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Jesse Plemons Explains I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Friday Night Lights, Quarantine With Kirsten Dunst
Jesse Plemons has been on a Lee Hazlewood kick lately. Specifically, he recommends the 1963 album Trouble Is a Lonesome Town. It’s forlorn and thick. Rusted with harmonica. Steady and studied like a museum on one very particular subject. “I can’t remember exactly what he says,” Plemons mutters over Zoom, looking upward, trying to remember this folk song from the ’60s. “I’m gonna butcher it, but ‘Some people are good most of the time, some people are bad some of the time, but most people are good and bad all the time.’ And I just…I think that’s true.”
Misquoted lyrics are typically nothing to fret over, but Jesse is a small-town boy. I’m a small-town boy. Lee Hazlewood? Also a small town-boy. It’s very easy to make a caricature out of someone’s reality, so yeah. Details matter. It’s why five days after we speak, Plemons follows up with me in a personal email with the exact lyrics. “Now Trouble, like most all little towns, has some people who are bad all the time, and it has some people who are good all the time. But most of the people are good and bad most of the time.” He adds, “You may already be done with the article, but I just felt like passing it along anyway.”
Over the past two decades, Plemons has become known for capturing the soul of his characters, particularly when they’re living in these little pockets of the world. Finding their subtleties is half the battle. People who don’t “get” small towns like to label them as simple places, so the other half of his job is selling why these stories are worthwhile. That’s ironic considering how big-city culture commentators love to obsessively analyze Plemons’s repertoire of roles. Ed Blumquist in Fargo, the dutiful husband ready to sacrifice everything for his wife, Peggy, played by his real-life partner, Kirsten Dunst. Captain Robert Daly, who was the picture of toxic masculinity in Black Mirror. Then there’s Breaking Bad’s Todd, who…my God, let’s just say he’s Todd.
Are they redeemable or flawed or morally salvageable? Plemons insists it’s not that simple. It is very easy to get sucked into our world and all its dichotomies: small towns and big cities, liberal and conservative, good and bad. But Plemons’s curiosity is in the neitherness of people. We love these boxes of definition, and we love to assign people to them, but what if we couldn’t? Plemons operates in a world that is more about the observation and less about the final assessment.
Jesse Plemons stars in Charlie Kaufman’s psychological thriller I’m Thinking of Ending Things alongside Jessie Buckley.
His newest film is Charlie Kaufman’s book-to-film adaptation, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, out on Netflix on September 4. Plemons’s character, Jake, a Midwestern nice guy with a short temper, can be kind in one frame and volatile the next. Look away strategically enough and you can watch the whole movie and think he’s a sweetheart. Rewatch it and Jake is borderline abusive. What begins as a road trip home for Jake and his nameless young girlfriend (Jessie Buckley) turns into a psychological blizzard of perception, memory, and anxiety. The unnamed woman is contemplating ending things with Jake, but she returns home with him anyway to meet his parents. Once she arrives, she notices that nothing feels certain. Time shifts. Childhood photos of her appear on the wall. Her name changes at will. All of this unfolds as the film cuts intermittently to a lonely high school janitor. It’s all very unsettling. To call it horror feels reductive. To call it horror feels appropriate.
Kaufman has taken the psychological thriller and made it headier and uncomfortably introspective. The unease feels tragically familiar, and yet there’s something nearly inexplicable about it—the cinematic equivalent of the feeling you get right before you pass out. “I guess this could go for all of Charlie’s films, but [the first time I watched], it meant one thing,” Plemons says. “Watching it again, it felt different. It is dependent on where you are in life and where your brain and psyche is, you know?” The film does, indeed, leave a lot of room for interpretation.
Plemons recalls filming last spring, saying the experience wasn’t too far removed from the film. “It felt like being in a dream. There’s nothing to anchor yourself. Just as you start to go down a path that makes a little sense, something takes a turn and changes,” he says, searching for the right words. “I felt like what I was doing was terrible, but it still left me with this really awful feeling because of the nature of the scenes. And the writing is advanced, really. I think we just learned to embrace that and not try to put anything on it or get smart with it.”
“Watching it again, it felt different. It is dependent on where you are in life and where your brain and psyche is, you know?” Plemons says of watching I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Watching the film is a balancing act between taking in all its parts and attempting to suss out what they mean. I joke at the beginning of our time on Zoom that instead of talking about life, I’d really like Plemons to describe the entire film to me, piece by piece. Instead, he asks me to tell him my theory. He leans back in his chair, genuinely interested in what I’m piecing together, as if my read also says something about me. Being assessed by Plemons is both fascinating and unnerving enough to make me track my own answer as I piece it together.
As I finish, he squints tightly, leans into the camera real close, where I can just about only see his eye, and says in a slow voice, “Very interesting.” And now, like Plemons, I don’t want to share my opinion either, because I’m Thinking of Ending Things and so much of Plemons’s work offer the opportunity to sit with discomfort and ambiguity. To figure yourself out in the process of figuring out the film. In a society where we’re so desperate to be right, Plemons says, “I want people to come up with their own conclusions, because that’s also correct.”
Even though in the past certain aspects of the business are maybe not my cup of tea, I just find people fascinating.
In the past five years, Plemons has worked with Kaufman, Scorsese, McKay and Spielberg (twice). Of course, when you point that out to him, he’s sincere to a Texan fault. Turning away from the camera, he says, “Just hearing that Charlie Kaufman had any idea who I was and was interested in me being in one of his films grabbed my attention pretty quickly.” But Plemons is massively successful, and he is known for his nuance, so I ask him if there is a part of him that is becoming a bit more accustomed to the prestige projects. “Shoot me if I’m ever like that,” he says, before I finish the question. “I know I work hard, but I…you can still acknowledge that there’s a certain amount of luck that plays into it. I know so many incredibly talented actors that for whatever reason couldn’t find that door.”
That humility comes with time; he’s been doing this since he was just a kid. Having grown up in Mart, Texas, he comes from a town that hovers just around 2,000 people. (In a major blow, the most recent count has it at 1,963.) When he was about 11 years old, he started venturing out to L.A. with his parents. California by day and “by that night I was hanging out with my sister and her boyfriend in some pigpen,” Plemons says. “In hindsight it was really perfect to be able to experience both ends of the spectrum.” Before Friday Night Lights, his first memorable role was in Varsity Blues. He played Paul Walker’s little brother. He bock-ed like a chicken while a camera panned real close to his face. “It really blew my mind the difference in the way that the crew treated me in just having a few lines,” he says.
Plemons starred as high schooler Landry Clarke on the critically acclaimed NBC drama, Friday Night Lights.
The back-and-forth helped Plemons marry the two perspectives, and now more than ever, being able to see multiple points of view is a gift. It’s easy to villainize people unlike you. The push and pull of little places and big cities can be a strain until you understand the benefit of seeing both sides. “You have more compassion, maybe, or you know, small-town thinking or whatever you want to say,” he explains. That background fueled roles like the little brother in Varsity Blues and the lovable (one-time homicidal?) Landry Clarke from Friday Night Lights.
And since we were on the topic, I had to ask: Did Landry and Tyra actually get away with killing a man in season 2? He laughs at me for a while, but also, I need to know. “Yeah, I think you gotta follow up with the writers of that season,” he says, still laughing. “I think they fully got away with it! I read the script and was like, Remember when we killed that guy? That was crazy! I think they, yeah, I think they fully got away with it. We shot that twice. One time I killed him with a pipe, and once with a bottle. I forget which one ended up in the show.”
I don’t know if our country has ever felt more uncertain about absolutely everything.
Mart may not have provided all the background necessary for small-town murder, but Los Angeles offered a different type of person for Plemons to observe. “That was part of what drew me to this…even just being on sets. There’s such a carny sort of atmosphere there. The people are so unlike my town, which I loved, but it just…this world attracts so many different, interesting people.” He’s not into the idea of his past characters being good guys or bad guys as much as he’s interested in how both of those layers can exist in one person, dormant, until they’re not. “I’m never like here’s where I try and show a different side of this character. I think it’s just human nature and human beings are just really complicated and confusing,” he tells me. “Why we do the things that we do—it’s fascinating, and I guess yeah, that’s why I’m drawn to characters where there’s room to explore the entire spectrum, you know?”
And Plemons has run the spectrum when it comes to characters. His roles often become fan favorites: Gary from Game Night. Landry from Friday Night Lights. “Even though in the past certain aspects of the business are maybe not my cup of tea, I just find people fascinating,” he says. It’s his ability to see himself in others that drives so much of his decision-making when it comes to projects. “You can speculate as much as you want about the types of projects you want to do, but it boils down to what falls in your lap, for the most part. I looked to develop all of that with Kirsten, but it’s just that reaction—that oh shit, I think I need to do this, you know?” That goes for both him and Dunst. He says that neither of them is the type of actor who feels they need to live on set. If the timing is right and the character is good, then they’ll know when the story needs to be told.
Plemons and his partner, Kirsten Dunst, attend the 2020 Golden Globe Awards.
Barcroft MediaGetty Images
That’s part of the onus on I’m Thinking of Ending Things. “I don’t know if our country has ever felt more uncertain about absolutely everything,” Plemons says. “I’m excited for people to see this, because it explores that [uncertainty].” In 2020, we’ve all felt the discomfort of not quite knowing what’s going on, but I’m Thinking of Ending Things examines exactly how much uncertainty we can handle. What happens when our perceptions fail us?
For an actor like Plemons, it’s difficult imagining what it’s like to put down a character like I’m Thinking of Ending Things’ Jake and move on to someone else. He leaves one specific psyche and evolves into the next, like it’s as simple as Mister Rogers changing shoes. His next buzzy project is Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah, starring Lakeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya. Plemons plays Roy Mitchell, a real FBI agent hell-bent on taking down Chicago Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton in the ’60s. The role came his way via text. “Shaka, the director, was kind of on my case about it. It was like a holiday weekend, and I hate texting, you know, real conversations,” he says. The part King had in mind for Plemons was not particularly a good guy, especially considering how instrumental Mitchell was in Hampton’s murder. That complexity only pulls Plemons in further. “I was like, I’m just gonna call and explain that I’m not avoiding him.…In a matter of a seconds, I just had so much faith in this guy and could tell how smart he is, and his passion for the project was really contagious.”
The film also features some of the most promising talent in Hollywood right now. “Finding out that Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith were attached,” Plemons says, shaking his head in disbelief. “I just want to bolster those guys and help however I can, because I know what they’re capable of.” His next three major projects have him playing an FBI agent, a sheriff in a supernatural horror film, and the villain in Dwayne Johnson’s action film Jungle Cruise. The common thread for him is personal: “I’m my best when I feel like I have to do something and I don’t really know why and there’s something to work out in my own head and in the character and in the script.”
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Right now, most sets are shut down. That’s not all bad, though. Dunst and Plemons are getting some crucial two-on-one time with their son, Ennis. A lot of quarantine playtime. Two years in, they are more accustomed to the parenting gig. “I feel like he’s the MVP in our family during this time, because you read the news in the morning or at night, but during the day, that’s your focus,” he says of his time with Ennis. “It has to be and you want it to be and you’re like living in some imaginary land with him, you know?” And even if it sounds cliche (he calls himself out before it leaves his lips), Plemons says this fatherhood thing, it expands on the capacity to feel everything: love, excitement, worry, fear of losing something you love so much. It’s such a rewarding yield. For Plemons, this life has been about observing—small-town folk, carny set people, Hollywood greats—but to observe something you love so much and have it reveal pieces of yourself? What a beautiful gift.
That’s the point, right? Our perceptions and judgments are not fact—they only reveal something larger that was already inside us. Plemons has made a career out of it; mining and digging to find whoever lives in that easily caricatured shell. It’s what I try to do to him in our conversation. It’s what Lee Hazlewood does in his deep exploration of Trouble. But the most gratifying experience is when you move past the need to put each other in boxes and instead find truth about yourself within them.
A few songs into the extended 2013 reissue of Trouble Is a Lonesome Town, there is literally a song called “Who Is Lee Hazlewood?” and it’s just two minutes and 46 seconds of Lee Hazlewood explaining that out of 200 million people in the United States (times have changed), he is probably the only Lee Hazlewood. But across two minutes and 46 seconds (and the other 57 minutes of the album), Lee Hazlewood never tries to convince you that he’s good or bad. He presents these stories about Trouble and infuses himself in them, when necessary. He tries to point out lessons in the narrative. He gets kind of weird sometimes, but he never takes responsibility for your opinion. Lee Hazlewood is just giving you a peek into this world he’s created. What you make of him is up to you.
Justin Kirkland is a writer for Esquire, where he focuses on entertainment, television, and pop culture.
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