When Jesse Plemons goes quiet—and here on the front porch of his childhood home, thirty minutes east of Waco, Jesse Plemons has just gone quiet—you don’t know if you’re at the end of something or the beginning. 

Nobody suggests so much by saying so little.

Take his big entrance in Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon. Plemons, as a federal agent, knocks on the door of a grifter played by Leonardo DiCaprio, telling him he’s there to see about some murders. “See what about ’em?” DiCaprio asks. Plemons stops, considers just so. “See who’s doin’ it,” he says. In that half second, you feel the whole movie kick into a higher gear. “It’s like a hot knife cutting through cold butter,” Scorsese tells me in an email. “I never tire of it.”

Or take the scene in Max’s Love & Deathwhich recently earned Plemons his third Emmy nomination—where Elizabeth Olsen’s character confesses that she’s attracted to him. Plemons takes another lengthy beat: “Oh,” he replies. Lesli Linka Glatter, the director of the series (Texas Monthly was an executive producer), remains astounded: “It’s got everything in that one moment,” she says. Plemons works those silences like a composer uses negative space, oceans of meaning floating in the ellipses. What follows can be devastating or hilariously deadpan; he might burst into tears or shoot someone. Everything hinges on those pauses.

At present, however, I have a feeling time’s up. 

Plemons and I are nursing Miller Lites, watching the horses nose through the scrubby winter grass. It’s the day before Christmas Eve, damp and in the middle fifties, with a wind that blows unobstructed across a muddy gray expanse. The tranquility is disturbed only by a car in the distance, trundling east toward downtown Mart. Probably returning from Waco, seeing as there are just two directions you can go from the end of the long unpaved driveway that leads out of here, down where the road connects these 36 acres to the world beyond.  

Six months ago, I’d met Plemons in Los Angeles, where we’d talked endlessly about his career—in restaurants, on a golf course, and at the home he shares with his wife, the actress Kirsten Dunst. Today we’d driven all around his hometown, rehashing his youth. And now that we’ve nearly exhausted our time together, there’s not much reason left to talk. So he doesn’t. 

It’s a relief just being here, Plemons tells me. “The silence, especially at night,” he says. He relies on coming back to it, recalibrating along this same flat line where he started. Beginning when he was ten, Plemons would set out down the driveway to spend half his year in Los Angeles—auditioning, maybe doing a movie or TV role. Then he would come home to the familiar routines of school and chores: weed-eating, chopping mesquite, fetching hay. Bouncing between those extremes, he says, allowed him to see all the kinds of people there are between here and Hollywood—to observe the infinite ways to live a life.

Plemons, 36, appreciates it even more now that he has kids of his own. He shares two sons with Dunst—five-year-old Ennis and three-year-old James—and they have all quickly grown accustomed to Texas life, even if it’s part-time. “I just like the air in Texas,” Dunst told me when I first met her. “I love big sky, open land, horses.” We’d been sitting behind the couple’s home in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley—a place Architectural Digest called a ranch house, seemingly without irony. This was in June 2023, during the first of two Hollywood strikes that would delay shooting on Plemons’s new Netflix series, Zero Day

I’d planned to profile him during one of the biggest years of his career. Instead I’d caught him at intermission, in the lull where he was finally able to be alone with his family, save for the meddling reporter canvassing it all, trying to get some sense of what still denotes Jesse Plemons as a “Texas actor”—one of our finest, in fact—besides his birth certificate. 

Virtually every role draws on a self-possession you get from growing up in a place like Mart. It’s why some of our most celebrated Texas actors—Barry Corbin, Tommy Lee Jones, Matthew McConaughey, Sissy Spacek—all hail from small Texas towns. There is something innate, a soulfulness it instills that never leaves you, no matter how far away you might move, how glamorous your surroundings become. It’s inside everything Plemons does, imbuing even his tiniest on-screen role with uncommon depth.

As soon as I’d arrived in Mart this morning, Plemons had taken me straight to the barn, where we’d watched James stomp around bowlegged in his shiny new boots as he helped his grandfather feed the horses. “You saw his little John Wayne walk,” Plemons says, smiling again at the memory. “He thinks he’s a cowboy now.”  

Growing up, Plemons felt like he was a cowboy too. How could he not? His dad was a team roper; his cousin rode broncos. Even as a boy, he admired on-screen cowboys Robert Duvall and fellow Texan Jones in the miniseries Lonesome Dove. As a kid he used to carry a rope and a toy pistol with him everywhere—better to have it and not need it. He had both on him in 1990 when his mom took him to his first audition. Plemons was around James’s age when he landed his first gig, playing a cowboy in a Coca-Cola commercial.

Jesse Plemons circa 1998
Jesse Plemons circa 1998. Courtesy of the Plemons family
Plemons, age ten, Mart Youth Football.
Plemons, age ten, in Mart Youth Football. Courtesy of the Plemons family

He joined the Central Texas Youth Rodeo Association when he was about six. The competitions for kids that age are “pretty ridiculous,” Plemons says—then goes on to describe something called goat hair pulling. It’s exactly what it sounds like: somebody ties a goat to a stake at one end of the arena, and you ride your horse to it, hop off, and, quick as you can, run up and snatch some hairs from the goat to show to the judges. He’d been pretty good at it.

“I was the best, Sean,” Plemons says, then laughs. “No, I think I was decent.” Fast enough to place, anyway. The goat hair pull wasn’t much—just a sideshow. But Plemons gave it his all, making off with whatever small glories he could grab.

Jesse Plemons at his home in Los Angeles on February 9, 2024.
Jesse Plemons at his home in Los Angeles on February 9, 2024.Photograph by Peter Yang

Earlier that year, in June, I had met Plemons at the Smoke House, a storied Burbank haunt beloved by celebrities and starry-eyed tourists. But it was only as we were leaving that anybody pestered him for a photo—a guy who’d said, “I really love all that s— you did.” 

After he’d walked away, Plemons shrugged: “At least he said all the s—.” Plemons has scored an Oscar nomination (for The Power of the Dog) and three Emmy nods; shared the screen with Tom Hanks, Al Pacino, and Meryl Streep; and appeared in some of the buzziest TV shows of the past twenty years. With Killers of the Flower Moon, Plemons has now acted in seven Best Picture nominees, putting him in rarefied company, including Marlon Brando, Katharine Hepburn, and Laurence Olivier. But he has not yet had the kind of starring role that takes you from being critically respected to being relentlessly hounded. 

If he had to put money on it, Plemons said, most people probably know him as Todd, the genteel psychopath he played on Breaking Bad. But he’s also gotten Game Night, thanks to his meme-spawning turn as a creepy Machiavellian cop. Then there are those fans, particularly back in Texas, who will forever know him as Landry, the awkward smart-ass he played on Friday Night Lights. That role started small too—“sort of an afterthought,” the show’s creator, Peter Berg, says. Just the sidekick to the star quarterback. But Plemons clambered into the main ensemble thanks to his almost supernatural ability to steal scenes. “Everything we gave him, he just made the absolute most of it,” Berg said, so they kept giving him more. 

Director Scott Cooper, who’s cast Plemons in three of his movies, placed him in a pantheon of supporting players including Wilford Brimley, John Cazale, Gene Hackman, and Plemons’s personal hero, Robert Duvall. “Guys who just stand up and tell the truth,” Cooper said, “and they never push the emotion.” His ability to be natural, no matter the scene, has endeared Plemons to filmmakers. To Berg, he forever proved his mettle during Friday Night Lights’ infamous second-season plot when Landry kills somebody—a sensationalistic twist that, by rights, also should have killed the show. “Jesse was able to bring enough artfulness that we survived it,” Berg said. “He was probably the only actor in our stable that could have pulled that off.” 

His skills are subtle, bordering on imperceptible. Plemons’s face can be open, guileless and sweet, but then close like a fist, his lips curling in menacing resolve, his eyes going glassy as a shark’s. He’s uniquely adept at this kind of reveal, specializing in characters who are never purely good or bad—whose actions may be despicable (even Ed, his genial Midwestern butcher in Fargo, feeds a guy into a meat grinder) but whose motivations are understandable. “He lets you in,” said Glatter, who directs him again in Zero Day. Plemons plays a “slick government insider,” as Glatter puts it, to Robert De Niro’s ex-president, with the same grounded humanity we’ve come to expect. We empathize with Plemons, even when we shouldn’t. And we never see him coming. 

He does it again in April’s Civil War, a thriller that’s set in an America torn apart by its political rancor. Plemons is in just one scene, with Dunst, the film’s star. Wearing candy-red sunglasses and brandishing a carbine, he delivers the big mic drop of the trailer: “Okay . . .” he says. “Well, what kind of American are you?” There is the pause again—aloof, terrifying, just another of his many little moments. 

Plemons walks the picket line in support of the SAG-AFTRA and WGA strike on August 1, 2023, in Los Angeles
Plemons walks the picket line in support of the SAG-AFTRA and WGA strike in Los Angeles, on August 1, 2023. Hollywood To You/Star Max/Getty
Plemons attends the world premiere of Love & Death at SXSW, on March 11, 2023, in Austin
Plemons attends the world premiere of Love & Death, at Austin’s SXSW, on March 11, 2023. Rick Kern/FilmMagic/Getty

We made the short drive back from the Smoke House in Plemons’s Lexus, passing lines of striking writers picketing outside the Warner Bros. gates and pulling up in front of a house set back on a small gravel path flecked by agave bushes that I could just make out in the moonlight. “It doesn’t really feel like L.A.,” Plemons said as we stepped out, “which I appreciate.” 

He started coming to L.A. in 1998, not long after winning a small role in Varsity Blues. Back then he’d stay in the famed Oakwood apartments that have provided a safe haven for generations of young actors, such as Reese Witherspoon, Neil Patrick Harris, and Plemons’s future wife. He was surrounded by kids who seemed to be there just to get here—who only wanted to be famous. He’d auditioned alongside them for the same commercials, the same syrupy sitcoms. But his heart wasn’t in it. He was drawn to the serious roles, the “troubled teen” parts in TV dramas like CSI or Judging Amy. He couldn’t muster the right energy to sell a punch line or a hot dog. “Thank God I was bad at that,” Plemons said. 

Outside his home, we picked our way across a front porch littered with toys, stepping over a dollhouse crudely painted black. Ennis and James are a little “obsessed” with Halloween, he explained. James even has a zombie character he’s been trying out. Like his dad, who used to sing Garth Brooks songs at family gatherings or hop around pretending to be a flying monkey from The Wizard of Oz, James is a ham. “He’s like a baby Chris Farley,” Plemons said. 

The foyer was littered with the flotsam familiar to any working parent: stacks of mail, piles of children’s drawings, balls of various size and provenance. It only vaguely resembled the glamorously rustic chalet from the November 2021 issue of Architectural Digest I’d snooped through before coming here, its sleek Danish furniture and nineteenth-century terra-cotta tiles subsumed into cozy chaos. Whistling through his teeth, Plemons led me into a den dominated by a pool table and offset by a small bar, stopping to show me an antique organ he’d picked up from a woman who claimed it had belonged to the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson. (She was in a Christian band, Plemons said, “so if she was lying to me, there’s a serious problem.”) 

Dunst was there, fresh from putting the kids to bed, extending a casual hello. Although they officially married only in the summer of 2022, they’ve been together since 2016, more than a year after they first met playing husband and wife on FX’s Fargo. Dunst had known Plemons only by reputation, although she started bingeing Friday Night Lights while snowbound on Fargo’s Calgary set. They naturally spent a lot of time together, perfecting the singsong cadence of their characters’ Minnesota accents. They’d fallen into an instant rhythm, she said, and felt a kinship right away. “Immediately I felt safe, and he did too,” Dunst said. “And free.” Five years later they played husband and wife again in The Power of the Dog, which earned Dunst her own Oscar nomination, prompting talk of the couple as Hollywood royalty. 

It was weird for Dunst, she would tell me a few hours later, having a reporter just hanging out in her house. Dunst, after all, is a lot more famous than Plemons and has been famous for longer. Dunst’s breakthrough happened when she was just ten years old, starring opposite Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt in 1994’s Interview With the Vampire. Their house sits less than two miles from the fire escape where she kissed Spider-Man. The gate outside, Dunst later confided, is the same one she used to egg when she was growing up here as a burgeoning teen idol.

Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons attend the Academy Awards on March 10, 2024.
Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons attend the Academy Awards on March 10, 2024. Emma McIntyre/Getty
Plemons with Killers of the Flower Moon castmates at the Palm Springs International Film Awards on January 4, 2024.
Plemons with Killers of the Flower Moon castmates at the Palm Springs International Film Awards, on January 4, 2024. Presley Ann/Getty

Dunst’s celebrity has taken some getting used to for Plemons. In one of our earliest interviews, he told me that he’d recently picked up photography after playing with some of Dunst’s old cameras. He is especially drawn to street photography, feels a pull to shoot strangers on the sly. But he’s struggled with the ethics. “I know what it’s like, mainly through Kirsten being followed by paparazzi,” he said. “Being on the other side of it never feels good.” They’d swarmed his family when Dunst was pregnant, crowding the sidewalk until Plemons finally had to ask the photographers how many pictures they could possibly need.

Plemons doesn’t love doing press. He hates discussing his “process” in particular. (“I just get so annoyed with myself,” he said. “It’s hard to talk about without sounding pretentious.”) He is, according to GQ, “the worst schmoozer in Hollywood.” But although he’s not always comfortable in a crowded room, he finds people infinitely fascinating. It’s one of the reasons he got into acting in the first place. Plemons seems to enjoy observing people’s tics and filing their behaviors away for future reference. After he’d whipped me at pool, Plemons remarked on how I hold the cue stick in my left hand even though I’m right-handed. “He’s one of the kindest humans I’ve ever met,” Dunst said. “I think that sensitivity makes him very astute when it comes to other people.” 

But that empathy can make it especially hard for him to set boundaries. Plemons told me about a Love & Death reception with the cast. He’d gone to the restroom, and on the way back he was waylaid by a guy who claimed to be a descendant of Wyatt Earp and tried to levitate in front of him. Plemons never made it back to his castmates, who left without him. “I’m guessing it’s my upbringing,” he said. “I don’t know how not to just, like, talk to people.”

What Plemons does know how to talk about is music. That night, between pouring tequilas and schooling me at billiards, he pulled record after record from a vinyl collection that took up one side of the den: Gene Clark, Donovan, Michael Hurley. On the wall by the bar hangs a one-of-a-kind test pressing of Bob Dylan’s “If Not for You,” a gift from a music supervisor friend who’d also installed his quadraphonic sound system, arranged around a couch that looks like it’s seen a lot of late nights. 

If Plemons could travel anywhere in time, he said, he’d go to Austin in the seventies, to the Armadillo World Headquarters scene prowled by the likes of Jerry Jeff Walker and John Prine. On his index finger Plemons has a tattoo of the initials “TVZ” in honor of Townes Van Zandt, the artist whose music changed his perspective on everything, even acting. It was Van Zandt who taught him that there were no real rules, he says, and that poetry could come out of anyone. “Townes or John Prine, a lot of these guys are so unassuming,” Plemons said. “Like, look at this goofy hillbilly. And this is inside of him?”

Once the hour grew late and he tired of beating me at pool, Plemons, Dunst, and I retreated to the deck with their dog, Colt, a sixteen-year-old beagle (he’s a native Texan too, Plemons noted) sprawled decadently on a couch beside us. We talked about Plemons’s own music—about the alt-country band he’d had in Austin, Cowboy and Indian, and his hopes of playing in another group someday, ideally with the musician friends he left there. They talked about the house they’re renovating in East Austin that they hope to move into soon, maybe for good. Life’s just easier in Texas, they said. In Austin, Plemons said, “the people just look at you in a different way. They’re not on the hamster wheel.”

He and Dunst have been getting into film development, beginning with a documentary about a photographer she met while working on Civil War. Plemons had also been collaborating on a project with Drunk History creator Derek Waters—one of Plemons’s many “my buddies,” of whom there seem to be an infinite supply—about a guy who runs a low-rent amusement park in the nineties. The protagonist is “sort of equal parts Willy Wonka, Orson Welles, Walt Disney,” Plemons said. “A true artist struggling against the capitalistic pull, trying to keep something pure. And it’s impossible.” 

But the break had also provided Plemons with the space to confront what has sometimes been an obsessive relationship with his profession—the feeling of “your entire worth being tied up in your work,” he said. These feelings were more pronounced before his kids were born, but he still notices them. His last real vacation was the summer he married Dunst, the cap to an exceptionally crazy sixteen months. The summer prior, Plemons had injured himself while filming the Netflix thriller Windfall, pushing too hard during a scene where Jason Segel chases him through an orange grove and tearing his ACL. A few months later Plemons was on the mend, but a cyst had developed that made it feel like his leg was about to explode. It left him hobbling right up until he was due to start Killers of the Flower Moon. Coincidentally, De Niro had sustained his own leg injury, and producers had already incorporated his limp into his character. But Plemons couldn’t also be limping. The decision of whether or not he would have to drop out came down to the day. Two weeks after Killers wrapped, Plemons started Love & Death. Somewhere in there, James was born. “I think I developed eczema during that time just from being so stressed,” Plemons said. 

He started going to therapy some years back, looking to address his unhealthy work-life balance. He’d resisted at first, believing he should be able to handle it himself. But therapy has helped. “I’ve realized that I could turn some of that work that I expend on characters on myself,” Plemons said. 

Going back to Texas could help too. But of course it’s not that easy. Many of the couple’s best friends are in L.A. Dunst’s mom and brother both live up the street. Ennis just got into a good school, and James is close behind. There’s also the not-inconsiderable fact that Plemons and Dunst happen to be highly in-demand actors—and Austin, for all its redeeming qualities, just isn’t where many movies are made. Plemons wishes more filmmakers like Jeff Nichols, who’s lived in Austin since 2003, would start producing their work in Texas. Maybe then he could see it happening. But for now Austin remains just a notion—another liminal space between where he is and where he’d like to be.

Plemons in his living room.
Plemons in his living room.Photograph by Peter Yang

The morning after he’d trounced me at pool, Plemons took me to a picturesque public green tucked into the rolling foothills of the Verdugo Mountains so he could humiliate me at golf too. It was one of those postcard-worthy California days, 70 degrees and breezy. At one point a doe ambled down from the hills, followed by her passel of fawns. They stopped on the fairway to nurse just as I was teeing up, and Plemons ran out with his camera, snapping a photo. He was relaxed and unhurried. From the golf cart’s cup holder, his phone unfurled a lazy stream of country and psychedelic rock—Kevin Ayers, the Texas Gentlemen, Cut Worms—while I sliced ball after ball into Wildwood Canyon. We followed with a leisurely lunch at the clubhouse, our conversation turning idly to the possibility of actors joining the strike too. We didn’t think much of it. We parted, making plans to meet again in Mart in just a few weeks. 

We didn’t. We couldn’t—not until the Screen Actors Guild had hammered out a new deal and lifted its ban on talking to the press. Finally, in late December, two days after the contracts had been ratified, Plemons sent word that he’d be home for the holidays, a brief respite before he had to get back to Zero Day. It was now or never. 

Scenes from the Plemons ranch in Mart, as photographed by Jesse Plemons.
A scene from the Plemons ranch in Mart, Texas, as photographed by Jesse Plemons. Jesse Plemons
A scene from the Plemons ranch in Mart, as photographed by Jesse Plemons.
A scenes from the Plemons ranch in Mart, as photographed by Jesse Plemons. Jesse Plemons

I arrived in Mart fifteen minutes earlier than agreed upon. I’d factored in stopping off somewhere to pick up a six-pack of beer for Plemons’s dad, only to end up turning off Interstate 35 and driving through twenty miles of unspoiled nothing. When I pulled up the long path that led me from the main road onto the Plemons ranch, a frisky corgi (later introduced as Stevie) ran out to greet me, barking and blowing my cover. Plemons’s older sister, Jill, emerged to bring me inside. Dunst came out of the hallway to meet me after I was already in the living room, James and Ennis hiding behind her; everyone was still in the shower, she said. I apologized for being early, sitting shamefully at the dining room table by the Christmas tree, until at last Plemons emerged, hair still wet, to hug me hello. He was soon followed by his parents, Jim Bob and Lisa, who each offered me the first of about a dozen coffees that I politely declined while we chatted. 

Lisa has done the same job since before Plemons was born, spending most of her career training others to teach students with disabilities. Jim Bob is reluctantly retired from 28 years of driving a fire truck; he’s a dedicated civil servant who values hard work—he built everything on the ranch himself—and one of the few staunch Democrats in their largely conservative town. He is also one of the most ingratiating good ol’ boys you’ll ever hope to meet, with an easy laugh and the chummy loquacity of a guy who’s spent half of his life jawing with other men in cramped quarters. Plemons said he loves to watch Jim Bob work the room at Vanity Fair parties, talking up stars like they’re anybody else. We’d chatted for maybe twenty minutes before Jim Bob told me about meeting Salma Hayek at the Cannes Film Festival—he never asks celebrities for their photos but (he gave me a conspiratorial grin) couldn’t help asking Hayek for one to show his buddies back home. 

The Plemons’ history in McLennan County stretches back nearly a century. A Waco Tribune-Herald clipping from 1933 lists Jim Bob’s great-grandmother as the third-place winner for her quilts and preserves at a local fair. The house of Jim Bob’s great-grandfather, Lon Jefferson Plemons, sits just up the road from theirs. Jim Bob said some of the older guys in town might still remember the story of the day Lon went chasing after some dogs that were bothering his cows: Lon had leaned his shotgun against the fence to crawl over, the gun fell over and went off, and that was the end of Lon Jefferson Plemons. Jim Bob grew up just ten miles away, in Axtell. He’d met Lisa when she was a student at Baylor, charming her over the popcorn machine at a Waco dance hall. After they married, they spent some time in the Dallas area, where the kids were born, living in Fort Worth and Kaufman before moving to Bellmead. They’d settled in Mart because they liked the land—and because they’d always been here.

There were no actors in their family. Jim Bob has a distant cousin who runs a small theater in Beaumont, he said. Lisa’s dad, who used to chaperone Plemons on acting gigs, briefly caught the bug, doing some bit player work on Walker, Texas Ranger, plus a little print modeling. But for the longest time Plemons thought he was the only performer in his bloodline. Then one day, when Plemons was about sixteen, he and Jim Bob were playing guitar together, and his dad started strumming a tune he’d never heard before. It was an old song Jim Bob had written back in college, he said. The next thing he knew, his dad was rustling around in his safe, pulling out a dusty reel-to-reel that contained nine or ten original tunes. Plemons had played one for me on the golf course—a lovely filigree of acoustic guitar, topped by a serene high tenor reminiscent of James Taylor. 

“Until that point it always felt like where did this come from?” Plemons had said. “Everything comes from somewhere.”

Plemons, age six, with James Garner on the set of Streets of Laredo, in 1994.
Plemons, age six, with James Garner on the set of Streets of Laredo, in 1994. Courtesy of the Plemons family
With his dad, Jim Bob Plemons, circa 2000
With his dad, Jim Bob Plemons, circa 2000. Courtesy of the Plemons family

An hour after I’d arrived, we left the kids behind with Dunst and Jill as Plemons, his parents, and I piled into Lisa’s car and set off toward downtown Mart. We passed the population sign reading 1,748—it’s dropped, Plemons remarked—and turned onto Texas Avenue, home to the city’s only stoplight. Downtown remains largely unchanged from Plemons’s day. There’s the grocery store, the banks, and the First Baptist church the family attended. On Sundays, Jim Bob told me, the pastor used to reassure the congregation that he’d get them out in time to beat the Methodists to Dairy Queen.

When Plemons and his sister were little, Lisa would drive them, just like this, to act as background extras on shoots in the region. It was a fun escape, but one Plemons took seriously. Lisa didn’t like being on camera. Neither did Jill: she hated the way the old dresses they made her wear got stuck in the tumbleweeds, and she especially detested the fake sweat they dabbed on them for Children of the Corn IV. But Plemons savored every minute. He and his parents laughed as they recalled the time Plemons broke his arm on the set of 1997’s True Women and they had to take him to the emergency room in his 1800s costume. But even then, they’d just put it in a period-accurate sling, and Plemons went back to work. 

We’d wended our way over to the home of the Class 2A Division II eight-time state champion Mart Panthers. “This is Football City, USA, right here,” Jim Bob said as we passed. On game nights, they shut the streets down. We see the former Mart High, the one Plemons attended, which now lies abandoned, along with the weedy remains of Chambless Field, where all the games used to be held. We stopped so Plemons could hop out with his camera. 

Plemons had been a quarterback in middle school, then moved over to tight end in high school. But by then he was always off in L.A., missing too many practices. He’d had to quit the team. He quit baseball too, despite being a hotshot pitcher with, as Jim Bob recalled, a wily curveball. He’d missed his seventh-grade district football championship just to do a movie he ended up getting cut from. 

Nobody in Mart understood what Lisa and Jim Bob were doing. Letting your kid run off to Hollywood? Still, they found support. Darrell Evans, the principal of the school where Lisa taught, the one who let her take weeks off at a time to go to L.A., is a hero of the Jesse Plemons story. Evans also helped the young actor keep up with his schoolwork, but by the time Plemons started trying to teach himself chemistry, he decided he’d be better off just getting his GED. 

Straddling the two worlds wasn’t easy. Plemons would leave home for three months sometimes, and when he got back, his friends would ask him how many movies he’d made. The disconnect could be jarring: one day Plemons would be presenting at a teen awards show, and the next he was marching with the band in the homecoming parade. “When he comes back to Mart, Texas, well, you’re not a movie star here, buddy,” Jim Bob said.

They’ve seen everything he’s done since, and they like it all, even the “weird” ones. They have watched their son play soldiers and psychopaths, FBI agents and tech whizzes, and still they have no idea how Plemons does what he does. “Some of the stuff I watch, I mean, dang,” Jim Bob said. “I’m like, wait a minute, I know him. I changed his diapers, and he fooled me.”

Plemons at home in Los Angeles, on February 9, 2024.
Plemons at home in Los Angeles on February 9, 2024.Photograph by Peter Yang

It is late afternoon now, the sun dipping behind the wall of clouds that never did burn off. The kids are inside with Dunst, who’s been trying to get them to nap—unsuccessfully, by the sound of it. We’ve just returned from Waco, where we had lunch with the entire family, plus Dunst’s mother, Inez, at the venerable greasy spoon George’s, a Plemons favorite, just down the highway from Baylor. I am still logy from the queso and the platters of fried pickles and fried jalapeños that were all just the warm-up for plates of chicken-fried steak with mashed potatoes on the side. Plemons had chided me for being stingy with the gravy, even as he’d ordered the blackened catfish and green beans, trying to stay sharp for when he’s back in front of the cameras. 

Plemons seems slightly more withdrawn today than he was in L.A. To be fair, he’s been battling an ear infection ever since he landed in Texas. He’s also spent the day being driven around his hometown by his parents, reliving his adolescence from the backseat while a reporter buzzes questions in his good ear. If he is tired—of talking about himself, of me intruding on one of the few seconds of peace he may get all year—I wouldn’t blame him. The strike has also left him thinking about all the extraneous stuff that fell away in the interim, leaving only the work, which is all he’s ever cared about. Part of being in the moment, after all, is not spending too much time looking back. “There is a fraction of [promotion] that is truly in support of the movie,” he says. “And then there’s a large majority of it that’s just really in support of the machine.” 

The resolution to the strike wasn’t perfect, Plemons says. He’s still worried about the future—the flattening of art into “content,” filmmakers such as Charlie Kaufman, who directed him in the mind-bender I’m Thinking of Ending Things, still having to scrape for financing. There’s also the specter of artificial intelligence reducing actors to digital puppets. “Maybe we could make this whole profile about brainstorming what I’m going to do when I become obsolete,” Plemons says. “What we’re both going to do.”

He’ll soon star opposite Emma Stone in Kinds of Kindness, an anthology film from Poor Things director Yorgos Lanthimos, the plot of which even Plemons struggles to describe. He wants to go “way off somewhere else,” he says—take chances, maybe fail. He’d like to work with the Safdie Brothers or Ari Aster. He came pretty close to starring in Jordan Peele’s Nope, bowing out only when Killers of the Flower Moon conflicted. He’d love to do a movie with the Coen brothers, to whom he’s sent a dozen audition tapes over the years. Would he do a Marvel movie? “I’ll never say never, but not anytime soon,” he says. 

His worries about obsolescence are understandable, but I think they’re unfounded. His talents lie in the spaces between the binary code, in the characters that he is able to make human in a way that a machine could never fake. In ways that still seem inexplicable, even to those who know him, Plemons grabs hold of some piece of these characters, lending them empathy and dignity in a way that makes you say, “Who is that guy? And how does he locate this whole other world inside of him?” 

“For Jesse, the future is limitless,” Scorsese says. “He’s that good.” Berg looks forward to Plemons getting older, growing into playing generals or presidents. His mom wishes he would do a musical, although that seems unlikely. (That said, if someone doesn’t cast Jesse Plemons in a Tender Mercies–type tale about a down-on-his-luck country singer, they’re leaving money on the table.) “I haven’t seen him dance like Fred Astaire,” Cooper says. “But I wouldn’t put it past him.”   

“I’ve never been more excited about the work, I don’t think,” Plemons says. “And then the rest of it . . .”—and here again is that pregnant pause—“is the rest of it.”  

Plemons drains his beer and stands to shake my hand. He’s ready to go back inside, to let the silence speak for itself again. What comes next is anyone’s guess.

Photography Credits, Styling: Tiffani Moreno; Grooming: Thea Istenes for Exclusive Artists

This article originally appeared in the April 2024 issue of  Texas Monthly with the headline “Jesse Plemons Is Gonna Need a Moment.” Subscribe today.