LOS ANGELES — Jesse Plemons had never felt so lost. It was early March 2019, just a few days before he was supposed to shoot Charlie Kaufman’s “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” and Plemons still had two questions that he dared not ask of his director.
The first was kind of a biggie. What exactly was the movie about? Adapted from the novel by Iain Reid and out on Netflix Sept. 4, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” appears deceptively simple: A man named Jake and his girlfriend embark on a snowy drive to meet his parents. Afterward, they drive back.
Or do they? The story’s true nature remains tantalizingly out of reach. As their circumstances grow more and more strange, the characters’ shared sense of reality begins to smear, and the film unfolds like a Rorschach blot: What you ultimately make of this lonesome little tale may depend on what you bring to it.
Plemons knew that with a storyteller like Kaufman, a bit of disorientation was to be expected — this was the man who had written meta mind-benders like “Being John Malkovich” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” after all. Still, a good grip on the material kept proving elusive. Plemons had hoped things would get better after the first rehearsal; after that first rehearsal, he was convinced they wouldn’t.
Why had he been cast? That was the second question Plemons couldn’t bring himself to ask, even as he grew certain he was the wrong man to play Jake. He had just come off a string of supporting roles in “The Irishman,” “Vice” and other movies, and Kaufman had offered him the male lead in “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” without so much as an audition.
“I had no clue that Charlie had any idea who I was,” Plemons said. “There was a part of me that was like, ‘Are you sure, Charlie? You want to see me do something first?’”
With only two days left before the shoot, Plemons went to dinner with Kaufman and his castmates still feeling unmoored. To his surprise, the other actors said they felt the same way. Even David Thewlis, who had worked with Kaufman on the animated “Anomalisa,” admitted to some confusion.
“David finally asked Charlie, “So can you tell us what this is about?” Plemons recalled. It was the first of his two unasked questions, and Plemons hung on Kaufman’s answer. “And Charlie was like, ‘You know, I don’t know.’”
Some actors might have been alarmed by such a confession, but to Plemons, the material finally made sense. He had been trying to figure out something that was meant to be experienced rather than completely understood. “Charlie kind of arrived at saying, ‘I think we just have accept that we don’t know, and just accept that we’re going to fail sometimes. We have to embrace that.’”
The answer to his first unasked question also suggested the answer to his second. There was nothing that could be done on this film but live in the moment, and if that’s what you want from an actor — well, that’s why you cast Jesse Plemons.
WHEN KAUFMAN FIRST laid eyes on his eventual lead, he wasn’t thinking “movie star.” He was thinking “background extra.”
Kaufman was introduced to Plemons through “Breaking Bad,” the hit TV drama that Plemons joined in its fifth and final season. At first, you barely notice him: While Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul rip through their scenes with galvanizing grandeur, Plemons putters around as the mild pest-control flunky Todd, pitching a fumigation tent and mumbling a handful of lines.
As Todd goes on to become a major player, embroiled in high crimes like meth-making and child murder, Plemons barely lets on that the stakes have been raised. So pronounced is his lack of affect that you’d be forgiven for thinking this is a real person who’s been pushed in front of the camera and forced to wing it.
“I never saw Todd coming, and I think that’s the thing about Jesse,” Kaufman said. “It’s very interesting to watch him work because everything is just so small and underplayed, which is very valuable in film.”
That verisimilitude has found him fans in major directors like Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, and the 32-year-old Plemons has recently become a mainstay of prestige dramas, appearing in best picture nominees four of the last five years. Utter naturalism is his goal: Plemons can toggle easily between eggheads and dimwits, good guys and bad guys, and it’s almost impossible to describe what he’s doing differently because he doesn’t appear to be doing anything at all.
“I love actors where you don’t see them acting,” Plemons told me in early August, when we met outside his home in the Toluca Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles. “You don’t see a false moment. You don’t catch them.”
Though the circumstances of our interview were dictated by the pandemic, it felt fitting that we should hang out in his backyard: With his mussed golden hair, slight paunch, and feet nestled in flip-flops, Plemons looked for all the world like a good-natured dad at a barbecue. He was amiable but not particularly expressive, and the gentle volume of his Texas twang was frequently drowned out by garbage trucks.
And yet he was still able, somehow, to command attention. Was he a bit of a Rorschach blot himself? “It’s that ‘still waters run deep’ kind of thing,” his wife, Kirsten Dunst, would tell me later. “I think there’s just some people that you’re drawn to watching.”
Plemons and Dunst met while shooting the second season of FX’s “Fargo,” in which they played a married couple engaged in a criminal cover-up. “I knew that she would be in my life for a long time,” he said. Though they didn’t begin dating until a year and a half after the season had wrapped (and both had netted Emmy nominations), the connection was instant: They often stayed up late running lines with each other, a level of dedication that had been drummed into them from a lifetime spent in the entertainment industry.
“We laugh about the fact that we were two child actors,” Dunst said, “and we both made it out OK.”
As a young performer, Plemons would fly from his hometown Mart, Tex., to Los Angeles for auditions. He lacked the over-the-top, pixie-stick enthusiasm of his child-actor brethren, and he remembers a low-key reading for the Disney Channel that left the casting director “genuinely confused and almost worried,” he said. But at 18, that Everyman earnestness landed Plemons a breakout role as Landry, the bookish friend of the star quarterback, in the NBC football drama “Friday Night Lights.”
The show’s cinéma-vérité aesthetic played to Plemons’s strengths: He could imbue any plotline with a documentarylike rawness, and the series leaned on him more and more as it went on. Scenes weren’t rehearsed, and he was allowed to improvise at will, a process that granted him total immersion in his role. It was the perfect training ground, and it spoiled him, too: “I feel like I’m trying desperately to circle back to what it was like during ‘Friday Night Lights,’” he said.
The low-rated show led to much higher-profile opportunities — Plemons would go on to play Philip Seymour Hoffman’s son in the Paul Thomas Anderson drama “The Master,” and appear in Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies” and “The Post” — but as he bore down on them, that youthful sense of freedom was hard to recapture. “I went through a period of time where I was pretty hard on myself, where it was not as much fun as it should’ve been,” he said. “I care so much and want to give everything that I have, that it just starts eating you up and becomes less enjoyable.”
In other words, it’s a lot of work to make it look like no work at all. “He works so hard at what he does,” Dunst said. “He takes everything very seriously and embeds himself very deeply.”
Shooting Kaufman’s film helped him shed some of that anxiety, once he stopped overthinking his character. Some of the scenes between Plemons and Jessie Buckley, who plays his girlfriend, were so lengthy that the actors made a pact: If either of them forgot the next line, they’d just sit in silence, as their characters might, until something finally came to them. “It was really intimidating at first,” he said, “and then really exhilarating once you sink into it and give it all up.”
Life in quarantine with Dunst and their 2-year-old son, Ennis — “he’s the MVP of lockdown” — has helped, too. “It forces you to look at what’s in front of you,” Plemons said, and has reminded him that in work and in life, it pays to stay in the moment.
“I’ve spent years of constantly learning the same lesson over and over again, that you can work and work and work on something, and bang your head against the wall and know it inside and out — but then, in that moment, if you’re not relaxed in your mind and body, that’s all for nothing,” he said. “A lot of that work won’t be seen unless you’re grounded and present. I just don’t think there’s ever anything wrong with attempting to be present.”
There was a brief, inscrutable flicker on his face. And then an actual smile.
“I guess I didn’t know I had a philosophy on life,” he said.