The first season of Friday Night Lights had its clear stars. There was the obvious breakout, Canadian heartthrob Taylor Kitsch, as the brooding Tim Riggins. There were Scott Porter and Zach Gilford as the two quarterbacks whose positions flip, suddenly, following an on-field tragedy. There were Adrianne Palicki and Minka Kelly as the dueling burnout and cheerleader, respectively, navigating a world that mostly cared about the success of the jocks with whom they were infatuated. And, of course, Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton as the grown-ups whose steady, calm love in the midst of all those raging teen hormones embodied the concept of “relationship goals” for a generation.
Floating around all of these twentysomething actors from around the country pretending to be Texas teenagers was one oddball: an eighteen-year-old former high school football player and child actor from Dallas named Jesse Plemons who actually was what all of his castmates were portraying, in a small role as newbie quarterback Matt Saracen’s best buddy Landry (or was it Lance?). In Friday Night Lights’ first season, Landry’s role on the show is clear: he’s a nerd, there to remind viewers that even though Saracen is QB1 now, he still belongs with the school’s dorks and dweebs. As the show continues, though, something becomes clear—Plemons is great, a deft comic presence with a world of emotion simmering under the surface. Friday Night Lights figured this out quickly, elevating Plemons to one of the critical members of the ensemble (he’s one of only a handful of the show’s fifteen leads to appear in each of the show’s seasons). And Hollywood quickly figured out what it had in Plemons. While Kitsch was the one to headline blockbusters, Plemons carved out his own path—from character actor to leading man—and this week, the journey culminated in Plemons becoming the first FNL alum to earn an Oscar nomination, for best supporting actor in Jane Campion’s Netflix film The Power of the Dog.
Plemons’s unlikely ascent seems almost inevitable in hindsight. After playing Landry as a charming everyman on Friday Night Lights, he immediately subverted expectations, taking what appeared to be a role as another small-town naif on Breaking Bad, only for that character to turn out to be a sociopath who ran with a white power prison gang. From there, he held his own alongside Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. He buddied up with Rihanna in FNL creator Peter Berg’s Battleship and, in various projects, supported Christian Bale, Robert De Niro, Johnny Depp, Al Pacino, and Toms Cruise, Hanks, and Lee Jones over the next several years. He took on a leading role in season two of fellow Texan Noah Hawley’s Fargo, which led to his on-screen wife, Kirsten Dunst, becoming his real-life spouse. (The two, both of whom were nominated for their roles in The Power of the Dog, split their time between Austin and L.A.)
To some extent, Plemons’s Oscar nomination for The Power of the Dog seems inevitable; he easily could have received one for his supporting turn in last year’s Judas and the Black Messiah, or in 2020’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things, or maybe for his part in this year’s Martin Scorsese epic Killers of the Flower Moon. Plemons is a unique screen presence—he’s effortless when playing an everyman, he looks like a movie star (his resemblance to Matt Damon and his role on Breaking Bad earned him the nickname “Meth Damon”), and he brings to the screen a selfless willingness to make himself absurd, grotesque, or horrible, giving any project he’s a part of a color that it’s otherwise extremely difficult to get into the palette. That’s as true in lightweight fare like the mostly forgettable 2018 comedy Game Night, in which he stars as a neurotic small-town sheriff, as it is in a potent historical drama such as Judas and the Black Messiah, where he plays an FBI agent who ensnares a young Black Panther member into becoming an informant. It’s not hard to find an actor who’s willing to do those things for a leading role—Bale and Depp have both made careers of it—but Plemons has done it over and over again in order to give a film’s leads something to contrast themselves with.
On Tuesday, Dunst told Variety about her experience of learning about the couple’s Oscar nominations earlier that day. She was at home with their kids when she found out, she says, while Plemons was on set. “I was the first person to tell him, and he was a little shell-shocked,” she said. “It’s just so crazy to be a couple and have our first nominations together. It’s like a storybook.” When asked if the couple had plans to celebrate that night, Dunst’s response just burnished Plemons’s everyman credentials. “I mean, Jesse’s at work,” she said. “Maybe we’ll go out tonight, if he doesn’t have to work early tomorrow.” Wherever he is now, we hope Lance knows that we’re proud of him.