Jesse Plemons is often called a “character actor,” but this is a cop-out—a nice way of saying that Plemons doesn’t look like a traditional leading man. (Others have certainly found crueler ways.) Yet the days of Plemons being relegated to the quirky, creepy, intentionally marginalized supporting roles that are the character actor’s province are just about over. Plemons is fast becoming a marquee star, even if his nuanced, naturalistic performances belie it.
Late last year, Plemons took top billing in Charlie Kaufman’s lovelorn psychodrama I’m Thinking of Ending Things, carrying the film’s queasy emotional weight on his slumped shoulders. This July, he stars in his first summer movie blockbuster, unleashing a German accent as the mustachioed prince launching torpedoes at Dwayne Johnson in Disney’s Jungle Cruise. This year has also seen Plemons reunite with The Irishman director Martin Scorsese for the filming of Killers of the Flower Moon, taking over the part of the hero Texas lawman that was originally written for Leonardo DiCaprio. And just last week, it was announced that he’ll star opposite Elizabeth Olsen in HBO’s limited series Love and Death, which was partly inspired by two Texas Monthly articles on the 1980 murder committed by Wylie housewife Candy Montgomery.
These are big, showy, leading-man roles, no caveats required. And (with the exception of Jungle Cruise), they all speak to what filmmakers from Paul Thomas Anderson to Scott Cooper to Adam McKay have long seen in this soft-spoken actor from tiny Mart, Texas. It’s the same thing Plemons possesses in real life: the ability to surprise—to be more than he appears.
Plemons often uses this unassuming meekness to play characters who wind up doing awful things. When they’re not cold-blooded killers, they’re usually emotionally manipulative, masking their worst tendencies behind a veil of affability or awkward diffidence. In I’m Thinking of Ending Things, for example, you naturally sympathize with Plemons. He’s playing the poor sap whose college girlfriend is already mentally breaking up with him on a visit to his parents’ farm. But little by little, his character’s sweetness erodes. You realize just how much his character has allowed self-pity to curdle into malignant narcissism—and just how unaware he is of the harm he’s capable of causing.
For a more extreme version, look at Plemons’s Emmy-nominated role in Black Mirror. Plemons was a standout in the dystopian sci-fi series’s fourth season, playing a bullied tech geek who escapes into a fantasy of control as the commander of the Star Trek–aping virtual-reality game he designed. He’s another classic underdog, the nerd who gets his revenge—and the girl—using the wits that go so unappreciated in his own world. But he’s also an abusive monster, one of the “nice guy” avatars of modern toxic masculinity who feels nothing beyond his own sense of aggrieved entitlement.
In short, Plemons excels at playing bad guys who think they aren’t—faux-sensitive, soft-boy sociopaths who are far scarier than any deranged German prince. Plemons’s most out-and-out villainous character, Todd on Breaking Bad, isn’t terrifying because he’s a remorseless killer. He’s chilling because Todd sees himself as a loyal, loving person. Murder and torture are simply part of the job, necessary to his self-preservation, and Todd is able to compartmentalize it all behind a gregarious, gee-whiz facade.
You can see this dichotomy in the role that made Plemons famous. Friday Night Lights’ Landry is another affable nerd who’s perpetually overlooked by the popular kids, yet possesses an endearing individuality and an easy, dry wit. You might also recall that Landry murders a guy, then dumps the body in a river to cover it up.
That whole, misbegotten storyline was quickly forgotten (and Plemons himself has more or less disowned it). Still, it speaks to how often Plemons is called upon to play characters who feel justified in even their most heinous actions—and how frequently we, the viewer, end up just going along with them. Whether it’s as the FBI agent who exploits Daniel Kaluuya’s informant in Judas and the Black Messiah, or the lovable butcher who kills a man, then feeds his corpse into a meat grinder to protect his wife on FX’s Fargo, Plemons’s characters are often bad, but for understandable reasons. They’ve paved myriad roads to hell with their good intentions.
Which brings us to HBO’s Love and Death, in which Plemons will play Allan Gore, whose affair with Candy Montgomery led, through a morbidly plausible escalation, to Montgomery killing Gore’s wife, Betty. In their original reporting for Texas Monthly, Jim Atkinson and John Bloom describe Gore as “a small, plain man” with “a receding hairline and the beginnings of a paunchy midsection,” a shy and unassuming sort who couldn’t believe Montgomery would be interested in someone like him. Gore is portrayed as a cautious, fundamentally decent man who explicitly tells Montgomery, at least at first, that he can never hurt his wife. But he eventually cops to feeling restless and bored, tired of “the awful burden of making Betty happy,” and all too eager to allow his affair with Montgomery to just sort of happen. Gore’s a good guy who does a bad thing, repeatedly, without ever really meaning to. And it ends up costing him everything.
Suffice it to say, it’s the perfect role for Jesse Plemons, who plays guys who are neither bad nor good but concurrently both, like most of us are. At a time when we are surrounded by people who contain so many nuanced pockets of darkness—not just the friendly, churchgoing woman who proves capable of murder, but maybe the cheery coworker who tweets death threats to celebrities, or the nice lady next door who joined an insurrection that one time—Plemons feels like an actor who’s uniquely attuned to this moment. He captures that messy humanity in all its perpetually self-sabotaging glory. Some might still hesitate to call Jesse Plemons a leading man, but right now few others can top him.