“Terrifying.” That’s how Jesse Plemons describes driving with two acting legends in the back seat while filming “The Irishman.”
“I think I made a terrible joke at one point, asking, ‘Do you trust me?’ in a smart-aleck way, and Bob was not pleased.” Luckily for “Bob,” better known as Robert De Niro, and Al Pacino, there were no accidents. Life goes on, and Plemons is here for the press day for Martin Scorsese’s new film.
The longtime actor stars as Chuckie, the foster son of Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa. The opportunity came out of the blue while Plemons was in New York City working on “The Post.” “It was a very strange month working with Spielberg and then getting a call to meet Scorsese. I had about a 30-minute meeting or so—I totally blacked out. I know Marty and Bob were very nice, but I have no idea what I said.”
Plemons knows how to play nice. Most of the characters he’s portrayed start off as kind, handsome, and quiet before all hell breaks loose. Like the time he had to murder a stranger on “Fargo” as Ed or shoot a kid on “Breaking Bad” as Todd. He likes it that way, though. “I’m drawn to characters [where] it’s not immediately obvious what their motives or intentions are, where there’s a lot of space to kind of fill in the blanks.” He’s had plenty of opportunities to do it—the actor started working at the age of 2 in commercials.
Plemons is a chameleon onscreen and off. Despite his quiet demeanor, he opened up about his hatred of auditions, his ever-growing record collection, and how he took a Disney role because it’s likely the only thing his young son will get to see him in for a while.
What was it like growing up doing mostly commercials and then transitioning into bit roles in films?
I only did a few commercials, really, because I was terrible at the audition process. I really hated it with a passion—but, anyway, moving on.
Well, even as a kid, it’s just not what I responded to. I had a tough time meeting the energy level that was required to sell something. It really is such a cattle call, going into a room full of so many kids. You finally get in there and they go, “Alright, tell us a funny story.” And I'm like, “No, man.” It was just was not my strong suit.
I’ll never forget my last commercial audition. I called my agent and said, “That’s it, I’m retiring from commercials.” It was this Oscar Mayer microwavable corn dog commercial. And I had to talk to the corn dog in the microwave and say, “OK, boy, that’s it. OK. Roll over, roll over. Oh, good boy.” That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I think it was a good decision for my mental health. It just depressed me.
I also remember this audition for a Disney show. I read with the casting director, and at the end, she looked at me in a concerned way and said, “Wow, I’m going to need a lot more energy.” I’ll never forget the look in her eyes. She was concerned and frustrated and just in awe of my read for this show. Luckily, I grew up and then for a long time I was the token troubled teen on every episodic show, like driving my tractor into a monument on “Judging Amy” or something like that. I was that guy for a while, which I just found more interesting.
When did you feel like you were able to start looking for roles you wanted versus taking roles to get screen time?
I think [playing Landry on] “Friday Night Lights” felt like a pretty definite turning point, just in the sense that it was so long that I got to spend with the character. It was the first time that it dawned on me that I might be able to do this for a living rather than just something that I enjoy. And then with “Breaking Bad,” I was excited about it because I felt like in some ways it sort of killed Landry. Then you have the fans who can’t help but connect Landry to Todd, which is kind of frustrating. But I think that’s where it felt like there was more coming my way. Immediately after “Friday Night Lights,” all I was presented with were different takes on the same sort of thing, but if you wait long enough, something different comes along.
I had been taking classes for a really long time. My manager at the time was a great acting coach. Everyone has their own methods and you read a ton of different books, but there was something about just getting to spend that much time with Landry. What [creator] Peter Berg did was so unusual, especially for a network television show, in that he put every bit of the responsibility on us. He told us that after the pilot, he wasn’t going to be there. “These are your characters. If you don’t like what’s written, it’s on you to change it.” There were no marks, no rehearsals, and so it felt like we were doing some tiny little indie or a play or something. I felt like we were in our own little bubble. And I guess that sort of realism was something that changed the way I thought about acting. It was definitely one of the more transformative parts and projects I’ve worked on.
After the show was over, I went through a career existential crisis, thinking, How do I take that environment of the set with me? I think what I’m always kind of trying to find is that level of comfort, which is just so relaxed and exactly where you want to be as an actor. There’s no tension or nerves, just reacting naturally. It was one of the best classes I’ve ever taken. I’ll never forget a scene with Zach Gilford pretty late in the series, maybe the last season, and I’m helping him pick out shoes or something. It really just felt like two friends hanging out. We looked at each other like, “Will people even want to watch this? Is this really boring?” Because it just felt like life, which is what you’re always aspiring to—but still, shoe shopping?
Then you have a show like “Fargo,” which is wild and absurd. Did you find you were still able to relax on that set?
I think it took me a few episodes to fully relax into it and find the tone. I had several conversations with Noah Hawley. My big question was, like, “How is [killing a man] not something that Ed is replaying in his mind all day?” I think he said, “For survival, people compartmentalize; you just put that back there and lock it up and confront whatever’s in front of you.” That’s another really exciting part of the job: exploring all of these different tones and trying to determine what the film needs. Doing “Jungle Cruise,” I was excited, because I’ve played villains and bad guys before, but never in that broad sort of Disney sense. And it’s similar with “Fargo.” I’ve loved the Coen brothers’ movies for a very long time, so trying to find my way into that world was a lot of fun.
Actors have to jump in, but like you mentioned, sometimes you are trying to process why a character would do something, but it takes a different track.
I did a film called “The Master” where I played the son of a cult leader played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman. I’d done a scene where I get punched a million different ways. I did some research on L. Ron Hubbard’s children and I just thought, as someone who had nothing to lose, he’s so miserable and stuck that even though most of the characters in the film were intimidated by Freddy, Joaquin Phoenix’s character, I looked at it as Freddy punches me in the face, so I get a free trip outside this bubble. And one day, director Paul Thomas Anderson told me, “I think you’re actually really scared of him.” That’s what wound up in the movie but there was something that was hard to get over [in] the reaction that I had to that scene. Preparation is like circling, it gets closer and closer until you find the most interesting way into something for you and for the story.
You’re in three films in the next year or so, plus you’re recently engaged and just had a kid. How are you balancing looking forward, booking new projects, with staying present?
I don’t know if it’s just a byproduct of the fact that I’ve been doing this for my whole life and the fact that it is really hard to make plans, [but] I don’t think too far in advance. It’s sort of a survival technique. There’s nothing like a kid to ground you and force you into the present. It’s so much fun and requires your absolute attention, and I’m really lucky to have incredible family and friends and a support system. I’m pretty good about just putting it all aside and enjoying my life outside of all of this.
I didn’t bring my guitar this trip, which makes me a little antsy, but I play a lot of guitar, mainly for my son. My recent obsession is collecting vinyl, which isn’t at a worrisome point… yet. It’s pretty much anything from the ’60s and ’70s, that whole spectrum. I love pop rock from that era, and psych, rock, soul, and country. Also, reading and watching documentaries and telling myself I’m going to work out. I do that a lot.
I did an independent film called “Flutter” where I played a musician. It was a little part, but we used a couple of my songs in that. That was a while ago. I’m a little apprehensive to go there because it’s really tricky. The songs have to be really good if they’re supposed to be good, you know? And there are only a few music movies that I really love. I like “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” I think it’s maybe the best, at least in my opinion, of those types of movies. There are many others that are great, but I don’t know, it has to be really spot on, because I’m such a fan.
You said that playing a Disney villain in the upcoming “Jungle Cruise” was fun for you. What made you decide to take that on?
When I was initially presented with it, I didn’t think it was something that I would ever be interested in. It was going to shoot pretty soon after our son was born. And Kirsten and I both talked and said, “Yeah, we’ll take at least three months before we take a job.” That was our game plan. As a parent, there are two conflicting instincts in you: one is to just stay there and stare at your baby, and the other is like, holy hell, I’ve got to work and support this creature.
I’ve always loved broad villains that really relish that teetering on the line of being ridiculous. I love kids’ and animated movies, so it just seemed like something different and a new challenge.
“Labyrinth” is one. I love the animated version of “Robin Hood.” I sing “Oo-de-lally, Oo-de-lally, golly, what a day” to my son. He loves that song! When he’s older, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” I talk about this one too much, but I kind of grew up on this miniseries called “Lonesome Dove” that was made in the late ’80s with Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, Anjelica Houston, and Chris Cooper. At that time, there wasn’t a miniseries of that quality being made. I didn’t watch “Barney” or too many kids’ shows when I was growing up. That’s the movie I am the closest to, and any time I got sick, that’s what I would watch, because it’s six hours long, so by the end of it, usually you feel a little better. I’m excited for him to see “Jungle Cruise,” but eventually his friends will recognize that I’m the creepy evil German prince. Most of the other films he won’t be able to see until much later.
If you could go back to any of the characters that you’ve played, who would you love to bring back to the screen?
I’m someone that, for the most part, could just do take after take after take. I don’t get tired of it. There’s always some other idea that we'll talk about. I have an affinity and a love for most of my characters. Landry is one. I don’t think I’m into the idea of there actually being a [“Friday Night Lights”] movie, but he’s the character I probably feel the most for. Just because it was such a turning point. Also, some of the smaller parts, just because you’re so geared up to get to work that sometimes it feels a little like a tease. I really loved Gary from “Game Night.” He was a fun one, but I only worked like seven days on that. I think you just feel like there’s more to explore and play around with.
When you’re inspired and you care, you just want to give the filmmaker every possible idea or take on something. That’s the part that I love. I don’t like watching myself, but the doing of it is a lot of fun; playing with other actors. That became part of the game on “Friday Night Lights” once everyone sort of tested the waters and took Peter’s advice. People started improvising just to see if you could crack someone up. The fun part is exploring every scene and finding something that you didn’t expect.
My very first scene was the first scene where Chuckie shows up and Hoffa is ranting about Kennedy and eating a sandwich. And, surprisingly, we did a take or two and I thought, Wow, it’s the same thing. It’s just that it’s Pacino talking. What was I worried about? This is fine. And then a few days later it all started sinking in, like, this is not the same at all. The weight of what a crazy opportunity this was started sinking in, and the main objective became just trying to get as comfortable and relaxed as possible in that environment. But it was, you know, just exactly the type of thing you think: Someday, I might find myself there, watching these guys. It’s something I’ll never forget. I could retire and be OK with that. There was one scene in particular with Joe Pesci that was just a few shots in the movie. I watched a take of him listening to Jimmy Hoffa at some speech. I mean, he just strolled in, action. Everyone is supposed to laugh. He rolls his eyes, everyone else gives a cheer, and he’s looking around like, “Where’s my glass?” I know I’m not doing it justice, but it was just, ah, so alive and honest!
You’ve played quite a few characters that start off, for lack of a better word, quiet, like Landry and Ed and Todd and Daly, and then they all kind of transform into this really big, loud part of the story. Do you look for those types of characters?
Most projects or roles are pretty obvious for me, considering who’s involved or the script. I feel like I can tell pretty quickly whether it’s something that I’m interested in or not. I played a Disney villain recently, which was very exciting because it was something I’d never envisioned myself doing. I’m constantly trying to find something new and different to challenge myself, but I guess there is a thread.
Inspired? Check out Backstage’s film audition listings!
Photographed by Matt Doyle on Sept. 28