“It was definitely the most difficult 21 working days of my career, but probably the most rewarding and fulfilling,” says actor Jesse Plemons of the time he spent making the indie film Other People, which opened the Sundance Film Festival in January and hit theaters on Sept. 9, as we sit down to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast. In the dramedy, the 28-year-old — who made his name on Friday Night Lights and Breaking Bad and was Emmy-nominated this year for Fargo — plays a character that the film’s writer-director Chris Kelly based on himself: a young, gay, struggling comedy writer who returns to his parents’ home to be with his mother (played by Molly Shannon) as she endures the final stages of cancer. “This was unique, just having him [Chris] there, and also being such a personal story,” notes Plemons. “That was what I was drawn to — the heart in it and the honesty. I was extremely nervous and anxious about getting it right.” If the film’s reviews and awards buzz are any indication, he nailed it.
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Over the course of our conversation, Plemons discusses his rise in the business. Born in Texas, he began appearing in commercials at the age of 2, and then working as an extra around the state. By 11, he was splitting his time between his home and Los Angeles, where he started landing parts in major film and TV productions. But his big break came in 2006, when, at 18, he was cast in the supporting role of Landry in Peter Berg‘s TV series adaptation of his own 2004 film Friday Night Lights. “It was kind of love at first sight with that character,” Plemons says, calling the show, which was shot documentary-style and on which improv was encouraged, “the closest thing to college for me, the best acting class I could have ever taken and just so much fun — it felt like we were getting away with things that we shouldn’t be.”
After Friday Night Lights came to an end in 2011, Plemons began appearing in more prominent big-screen parts, in projects ranging from Berg’s infamous flop Battleship (“the biggest movie experience I’ve been involved in”) to Paul Thomas Anderson‘s masterpiece The Master (playing the son of the cult leader played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, from whom he learned a great deal), both released in 2012. But all the while, the actor says, he was “trying to find the next Friday Night Lights,” which he says “was such a blessing and a curse because it raised the bar and kind of spoiled me in such a way.” Remarkably, he found it in Breaking Bad, which had become a cultural phenomenon by the time he joined it, during its two-part fifth season (2012-2013), as sociopath Todd. (Plemons‘ physical resemblance to Matt Damon and his character’s occupation earned him the nickname “Meth Damon.”)
In the aftermath of Breaking Bad, Plemons scored a host of roles in major 2015 films: a soldier in Steven Spielberg‘s Bridge of Spies, Johnny Depp‘s henchman in Scott Cooper‘s Black Mass and disgraced cyclist Floyd Landis in Stephen Frears‘ The Program. But, that same year, he found his next great part — and gave his next major performance — on the small screen, as a Minnesota butcher who gets sucked into a murder cover-up during the second installment of FX’s Fargo, opposite Kirsten Dunst (who is now his girlfriend). During this period, his profile was growing — he auditioned for the part that John Boyega eventually played in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (“I apologized to J.J. Abrams so many times,” he says with a laugh), he landed a best supporting actor in a limited series or TV movie Emmy nomination for Fargo and the list goes on.
But for Plemons, a self-described character actor who occasionally plays leads, the part in low-budget Other People — of a quiet, introspective, tortured soul going through a period of sadness and self-discovery — was more appealing than anything a blockbuster had to offer. He says he particularly was thrilled to have the chance to portray a three-dimensional gay character in a film in which the character’s sexuality was merely incidental, and he says he was “shocked” when some people at the film’s Sundance premiere walked out during the pic’s one sex scene. But he is far more heartened by the fact that so many more people have responded favorably to Other People and, above all, that Kelly is pleased with how it all turned out.