Although Jesse Plemons is known to most Friday Night Lights nerds as Landry, the sarcastic friend of Matt Saracen, Breaking Bad fans know him as someone entirely different. As Todd, Plemons has had a hand in some of the most gasp-worthy action so far this season on the AMC drama, with the promise of more to come. As if roles in two beloved television series weren’t enough, Plemons plays Val Dodd, the son of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character in Paul Thomas Anderson’s upcoming The Master, one of the most anticipated movies of the year. With those projects to his name, it would be reasonable to assume that Plemons might be just a little intense; but when The A.V. Club caught up with him to talk about music, murder, and Vince Gilligan, he was just as laid-back as could be.
The A.V. Club: A lot of A.V. Club readers were legitimately excited when it was announced that you were going to be on Breaking Bad. We’re talking right after “Dead Freight” aired, which is when your character finally gets a big part of the storyline. When you were cast, did Vince Gilligan give you a sense of where the character was going to go?
Jesse Plemons: No. [Laughs.] That’s been the most interesting thing about the show. And especially with how quickly things happened for Todd. It was one episode. I had only seen the two episodes that I was in. I had nothing else to really work with. It makes it all really exciting, and you just kind of have to trust your instincts and go for it. It was definitely a bit of a shock. [Laughs.]
AVC: So you didn’t get a backstory?
JP: No, not really. The scene I auditioned with was a scene that they wrote just for the audition. It all happened really fast. I made that audition tape, and then I got the call. The character name was actually even something different in the audition, so I was reading the script—“Where’s Paul? Where’s Paul?” and then, “Okay, I guess I’m Todd.”
AVC: How do you prepare when you don’t know what’s going to happen next with the character?
JP: If you’re me, you kind of spend a short period of time going crazy and thinking of every possible place that it could go, and then you kind of calm down and say, “This is the way that they’ve been doing this for four seasons, which obviously works, so just trust it. And just trust everything you’ve done up to this point and try and have fun and find your place in the story.” I’m just as intrigued and excited to see what happens as everyone else. I didn’t even watch the show before, and so the first episode that I shot, I was either on set or in my hotel room, just freaking out about how good the show was because I watched three seasons in about two weeks or something.
AVC: That’s how everyone watches it.
JP: Yeah, you kind of have to.
JP: It’s reassuring knowing that they don’t know anything in advance, either. That’s what’s kind of exciting about doing television. They have pages and pages and pages of dialogue, and the story is just getting more and more intricate for them, and they’re getting scripts a couple of days in advance. I think there’s some solidarity in the fact that no one really knows what’s happening. And so you just try to find what you can, and learn with what you have to work with. And it makes it really exciting. Kind of opens things a little bit more.
AVC: Was it similar or different to working on The Master? That’s another project that’s been mired in secrecy.
JP: Honestly, both the role I play in The Master and Todd were really vague and ambiguous. But also there are these huge plot points with them. But it definitely is similar. And The Master… The role I played could have gone a million different ways. It’s like the same thing with this character.
AVC: Are you on full lockdown with The Master? Like you can’t talk about anything?
JP: [Laughs.] Well, luckily I haven’t seen it. That’s a good position to be in when you’re doing interviews—you can’t really get in trouble. Because I haven’t seen it. There’s not really much I can say about that. [Laughs.] Other than, “I’m really excited to see it.”
AVC: You’ve done all this other work, but people still sort of think you’re actually Landry from Friday Night Lights. Is that weird? Or does it make sense to you?
JP: Yeah. That was something that I never thought about when we were doing Friday Night Lights. But it was such a distinct kind of character. And, you know, I’ve been acting since I was a kid, but I just have to accept that’s what most people see me as. I probably get random people yelling out “Landry” more than I do “Jesse,” but I’m totally fine with it because there hasn’t really been anything else to connect me to. So I’m totally okay with it. Maybe now these two roles will mix things up a little bit.
AVC: What did you take from Friday Night Lights?
JP: That’s hard to sum up. Friday Night Lights was kind of like my college years, because I did four seasons of that. It was my first series. It was the most time I had with one character, and kind of growing and evolving with the character over that long of a span of time, it just allows you to sort of learn in a completely different way that I had never experienced. And just that whole process—in the beginning, it was all really foreign, and then by the end of it, it was like, “I can’t imagine doing it any other way.” But I’ve definitely taken things that you discover. It’s fun trying to apply them to different projects. At least on Friday Night Lights—at least for me, and it seemed like that was kind of what everyone was striving for—the No. 1 objective was just to try and tell the truth with these characters, and try to get to the bottom of whatever it was. And that’s something that has definitely been continued through later projects.
AVC: Did you take anything physically? Do you have your football jersey?
JP: [Laughs.] I do. They gave me my football jersey, and that was a big one. The Dillon, not the East Dillon jersey. I still spend a lot of time in Austin. I grew up just an hour and a half north of Austin.
AVC: How did you go from growing up in Texas to being an actor?
JP: It was just kind of a fluke at the beginning. I was 3 and a half and there was an open call for a Coca-Cola commercial. We were living around Dallas, and my mom took me. I think they were calling for 16-year-olds that could ride horses and swing a rope, and for whatever reason my mom took me up there when I was 3. But I always had a rope and I was a little cowboy at that age. And I ended up getting the commercial, and then at that time there was a lot of stuff. I didn’t really start doing stuff until I was 8 or so, but I was an extra in a bunch of different movies and I just really took to it and really enjoyed it. I kind of bugged my parents to give L.A. a shot, and they were just super-supportive. And then I kind of worked enough to where it made sense to keep going back and forth. And then when I was 18, I got Friday Night Lights. I was just about to move to L.A. and then ended up moving to Austin. It was perfect. [Laughs.]
AVC: You’re also in a band, Cowboy And Indian. Are you pursuing music professionally or are you just focusing on acting?
JP: Well, the thing that I really enjoy about music and about playing with the band is that I really have no agenda with it. It’s just something that is really fun. Through Stephanie Hunt, who was on Friday Night Lights, I met this amazing group of musicians and was just kind of blown away. I had never spent time in a city where music was so alive and just everywhere. And then I met Jazz [Mills] from Cowboy And Indian and we hit it off, and then it really just kind of happened. We started hanging out a lot, and then writing some. They’d have parties and a bunch of musicians would come over, and then it just sort of evolved. I love playing guitar. I grew up with my dad playing. But acting is definitely the forefront, I guess I’d say, in terms of career and something that I really enjoy and feel lucky to be able to do.
AVC: Do you have records that you listen to when you’re getting ready for roles?
JP: I do. It always changes. I don’t know how much of it is just what I’m listening to at the time. I find little ways to weave acting into whatever I’m listening to at the moment. I can tell you I was listening to Frank Zappa for the first episode of Breaking Bad.