Though he’s a soft-spoken Texas man with an unassuming, childlike face, Jesse Plemons is inexplicably scary. Casting directors seem to agree: Plemons keeps popping up on TV or in movies as a serial murderer or a drug-dealing child killer or a mob enforcer (characters that are miles away from his lovable Landry Clarke on Friday Night Lights). In his newest movie, Game Night, directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, Plemons combines the subcutaneous rage that’s become his calling card with madcap dark comedy.
At the center of Game Night are Rachel McAdams and Jason Bateman, playing a married couple whose regular game night gets hijacked when Bateman’s pompous brother (Kyle Chandler) decides to shake things up by staging a kidnapping. The party goes awry, though, when the game turns into an actual kidnapping — and the group has to embark on a search-and-rescue operation before things end in murder. Plemons is unforgettable in his supporting role as Gary the divorcé — a lonely man who lives next door to Bateman and McAdams, and is strategically excluded from game night because he’s just too damn eerie — and leaves an impression for much longer than his actual screen time. Vulture caught up with the actor to talk about his history of playing creeps, what it’s like to be on set with so many funny people, and about whether they’re actually making a spinoff of his big Black Mirror episode.
With this collection of very funny people on set together, were there many alternate takes? Is there a whole movie’s worth of riffs on the cutting-room floor?
Yeah. It was everything you would hope for on a movie like this. The directors, the Johns, are both hilarious, and the script to begin with was one of the funniest scripts I feel like I’ve ever read. The [alternate take] that I think about the most — where it was just like, “Wow, Gary is crazy” — was when they all come over to my house, and we’re having lamb shanks and playing Jenga, and I start talking about my wife. For about 15 minutes or so, we just started riffing about how much I loved my wife. I can’t remember most of it, but it was a lot of fun.
How much of your disquieting screen presence came from the directors (John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein) or from screenwriter Mark Perez, and how much was you just being allowed to find your truth?
I think it was a mix of both. That was my interpretation of the script. Gary seemed like the creepiest guy with the heart of gold, which I liked! I haven’t played that before. It’s usually just straight-up creep. So yeah, they definitely allowed everyone to bring their own inspiration or choices to it.
Your character has these long, uncomfortable takes where you’re the only one in the frame, and you’re slowly delivering these monologues as Rachel McAdams and Jason Bateman just stare at you —
[Laughs.] Just waiting!
Did you guys just keep breaking, or could you make it through most of the time?
Do you know how much fun that is, to be able to do that in an environment where it’s like, “That’s right! Good job!” That was a lot of fun.
You mean it’s fun to make people feel as uncomfortable as possible?
Your episode of Black Mirror, “USS Callister,” came out at the end of last year. Did you film these in succession?
They were back-to-back, yeah.
So you were with Billy Magnussen quite a lot there, for a while. He seems like the existential opposite of you onscreen. How is it playing off of him?
I love Billy, and yeah, we are pretty opposite in most ways. I actually read the script for Game Night while we were shooting Black Mirror in London, and I told him about it, and he was like, “Oh, dude. I gotta audition.” So he sent an audition tape at lunch one day while we were filming on Black Mirror, and I was like, if Billy doesn’t get this part, I don’t know what is happening in the world. He can do that part in his sleep. He’s hilarious.
I read in an interview once that you hoped to take some improv classes at Upright Citizen’s Brigade. Did you ever follow through on that?
I never did, and I think the reason I was interested was because I’ve had tastes of it. With Friday Night Lights, we were encouraged to make it our own and improvise as much as we wanted. They allowed us to sort of rewrite scenes on the day [of shooting], and it only adds to the end product, I think. It’s just so much more enjoyable to be surprised with where a scene ends up, rather than doing the same thing over and over again. I still would like to take classes, mainly because it’s terrifying to get up and do that.
As you’ve gotten more established, has your process changed for how you approach roles, or how you detach from them when the work is done? Do you carry them with you for a while after shooting is finished?
I think I’m getting a little better at shedding it a little quicker. But I think as you get older, what used to work — you can wake up one day and it’s like, “Oh, this isn’t working anymore.” And there was a moment where, after Friday Night Lights, I was kind of going through this existential crisis of realizing that [experience] was totally unusual. So stepping back out into the real world and the real industry, there was a time where I was like, “Whatever it was that I might have had, I think it just vanished. I think it just left!’
You mean your motivation?
No. Nothing to do with my motivation — it just literally felt like, “Whatever talent I have is gone.” And so it almost felt like starting over.
I also once read you talk about how your approach to roles was basically doing good work, and hoping that lead to more good work. If that didn’t work out, though, you said you’d just go nuts on Twitter.
That was a joke.
If you were feeling solid enough in your professional life — or even just feeling crazy enough at the time — what would your stunt persona be on social media?
I should just come up with a fake Twitter name and stir shit up. Just talk directly to Trump and see what happens.
That’s basically what Cher does, so why not you? Why not go full Cher?
I could be hated by Trump. That would be awesome!
Do it. Work it up to getting blocked by the president of the United States.
All right. I know what I’m doing tonight. I remember stumbling on, I think it was Twitter, but Roy Moore’s Horse? Remember that one? It’s very strange but I sort of understand it [laughs]. I’d be a Twitter animal of some kind. Yeah.
Back to your actual job: Shortly after “USS Callister” started streaming, the director, Toby Haynes, was talking about it serving as a pilot for a spinoff series. He even said that your character Daly might still be alive and could find a way to work him back into the story. Has that conversation actually reached you?
Toby was talking about that, like, the first week of filming! I really think it’s Toby’s doing. I think he started the rumor. It’s all him.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.