Some of Texas Monthly’s most discerning readers regularly ask me, “When will y’all publish your next article by Sean O’Neal?” They look forward to Sean’s authoritative, witty takes on movies, TV, and music—and his occasional forays into the performative aspects of politics. (His first piece for us, in 2019, delved into the playlists at campaign rallies for Julián Castro and Beto O’Rourke.) Born and reared in Arlington, between Dallas and Fort Worth, Sean knows the state well. And his years spent working outside it have left him curious about how homegrown artists represent us to the wider world. 

This issue’s profile of rising Texas actor Jesse Plemons marks the first of Sean’s stories to grace our cover. It’s a fine example of his approach to reporting and writing. Sean observes that, from Plemons’s first on-screen work as a child, to his breakthrough performance in the Friday Night Lights TV series, to the role in The Power of the Dog that earned him an Oscar nomination, he seems to exude “a self-possession you get from growing up in a place like Mart”—a tiny town about thirty miles east of Waco. “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 roles with uncommon depth.”

Sean’s reporting on this story began in May 2023 but was interrupted when Hollywood actors and writers went on strike. He hung out at Plemons’s home in Los Angeles and at the ranch near Mart where the actor grew up—and to which he and his wife, actress Kirsten Dunst, and their two young sons regularly return. They spent hours playing golf and pool, with Plemons “casually kicking my ass at every activity,” Sean says. “At one point he asked, ‘What’s your game? You must have some game that fits you.’ ”

Actually, he has several. Sean’s mother, Cathy, worked as a journalist at newspapers in Fort Worth and Dallas and later for a local theater, so he was introduced early on to journalism and the arts. “I wanted to be a writer since I was five years old,” he says. At Emerson College in Boston and later at the University of Texas at Austin, he studied film and English lit, played drums and guitar and keyboards in rock bands, wrote film and music reviews and humor articles, and tried to figure out how to make a living out of this impecunious collection of interests.

When the Onion opened an edition in Austin, Sean hired on and quickly caught the attention of top editors at its nonsatirical pop culture spin-off, the A.V. Club, who brought him to work at the headquarters in Chicago. (And not a moment too soon: one of the Onion’s jokey headlines about a Greyhound bus crash had moved an irate reader to call and threaten to burn Sean’s house down.) He worked for seven years in the Windy City, eventually rising to become the A.V. Club’s editor in chief.

Now living in Austin, Sean, who is 45, and his wife, Keaton, spend much of their time wrangling eight-year-old twin daughters who, he sighs, are “at an age where they manage to cop the attitude of teenagers while feigning the helplessness of toddlers.” The family enjoyed its own star turn three years ago when producers of the HBO series Love & Death, based on a Texas Monthly story and starring Plemons and Elizabeth Olsen, decided to rent the O’Neals’ home as one of their sets. “We got a pretty good story out of the deal. Decades from now I’ll be boring some nurse with it.” 

You can read that story on our website. There’s nothing boring about it—or about the profile you can find right here.

This article originally appeared in the April 2024 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Capturing Jesse Plemons.” Subscribe today.