Let’s start with the important stuff. Four-and-a-half weeks before Tom Pelphrey walked into this beautiful, mid-century Los Angeles bungalow to shoot our Mr Feelgood cover story, his first daughter, Matilda, was born. But Tom’s not tired, he’s energized.
“I’ve been traveling for the last few days,” he explains. “And this morning I was really hoping she’d wake up before I had to leave the house, and she did. So I got to pick her up out of her crib, and went to change her diaper, then she peed as soon as her diaper was off!”
Tom’s certainly not complaining about this parental rite of passage. In fact, he’s savoring every drop. “Just to hold her and feed her was absolutely incredible,” he adds. He also brings this positivity and gratitude to his work, and his booming laugh becomes the soundtrack of our day together, despite our interview and photoshoot pulling him away from Matilda and his partner, the actress Kaley Cuoco, before he flies off again for more filming straight after we wrap.
You tend to get back what you put into this world, and Tom found his open-hearted attitude was mirrored by the cast of ‘Ozark’, the show that supercharged his career when he was cast as Ben Davis, the brother of Wendy Byrde (Laura Linney). He joined the crime drama in the third season, which aired on Netflix in the Spring of 2020, when Covid-19 lockdowns around the world helped expand and unite the already-beloved show’s international community of fans.
“‘Ozark’ was a very special job, and it changed a lot of things,” he says. “There’s so much that goes into the soup of a successful job, and so much of that is beyond your control as an actor. It’s such a team sport. And for such an intense show, it was a lovely, supportive, and respectful set. I got there in season three, and I’d be hearing the crew talking about their weekend plans together, still hanging out, after three years of filming non-stop.”
While ‘Ozark’ was undoubtedly a pivotal achievement in Tom’s career, and would earn him an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Guest Actor when he reprised his role of Ben in the show’s final season, the opportunity was two decades in the making. He began his career on the CBS soap opera ‘Guiding Light’, winning two Daytime Emmys for Outstanding Young Actor in 2006 and 2008. He’s trod the boards of Broadway too, most notably playing Judy Garland’s fifth husband Mickey Deans in ‘End of the Rainbow’ in 2012, and returning to the stage three years later in the revival of Sam Shepard’s romantic tragedy ‘Fool for Love’. Film highlights include a turn as Oscar-winning screenwriter and director Joseph Mankiewicz, the brother of the title character Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), in David Fincher’s ‘Mank’. Recently, he’s been starring in the critically-acclaimed Amazon Prime neo-Western ‘Outer Range’. And he’s currently shining alongside a talented cast in the HBO miniseries ‘Love & Death’, the true crime story of housewife Candy Montgomery who was accused of the murder of her lover’s wife, Betty Gore, in Wylie, Texas, in 1980.
Here, we learn about the man behind this flourishing career in our latest ‘Who the F*** Are You?’ profile, asking the 20 questions that get to the heart of who we are. Tom is deeply reflective and admirably specific as he talks about the double-edged sword of self-work and, of course, how becoming a father has changed his life. We hope you enjoy the photoshoot and conversation, available in written form below, as a video here and on our Mr Feelgood TV channel, and as a podcast.
Who the f*** are you?
I’m Thomas Joseph Pelphrey. I’m still trying to figure out who I am, really. Life’s changed a lot in the last year. I think acting was a game-changer, and a lifesaver, and something to focus energy and passion into. I think it became how I identified myself, and at a certain point that ran out of road. So I was doing a lot of work on myself and the universe introduced me to Kaley, who’s my fiancé, and everything changed. Now I have a daughter, and the me that’s an actor is just a little piece of the pie.
How are you feeling right now?
Really happy. I had a really nice day with you, Alison [Edmond, Mr Feelgood’s Head of Creative], and everybody here. ‘Love & Death’ is coming out and there’s been a lot of press lately. And literally just yesterday I had a bad experience. I love acting, I love preparing, but sometimes when doing an interview I don’t quite feel comfortable. Maybe it’s back to your first question, I feel like I’m ten different people on any given day. So to take accountability for myself, I can struggle with that a bit. And not everybody is playing the same game, and that can be a little taxing. So to come here today, in such a positive, supportive, fun, relaxed environment is really reassuring — like a soul balm.
Where did you grow up and what was it like?
I grew up in Howell, New Jersey, and it was amazing. I had great friends. It was lower middle class, suburban, we were 15 minutes from the beach, 15 minutes from Six Flags. We all played all the sports. All the guys from the neighborhood would come to our backyard, because we had a pretty big one, to play Nerf football. We had an above ground pool, and we’d play pool volleyball. Every day we were just outside playing until the sun went down, and occasionally come inside and play [the video game] James Bond ‘GoldenEye’, which was a good one!
What excites you?
Great writing. I love great poetry. Rumi. I was feeling sad the other day, and I was like, “When was the last time I read a Rumi poem?” And along those lines, because we were talking about surrender and spirit earlier today, my therapist — who’s a super-interesting, cool guy — is teaching a class on the bible stories through a Jungian, analytic perspective. So you’re interpreting things non-literally, but is there an essence of wisdom that we could extract that can make our lives better in a real, concrete sense? There was a lot of interesting things that I took from it, but one of the coolest ones was when he talked about the Sabbath. He said that his interpretation of the Sabbath was that it was just one in seven. We have six days of creation, a day of rest. But he was like, “What if it doesn’t have to be one day a week? What if it’s just one hour out of every seven? How many hours are you awake: 14, 15, 16? So could you then take two hours each day?” I love thinking like that, the creative ways to get into yourself.
What scares you?
The idea of death scares me. The awareness of the passage of time. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about that recently. My daughter was born, and I’ve never been more aware of four-and-a-half weeks passing. I’m getting emotional, which is no surprise. When you remember being a kid, it feels like there was no time. So you start to think about the responsibilities that we have, or the rituals we have gotten into, or just losing touch with being present. When you’re a kid, if you’re lucky like I was, there was not too much to worry about or to be responsible for.
What is your proudest achievement?
My daughter. Although I don’t know if I’m allowed to call her an achievement!
What’s the hardest thing you have ever done?
Just doing the self-work, I guess. There’s a reason that there are things we’re not aware of, because it has served us for so long to not be aware of it. So I feel like you become aware of things, and that allows you to become a more whole human being, but that new awareness can also be a burden. And there have been lots of hard things that are outside of me. My first dog that was mine, Sasha, I got her right after my father past away. After putting her down, I worried for three days that something had got lost, and I didn’t think it was going to come back.
Who was your greatest mentor, and what did they teach you?
I have been very fortunate in terms of mentors and teachers. My high school teacher Steve Kazakoff changed my life, and is why I’m sitting here and talking to you right now. He’s the reason I’m an actor. He was so passionate, such an amazing acting teacher. It was a public high school I went to but it had a magnet performing arts program. So you had to audition to get in, but it was the school that was five minutes from my house. Every Friday, we’d have to bring in a quote to write up on the chalkboard, and bring in a vocabulary word and the definition. It was very important to him. “You’re going to be actors, you’re going to understand vocabulary, and you’re going to speak well.” He took everything so seriously, and I know that is the reason I kept doing it. He gave me discipline and a work ethic. And I had an amazing college professor, Kevin Kittle. So much about sensibility, understanding storytelling and script, and also the function of an actor came through Kevin in college.
My father died when I was 25. My parents got divorced when I was pretty young, and my father and I had a much more meaningful relationship when I got older. As you experience life and become a man, the world becomes shades of gray, whereas maybe you used to think about a lot of things in terms of black and white. There’s nuance, there’s subtlety, and with that comes a flood of empathy, understanding, and forgiveness. All of a sudden [we] let the parents come down from Mount Olympus and join the land of the human beings. So I’m always grateful for that time that we got to share together, a little more man to man.
We talked about ‘Ozark’ and different jobs I’ve had, and I’ve felt very blessed in terms of the environments I found myself in and the people who were there. I’ve almost always been around good people who’ve looked out for me, and who’ve supported and encouraged me, and not tried to f*** with me or take me down. It’s a fragile thing, this business can beat you down.
Who are your fictional and real-life heroes?
Fictional heroes: Gandalf. Joe from ‘Great Expectations‘. Samuel from ‘East of Eden‘. William Wallace from ‘Braveheart’. And who really shaped the college-age me was RP McMurphy from ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’, and Jack Nicholson’s performance. For about three years, if it was cold enough, all I had on was a black leather jacket and black beanie. Real-life heroes: My mom. She did a hell of a job working full-time and raising me and my brother, and there was nothing easy about that!
What’s your favorite item of clothing in your wardrobe?
My Adidas trackpants. It’s all I ever really want to wear!
What music did you love aged 13, and do you still love it now?
Nirvana, Stone Temple Pilots, Pearl Jam, White Zombie, Metallica, Offspring. 13 was literally when I bought my first CD, Nirvana’s ‘Unplugged in New York’. And yes, I love their music still. Because I love podcasts, audiobooks, reading, and information, every now and then I start to listen to music again, and I’m like, “What am I doing? I need this every day!”
What’s the most inspiring book you have ever read?
‘The Power of Now‘ by Eckhart Tolle changed my life. I feel like that book is alive, and I think he probably knows that it is. There’s the way you are taught, and the way you think about things, and then something comes along and goes, “But what if it’s this?” And you go, “Whoa!” And that’s really disorienting at first and can be quite upsetting. But then you go, “I think it is this. I always had a weird feeling that it was, but never knew how to articulate it.”
What is a movie that left a lasting impression on you?
The movie that blew my mind the most, in the sense of what we can do with storytelling, was ‘The Matrix’. When I saw it, I thought [the late writer and literature professor] Joseph Campbell would flip his top, because it’s the quintessential religious story, dipped in really cool clothes, a lot of guns, and badass martial arts – and everyone loved it. A frame for frame perfect movie. And I really love ‘Kung Fu Hustle’. Stephen Chow wrote, directed and stars in that. It’s constantly shifting genres — incredible.
What is your favorite word or saying?
The one I say the most is probably motherf**er!
Timshel [which is tattooed on Tom’s arm] is a Hebrew word from ‘East of Eden’. There’s a beautiful passage where Steinbeck has Lee saying that he believes that timshel is man’s ladder to the stars. This is something that Rumi talked about as well. Rumi would say that in man is the ability to be lower than the lowest animal. The animal is innocent because an animal is all instinct, and so they can’t be blamed. And he said the angel also doesn’t deserve credit because all the angel does is praise. Stuck in between are human beings, who can simultaneously be lower than the lowest animal, and higher than the highest angel, because they have to choose.
What do you want people to say at your funeral?
I would just hope everybody is laughing. They’ll be like, “That big, dumb, f***ing laugh of his!”
And finally, a quickfire five favorites…
New York Giants.
I love steak.
My favorite grooming product is wearing a baseball hat!
LOVE & DEATH IS STREAMING ON HBO MAX NOW
GROOMING by ADAM BREUCHAUD at FORWARD ARTISTS using TOM FORD BEAUTY
HUGE THANKS TO ADIR AND MARCELO
VIDEO: Tom wears grey wool polo, grey wool pants and tan oxfords, all by THOM SWEENEY