Turn on the TV, and there’s Jesse Plemons as a butcher on FX’s Fargo. At the movies, you’ll find him in Bridge of Spies and Black Mass. His memorable roles on two of TV’s best dramas of the last decade, Friday Night Lights and Breaking Bad, are available on Netflix. At 27, the Texas actor who won hearts playing the endearing Landry Clarke on Friday Night Lights has quickly built a noteworthy career acting alongside film and TV powerhouses Bryan Cranston, Johnny Depp, Tom Hanks, and Tom Cruise. “Friday Night Lights was the first time that I really took a step back and realized it was something I’d want to do for the rest of my life, or might be able to,” Plemons told Vulture during a phone interview. “No 18-year-old thinks by 27 I’d be working in the only thing that I’m really excited about and with people that inspire me.”
Plemons spoke with Vulture about his special acting skill (killing people and hiding their bodies), eating Hamburger Helper for breakfast, and that time he worked with Matt Damon. (Yes, it’s already happened!) Some Fargo spoilers ahead.
Why were you drawn to play Ed on Fargo?
Late last year, [creator Noah Hawley] sent me the first four scripts. I hadn’t seen the first season. I read the scripts quickly and loved them and watched the first season in like two or three days. Then I spoke with Noah and said yes. I just immediately trusted him. He seemed like the type of guy you want to work for. He pays really close attention to detail. And it seemed like a part I’d never really done before and a part that definitely has an interesting arc and journey. It was kind of a no-brainer, taking this genuinely good-hearted man and dragging him through this horrible ride and seeing how he manages. And the fact that pretty much everything that motivates what he does comes out of his love for his wife, this idea of the American Dream, and everything he had always planned on and was brought up believing.
Why was Ed described in the script as a cow? I mean I know he’s a little chubby, but …
I was worried about that. That was one of the first questions that I asked Noah — what do you mean by “he’s like a cow.” I was worried that that meant dumb and just went along with whatever his wife said. I worked briefly on a ranch when I was 16 years old and cows are not typically the smartest animals. Noah said that it wasn’t at all an insult, but that in the animal kingdom that would be where Ed would fit. He didn’t go to war, like most men his age did. And I think he really just wants to find a nice pasture and graze, you know? Live with his family and just be happy and healthy. And then later on in the season, I started thinking about the fact that a male cow is a bull, so there’s another side to Ed. That was also fun to play around with. He’s not a total pushover, but he’s not at all a hostile, aggressive person at his core.
Are you trying to tell me something? Are we going to see scary sides of Ed later?
Oh, well, it’s Fargo, come on!
Were you really eating Hamburger Helper in the first episode?
Oh. Yeah. First thing in the morning. [Laughs.] And I had had Hamburger Helper before, but that was not at all how I remembered it. I remember there being some sort of noodle in the mix. I don’t know if this was Hamburger Helper in the ’70s or what the deal was, but it will be a while before I have Hamburger Helper again.
What unique challenges did Fargo’s tone present for you as an actor? A scene can be at once somber and funny.
That’s what you hope for as an actor. You hope there can be a lot for you to play with. And thank God there is some humor in the story. Otherwise, it would be hard to watch Ed go through some of this stuff. But I have to say — and [Kirsten Dunst, who plays Ed’s wife Peggy] and I have talked about this — it didn’t really seem funny when we were doing it. And then watching back, we were just cracking up at how absurd and ridiculous it is. When you’re in it and filming, you’re just trying to make it as truthful and honest as possible. But it’s some of the best material you could hope for as an actor.
Just the notion that you hit somebody with your car and then you bring him home and make Hamburger Helper for your husband.
[Laughs.] It is ridiculous. It is! I can’t believe I didn’t see the humor a little bit more. Ed doesn’t find the humor in it, I think, so that’s probably what it was.
I’m sure I’m not the first person to point out that you have quite the track record now of killing people and hiding their bodies on TV.
I know! Before you know it, you have a track record! You’re just doing work on shows you want to be on and, all of a sudden, you’re hiding bodies left and right.
I would like to review these crime scenes with you. Let’s start with Landry (on Friday Night Lights). That one came with a lot of backlash. You were such a young actor then. What was it like filming killing the guy and then hiding his body with Tyra (Adrianne Palicki)?
It was two-sided. I definitely was excited in one way to get to see a side of Landry that we hadn’t seen at all in the first season. I was mainly coming in for comedic relief, and I was excited that they were giving me something different. I knew to an extent the story line was the biggest risk they’d taken in terms of the realism they tried to maintain on the show. But, similar to what I was saying about Ed, when you’re in it, just trying to figure it out, you have to justify it to yourself to do it. Or rationalize it in a way that makes sense. So it was a fun challenge to play it in a way that audiences bought it.
I was slightly perplexed by the fact that they never talked about it ever again. I was hoping writers would throw something in, even if it was just a line passing someone in the hallway, a look or anything. But that never happened. It was definitely a fun challenge. Ade Palicki is a wonderful actress so it was fun to work with her. It was such a long time ago.
Then you became this very chilling guy, Todd, on Breaking Bad. He kills this little boy, they hide the body in hydrofluoric acid, and for Todd, it’s just, “Shit happens.”
He wasn’t lying, you know? That’s true. It does.
When you read that in the script, how did you prepare for that?
At that point Todd only had a couple of tiny scenes in the episode before that. I was a recurring character and they would give me scripts a couple of days in advance. I was constantly trying to corner every writer I could to pump them for information and was not getting anywhere. Luckily, when we were filming, [executive producer] Vince Gilligan was there and I cornered him to give me anything — how does he do this? Who is this person? And in his Vince Gilligan–way, he said: “Well, you know when you’re driving and a raccoon runs out in front of your car and if you swerve to the left, you go in a ditch. If you swerve to the right, you hit someone. What do you do? You hit the raccoon!” And I went, “Okay, I’ll go with that.” Um, I guess he’s a pragmatic lunatic, and that really started to inform everything. It was just a matter of trusting your instincts, trusting the process, and tiny little threads of information that you have.
And now there’s poor Ed, the most gruesome one of three. What was it like filming the meat grinder scene?
That was a sequence we picked up later in the course of shooting. And it was a scene that, not unlike the scene with Todd, I was trying to get anything out of Noah that I could work with. I was having dreams and nightmares about it — like how am I going to do this? Noah had a few words. I had to take the butcher stuff to the place where I was comfortable because he knew what he was doing. People can rationalize in funny ways to hold onto their dreams and needs. I was just trying to find the balance of doing this unbelievably gruesome act and Ed just wanting this to be over — by any means necessary, make this stop so he can get back to his life.
What were you having nightmares about?
I don’t really want to tell you the dreams, but they were weird, gruesome dreams that were connected. Not just about my performance, but about this act.
When you finished filming, what did you feel?
Relief. Relieved, for sure. And then the story just got worse.
Do you think people will be shocked by what Ed does with the body?
It’s funny, I just talked to my parents last night, and they had my uncle and his wife over at their house and some friends. And my uncle’s wife was saying, “I wonder if Ed’s butcher skills are going to play into this.” And my uncle was saying, “Oh no, come on, no, that’s not going to happen.” I think that if you know the tone of the show at all, I feel like it won’t come as that big of a shock. If not, it might be pretty out there.
Your Minnesota accent was very consistent and authentic. Who helped you? Is it easy for you to pick up on accents?
We had a great dialect coach. He had a small part in the first season. We got here two weeks before and started working every day. He showed us an archive of tons of different variations of the dialect, and I found one that I liked for Ed and we focused on that. Luckily he was there most days. The tricky thing is filming in Canada because they have similar dialects, but they are different. I’m pretty decent at mimicking something back like I heard it. But just getting that to settle in and become something that you’re not thinking about it at all — I can pinpoint when I have it and when I don’t. But to me it’s just repetition and learning through osmosis.
What was it like having Kirsten Dunst as your wife?
I was a little nervous in the beginning in Calgary (where Fargo filmed). But in the matter of a few days we were both excited. It was pretty easy. She’s really a wonderful actor and made it pretty easy to play off of. We became good friends.
What can you tell us about that UFO everybody keeps seeing on Fargo?
[Laughs.] It’s real! Aliens are real, that’s all I can tell you.
You’ve been working nonstop after Breaking Bad. You’ve worked on movies with Johnny Depp, Stephen Frears, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise. Do you ever stop working?
Now I do. I’m taking time now. It seems like every time you tell yourself you’re going to take some time, another great opportunity comes up. And I got the call from Mena midway through Fargo, and I loved the script and I loved the part, so I’m in. I started Mena right after Fargo.
Did they give you a chance to lose the weight? (Plemons gained weight for Black Mass and was asked to keep it on for Fargo.)
No. No. No. I’m playing a small-town sheriff in that who also happens to be a little overweight.
Are they ever going to let you lose it?
Well, now hopefully. That was my excuse for a while, that I was working. Now I have no excuse, so I have to.
Are you trying?
I am — ish. I’m eating healthy and working out occasionally. But I have been more focused on getting my house in order because I haven’t been home in so long. Working out is next on the list, even though it’s not my favorite activity. But I will be glad to get rid of some of the weight.
You play the guitar and write songs. Do you get a chance to work on your music at all these days?
I play all the time. I try and write some. I played with a band in Austin when I was doing Friday Night Lights. It was a blast. We were all best friends and we still talk about getting the band back together. I try to write, and I actually wrote a little bit more in Calgary than I had in a while. We have a few songs on iTunes. We will put out an album at some point. But I need to be able to take the time and focus on that. It’s like anything else — if you’re not spending most of your time doing it, you’re going to be a little bit rusty when you come back. I love music and songwriters from the ’60s and ’70s.
Everyone wants to see you in a movie with Matt Damon.
That would be great. I actually met him when I was probably 11. I played him as a young boy in All the Pretty Horses. It was supposed to be the first scene in the movie. My mom rented out the theater in Texas and everyone came excited to see it. I had invited this girl I had a crush on, and then it was cut.
So you weren’t in the movie at all?
Not. At. All.
[Laughs.] It’s all right. It was a great experience. I would work with him in a heartbeat.