Tom Pelphrey isn’t slowing down — and his next role is anyone’s guess. The chameleon actor made his Broadway debut in 2012, won accolades for his role on the daytime soap Guiding Light and recently portrayed a real-life fugitive in this year’s true-crime movie American Murderer. And audiences won’t soon forget his standout arc on Ozark as Ben Davis, which landed the New Jersey native an Emmy nomination.
“TV is really good. TV is so exciting because when I was a kid, I loved reading books. I still love reading books. But there was always that feeling when I was a kid [when] I’d read a book and then watch the movie and maybe I was a little disappointed in the movie,” Pelphrey, 40, exclusively tells Us Weekly. “And the fun thing about really good TV now is it feels a little bit more like the book. That we have more time to really get into the details and really see the different aspects of characters. And when it’s done well, to me, that’s exciting to be a part of. And also, just to watch because you think of the really great characters and how much time you get to spend with them in a TV show versus a movie.”
Pelphrey played Laura Linney‘s brother in the Netflix drama, which ended its four-season run in April. Ben’s heartbreaking story line, which saw him grapple with bipolar disorder, ended when he was killed off in season 3. (He’d later reappear in a flashback sequence.) For Pelphrey, the material on the page is his main motivation to go out for a part.
“Script, always the script. There are ways to answer that differently because there are certain directors and stuff that are so good that if they’re gonna do something, the script is gonna be that good. But it really just boils down to the script,” he explains. “When you have a really good script, you just have a really good blueprint to make something amazing. And that doesn’t mean that it always happens, but if everybody does their job and we get lucky and the right things click at the right time, a good script can really turn from that seed into the big, beautiful tree. And if the script isn’t that strong, in my experience anyway, usually even if you have some really good people doing really good work, it just will never be much better than mediocre. … Sometimes they’re just so well-written and the story is such that you’re so moved by it, you just wanna be a part of it.”
Case in point: American Murderer. Pelphrey stepped into the shoes of criminal Jason Derek Brown in the Matthew Gentile-directed film, which also stars Ryan Phillippe, Idina Menzel, Paul Schneider and Shantel VanSanten.
“The character is so fascinating. And the story is so strange and weird,” Pelphrey tells Us. “I also thought it was kind of fun that the first half of Jason’s story almost seemed like a comedy in a sense. This guy’s obnoxious and he’s annoying and he is a bit much. But he’s kind of harmless. It’s kind of funny. And then all of a sudden, it’s horrible. That kind of appealed to me. That we’d almost get to make two different movies in a way. … To me it’s always about the script … We still have a million chances to mess it up. But at least if it looks good on the plans, you’re like, ‘Oh, if we do this right, it could be really good.’”
Unlike television, Pelphrey appreciates that film offers “much more time to prepare” and “can be that much more deliberate and intentional.” That proved to be true as he researched Brown’s background, which made headlines in 2004 when he became wanted for first-degree murder and armed robbery in Phoenix, Arizona. He was removed from the FBI’s Most Wanted list in September but is still at large.
“Sometimes with the real people, you end up doing things that are stranger than you do with the fictional characters. So much of Jason almost didn’t add up to me or make sense. But also, it’s helpful because then you have real pictures you can look at and research you can do,” the Outer Range star says.
“What was fun about Jason is that he seems like a real con man. And when I think of what would make someone a good con man is just that they’re very convincing, almost to the point where I wonder if they sort of convinced themselves sometimes. And so the actor in me is like, ‘Oh, he’s just constantly acting, and he is good at it,'” he adds, laughing. “Like, he understands what he can bring to any moment to sort of get the desired effect from the people he is interacting with. And so I just kind of looked at it like that. … It’s kind of fun to see how far you can push that.”
The character at times gets gritty, with Jason getting beat up in one bloody scene outside a nightclub. The Banshee actor jokes that “maybe subconsciously” he looks for more physicality in his work. “I’m not aware of looking for it,” he notes. “But I don’t shy away from it.”
As for Jason still out there, he admits “it’s very weird” to think he could watch the movie one day. “It is strange. It crossed my mind a few times.”
Pelphrey began his acting career in 2007, making his Broadway debut as Mickey Deans in End of the Rainbow five years later. He’s since jumped from TV to film and humbly admits that Ozark’s recognition has made auditioning a bit easier these days. As for the stage — “there’s nothing like it.”
“That’s probably the most actor medium. You rehearse with the director and, obviously, the playwright is extremely important, but then when you get to performing the play, it’s just you. There’s no cut, the director usually isn’t even there. The writer usually isn’t even there. So it’s just actors on a stage. You can’t zoom in, zoom out, you can’t cut, you can’t edit it later. It’s just live,” he tells Us. “[It’s] that pure feeling of being an actor. That’s where theater’s really special.”
Pelphrey is full speed ahead — and nothing is off the table. “There’s so much more I’d like to do. It’s so much fun getting to do this. Every job I’m learning something new. I’m getting to work with different people who I admire,” he says. “And right now [I’m] just enjoying the ride.”