Among millennial men, actors like Adam Driver and Robert Pattinson get the most notice for assembling impressive, eclectic résumés. But Jesse Plemons stealthily ranks among these giants, even if his contributions receive less publicity and media attention. At 32, Plemons boasts a filmography that’s as impressive as it is varied across film and television. On the silver screen, he’s established himself as one of his generation’s most reliable characters working with greats like Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and Paul Thomas Anderson. On the small screen, he’s had major roles in four of the most acclaimed shows of the prestige TV era: “Friday Night Lights,” “Fargo,” “Black Mirror,” and, of course, “Breaking Bad.”
It’s his role in the latter series as Todd Alquist, an enforcer and lab assistant for Bryan Cranston’s Walter White whose mild-mannered demeanor belies sociopathic cruelty, that presents the occasion for us to talk. Plemons reprises the role in “El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie” in a bit of a surprise appearance given where the series left Todd. Unlike many television characters who reappear after years off the air, “El Camino” gives Plemons a chance to do more than just replay the hits. Film director and show creator Vince Gilligan examines Todd from an entirely different angle, which allows Plemons to explore the character in greater depth and add further dimensionality to his complicated relationship with Aaron Paul’s Jesse Pinkman.
Our conversation covered the joys and challenges of returning to Todd after the character lay dormant for over half a decade, as well as Plemons’ experience on films like “The Master” and “Vice.”
How’s month two of quarantine treating you?
It’s fine in one way. Nice to slow down and be with the family. So getting lots of family time which is nice. But it’s just terrifying, the state of the world, you know?
You’ve been acting for a long time now, and growing up, what kinds of roles or characters or performances made you want to pursue acting full time?
I mean, I’ve said this before, but it’s very true … did you watch “Lonesome Dove” growing up in Texas?
I never did, and I get bugged by my roommate and my best friend about it. They both tell me I have to watch it – or read it first, and then watch it.
They’re both pretty brilliant, the book and the movie. The movie came out around the year I was born, and I watched it on loop. I still watch it probably once a year. I was able to kind of grow up with that, and obviously, as a kid, you’re drawn to the horses, the cowboys, and all that. But the older I got, the more I realized that Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall were just absolutely brilliant. And it was just one of the best friendships ever portrayed, and they just didn’t seem like they were acting. It totally felt real. And the older I got, the more I got into acting, I started to realize that that’s what I was interested in and trying to figure out how they do that.
From what I understand of the way that you all shot “Friday Night Lights,” very improvisational and on the fly, was that a big breakthrough in terms of achieving that level of naturalism?
It was a breakthrough, and then when it was over, it put me into a creative crisis trying to figure out how to take that sort of energy and freedom with me to other jobs, other parts, and other sets that aren’t quite as conducive to that level of freedom. I think it probably made us all better actors, that show. And it’s just so much fun.
You’ve now gone on and worked with a real murderer’s row of great directors like Paul Thomas Anderson, Scorsese, Spielberg twice. How do you kind of maintain that level of freedom and autonomy while also giving them what they are looking for?
I think that’s the other side of it that I find really exciting. It’s trying to fully understand a director’s vision and to accomplish whatever it is that they’re setting out to do while also finding the most exciting choice or way into something for yourself. Because I just feel like I’m my best when I find an idea or a choice that is exciting to me. And it’s most exciting to me when it just happens organically. But yeah, that’s also something that I really enjoy is exploring different tones and styles and just trying to fit into that story as well as possible. Just going back to working with those directors, you’re just trying to learn as much as possible because they’ve been at this for a lot longer than I have, and I feel incredibly fortunate to have had those experiences.
Unlike most of your roles, doing the narration in “Vice” is very abstract and metaphorical. Your function is also very unclear to the audience until it becomes very clear. How did you approach playing something like that?
Well, that changed pretty drastically from when I signed on to the finished product. There were multiple narrators, and then I think they decided in the edit that it became too confusing with all these different voices. And so they narrowed it down, and [Adam McKay], over the course four or five months, just kept sending new lines to record on my phone. It was a long process and really interesting to see over the course of five months. I wasn’t able to put the lines in context, but [I could] see these different variations on lines or new lines that McKay would come up with. And then the most rewarding part of that was after they locked down with the narration would be, I got to watch the movie and then, from start to finish, narrate it. I don’t know, I always love the Disney version of “Robin Hood.” I love Roger Miller. There’s something very American about him, and I was thinking about him as the rooster quite a bit. Yeah, to only have your voice to express something and to literally be telling a story … I know by the end of it I did not want to hear or say the word “Dick Cheney” anymore. But I love the way the movie turned out.
“El Camino” isn’t really a continuation of Todd’s story given his ultimate fate in “Breaking Bad,” but did the way you approached or thought about the character change it all with five years or so of distance?
I wasn’t expecting it to. I thought I turned every stone that I possibly could and asked every question, but what I loved about the script so much was that it was Todd kind of on his best day. Aside from this unfortunate task that he has to ask Jesse’s help for, it was Todd with no supervision. He was king of the castle for that weekend while they were all off trying out their new jet skis or whatever. And I always loved the scenes with Jesse because it’s such a complicated, strange, and creepy relationship. Getting to delve deeper into that was a lot of fun. Getting to see his apartment was a lot of fun. The most frustrating part was that Vince [Gilligan] found what type of music Todd listens to. I had thought about it so much, and I should have landed on yacht rock. Unfortunately, Vince figured that one out, and it’s so perfect. So I don’t know if my approach changed, but it was about exploring different parts of his psyche and that relationship.
In the past, you’ve described Todd as being kind of hard to peg or define. Are you internally, as an actor, making a decision to pin the character down and encouraging the audience to kind of find that essence? Or are you giving us a grab bag of his personality and allowing us to shape the character ourselves and define him in our own heads?
Well, definitely the first season, I felt like I had no idea what I was doing. I had to make choices because there’s nothing worse than just feeling totally naked and unsure of who the character is. But I had such little information in the beginning, I just had to make broad choices and then just try and be as present as possible. But after Uncle Jack came in, we were able to talk a lot about their history and what his childhood might have been like, why they’re bond was so strong, why he looks at him as a sort of father figure. From that point on, I felt like I had a better understanding of Todd. But that’s part of the fun, especially a character like Todd, I would rather people come up with their own conclusions about him.
I’ve talked to some other actors who have played murderous or sociopathic types, and they often talk about their duty as being to understand them rather than to sympathize with them or judge them. Do you feel similarly?
Yeah, definitely. It’s only happened to me once where, halfway through production, I realized I don’t like this guy. And that’s not a good thing. It wasn’t Todd. You just to figure out why they’re doing what they’re doing and what led them there. People are really good at rationalizing and compartmentalizing. Murderous people, you can usually trace that back, it’s typically doesn’t just happen. It’s kind of a process.
Do characters live on in your head after you wrap? Are you envisioning what they do after the final scene in the script?
I think, just as a survival technique, no. You get so attached, and it’s your world for a period of time. And you’re putting all of your focus into the job to the character and trying to give your best. There are some characters, I guess, that are harder to shake than others, or there’s a longer period where you’re getting back to square one with yourself, but you have to just attempt to let it go and move on. I definitely thought that Todd would never resurface. That was a pretty unique situation.
Are there any other characters you played that you’d be eager to revisit, feasible or not? I feel like your character from “Game Night” has a lot of love on the Internet.
Gary? Oh, I’d love to see Gary again. I don’t want to start any rumors or anything, and I don’t even know if it would be a good idea to do a “Friday Night Lights” movie. But I loved Landry, and I loved that world so much that I wonder what he’s doing.
What keeps bringing you back to these types of characters like Todd? Do you think you’re particularly good at playing them, is it what you enjoy most, just what you’re getting offered? Or maybe some combination of that?
With Todd, I got the part, and so I played it. It wasn’t something I was actively seeking out. In general, I think they’re just more fun and interesting. And referring to that other interview, I like not being able to size a character up immediately. Because I just don’t think you can really size anyone up too quickly! I guess that’s why I’m drawn to those characters, but I don’t know, it just so happens that those are the parts that I’m being offered.
I’ve noticed a lot of actors opening up about the impact of working with Philip Seymour Hoffman both personally and professionally. Is there anything that sticks with you now that it’s close to a decade since you all made “The Master” together?
Before I worked with him, and after, he was one of my favorites, if not my favorite. Up there with you asking about my early influences, he was definitely one of them. And I couldn’t believe that I had the opportunity to play his son, and he was so generous, nice, and focused. And it was so incredible watching those three [Hoffman, director Paul Thomas Anderson, and co-star Joaquin Phoenix] find a scene.
I have so many good memories from that, but one that sticks out that I’ll never forget … there’s this sequence in the movie where they go to this fundraiser and someone speaks out against Dodd. He starts badgering him and berating him with questions. We’d been shooting that scene for a long time; it was almost lunch. Paul usually does quite a few takes, and it seemed like Phil was reaching a point where [he] didn’t know what he wanted. Paul had to just walk up to them, look at his hairline, and pluck a hair out. Like, what the fuck?!
And then I’m pretty sure what the next take he reaches a place that he hadn’t in previous takes, and out comes the pig fuck line: “You pig FUCK!” Then it was like, “Alright, that’s lunch!” We were all just totally in awe, mouths on the floor. We actually ended up reshooting that scene in a different location with a different actor. “Pig fuck” carried over to the reshoot and made it in. I think about that a lot. Just one of a kind, no one like him.
You’ve got a pretty busy upcoming slate, including Jane Campion’s new film, “Power of the Dog.” Is there still outstanding footage that needs to be shot that was affected by the pandemic?
We’re going back in two weeks . New Zealand has pretty much eliminated [COVID-19]. It’s gonna be strange to film during this time, but I don’t know when I’ll get another opportunity to work again. We’re excited to finish it, and I think it’s gonna be really good. Just getting to work with Kirsten [Dunst, Plemons’ “Fargo” co-star and now partner] again is a dream.
Is it weird to be missing a creative outlet at this time? Actors especially are so dependent on the collaboration of so many people to create their work.
I’ve been playing a lot of guitar, listening to a lot of music, and reading when we get a chance with the little guy [Plemons and Dunst welcomed a son in 2018]. I’m not one of those actors that feels like I always have to be working. I feel very fortunate that we’re in a place where we don’t have to work for a little while. I can’t imagine what it’s like for people that don’t know when they’re going to be able to work to put food on the table, but aside from just thinking about the state of the world and lower-income families, we’re doing pretty well in all this and just trying to have fun their son.
“El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie” is available to stream on Netflix.