Lisa Emery spoke to The Natural Aristocrat about Ozark’s acting treasure, Darlene Snell, Season 4’s upcoming curtain call, and how the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has impacted production.
Lisa Emery’s Darlene Snell is in a word, mesmerizing. A whirlwind of Southern charm and tradition painted on a canvas with short fused dynamite taped to the back. Phenomenal acting just begins to describe Emery’s artistry & precise attention to detail on the Netflix series. Ozark’s best kept secret. A character so unapologetically true to life you could easily imagine her as your unfiltered, next-door neighbor.
Destined for war, Darlene appears to be regrouping against the locusts that have descended upon her home, husband, and livelihood going into Season 4. A heroin kingpin turning unlikely heroine of the locals? Or a mother lioness following her maternal instinct to protect her cub?
This interview contains spoilers for Netflix’s Ozark.
The Natural Aristocrat [Nir Regev]: What I love about Darlene Snell is there’s no telling what she’ll do from one moment to the next. She’s one of the last characters on TV that still makes you sit up straight. What does it mean to you to embody unpredictability in a sea of sameness on television?
Lisa Emery: Well, it’s sort of nothing but fun! Every time I get a script, I’m surprised, which is great. It’s not like, ‘Oh, there she goes again!’ I think it’s unpredictable what a great mother she is in her own way. How desperately she wanted a family, how she can pull in the ‘rednecks’, with Wyatt & now Ruthie into her corner.
Darlene is clearly at the forefront of the local community uniting against outsiders looking to exploit it. How do you feel about Darlene as a kind of revolutionary of the town’s proletariat vs the Chicago bourgeoise in the Byrdes?
Yeah, that’s a great word, I’d love to think of her as revolutionary. But I think she’s not, Darlene just has very strong convictions about what’s fair & what’s not and especially family. Like she says, “Why don’t we do this on our own?” I mean Jacob and I had been doing it for years and felt great about selling our product in bibles. (laughs) I think when you drag all these different people from Chicago but also from Mexico and suddenly you’re like, ‘Wait this is my business! Why is everybody in my business?!’
Jacob wanted to go along with that. Darlene never did. That was beginning of the end for us! She sort of just caved but never liked it. Darlene never liked dealing with Marty, the idea of a riverboat… She thought it was all ludicrous. I’d say she’s very old fashioned and traditional instead of revolutionary.
What is it about that word ‘redneck’ that makes Darlene Snell react the way she does? Shooting Del dead with a shotgun, punching Wendy Byrde.
I think it’s just a trigger word for her. Although I hate that expression! My ‘husband’ spelled it out in the beginning of the series. Jacob had a speech about the difference between hillbillies and rednecks. How rednecks are people who fill their yards full of old washing machines, tires, and discarded trucks. A hillbilly would never do such a thing, it’s about a respect for the land.
I think ‘redneck’ is very derogatory and ‘hillbilly’ is kind of charming in my own life. I mean, I come from hillbillies but I do not come from rednecks! I know the difference in my heart but that’s the easiest way to explain it.
Did you hold back at all when you punched Wendy [Laura Linney] in the face? Because it looked pretty real!
That was really hard to do, thanks for saying that! Because it just wasn’t. The way you’re directed to wind up and deliver the punch feels not right at all. First of all, I’m not punching her, it would have been much easier to punch her although not really. But you know, to punch something! So, that took a lot of work because it just felt fake no matter what I did. It was all about the pre-punch, drawing back, and how you round it.
I was punching like a girl and I know Darlene is better than that! (laughs) Like doing a four-year old slap sort of. Did that hurt?
Have other actors ever given you permission to just hit them? I know that happens on sets sometimes.
Yeah, I’ve had to do slaps before where people said, ‘Don’t worry about it, just do it!’ It’s really hard to slap someone across the face without cringing. It’s helpful when somebody says that, so you feel a little bit more secure about it, and suddenly it’s over. It’s done because you just finally did it. It’s hard to do, it’s hard for me.
In Season 1, Jacob has a great line when first hearing of Marty. “Financial planner. Comes from Chicago. Appears in Lake Ozark. Sounds like something from a newspaper headline.” Do you feel the Snells would have still resented the Byrdes if they originated locally?
They would see them completely differently! It’s about people coming in and ripping our land out from under us. All due to that law… They have the same thing in upstate New York, where the land around your house is protected but only up to a certain point.
Speaking of Jacob, the on-screen chemistry between him and Darlene was undeniable. A perfect match. How do you reflect on losing your better half? Is it strange not having Peter Mullan in scenes to play off of anymore?
It’s just as sad as it could be… Talk about unpredictable! I never dreamt I would be killing him. I mean, it just was not in the cards, as far as I was concerned. But yeah, you know, I miss him. I just watched a movie that I’ve never seen before with him in it the other night…
How do you feel about Ozark dually being announced as renewed for an expanded, super-charged Season 4 but also it being the final season? Is it bittersweet?
I feel I knew it right after we finished shooting Season 3, maybe a few months after that. Yeah, it’s sad but at the same time, I can’t wait to get back there! I mean I know they were working on the script last fall because I ran into Chris Mundy the showrunner/main writer on the street with Laura (Linney) and we were talking about it. COVID just threw a monkey wrench into the whole thing.
I’m just thrilled that it’s going to happen! I’m so grateful because it was such a terrible place for it to stop for a lot of reasons. Especially, because I’m finally starting to get everything I want out of life as Darlene. I’m building a family, I’m rebuilding my business… God, I have a baby! (laughs)
I keep thinking how I can get that cop’s baby, the new FBI agent! If I see her walking around with that thing, I’m going to be like, ‘Hmmmmm.’ (laughs)
In what ways do you feel the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has most impacted your acting opportunties? I know you perform in a lot of theatre productions.
Well, there is no theatre in New York right now, and there hasn’t been since early March. My son was in a play that just opened and then closed way prematurely. Yeah, it’s effected me drastically, I mean there’s no work. But I’m in the same boat as most other people, I can’t work remotely. (laughs) Nor do I want to.
I was in the middle of shooting a movie, Master, when the whole thing was shut down. I shot one scene and then that was it. They shut it down.
Yeah, I’m not sure what they’ll be doing in the future. I guess they’ll be testing everyone involved on sets.
I guess they will but I don’t know how you maintain any kind of distance on a movie set and certainly on the set of Ozark. Very strange. But I guess if everyone’s tested and you’re tested everyday… You either feel safe or you don’t feel safe.
It’s testing a lot of people in terms of Ozark, a big bunch of crew people, a lot of actors, a lot of hair and makeup, the list goes on and on. I don’t know how they plan to do it, and I don’t know how pleased I am about going to Atlanta. Atlanta is a little bit of a mess right now.
In the mean time, I’m the masked woman! (laughs)
Do you think masks will be tied in narratively into shows at some point? Is that a potential future tradeoff for productions to resume?
I think you can’t do that to an actor’s face, unless it’s part of the plot. But it’s really all you’ve got as in actor, especially in movies, your facial expressions. I mean, it’ll be interesting to see someone eventually make a COVID-19 movie.
Would you consider yourself a method actor at all? Do you utilize emotional recall often?
I’ll tell you the truth, I’m more of an ‘in the moment’ kind of person. I feel as though to be looking at Peter Mullan and working on a scene and obligating myself to feel a certain thing, then pull up a memory of something… I find it distracting, I rather look at him and get it all from him. Just go with what’s going on in the moment.
I’m not anti-method or anything, I think you can pick and choose from all kinds of different methods. I feel if you have to enter a scene feeling a certain way, really furious, or sad, or distraught… You can take that time before you enter to apply sense memory and that kind of thing. But in the middle of a scene, I just think it makes you go away. I can’t think two things at the same time.
There is a powerful Marty Byrde commentary in “Kaleidoscope” (Season 1, Episode 8) where he goes off about the whole premise of the phrase, “Things happen for a reason.” Breaking it down, piece by piece. Do you feel Darlene Snell would agree or disagree with Marty’s assessment of the phrase?
I think people who live in the country, close to animals, and life & death on a farm are not going to take that road. Things happen. I think what Marty says that Darlene would really align herself with was, ‘You choose everything. You choose your actions, you make a choice, and then you have to deal with it.’ I think she’s more of that school of thought.
Going back to the theme of war on Ozark, there is a moment where Darlene compares herself to the Viet Cong in a conversation with Wendy. She comments, “I don’t have to win, I just have to not lose. This is my land.” Do you feel then Darlene does not actually have to win in Season 4?
I believe if she says it, she believes it! If Darlene’s nothing else, she’s really honest with herself. I thought that was a really interesting line too. That was her war. Certainly Jacob’s. Nobody won that war… I feel that’s where she’s coming from.
The surprise shotgun murder of Del in Season 1’s Finale was one of the best cliffhangers I’ve seen on any TV Series in years. What was it like to shoot that scene?
God, it was delicious. It was just absolutely delicious! (laughs) Darlene took great joy in killing him, I mean, he brought the worst kind of insulting. Coming in, turning down his nose at absolutely everything. Being so much holier or rather bigger than us. Terrible attitude he had, very disrespectful.
It was really shocking, when I saw the dummy that made of him with his jaw blown off. I’ve never had to kill anybody like that in anything, I did have to stab someone in a play once. But I don’t know, it’s not the same as a shotgun. You know what that’s hard to do too because there’s no recoil, there’s no noise. It’s all pretending like playing Cowboys and Indians. I was used to play Army when I was a kid. It’s so hard to get it just right.
Did someone come on set to assist the cast with how to hold the guns throughout the series?
I’ve actually shot rifles before because I grew up in the country in Pennsylvania. We used to shoot Skeet, you know clay pigeons on a friend’s farm. So, I knew that but it’s not the same as shooting somebody just a few feet away in a living room. It’s so different but I’ve handled a rifle before but certainly not a shotgun.
Yeah, there was a gun guy. There always has to be one anyway to make sure there’s nothing in the gun and check those things out. There’s also someone that has to create smoke coming out of the barrel right before I’d have to shoot it.
I noticed Darlene used the shotgun against Frank Cosgrove Jr. Why is the shotgun Darlene’s weapon of choice do you feel?
I thought that was a really odd choice, that she was gonna walk across the parking lot with a shotgun sort of like down by her leg. Why not use a good, strong pistol? I guess it’s her style. That was a little creepy to shoot. I mean, he deserved it. But it was a little uncomfortable.
Do you ever re-watch your scenes? I know a lot of actors don’t like viewing their own work.
I don’t ever unless there’s something that I feel is wrong and I know it’s wrong. Jason Bateman directed that scene where I shot Del. And I asked to see it because I thought if I saw it I would know what was missing. Even though I couldn’t describe it. Sure enough, it was the language in your body after you shoot off a shotgun. I was just like straight as a tree while shooting it.
That’s when I realized that there nothing in my body that says I just shot off a powerful weapon. There was no recoil. I could fix that right away, so, it’s a great thing able to see something because it seems like nobody else quite knew what was wrong either. But I could tell. I could tell it wasn’t great. And then, when I got to shooting poor Junior’s prick off, then I ever did the recoil. So, I watched that too for my body language.
With the relationship with Wyatt, do you feel it sprung up because he was really the first person to truly believe in you as a mother? Is it genuinely heartfelt? It’s ran through my mind that maybe the whole thing is a manipulation tactic to get back at the Byrdes by destroying their business from within.
I think it’s genuine. I mean, his mother died, he didn’t even know his mother. You know, I felt for him. I felt like he had some goodness to him. I think Darlene liked the fact when she first really got to know who he was in Sheriff Nix’ office that he was living in rich people’s houses. These rich people come down, and he was kind of hanging out and taking baths and. I thought that would make Darlene like him immediately.
You know, Darlene had that big boy, Ash. They had such a close relationship. It was never really defined. So, you kind of come up with a story that we took him in when he was a young man maybe, and he was devoted, respectful & loyal. Then Wyatt comes to work with me, and I gave him Ash’s old cabin where he used to live.
Day to day to day, you start having meals together, you find out that he loves the kid. That he’s good with Zeke. He was so protective of me when Wendy came and called me a redneck. I think it built up.
The scene where I wash his hair is weirdly intimate right before we go to court. Then he stands up for me… I also think she’s really vulnerable at that point too. I mean I just killed my husband, what am I going to do now?! (laughs)
When Marty suggests flooding the Snell’s land, Darlene balks at the idea because “Symbolism matters, Mr. Byrde!” I feel that’s a governing principle of Darlene. Is that why deaths are usually veiled in traditional offers of lemonade and coffee? Respectful pleasantries and sendoffs before a surprise injected overdose so-to-speak.
Well, with the lemonade one, we made it look like he (Bobby Dean) might have died from an overdose and then threw him in the water. So, his body was pretty bloated, I think shooting him in the head with a gun would have really been too much trouble. Although, God knows we had a great burial ground going on! (laughs) I think death by drugs was probably kind of appropriate too.
Darlene is really so contradictory. I mean, she put all that fentanyl in the batch of opium and didn’t care because she was just killing ‘worthless junkies.’ That was her excuse for doing it, the real reason was just to make the cartel look bad. But I think she really believed that they’re just junkies, they’re choosing to do it. Yet, I’m producing it for them. You know, it’s f***ed up!
That lemonade scene catches you completely off guard by the way, it’s amazing!
I like it too! (laughs) It was the very first thing I had to shoot. I got on to set, my first day of shooting, and that’s what I got to do. I’ve never done anything like that! But that guy was such an a**hole anyway, I mean just that scene with Ruthie at the strip club… Either Darlene didn’t have much knowledge of that behavior or never liked him. He wasn’t loyal, we knew he was betraying us anyway. Ehhh, he deserved it!
What do you attribute to Darlene’s ability of turning even the most nihilistic, cynical of minds like Ruth’s to join her voluntarily? Even when she got Jacob originally, she barged in on his date and won him over with ease.
Yeah, Darlene saw what she wanted! I think Darlene’s great that way, and that she watches Ruth. I know how dug in to Marty she (Ruth) is… But the turning point was when Frank Cosgrove Jr. beat Ruth up like that and Marty had promised to protect her under all circumstances but did nothing. No retribution. Not a thing. No repercussions for Junior. Like Darlene told Wyatt, Marty is a poison, he doesn’t take care of his employees. Marty Byrde is not good.
That’s what makes Darlene so great! That she can go talk to Ruthie about what she did for her, and bring her along in her truck to go talk to Frank Cosgrove Sr. Tell him, ‘She had nothing to do with it. It’s all on me. This is what I have to offer you.’ So, I’m also pulling in all his resources as well, and I’m offering a lot.
I feel Darlene’s motherhood is central to her character because of what she once said to Jacob. “What’s the point of all this, if we have no one to leave it all too?” Do you feel that’s the primary drive for everything Darlene is doing, to protect Zeke?
Yeah, I think it’s a huge drive. I mean what’s the point? For me and Jacob to go on picking poppies and then just sort of die? To have a community, a family community to carry on… I think that’s a huge motivator. I feel it now with my son.
Thank you Lisa!
Be sure to watch all three seasons of Ozark on Netflix, fourth season is officially confirmed in the works!