Arts & Culture News

Jesse Plemons Was Starstruck Working With Charlie Kaufman's Spotless Mind

If his face stirs up emotions, it's because you loved to hate him in Breaking Bad. Dallas-born actor talks about his role in name Charlie Kaufman's new film.
If his face stirs up emotions, it's because you loved to hate him in Breaking Bad. Dallas-born actor talks about his role in name Charlie Kaufman's new film. Jon Kopaloff/Getty
It’s hard to think of another young actor who’s been involved with as much Hollywood royalty as Jesse Plemons. The 32-year-old Dallas native has worked with such prominent filmmakers as Martin Scorsese with The Irishman, Steven Spielberg with Bridge of Spies and Paul Thomas Anderson with The Master. He's also appeared as fan-favorite characters in TV shows such as Breaking Bad, Friday Night Lights, Black Mirror and Fargo.

But Plemons still gets starstruck, and when he got the chance to work with legendary writer/director Charlie Kaufman, Plemons was ecstatic.

“He’s been one of my favorites for quite a while,” Plemons says of Kaufman, the writer of films Adaptation, Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. “One of my buddies and I, a few years ago, had a Charlie Kaufman marathon and started at the beginning and worked our way to the end. I guess the thinking was that surely by the end of that, we would have some epiphany and some of Charlie’s brilliance might rub off on us. It did not. It just made us realize how much we love him.”

Plemons stars as Jake in Kaufman’s new film I’m Thinking of Ending Things, which will begin streaming on Netflix on Sept. 4. It's a psychological horror film based on the acclaimed 2016 novel by Iain Reid. The film follows Jake and his unnamed girlfriend (Jessie Buckley) as they embark on a road trip to visit his parents, experiencing strange and frightening events that cause them to question the nature of their identities and memories.

Hand-picked by Kaufman himself for the role, Plemons was sent an early copy of the script and began obsessing over the complex narrative, staying up late into the night to dig into the story. He says the script was unlike anything he’d ever read before.

“I would be lying if I said I knew much of what was happening, and I had the feeling like what seemed to be happening on the surface was not,” he says. “I was taken by how it left me feeling. It’s heartbreaking, really funny and really scary at times. It somehow felt like life, while also feeling like a dream.”

Plemons says he was excited to get a grasp on the unique character of Jake, and looked to Reid’s novel as a means of understanding the character.

“I think he’s a very exciting writer, and there’s a lot in the novel that didn’t make it into the script and was very helpful in just painting Jake in my mind,” he says. “There were a couple little ticks and a couple paragraphs where the young woman is describing Jake I kept coming back to. It was a mix of the book, the script and maybe a little bit of Charlie.”

Plemons says the film’s sharp tonal shifts and unconventional structure drew him into the story, as it felt like a more realistic portrayal of relationships than most films achieve.

“I’m always drawn to films that aren’t one thing, because I don’t think life is one thing,” he says. “I think everything is mixed up. The script is so good that I don’t think we spent much time thinking about ‘OK, this is the funny bit of the scene, this is the scary part of the scene.’ When you’re working with such an incredible script and such incredible actors, it eventually just starts to unfold.”

“I’m always drawn to films that aren’t one thing, because I don’t think life is one thing." – Jesse Plemons

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Starring with Plemons is Buckley, the Irish star of acclaimed films such as Beast and last year’s Wild Rose. Buckley joined the project at the same time as Plemons, and he says that helped the two to develop their onscreen relationship.

“We’re close in age, and we were just as excited as nervous as the other one, so there was a camaraderie in us both being thrown into this world and feeling pretty close to the same about it,” he says. “We didn’t have much time before, but we had enough time to get to know each other a little bit and talk about the characters.”

The film features many long, drawn-out sequences in which the two characters are locked in conversation, and Plemons says he was thankful to work with a generous screen partner.

“Sometimes you just get lucky,” he says. “There’s a trust that develops really quickly, and then you’re locked in a car for hours on end, and that develops even quicker. I think it was just this excitement of us both being in the same position.”

Plemons says that despite the challenges of working with such unconventional material, the experience shooting was one of the best of his career.

“That was the trickiest part, just finding the rhythm,” he says. “A lot of these scenes are not at all intuitive, and so we were trying to discover why these turns are taking place, and then, once we were getting comfortable with that, it was one of the most freeing experiences I’ve ever had as an actor.”

Plemons recalls the first week of shooting, and says his quick familiarity with Buckley allowed them to set a consistent tone for what the shoot would be like.

“As long as the other person is willing to let it be what it’s going to be, it’s beneficial and helpful in every way,” he says. “That first week when we’re in the car, there were moments when we were talking and all of a sudden hysterically laughing at God knows what, and then in the next moment we were both just completely silent for a long time. It started to feel like the film between takes, pretty quickly I think.”

Much of Buckley’s dialogue comes from an internal monologue that is played as a voiceover, and Plemons says that through creative filmmaking techniques the two were able to stay in line with what was written.

“There’s a voiceover that cuts in, so we both wore ear rigs and the sound person just had the script and that was all worked out,” he says. “It really was just trying to find the sort of inner track within the scenes, because there’s so much dialogue and we didn’t have much time at all to rehearse.”

Working on the blocking of the dialogue scenes wasn’t the only major challenge for Plemons; he also had to sing. Although Plemons had sung on screen before in films like Meeting Spencer and El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, he says some keen advice from Kaufman helped to color his expectations for the sequence.

“I had a reference video, and I just paced around my rental house in upstate New York for hours and hours singing at the top of my lungs the night before we recorded it,” he says. “The one encouraging thing is that I talked to Charlie about it and asked what he had in his mind, and he really left it wide open and said it could be whatever it’s going to be. It doesn’t have to be great, it doesn’t have to be anything. He was just kind of interested to see what I came up with.”

The actor wasn’t expecting the scene to be as personally satisfying and empowering as it was.

“Knowing that it didn’t have to be Broadway musical theater star level, it wound up being a really exhilarating experience,” he says. “I’ve never tried to sing like that before. I have to say, acting is a nice way to sort of exercise some demons or whatever’s going on, but I now understand the draw of musical theater, because you really get to expel anything you’ve got.”

Although I’m Thinking of Ending Things will likely be one of the most hotly debated and analyzed films of 2020, Plemons says he doesn’t worry about making a character sympathetic or not, and would rather make them compelling so that the audience is left to make up their own mind about Jake.

“It’s hard to talk about because I don’t want to color anyone else’s interpretation with mine, but there’s a really deep loneliness and isolation there, and an inability to really exist with other human beings in a way that gives him something.” he says. “Even when he’s with people, he’s very remote and he’s got a very active internal life. There’s a very deep well of sadness and loneliness there, and that was always present.”
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Jesse Plemons (left) with the cast of I’m Thinking of Ending Things .
Mary Cybulski/Netflix
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Liam Gaughan has been covering film and television since before he had a driver's license, and in addition to the Observer has been published in, Schmoes Know, Taste of Cinema and The Dallas Morning News. He enjoys checking classic films off of his watchlist and working on spec scripts.