Jesse Plemons has a square, pink face, the unassuming air of a neighbourhood handyman and a tendency to sigh as he speaks, so it sounds as if he is hoisting each sentence up on to a high shelf. At 32, he has already starred in two Spielbergs (Bridge of Spies, The Post), a Scorsese (The Irishman) and a Paul Thomas Anderson (The Master). He and his fiancee, Kirsten Dunst, who met in 2015 when they played happily married murderers in the second series of Fargo, will also be seen later this year in Jane Campion’s western, Power of the Dog. Most recently, Plemons and Jessie Buckley were stunning as a couple cracking up on a road trip in Charlie Kaufman’s largely car-bound horror-comedy I’m Thinking of Ending Things, which made for perfect pandemic viewing.
“Time didn’t exist for us,” he says from the Los Angeles home he shares with Dunst and their two-year-old son, Ennis, who at one point during our conversation bursts in before being scooped up and whisked off by his mother. “We were in that car for four days, but you could have told me it was two years or 20 minutes and I’d have believed you. The vehicle was being rocked like a boat – it wasn’t even on a sound stage, it was in this warehouse filled with antiques and oddities. There were guys throwing fake snow at the windscreen for the entirety of these 15-minute takes. And I thought to myself: ‘This is exactly why I do this.’ I mean, who else gets to do that in their job, you know? I enjoy being pulled in different directions and going down all these rabbit holes.”
His latest film finds him in Chicago in the late 1960s, where the FBI is waging war on the Black Panthers. In Judas and the Black Messiah, Plemons plays Roy Mitchell, the FBI agent whose use of informants leads to the assassination of the Black Panther Party’s dynamic leader, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya).
Plemons’s co-star LaKeith Stanfield, who plays Bill O’Neal, the snitch painstakingly coached and cultivated by Mitchell, had given him a book about the relationship between their characters. “As I was reading, I felt myself starting to have some judgments about Roy,” he says, sucking the air through his teeth. “I had to back away from that and focus on the purpose he serves in the film. It’s always a tricky position when your opinions start to slip into a character.”
Had he allowed that to happen in the past, it would have disqualified him from playing a good two-thirds of the roles that have contributed to his reputation as a subtle, mutable character actor. Out would have gone the genial butcher he played in Fargo, who finishes off his wife’s hit-and-run victim with a knife before feeding him, limb by limb, into an industrial mincer. Gone would be the tech wizard in the Black Mirror episode USS Callister, who creates virtual versions of his colleagues from their DNA, then torments these captive avatars in a parallel digital realm. It would have been goodbye also to Todd, from Breaking Bad and its spin-off movie El Camino, the diligent psychopath described by an accomplice as “that Opie, dead-eyed piece of shit”. The “Opie” refers to Ron Howard’s wholesome character from The Andy Griffiths Show, another freckly, all-American redhead, although it is Plemons’s uncanny resemblance to a different star that earned him an enduring nickname from Breaking Bad fans: Meth Damon. He later got a chance to play Todd’s sinister aura for laughs in the comedy Game Night, in which he was an unsmiling oddball excluded from his neighbours’ frolics.
Roy Mitchell is another unnerving character, though he was not a man entirely without honour. Several years before the events shown in Judas and the Black Messiah, he helped to solve the murders of three civil rights workers. (The case was later the subject of the film Mississippi Burning.) And now here he was manipulating O’Neal into betraying his fellow African-Americans and undermining the black struggle.
“If there was a man capable of having a conscience, or speaking up and removing himself from the mission, it would have been Roy,” Plemons says. “So it has a greater impact, I think, when he decides to go through with it.” How did he secure the trust of his informants? “I got a pretty good insight into that by reading this book a poker player gave me at a casino in New Mexico, I guess because he had picked up on a tell of mine. It’s written by an ex-FBI agent and it’s all about non-verbal communication. I kept that with me and it helped quite a bit.”
Sure enough, his performance is a model of stillness and inscrutability; he never speaks or moves unless it cannot be avoided. No one who sees the movie will forget the hushed, simmering stand-off between Mitchell and J Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen), in which the FBI chief invites him to imagine his own daughter bringing home a person of colour – although that isn’t the language he uses. “It’s such a specific corner of racism,” says Plemons. “I talked about this with Shaka [King], the director, and …” He takes one of his long, pensive pauses, then mutters, almost to himself: “Here we go …” Another sigh.
“I grew up in a small town that was half African-American at least. It was one of the reasons we were so good at football. Our school was so small, we probably had 40 people in our class and everyone had known each other since kindergarten so racism didn’t really exist among the kids. It was something that you kind of discovered from the parents as you got older – this weird double standard of cheering for the town football team but God forbid, you know, that an African-American kid dates your daughter.” He shudders. “That kind of attitude really gives me the heebie-jeebies.”
Despite that, Plemons maintains that his home town – Mart, Texas – was a decent place to grow up. When I ask how he and Dunst, both former child actors, made it to a stable adulthood unlike so many young performers, he gives Mart some of the credit. “I was lucky in that I had such drastically different experiences growing up. I was in my wonderful little town, which has horses, one stop light and 2,000 people, then I’d be in LA for five or six months a year. It wasn’t possible for me to get ahead of myself or think I was better than anyone else. I’m more amazed that Kirsten turned out the way she did because she experienced fame at a young age and I did not, which I’m glad about. I saw what happens and it’s a lot to wrap your head around as a kid.”
What did he get out of acting back then? “It was make believe. Playing. I grew up watching westerns, and then I got to be an extra in a few when I was a kid. All of a sudden, I was inside this world that I’d been drawn to.” And now? “Probably the same,” he laughs. “Acting is a really unique way to learn about yourself and the world and other people, all at once.”
One film-maker who knows Plemons better than most is Scott Cooper, who has directed him on three occasions: in the thriller Black Mass, in which the actor was a young hoodlum caught up with the kingpin James “Whitey” Bulger, played by Johnny Depp; the western Hostiles, where Plemons was part of a military detail, headed by Christian Bale, escorting a dying Cheyenne chief; and the forthcoming horror film Antlers, produced by Guillermo del Toro and delayed more than 18 months by the pandemic, in which he is a small-town sheriff hopelessly ill-equipped to deal with a supernatural menace.
“I remember being riveted by Jesse in The Master, where he plays Philip Seymour Hoffman’s son,” Cooper says. “I was casting Black Mass at the time and I turned to my wife in the theatre, and said: ‘Who is that?’ What I saw then was what I see now in our collaborations: Jesse’s choices are always unorthodox but very specific. He approaches material from a curious and introspective manner, and his quest for the truth never ends. If time and money were not an issue, we would still be shooting the scene in Hostiles where his character admits for the first time his feelings about killing another man. Jesse will go until all fall down.”
Yet Cooper agrees that it can be hard to pinpoint precisely what Plemons is doing so adroitly. “He’s like a swan out on the lake, gliding gracefully and effortlessly, while underneath the surface it’s working very hard. That’s Jesse. He puts in so much work to give these simple, believable, very human performances.”
To achieve that, Plemons says, he needs to be fully relaxed. “I really do my best to trick myself into not being aware of the camera. But there is an adrenaline rush, and I’ve been doing this so long that I can only assume I must get some kind of sick enjoyment out of the pressure. You know: ‘This is it, whatever you want to say and do, you do it now. This is the time.’”
The Irishman was a case in point. “That was one where I was really just trying to keep it together and not freak out at the people in the car with me.” Al Pacino, as the union boss Jimmy Hoffa, was seated directly behind him, with Robert De Niro to Pacino’s right, during the tense scene in which Plemons, as Hoffa’s adopted son, is unwittingly driving his father to be executed. “We did quite a lot of takes, and Marty [Scorsese] was very nice, but I think some of those takes were just to get me to relax. There were a few where he said: ‘Just do whatever you want’ and left it rolling. That always brings up something new. I think that’s the version he ended up using.”
Plemons may be daunted by such esteemed colleagues, but he has also earned their admiration. “Johnny Depp couldn’t believe how good he was,” says Cooper. “He felt being with Jesse helped elevate his own performance. Christian Bale can’t say enough about Jesse, he thinks he’s among the very best. I speak regularly with Robert Duvall, too, and I know he loves Jesse’s truthfulness.”
Indeed, Cooper sees Plemons as continuing the spirit of 1960s and 1970s American screen acting. “I love Jesse’s look so much. He reminds me of the people I admired when I first became aware of the power of screen acting: Duvall, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, John Cazale. Actors who looked like real folk. I think that’s part of Jesse’s appeal. We see ourselves in him.”
• Judas and the Black Messiah is released in the UK on 26 February, Antlers on 31 October.