“I’m really just about tired of being a supporting actor,” Landry Clarke tells his buddy from the barber’s chair. “I’m about ready to be a leading man, Matt.” As seen near the end of Friday Night Lights’ first season back in 2007, the scene is played for comedy—paralyzingly introverted freshman quarterback Matt Saracen can’t believe his dough-faced dork of a best friend thinks he has a chance with the girl—but in keeping with the show’s ethos, there is tenderness and empathy and possibility in it, too. A lot of that nuance is bound up in the performance of Jesse Plemons, the actor who played Landry for all five seasons of the show. Plemons brought dignity and complexity to a character others might have mined strictly for comic relief, but even by the time he was kicking game-winning field goals and rocking empty rooms with the Christian speed-metal band Crucifictorious (which, okay, was definitely played for comic relief), Landry was the definition of a role player within the context of Friday Night Lights.
You could be forgiven for sometimes forgetting that Jesse Plemons is not actually Landry Clarke. Between Friday Night Lights’ dreamy vérité style and the fact that Plemons grew up in small-town Texas just like Landry, it’s easy for longtime FNL fans to continue associating the actor with his breakthrough role. So for Dillon Panthers Day Ones, it’s been wild to watch Plemons, 32, evolve into one of the most in-demand actors in prestige film and TV. And even after logging work for directors like Paul Thomas Anderson, Charlie Kaufman, and Steven Spielberg; appearing in legendary seasons of Breaking Bad and Fargo; and accumulating the most impressive career of any FNL star besides Michael B. Jordan, the news that the guy who played Landry Clarke is taking over for Leonardo DiCaprio as the lead of the next Martin Scorsese film is enough to make you squint, Plemons-style.
Yet there was the report in mid-February: Plemons will star in Killers Of The Flower Moon, Scorsese’s new thriller for AppleTV+, adapted from David Grann’s bestselling book about the Osage Indian murders in the 1920s. Longtime Scorsese favorite DiCaprio, originally tapped for Plemons’ role as FBI agent Tom White, has shifted to a supporting part as the white husband of an Osage woman played by Lily Gladstone. Even-longer-time Scorsese favorite Robert De Niro is in the cast as well. Heading up Marty’s first movie since The Irishman (which Plemons also appeared in, as the son of Al Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa) is a major coup. It suggests that to praise this guy as one of Hollywood’s favorite character actors may no longer be sufficient. Plemons does not look glamorous in the slightest; he more closely resembles the kind of burly farm boy DiCaprio might thicken himself up to portray. For the time being, his name recognition remains low beyond the realm of TV addicts and cinephiles. But he now seems destined to become a real-deal movie star.
Like Coach Eric Taylor, who often referred to Landry as “Lance,” those who don’t know Plemons by name may well recognize his face. Perhaps you know him as Todd, the “Opie, dead-eyed piece of shit” from the final season of Breaking Bad who cooked meth for his neo-Nazi uncle and nonchalantly murdered a child in broad daylight, a role that earned Plemons the nickname of “Meth Damon” in some corners of the internet. Plemons played Todd like Landry if he lived by the motto “Dead eyes, cold heart, don’t care,” swapping out bashful stuttering for blank-faced sociopathic indifference. (“Todd is like, a lot went wrong for Landry for him to turn into Todd,” Seth Meyers once quipped to Plemons.) This is the role that caught the attention of Charlie Kaufman, who cast Plemons opposite Jessie Buckley in last year’s surreal and unsettling I’m Thinking Of Ending Things. “I never saw Todd coming, and I think that’s the thing about Jesse,” Kaufman told The New York Times. “It’s very interesting to watch him work because everything is just so small and underplayed, which is very valuable in film.” In the same feature, Plemons concurred: “I love actors where you don’t see them acting.”
The year he joined the Breaking Bad cast, Plemons also played the son of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s cult leader in The Master. In his most memorable scene, he leaned back on a porch, wearing the drowsy, bloated expression of a man who has consumed too much Thanksgiving dinner, and declared that his dad is “making all this up as he goes along.” That performance “riveted” Crazy Heart director Scott Cooper, who has since cast Plemons in three of his movies. “I turned to my wife in the theater and said, ‘Who is that?’” Cooper recently recalled to The Guardian. “What I saw then was what I see now in our collaborations: Jesse’s choices are always unorthodox but very specific. He approaches material from a curious and introspective manner, and his quest for the truth never ends. If time and money were not an issue, we would still be shooting the scene in Hostiles where his character admits for the first time his feelings about killing another man. Jesse will go until all fall down.”
The first Cooper film Plemons appeared in was 2015’s Black Mass, a look at the alliance between the FBI and Boston’s Irish mob in the 1970s. Plemons, playing a henchman of Johnny Depp’s “Whitey” Bulger, brought his usual subtlety to bear on cocksure gangster charisma, slyly dressing down a fellow wiseguy while working as a bouncer: “You probably don’t remember this, but you were here last Saturday night, a few of your friends, ’round two or three in the morning. You took a piss up against the bar. And that’s frowned upon here.” From under a massive helmet of hair, in his best Beantown accent, he continued, “But if you go down to Branigan’s, just right there, they’ll let you take a shit in the middle of the floor if that’s what you wanna do. But you can’t—you can’t do it here.” The Matt Damon comparisons have never rung truer.
Later that year, Plemons showed off an entirely different disposition when he appeared in the second season of FX’s Fargo as a modest small-town butcher who resigns himself to helping his wife cover up a murder—a superior echo of the widely derided FNL subplot in which Landry kills a man he catches assaulting his love interest, Tyra. Despite a switch from Boston bravado to “Minnesota nice,” Plemons’ average-Joe minimalism continued to be a through-line for his performances. In interviews, he can be as taciturn as some of his characters, speaking in soft generalities about his love for cinema while projecting a distant chill that suggests he can’t wait to retreat back into introversion. He comes off not like a Hollywood egotist but an everyman with astonishing dedication to his craft. Kirsten Dunst, who played Plemons’ wife on Fargo and went on to marry him in real life, smartly summed up his particular brand of masculine steadiness: “There’s such a presence to him, like he’s part of the earth.” That quality consistently translates to the screen; Cooper has compared Plemons to “a swan out on the lake, gliding gracefully and effortlessly, while underneath the surface it’s working very hard.”
His abilities seem to be growing sharper with time. Plemons killed in the 2018 action comedy Game Night as the socially inept neighbor the protagonists avoid at all costs. Clutching a lap dog while wearing a police uniform, he brought a creepy monotone intensity to such mundane dialogue as “I do hope you keep me in mind for any future game nights. I’ve always enjoyed the camaraderie of good friends competing in games of chance and skill.” That same year, he swung to the other end of his range in Adam McKay’s snarky Dick Cheney biopic, Vice. As Kurt, a fictionalized veteran of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, Plemons narrated key scenes with deadpan sarcasm and an ever-so-slight drawl, offering up a whole new version of his signature remove.
His best role yet, though, is among his most deadly serious. In Shaka King’s new Judas And The Black Messiah, Plemons plays Roy Mitchell, the FBI agent whose efforts to undermine Black Panthers leader Fred Hampton culminated in Hampton’s killing in 1969. Behind mesmerizing performances from Daniel Kaluuya as Hampton and LaKeith Stanfield as Bill O’Neil, the informant who betrayed Hampton, it would be easy to overlook Plemons’ typically understated work. But whether wincing at racist provocations from Martin Sheen’s J. Edgar Hoover or stonewalling a desperate O’Neil to obtain more intel, the man just simmers. His demeanor can be so muted that he seems lost in thought, yet he always gives you just enough to pick up on the calculations raging within: briefly slipping in and out of a grin without breaking his stare, leveraging silence and texture like an ambient composer. Rarely has such a stoic presentation felt so electrifying.
How that style will manifest in Killers Of The Flower Moon is anyone’s guess. Will Plemons do his best grizzled Clint Eastwood impression? Will he play against type with a more animated persona à la Hoffman at his most dynamic? It’s exciting to consider the possibilities, but since shooting doesn’t begin until May, we’ll have to wait a while to find out. Nor is it fully clear what to expect from him in the movies scheduled to drop between now and then: the Disney adventure story Jungle Cruise alongside Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt; Cooper’s horror film Antlers opposite Keri Russell; and Jane Campion’s Netflix drama The Power Of The Dog with Dunst and Benedict Cumberbatch. What is clear by now is that Plemons can quietly anchor any ensemble, even in the company of legends like DiCaprio and DeNiro. Landry really is ready to be a leading man.