Jessica Frances Dukes is a chameleon. In the few years she's been on the New York theater scene, we've never seen her give the same performance twice. She's played a headstrong maid-turned-movie star in Lynn Nottage's By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, a swashbuckling vampire hunter in Kate Hamill's Dracula, and now, on season three of Netflix's addictive drama Ozark, Dukes is Maya, an FBI agent hot on the trail of leading actors Jason Bateman and Laura Linney. Dukes recently spoke to TheaterMania about her season-long arc, and how this great opportunity couldn't have been less like the theater world she came from.
How did your Ozark audition come about?
I was doing By the Way, Meet Vera Stark by Lynn Nottage at Signature Theatre and I really wanted everybody to see it. I sent out invites to casting directors, and Alexa Fogel (who casts Ozark) was one of them. People from her team came, and maybe a week or two later, I had an audition for Ozark. I'm always proactive in inviting people, and I was really excited about that play.
The audition itself was just me and Alexa in the room. I loved Ozark so much already, that when I walked into the room, I felt so prepared. But at the same time, you walk into every audition prepared and you just never know. With this one, there was just something that felt so good about it. A month later, I found out I got it. When my agent she said Ozark, I doubled over. I was like, "You've got to be kidding me." I'm a huge fan of the show, and I'm a huge fan of all the actors. Laura Linney is a dream come true. It was amazing to work with them.
Was the rehearsal and shooting process akin to the theatrical process, or was it completely different?
It was the complete opposite. We got the scripts in parts. I received episodes 3 and 4, then 5 and 6, and then 7, 8, 9, and 10 while we were shooting. I put them all in a book and I treated it like it was one big play in order to find the story and the arc. But you come onto set, you rehearse for five to 10 minutes with the director and other cast members, and then, next thing you know, you're shooting. You really have to come to the set prepared. With theater, you have a good six weeks to prepare, with four weeks of rehearsal and a week of tech. I had to do my own six weeks before I stepped onto the set.
What is it like to be a newcomer on a series that's already been on the air for a while? Was the cast welcoming?
Yes. I was shocked. I didn't know what to expect, especially since they were such big names and such a huge show. I walked on the first day and immediately felt like I was part of the family. My very first day, I was shooting with Laura Linney and I felt my heart drop into my stomach because I thought, "I'm walking into a room where Laura Linney is going to be." They opened the door and she was there with a huge smile and she opened her arms for a hug, and then we got to work. Every single day was like that.
On the theater side, you recently played two huge roles: Van Helsing in Dracula at Classic Stage Company and Vera in By the Way, Meet Vera Stark at Signature. Tell me about those experiences.
Dracula was wonderful. The cast and team were so gung-ho. We had a very ambitious project to get done in a very short amount of time, and the opportunity to play Van Helsing was something I never thought would be a possibility. It was like nothing I had ever done before and it really tested me. It tested my craft itself, because you're not just doing a new play, you're doing a new take on such a well-known character. It took a lot of work and a lot of time. I'm so thankful I had the opportunity to do that.
Vera Stark was a parallel to what I was going through in my life at that time. The character, Vera, was five years into Los Angeles and I was five years into New York. Vera heard about a role that could possibly change her life, and I knew Vera could change my life. There were so many parallels. It was a dream come true, and it was a chance for me to pay homage to the actresses that paved the way.
Do you see any of those characters in Maya on Ozark?
There's actually a lot of me in Maya, not my past characters. I get a chance to do a lot of different things and I'm so thankful that I've never been put in a box. Like Maya, I'm a workaholic. I love what I do. She loves her work and takes pride in her intelligence. It's interesting to work with Jason Bateman in the show. I look up to him so much. He's so talented and smart and I think that Maya looks up to Marty that same way.