'Happiness' Is the Kicker

Photo Source: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images
Friday, May 7, 2010 should be called Jesse Plemons Day. It's the day his new film "Happiness Runs" hits theaters and the day Season 4 of "Friday Night Lights" premieres on NBC. His character, fan favorite Landry Clarke, will be featured more than ever, now that other characters have grown up and moved out of Dillon, Texas. Plemons, who has been acting since he played a cowboy in a Coke commercial at age 3, may surprise his "Friday Night Lights" fans when he plays a cruel drug dealer in "Happiness." But for Plemons, it's all about new learning experiences.

Back Stage: You started acting at a young age. When did you know you wanted to be a professional actor?

Jesse Plemons: I guess when you're a child actor you don't really think, "I'm going to do this for the rest of my life." But I had a lot of fun meeting new people, and I loved being on sets. When I was 10, I was cast in the movie "Varsity Blues." I only had two lines, but I was on set for a month. I think that's when I knew that acting was more than just for fun. I really enjoyed the whole process. A year after that, I went out to L.A. with my mom and did the whole pilot-season thing and the whole "stay at Oakwood" thing.

Back Stage: Did your parents push you toward acting?

Plemons: No, we kind of stumbled into it. There was an open call for a commercial near my hometown in Texas, and my mom just took me. It was never forced upon me. I also played sports. Acting was just something else that they left open to me as an option if I wanted. They are unbelievably supportive. I'm only 22, but my love for the business has gone through phases. The acting part of it I absolutely love. It's the other stuff that gets tiresome.

Back Stage: Did you take any acting classes growing up?

Plemons: When I was younger, I took classes in Dallas and with Ellen Gerstein. Then I met my manager, Jon Simmons. If I have any talent, it's because of him. He's an amazing acting coach who studied with Milton Katselas and Jeffrey Tambor. I studied with him for nine years or so. That's something that's very important, and I definitely miss it when I'm not in a class.

Back Stage: Do you remember how you got your SAG Card?

Plemons: I played Matt Damon as a young boy in "All the Pretty Horses." I think I got it for that.

Back Stage: What do you think about actors trying to get work in their hometowns before moving to a big city like L.A. or N.Y.?

Plemons: If there are shows casting in your hometown, and if you can find auditions, do it. Find a theater group. It really helped me starting out. It would have been a big shock going from my small town right to L.A. without any on-set experience.

Back Stage: When did you officially move to Los Angeles?

Plemons: Just now! I would go back and forth—come out to L.A. for three months, stay for pilot season, be home for the summer, and then go back to L.A. around episodic season. I was just about to move to L.A. when I auditioned for "Friday Night Lights," and that moved me back to Texas—to Austin, which was perfect. I absolutely love Austin.

Back Stage: How did that audition come about?

Plemons: I had done an episode of "Grey's Anatomy" that Linda Lowy had cast me in. She was casting "FNL." She's really sweet. She brought me in to read for the Matt Saracen role. In the pilot, he had like two words. She was like, "Yeah, that's fine," and then she handed me [the sides for] Landry. I went out in the hallway, read them, and fell completely in love with the character. It was one of those weird situations where, from the first line, I just knew him. I just kind of got him and who he was. Then Linda had me read for [creator and executive producer] Peter Berg. It was one of the most interesting auditions I've ever been in. You never really know what Peter is going to throw at you. He had us improvising a bunch of different versions of the scene. Then I tested twice, found out I got it, and screamed for about an hour.

Back Stage: Since you were from Texas, did any of the actors or writers on "FNL" ask your opinions on anything?

Plemons: The first season, Zach [Gilford, who plays Matt Saracen] would ask me how his accent sounded. Then he got comfortable. Peter Berg, before they ever got started, would fly into this town close to Austin every weekend to watch a high school football game. He submersed himself and really got to know the people. He had done his backstory. It was easier for me. Dillon [the town in "FNL"] is very similar to the town I grew up in.

Back Stage: I have heard that all the actors do a lot of improvising on "Friday Night Lights." Had you ever done any improv before doing this show?

Plemons: Some, but I didn't consider myself a great improviser by any means. I had done some exercises in class but hadn't taken any improv classes.

Back Stage: What was it like when you first started filming?

Plemons: It was pretty terrifying at first being given that freedom [to improvise]. I think you can either accept it and take it and run with it, or cower. It helped that my character Landry was so out there, because I felt like I could say any kooky thing and it would work. I'm sure you can tell by watching, all the actors have gotten more and more comfortable with the whole improv thing. Once I was comfortable with it, I realized how much of an amazing gift it was for an actor.

Back Stage: How does it work? Do they just give you a scenario and say "Action?"

Plemons: It's not like they are just giving us the outline and we're improvising it. They do write us scenes. First, we go over what the object of the scene is and if there are any specific turns or things that we know we want to hit. Then we get on set, see what happens, react, and have an actual conversation. What's great is that we use a minimum of three cameras so there's not any time where you are sitting around going back and forth trying to think of which way the scene should go. We get in, we do it, and there's no time to overanalyze things or get in your head. You have to go. You have to be there. We film three-and-a-half-page scenes in 30 minutes.

Back Stage: How far off the script do you go? Do you add many lines or stick to the general idea of what's written?

Plemons: A lot of the times, rather than adding lines, we're kind of condensing. Unlike other shows, our show allows us to say it without saying it, you know? We're able to share with our eyes rather than lay it out there and spoon-feed it to the audience.

Back Stage: The actors on the show are so natural. The characters seem real, and the chemistry is amazing. Do you think being allowed to improvise has helped with that?

Plemons: It's a mix of that plus the editing, I think. You know, the toughest job on "Friday Night Lights" is the editors. I don't know how they do it. We've gotten so comfortable now. Zach and I had a scene in Season 4 that got cut, and we knew it was going to get cut, because it was too natural. We were just like two buddies talking. Who would want to watch that? You have to be careful you don't get too natural. But it makes for a lot of fun, for sure.

Back Stage: Does Landry have to graduate next year? All our favorite characters grow up and leave the show!

Plemons: Well, I'm in all of Season 4 [which premieres on NBC May 7]. I already shot the first episode of Season 5 [slated to air in the fall on DirecTV], but that's it. Supposedly I'm coming back towards the end of the season, during Christmas break, I guess. I know nothing about where or what will be going on then. But yeah, sorry. Got to grow up. Got to go to college.

Back Stage: What's your favorite medium or genre to act in?

Plemons: That's a tough one. I don't really look at a script as a medium it falls into. After doing "FNL" for four seasons, it completely changed the way I look at scripts. It's such an honest show. I don't really care what I'm doing just as long as there's something to cling to, something that will challenge me, something that I can learn from, or has actors in it I can learn from. I just want to keep learning.

Back Stage: Is that why you did the film "Happiness Runs?" Your character Chad, a sadistic drug dealer, was definitely a departure from sweet and humble Landry.

Plemons: That was the whole reason for doing it. It was something I'd never done. That was the first movie that I played someone who was so far outside of myself. I knew it was going to be a challenge. Truthfully, I'm super-critical of myself, and I wish I would have had more time. It was one of those things where you can only learn so much beforehand, and you learn so much during the actual process of filming that I wish I could do it again. But I'm really happy with how it turned out.

Back Stage: What is your rehearsal process like?

Plemons: I'm big into backstory. But rehearsal varies from character to character. To play Chad in "Happiness Runs," I talked to a rehab therapist. I wanted to know the technicalities and what exactly the drug that I was taking does to your body and mind. But I definitely don't feel comfortable until I have backstory and have answered all the questions that need to be asked.

Back Stage: Do you have any advice for other actors?

Plemons: If you think about the percentage of auditions that you go out on versus the ones you actually get, it's pretty staggering. But as my manager says, this is a marathon. Sure, there's always an exception, and there are some random overnight success stories. But if acting isn't something you feel like you have to do, you should probably not do it. It's really easy to let it get you down. But if it's something that you have to do, don't take no for an answer.