‘Love And Death’ Star Tom Pelphrey On Playing Candy Montgomery’s Attorney: “He Didn’t Like Somebody Getting Bullied Or Picked On”
The real-life Candy Montgomery became a free woman thanks to Don Crowder, the cocksure personal injury attorney who would represent the Texas housewife in the murder trial of Betty Gore in 1980.
To portray such an integral character in the HBO Max limited series Love and Death starring Elizabeth Olsen and Jesse Plemons, David E. Kelley zeroed in on Tom Pelphrey, the actor best known for playing Laura Linney’s brother Ben in Netflix’s Ozark. The limited series also stars Lily Rabe as Betty, the woman whose husband Allan (Plemons) had an affair with Candy (Olsen).
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Here, the actor who also starred in season one of Outer Range talks about why he took the role of the overly-confident attorney — and the sorrow he felt when he learned how the real Don Crowder took his own life 18 years after Montgomery was found not guilty.
DEADLINE What was the most alluring aspect of this project? Was it working for David E. Kelley? Did he let you know that your character would eventually shine later on in the story?
TOM PELPHREY He did let me know. They sent me the first four episodes when I was in New Mexico doing Outer Range. I planned to read one a night. I sat down and read all four in a row. I couldn’t put the scripts down. I was laughing. I was moved. I was so fascinated by the story because I’d never heard of it before. But at the time, Don was barely in the first four scripts. I was sort of confused. I was like, ‘guys, I don’t understand why David would want me to do this.’ We had a talk and he said, ‘I know you only got the four, but the trial starts in episode five and we’re really going to get to see Don.’ He was like, ‘do me a favor and just go look into this guy a little bit. You’re gonna love him as much as I did.’ I took him at his word. And he was right. Don really got his moment in the sun toward the end of the show. And then having David Kelley write your courtroom banter? I mean, is there anybody better at writing that kind of stuff than he is?
So you read everything you could learn about Don Crowder?
PELPHREY Yeah, I did. I mean, they gave us the source material. [It’s based on articles and the book “Evidence of Love: A True Story of Passion and Death in the Suburbs” by Jim Atkinson and John Bloom]. David was extremely faithful to a lot of what was in the source material. But there was also a whole lot about Don that wasn’t in the show, like about his personal history and stuff. I really fell in love with the guy. It was the most fun I’ve ever had playing a character. And I think part of it was just the research I did into the man himself.
How did you shoot this when you were busy on Outer Range and Ozark?
It was in the middle of a crazy, little jigsaw puzzle. We finished the first season about Outer Range, and then I flew back east to do Ozark season four, and then flew immediately to Austin to Love and Death.
Did Don think highly of himself? I mean, he obviously had to have some sort of an ego to take on a case like this, right?
PELPHREY I think Don had a very healthy amount of confidence, for sure. On some level you have to have a bit of an ego, I guess, to think you could take on a murder trial when you’ve never done one before. But I also think there was a very real part of his personality that didn’t like somebody getting bullied or picked on. He saw the way that the police were handling the investigation and he saw it as overstepping.
How did you quite literally find Don’s voice, that accent?
PELPHREY I just tried to listen to people with a Texas accent. And as I was working on it, I settled into what I eventually did, and ran it past Jesse Plemons, who grew up in Texas. He said ‘you sound exactly like one of the guys I grew up with.’ Jesse grew up in a small town not too far outside of Austin.
There is one scene where we see Don getting ready for court, which includes seeing him in the shower and putting on his suit. He also wears a little smile. Why do you think that was important to the story?
PELPHREY Obviously the entire story is Candy’s, but once we get to the trial, David shifts us to the point of view of Don as the lead defense attorney. He switched the storytelling perspective because we can’t access Candy at that time. Like, literally and metaphorically, she’s checked out because she’s taking Serax. We see him get ready for court, and then he goes in to start questioning Candy. Lizzie’s performance is so powerful. Don forces her to look at the ax she used to kill Betty.
Was Don’s line of questioning and closing argument pulled directly from the court transcript?
So he did say this was an American tragedy.
PELPHREY Yep. Obviously there’s a tragic element to it. Everybody’s repressing what they actually want or feel, and if the repression leads to a mother getting brutally murdered in her home, then yeah, that’s a tragedy. Like, there’s gotta be another way that we can do this, so it doesn’t end that way, you know?
So even the part where he shows the ax to Candy, that was something Don did in real life?
PELPHREY Yes, it was brilliant. Don was a personal injury lawyer. He had a real flare for the dramatic, but also had a deep understanding that a trial was literally about shaping a narrative. When you think of the personal injury stuff, it’s like, okay, it’s undeniable. They got hurt, but how did they get hurt? And does the jury feel for the [defendant] in a compelling enough way to rule in their favor? He quickly identified with Candy and obviously all the media attention that she was drawing. He was like, if we’re gonna win this, we have to win it in which the jury can have sympathy for Candy. That’s why he was constantly so upset that she was taking Serax to maintain her composure.
Do you think justice was served?
PELPHREY Yes. They tried her for murder one, and I do not believe she was guilty of murder one at all. I mean, that would imply that she planned what she did. There was ample evidence to suggest that whatever did happen that day, it certainly was not planned or premeditated. If they tried her on manslaughter, I think they would’ve gotten a conviction.
After playing him, did you want to know why Don killed himself? Did you think about that a lot?
PELPHREY It had a weird impact. It made me very sad to learn that. I really loved learning about this man. You know, he and his wife Carol had this big beautiful house in Texas and they would foster all the local kids. Anybody who was struggling, anybody who had lost their parents, anybody who maybe had a single parent who didn’t have a ton of time for their kids. Kids were constantly in and out of the Crowder house, and Don would help tutor ’em with their studies, coach the sports teams, get ’em active, get ’em working out. He was a really active member in a really positive way in the community. I read an interview with Carol after Don took his own life in the late nineties, and Carol said they had divorced but had remained best friends for the rest of his life. I don’t want to speculate as to why he might have killed himself, but I will say it surprised me and was upsetting.
This limited series really makes you like Candy. Was that your takeaway?
PELPHREY It was kind of hard not to like her. I think Elizabeth’s work is absolutely fucking incredible. She did such an amazing job of bringing that pain to life in such a way that was shocking … in the best way possible. Like, I didn’t see that erupting until it erupted, you know? I believe that’s the mechanism by which people can have a truth buried so deep that they’re not consciously acting on it. In moments of extreme duress, it can manifest itself. I think we take it for granted, how there’s a conscious mind and an unconscious mind and how it has different ramifications in our lives. I just think Lizzie did a masterful job of finding the depth of the character. That went a long way to getting us on her side.
Looking back on your career, what was the game changing role for you?
PELPHREY Ben on Ozark. It’s hard to quantify these things in reality, but I had a sense after Ozark that it was a level up. There were more offers, there was more doors open. It’s one thing to do good work. It’s another thing to get the opportunity to do good work on a good show. And, it’s another thing to get to do good work on a good show that everyone watches. And when you get those three things together? I mean, you put your head down, you always do your work, you try to show up prepared. You take all those things seriously. But man, there is an element of luck and timing to all this that is unquestionable, in my opinion.
Love and Death is currently streaming on MAX.
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