True Crime with ‘Love & Death’ and His Life-Changing ‘Ozark’ Role

Though Tom Pelphrey was already a two-time Daytime Emmy-winner for his work in the daytime drama “Guiding Light” and had been working steadily on stage and screen, his move to “Ozark’s” third season took his career to a new level. He blazed onscreen as Ben Davis, the bipolar brother of Wendy Byrde (Laura Linney), and seemingly shot to stardom overnight. It’s been a busy couple of years for the actor both professionally and personally — his partner Kaley Cuoco gave birth to their first child, a daughter, on March 30. And now Pelphrey is starring in “Love and Death,” HBO Max’s limited series from David E. Kelley about Texas housewife Candy Montgomery (played by Elisabeth Olsen), who killed her friend Betty Gore in 1980 after being confronted with evidence of Montgomery’s affair with Gore’s husband. (Montgomery pleaded self-defense and was acquitted of murder.) Pelphrey plays Don Crowder, a friend of Candy’s who becomes her defense attorney, despite never having tried a criminal case.

Did you know anything about the case of Candy Montgomery or Don Crowder before this project came to you?
I didn’t know anything about him until I read the scripts. I couldn’t put them down, I was riveted. Then when I went online, I couldn’t believe how faithful it was to the real story. David’s got such a great style, it just runs through his shows. Everything is a little offbeat and very specific. I was sent the first four scripts and honestly, Don isn’t even in them much, he’s kind of a glorified background player. But I was told he would become Candy’s lawyer and it would go to court. And also, David is one of the living legends of the industry, so I wanted to be a part of it, no matter what the role.

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Don became famous for his antics in court, even finding himself in contempt at one point.
This was the first criminal case he ever tried. Weirdly, I think his lack of understanding about a murder case, plus his experience as a personal injury lawyer, really lent itself to the case. He understood how to generate a narrative and tell the jury and the media a story.

It felt like he was there because he really believed in Candy, he wasn’t being opportunistic.
Everything about his story fits the narrative that he believed in her. He knew her personally and he literally couldn’t believe it at first. He thought the police were overstepping and taking advantage of her. When he accepted her guilt, I think he came to believe that there was something that happened that was out of her control.

You’ve played real people before — from Judy Garland’s husband Mickey Deans onstage in “End of the Rainbow” and Joseph L. Mankiewicz onscreen in “Mank” — do you like having research to draw from?
I really like it. Sometimes when you’re researching a real person, the story is so much stranger than you allow yourself to think of when it’s fictional people. You’d hear this story and say, “I can’t believe it.” I like having a lot of good ingredients in the soup to cook. I’ve also been kind of lucky because someone like Don Crowder or Micky Deans aren’t people everyone knows. So I didn’t have the pressure of trying to do a spot-on impersonation. I could concentrate on honoring the essence.

And you were able to talk to people who knew him?
Yes, we had Robert Udashen on set, who was Don’s law partner and helped him try the case. He’s also a character in the show, played by Adam Cropper. He had so many interesting stories and anecdotes about what was going on behind the scenes at the time. The source material that David used had so much information. Olivia [Grace Applegate], who plays Don’s wife Carol, showed me an interview with the real Carol after Don died. [Crowder committed suicide in 1998.] They were divorced but stayed best friends for the rest of his life and it was such an insightful piece. I think it says a lot when you’re talking to someone’s ex-spouse and they speak of them in such beautiful terms. It made what happened to him all that much more heartbreaking.

You’ve been a working actor for a long time but is it safe to say “Ozark” really shifted things for your career?
One hundred percent. “Ozark” opened so many doors to me, it changed everything. Not just professionally — I met Kaley at the “Ozark” Season Four premiere. I knew it was a special job and you always want to do your best but I was coming into what was already one of the best shows on television and you have these incredible writers and the best cast on TV and I was given a killer role — I just didn’t want to drop the ball. Then overnight, things were different. I mean, it was a long-ass time to get there, but it did feel like it changed in an instant.

Because Netflix dropped all the episodes at once, was it literally a matter of stepping outside one day and things had changed?
Well, not so much because those episodes came out about two weeks into lockdown. I was at my house in upstate New York where it’s very remote. I didn’t even really have wifi, I had to drive down to the general store in town and sit in the back room with my laptop to do an interview with Access Hollywood or something. Obviously, Zoom has become second nature now but at the time it was all so new.

Going back to the beginning of your career, you started in daytime drama. I hear that’s an amazing training ground for actors.
Going on a soap opera was literally the first time I’d ever acted in front of a camera. It was a New York show so you had these amazing actors and you’re filming 65 pages a day, which is bonkers. Now you do maybe six pages a day. It was such a blessing and a curse. On one hand, you learned how to shoot from the hip, you learned how to trust your instincts — because that’s all you had time for. And my muscle for memorization was never stronger. But when I left, I went right back into class because I wanted to remember what it was like to dig deep and sit with something and not make decisions right away.

What was the largest number of pages you did in one day?
Well, when I first got there, it took me like three days to get 10 pages. By the time I was going to leave, they did this thing as a challenge – they had me film a bunch of my scenes on the same day. So they gave me 65 pages in a day and I fucking did it. And I didn’t have to ask for a line once.

You also got to star onstage in “Fool for Love” with Sam Rockwell and Nina Arianda in 2015.
You know what’s fucking crazy about that? It was the first time Sam Shepard was produced on Broadway. Daniel Aukin directed that and I would just sit there and watch how he worked with actors. He would plant these flags and tell us, “I want you to get to this moment.” And then plant another flag 10 minutes later. Then he would help us shape the moment and how we got there in a way that was so trusting. He even allowed for long silences, which not all directors do.

What do you like about the medium of live theater?
Stage might be the purest, it’s an actor’s medium. There’s no editing, obviously. But you know, you can have days where the déjà vu is really bad. Saturdays are two-show days and on Saturday night I would go to pick up a bottle and think, “Wait, I already did this” before realizing it was at the matinee. It was terrifying.

But a great play — being in one or seeing one — is a magical thing. I saw Mark Rylance doing “Jerusalem” and my God … I get whole body chills now just thinking about it. I’ve never had more of a religious experience watching anything. Theater can be transcendent in a way that is more special than anything. I mean, a bad play is way fucking worse than a bad TV show or a bad movie. But when you get it right, man, it is sublime.

Things you didn’t know about Tom Pelphrey

Age: 40

Hometown: Howell, New Jersey

Up next: Reuniting with David E. Kelley for “A Man in Full,” an adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s novel for Netflix.

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