It was a failed audition for a Nickelodeon show at age 15 that steered Julia Garner toward her ultimate fate. Garner had recently begun taking acting classes to help overcome her shyness, and thought she'd try to book some roles. On her third or fourth audition, "The casting director stopped me in the middle," Garner says. "She was like, 'Honey, you're great, but you shouldn't be here.' I've never been stopped in the middle. I was like, 'Excuse me?' "
Garner is recounting the story over Zoom from a makeshift music studio in her home near Lake Hollywood in early August, shortly after she was nominated for her second Emmy for her performance on Netflix's Ozark. Behind her are two keyboards that belong to her husband, Mark Foster, the lead singer of the band Foster the People, and just outside the door her English bulldog, Biz, is snoring. Today, the 26-year-old, Bronx-born actress is most known to audiences as Ozark's best-loved character, swaggering Ruth Langmore, a poor young woman who wields improbable power in a criminal family full of men. It's an outsider's role that makes the most of Garner's electric delivery, her pale skin and tight blond curls.
But back in that New York casting office, all her teen awkwardness was going to waste. "[The casting director] is like, 'You should do independent films,' " Garner says. "I was too natural maybe in terms of acting. I was just too weird-looking. When you think about teen actors, you think of them having this gorgeous, luscious hair and being so pretty that you're like, 'You would never be the shy girl in high school.' I was definitely not [the luscious hair girl]. My style, it's still the same. It's been the same since I was 6 years old, which is a black turtleneck."
Eleven years after that audition, Garner has crafted the kind of career that capitalizes on her distinctive talent, one in which her daring, naturalistic performances often leave viewers wondering, as her director on The Assistant, Kitty Green, thought after seeing her on The Americans, "Who is that kid?" In The Assistant, which Bleecker Street released early this year, Garner almost wordlessly holds the screen as a subordinate to a powerful, abusive Harvey Weinstein-like industry figure. In her next meaty role, she'll play con artist Anna Delvey in the upcoming Shonda Rhimes Netflix series Inventing Anna.
Lately Garner has been adjusting to her new public profile, one that is only higher after Ozark's third season received a viewership boost thanks to the timing of its release, March 27, just as homebound audiences were beginning months of lockdown-induced binge-watching (according to Netflix's first-quarter earnings report, 29 million members watched the show in its first four weeks).
After winning the Emmy for Ozark last year, this time Garner is nominated for a season in which Ruth revealed a sensitive new side in a love affair, even as she plotted and spat out obscenities, including a memorable showdown in which she called Laura Linney's darkly maternal Wendy a "bitchwolf." Ozark collected a total of 18 Emmy nominations this year, including nods for drama series, actress for Linney and actor for Jason Bateman.
"Julia throws herself into her work with an abandon," Linney says. "She doesn't even remember what she's done after they yell cut. You can see her face morph in ways that you cannot do if you're self-conscious. She sticks her finger right into the socket."
For Garner, becoming so lost in a scene that she forgets what she's done on a take is the goal. "I never like the feeling of remembering a scene, because that means that I wasn't present," she says. "If you're hearing yourself talk, you're not listening. It's the same thing when you're acting. If I remember what I did on a take, I ask to do it again."
Garner's first act of reckless abandon on Ozark was an audition in front of a casting assistant in a small New York office in 2016. Ruth doesn't appear in the show's pilot, so Garner was given a mock scene to perform, a monologue that she delivers to her character's cousin, Charlie Tahan's Wyatt, about Ruth wanting a better life for him. "I remember thinking, 'Oh my God, this character is amazing,' " Garner says. " 'There's so much to it. If I don't get this, I don't think I can watch this show.' And I don't think like that. I'm usually like, 'One bus comes, one bus goes, try to get on the next bus.' This time, I was like, 'I've got to get on that bus.' "
Garner had recently made a film with a Missouri accent (Tomato Red) and figured she'd use it on the audition. But when she arrived, she overheard through the casting office's paper-thin walls that none of the other young actresses there that day were reading with an accent. "I was like, oh my God, I'm going to be that actor that is super annoying, so actory," Garner says. She tried to drop the inflection and found she couldn't remember her lines without it, so she delivered the scene in full-bore Ozark-ese. Walking out, she called her mom, dejected, and said, "Yeah, I'm not getting this. This is a nope."
Instead, says Ozark showrunner Chris Mundy, he, along with star/executive producer Bateman and casting director Alexa Fogel, saw on Garner's tape exactly the kind of feral performance they were looking for in a character who would become a linchpin of the series. "We just loved the idea of this 19-year-old woman, in this land of overly macho men, who was actually more powerful than all of them. And yet there was a sadness to her, too," Mundy says. "Julia embodies it. She's 100 pounds sopping wet. But there's a real power to her."
Ozark's writers always envisioned Ruth as a key character, but as they've seen Garner's abilities, they have expanded the scope of what they ask of her. "Julia has an innate vulnerability to her that runs as a really interesting juxtaposition to her ferocity," Bateman says. "She's as sweet as she is sour, as much of a beauty as she is a beast, and her ability to toggle between those polarities … the writers write to that."
To summon Ruth's cockiness before a scene, sometimes Garner listens to '90s hip-hop — Notorious B.I.G. is a favorite. She has also created the character through focusing on details like her costume. Before the first season, Garner requested a pair of wedge Styrofoam flip-flops — "the kind you get at CVS" — to find Ruth's walk. For season three, when Ruth is trying on a more professional persona as the manager of a casino and attempting to fit into the show's upper-class Byrde family, Garner asked for French tip press-on nails. "She's trying to be something she's not," Garner says, gesturing at her own red manicure, leftover from a recent photo shoot. "And in the middle of the season, she takes off the nails."
According to Mundy, it is Garner, more than anyone on Ozark, who is recognized by followers of the show when they're shooting in Atlanta. (The series is produced by MRC Television, which shares a parent company with The Hollywood Reporter.) "Early on, fans were surprised to learn that I've never been to Missouri in my life," Garner says. "I actually like it when people don't know where I'm from. You want to keep that distance, because you want people to forget that they're watching you."
Garner's childhood in the Bronx's upper-middle-class Riverdale neighborhood, as the youngest in a raucously communicative Jewish family, steered her almost inevitably toward an actor's life. Her mother, Tami Gingold, was a comic on an Israeli sketch show similar to Saturday Night Live who later became a therapist; her father, Thomas Garner, is a painter and art teacher from Ohio; and her older sister teaches English and English as a second language in a New York high school. "I feel so lucky that I grew up in the house that I did," Garner says. "It's crazy — don't get me wrong — but it's good crazy. … You know how every family has their family fights? Ours would be for hours because it would be like a group therapy session. It would start off with just one person, but then each person had to have their own hour. And how did that affect that problem, and this and this. It benefited my acting, to be honest. You can only imagine a house full of therapists and teachers."
Her family was devoted to Turner Classic Movies, and Garner developed a youthful affection for Bette Davis. Asked to name an actor whose career she'd like to model hers after, she mentions one who might not seem an obvious inspiration for a 20-something ingenue — Richard Dreyfuss. "I love a really intense energy on the screen," Garner says. "Your eye just goes straight toward that actor. They don't even have to say much, they don't even have to move their face much, but there's something that almost feels like you don't know what they're going to do next, you're guessing."
For Garner, acting is a meditation, the way she learned to feel at home in the world after multiple learning disabilities prevented her from being able to read until she was 10. "Even after I learned how to read, it still affected my confidence to the point where I was so shy. Everything that I said, I felt stupid," Garner says. "I started taking acting classes to overcome my shyness, and I fell in love with it." Garner took the subway to school in lower Manhattan before switching to home schooling in her teens, when her acting began to take off.
After the Nickelodeon rejection and a couple of student films, Garner booked her first significant role, as a cult inductee in the 2011 independent film Martha Marcy May Marlene. More indie film work followed, including her first major lead role, in 2015's Grandma, as a teenager trying to get an abortion with the help of her eccentric grandmother, played by Lily Tomlin. "I've never been in those girl-next-door TV shows because they never hire me," Garner says. "But it all happened perfectly in a way. Every part has to be different from the last — for me, at least."
Her TV work has been similarly rich and definitely wider-seen, and has included roles as a questioning member of the Branch Davidians in the Paramount Network limited series Waco, a spoiled Valley girl in Bravo's true-crime anthology Dirty John and a Lolita-esque CIA agent's daughter in FX's The Americans.
Writer-director Green's drama The Assistant gave Garner the opportunity to try a much more contained performance than the one she's called on to deliver in Ozark. But thematically there are some parallels between playing an underestimated criminal mastermind and playing the beleaguered assistant of a Hollywood sex offender. "We were looking at sexual misconduct through the eyes of someone with very little power, in a system that's essentially structured against her, but she's also a part of that system," Green says.
Roughly one-third of Garner's young career has taken place post-#MeToo movement, and she has noticed changes on her sets, most visibly the use of intimacy coordinators while shooting sex scenes on Ozark and on the Amazon Prime romantic anthology series Modern Love. "I feel very fortunate that nothing ever happened to me, I've always been a part of a good set," Garner says. "But after #MeToo, sex scenes are just much more comfortable. They're not pushing women the same way that they would."
In The Assistant, Green was inspired in part by Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, a seminal 1975 feminist film that essentially follows a woman as she cleans her apartment. "I told the casting agent I wanted someone infinitely watchable," Green says. "Because she's doing a lot of mundane tasks, this banal routine. I needed someone who people would want to keep their eyes on. I was looking for presence." When Green met the actress for coffee, Garner was wearing a turtleneck — this time an asset, not a liability — and Green copied the look for Garner's character in the film.
Garner's closest friends are ones she grew up with in New York, but among industry confidants she is tightest with her Ozark co-star Tahan. When shooting in Atlanta, the two get apartments in the same building. "Even if I have friends in Hollywood, I don't have Hollywood friends," Garner says. "They're in your life, in and out, temporarily. I'm one of those people that once I make a friend, they don't go anywhere."
In early March, as the dangers of COVID-19 were encroaching, Garner was spending 18 hours a day in a Brooklyn subway station shooting Inventing Anna, which is adapted from a 2018 New York magazine story about Russian scammer Anna Sorokin. In 2013, Sorokin created the fictitious identity of German heiress Anna Delvey, ultimately defrauding wealthy New Yorkers and hotels. "She might be the hardest character I've ever played," Garner says. "She's a genius. You can't judge your characters. I want people to understand why she did this." During production, Garner flew to Buffalo to meet Sorokin at the nearby Albion Correctional Facility, where she's serving a four- to eight-year sentence for larceny and theft. "It got super meta because she's like, 'So how are you playing me?' " Garner says. "I said, 'Well, you're very complex. Your accent's really hard.' She's like, 'Oh my God, how do you sound like me? You have to do it.' She just was freaking out."
Inventing Anna was shooting episode five of 10 when the pandemic forced a halt in production. Though it was miserable timing for the show, the pause was in some ways healing for Garner, who has been working steadily now for about a decade. The intensity of the past four years of work has left her little time for much else. "I haven't had a really good night's sleep in the last four years," Garner says. "So for the first two or three months, I just slept." She also cleaned out closets, read scripts and worked on her accents. (Asked what she does for fun when it's not lockdown, Garner pauses. "Go to the doctor?") It's unclear which she'll return to first, the fourth season of Ozark, which is scheduled to start shooting in Atlanta in October, or the last five episodes of Inventing Anna, in New York. "It depends on which state is deemed safer," Garner says. "It's a question I'm curious about every day. They're complicated roles. It's very tiring to be two different people at the same time." Five months away from a set has been destabilizing for Garner, though. "Something I learned during COVID that I was struggling with was, for me acting is like meditating," she says. "I had a problem. I was like, why am I not feeling so present? It was because I haven't been acting."
Lockdown has meant welcome time with Foster, whom she married in December at New York's City Hall while wearing a white Danielle Frankel pantsuit. She was in the middle of production on Inventing Anna, Foster was preparing to go on tour, and the two planned to get hitched in June. "For some reason, I was like, 'You know what? Let's not wait until June. Let's just do it, because who knows?' " Garner says. "We were both so busy." Garner and Foster had met at Sundance in 2013 but didn't exchange contact information and didn't start dating for a few years. Before she started on Ozark, he connected with her on Instagram. "I was like, 'Who's this guy liking all my photos? Is this a stalker?' I clicked on him and I was like, 'Oh, Mark. Oh, he's cute. I'm going to follow him back.' Then he DM'd me."
Garner is tentative about social media. "I'm still figuring that out, to be honest," she says. "I'm not as good as I feel like I should be. But at the end of the day, it's not the most important thing. The most important thing is that you work on your scenes and you work on the script. The good work is always going to be there. A post disappears after five minutes." When news photos circulated this summer of revelers blithely ignoring social distancing recommendations over a holiday weekend at the Lake of the Ozarks, Garner wondered if she should have made an Instagram post of Ruth chastising them. "Oh my God. I got so furious about that," she says. "The one thing I regret this year is, I wish that I put out a video, like, 'Ruth does not approve.' "
Last year she attended the camp-themed Met Gala in a Zac Posen gown inspired by a Ziegfeld girl, a look that enabled her to slip into a character, a more comfortable space, for the night.
Stepping onto the stage when she won her Emmy last year, wearing a royal purple Công Trí dress, was dizzying. "I did something stupid," Garner says. "I made eye contact with Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, and he was looking at me and there was a second where I froze. It reminded me, 'Oh, I'm at the Emmys. These people do not know me. I know them. But they do not know me.' "
But they're getting to know her better, and Garner is getting more comfortable revealing herself. At this year's Emmys, which will be a virtual ceremony because of the pandemic, she plans to wear her pajamas. "It's the only time it will be socially acceptable to wear pajamas to an awards show," she says. "I'm going to wear nice, fancy pajamas."
This story first appeared in the Aug. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.