Waking Up With Jesse Plemons

Published September 13, 2012

ABOVE: JESSE PLEMONS IN THE MASTER.

It is a good moment to be actor and musician Jesse Plemons. Several months ago, Plemons was best known as Landry Clarke, his somewhat geeky and entirely charming character on Friday Night Lights. Now, however, the 24-year-old actor is stealing the show on the final season of AMC’s Breaking Bad, and rubbing shoulders with the likes of Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master.

In The Master, Plemons plays Val Dodd, the son of Lancaster Dodd, the figurehead of a burgeoning cult. He is the only character close to Lancaster who questions his teachings—that the spirit is eternal and everyone has had many past lives—yet he does not leave Lancaster’s side. Val also gets into a scuffle with the protagonist Freddy Quell—a brave feat, given that Joaquin Phoenix plays Quell.

When not acting, Plemons plays in the band Cowboy and Indian and splits his time between Austin and LA. We accidentally woke Plemons up to discuss the typecasting of redheads, football, Phoenix, and Plemons’ early roles on Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Varsity Blues.

EMMA BROWN: I saw The Master last night. Congratulations. Your character is particularly fascinating, it seems as though he’s the one person close to Lancaster who remains unconvinced of his abilities. Why do you think Val stays with Lancaster if he doesn’t believe what Lancaster is doing?

JESSE PLEMONS: Well, I never looked at it as much of a choice, really. I don’t think in his position, he’s given too many options; being born into something like that, your opinion on everything doesn’t have that much of an impact. He seems stuck there, no matter what his beliefs about everything are. In earlier versions of the script there is a scene where I actually run away, and then the last thing you see is me [in England], when I re-find the family at the end of the movie. I think it’s actually better leaving it more vague.

BROWN: Can you tell me a little bit about how you got involved?

PLEMONS: I just auditioned.  I’m really bad at timing, I’m guessing it was two years ago, two and a half years ago. A couple of weeks later, I met with Paul [Thomas Anderson] and just talked about the character, [but] the movie fell through, and everyone was wondering if it was actually going to happen. Then, out of nowhere, it was all of a sudden back on.

BROWN: What did you know about the film when you auditioned?

PLEMONS: Absolutely nothing. I think Philip Seymour Hoffman was as attached to it.

BROWN: Amy Adams mentioned that The Master was actually a really fun set to be on, which you wouldn’t think because it’s such an intense film.

PLEMONS: It was. With all sets it does all really trickle down from the top, and [Paul’s] whole attitude was always just about finding it and getting it done. There was no air about him—how it got done and whose idea, he’s always really willing to listen to any idea. There were days that were more intense than others.

BROWN: There’s a scene where Joaquin Phoenix attacks you. Joaquin has a reputation for getting quite involved in his roles— when you read the scene, was your first reaction, “Oh no!”

PLEMONS: [laughs] Not really. It was the opposite, actually; that’s the ultimate, “Can you actually stand your ground?” The first day filming I was like freaking out in my head, after the first rehearsal I thought, “Compose yourself.” [laughs] But [by] that scene, we had been working for a couple of weeks. That was the scene I’d auditioned with, and so I was excited.

BROWN: You were just in Austin, do you miss it?

PLEMONS: I do, but I kept my place there so I still go back whenever I feel like I need to. I also have a lot of friends and my family live about an hour out of Austin, so I never go too long without heading back for at least a little while.

BROWN: Is that where your band is based?

PLEMONS: Sort of. One of the guys is from San Francisco and moved to Austin, but his family is here [in LA] now so we kind of split time between there and here.

BROWN: I heard you are the only member of the cast of Friday Night Lights who actually played football.

PLEMONS: I think Scott Porter [who played Jason Street] played for a little while, but yeah, for the most part I think so. I’m the only one out of the younger—but it was fun, I liked it.

BROWN: What position did you play?

PLEMONS: In middle school, I played quarterback. I was at a tiny school, so you played offense and defense—I played linebacker, and in high school I stopped playing around my sophomore year because of my acting stuff.

BROWN: Did you lord your skills over the other actors?

PLEMONS: [laughs] Not really. Zach [Gilford] in the beginning was a little stressed about his throwing arm because he hadn’t done that, so Zack and I would play catch. Well, everyone did too. There was lots of catch in between shots.

BROWN: You were once in an episode of Sabrina The Teenage Witch.

PLEMONS: [laughs] I was 11 or something. I had two lines.

BROWN: Was that pretty exciting for an 11-year-old? Or was it embarrassing because it’s not a show aimed at 11-year-old boys?

PLEMONS: No. It was fun. God, it was so long ago. I was back and forth a lot when I was a kid between here [Los Angeles] and Austin. It was always something I wanted to do, it was never anything that was forced upon me. I played, I think it was some sort of bully kid? I played lots of bullies when I was a kid. I think the red hair… [laughs].

BROWN: Made you look evil?

PLEMONS: Yeah, I guess.  [laughs]

BROWN: There’s a red hair festival in the Netherlands. “Redhead Day.”

PLEMONS: [laughs] A red hair festival?!

BROWN: I’m serious. Thousands of people go. 5,000 this year.

PLEMONS: Whoa. I get a little freaked out when I’m around too many red heads. I only have about one or two red haired friends and when a bunch of us get together, I feel like there’s going to be a fight that breaks out or something. [laughs]

BROWN: Is there lots of contention over what constitutes red hair? You seem sort of strawberry-blond to me.

PLEMONS: [laughs] I don’t know. I think it was a lot redder when I was younger. My sister’s hair is pretty red, but my mom has blonde hair and my dad has brown hair and no one really knows where it came from. I think my grandpa had some red in his beard and that was—

BROWN: A mutant gene?

PLEMONS: Exactly.

BROWN: You were also in Varsity Blues with James Van Der Beek.

PLEMONS: Yeah. Now that I can talk about a little more because I remember that a lot better. That was so much fun. I’d been an extra—in Texas there was a lot of westerns and TV movies going on, so I was an extra in a bunch of stuff—and I was always really intrigued by all of it. That set was just a blast. I actually ended up working with the other kid in Varsity Blues, who played the back-up quarterback’s younger brother, his name was Joe Pichler, and we just became best buds. It was kind at the beginning of Paul Walker’s career and everyone was super nice. John Voight was really cool. It was fun, and at that age getting to stay up all night and film football stuff seemed like a treat.

BROWN: Did you go to a normal school?

PLEMONS: I did, up until my junior year. I went to high school outside of Waco [Texas]. In my town, the population is like 2,000 or something; it was a really small school, so I would just get all my work from my teachers. The older I got, the more difficult that became and I ended up graduating through a Texas Tech online program.

BROWN: So you’d known everyone in your school since you were little?

PLEMONS: Definitely, yeah.

BROWN: There was no, “He’s the acting kid” ostracism?

PLEMONS: Everyone just assumed that when I went to L.A. I’d shot, like, five movies or something. [laughs] They didn’t really understand the audition process, it was always a couple of days of everyone asking what movies I’d worked on and I’d maybe gotten a guest spot on something. Every one was always really supportive.

BROWN: What are you up to now? Besides being brutally awakened.

PLEMONS: [laughs] Right now, I am planning a birthday party.

BROWN: For you or for someone else?

PLEMONS: [laughs] I’m planning a huge party for myself! No, no. I’m planning a party for my girlfriend. Then there’s this pilot that I’m really excited about and we go back in November to Albuquerque to finish up [Breaking Bad]. There’s been a bit of music stuff, we played a friend’s wedding in Ohio and it was the first time any of us had played a wedding. We had a ball. [laughs] I want to play some more weddings.

THE MASTER COMES OUT TOMORROW, SEPTEMBER 14. FOR MORE INFORMATION ON COWBOY AND INDIAN, VISIT THEIR FACEBOOK PAGE.