Jesse Plemons is ready for the ride

CANNES, France (AP) — Jesse Plemons was flattered to be approached by Yorgos Lanthimos about starring in “Kinds of Kindness,” but he wasn’t sure which version of himself the director wanted.

Plemons, the protean 36-year-old character actor, has sometimes put on weight for roles. “Those first weeks are glorious,” he says. “And then it gets depressing very quickly.”

Over the years, Plemons has lost weight for some parts and gained it back for others. It became easy to lose track, and directors kept preferring him on the larger side.

“I kind of kept getting parts for that size,” Plemons said in an interview last month at the Cannes Film Festival. “Eventually it was: I gotta get a handle on this. I’ve got two young kids and I want to be able to run around with them.”

“And I was nervous that (Yorgos) was only interested in the bigger version of me,” he adds. “I was like: I hope he’s still OK with the fact that I don’t look like the guy he thought I looked like.”

Who, exactly, Jesse Plemons is can seem elusive. Since his breakthrough on the series “Friday Night Lights,” Plemons has evolved into one of film’s most talented shape-shifters. He's proven an uncommonly malleable actor, appearing as everything from the lethal creep of “Breaking Bad” to the federal detective of “Killers of the Flower Moon.” He slides into grippingly contemporary films ( "I'm Thinking of Ending Things,"“Civil War” ) as smoothly as he does period pieces ( “The Irishman,”“The Power of the Dog” ). He’s less a chameleon than a singular presence that can be dialed to disturbing or sweet. Whether good or bad, Plemons’ characters tend to be sincerely themselves — a product, maybe, of the sensitivity with which he approaches each part.

“I try not to make too many judgments too quickly and try to circle the script and the part until I find some way in,” Plemons says. “Something that resonates and makes sense to me and that’s going to drag me along and not make it feel like work, make it feel like I’m just following some trail.”

The darkly comic “Kinds of Kindness,” which opens in theaters Friday, is a supreme, fittingly disquieting showcase of Plemons’ wide-ranging abilities. After its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival last month, Plemons won best actor – the most significant individual award of his career. It won't be the last.

The film, a Searchlight Pictures release, is composed of three stories penned by Lanthimos and his oft-collaborator Efthimis Filippou. The triptych isn't narratively connected, but each is performed with the same company of actors, including Emma Stone, Willem Dafoe and Margaret Qualley. And each story takes unpredictable, parable-like paths to exploring themes of social conformity and control in relationships.

Plemons is central in the film's first two sections. In the first, he plays a man named Robert who lives in utter devotion to his boss (Dafoe), but their relationship is severed when the boss asks Robert drive his car into that of a stranger’s. Cut loose, Robert is sent into a desperate tail spin.

In the second, Plemons plays a police officer named Daniel whose marine biologist wife (Stone) returns home after being stranded on desert island for months. He believes that she isn’t his real wife but a doppelgänger and tests her in increasingly sinister ways.

Those two characters — one a disquieting paranoid, the other a humble puppy dog — encapsulate something about Plemons as an actor. When he read the script, Plemons says, “I thought it was brilliant but I couldn’t tell you why.”

“It’s like: When will anything like this come along again?” he asks. “Probably never, so sign me up. Let’s see what happens.”

Lanthimos, the filmmaker of “Poor Things” and “The Favourite,” likes an extensive and playful rehearsal period. But that didn’t help Plemons’ initial befuddlement.

“Throughout the majority of the rehearsal process, I just felt completely lost and clueless, which in hindsight was like, ‘Yeah, I guess that’s a part of it, too,’” he says. “There’s some submitting and giving in to the process.”

Lanthimos has been a longtime admirer of Plemons.

“We talked about Jesse forever. I think we thought about it for a couple things but he wasn’t available,” Lanthimos says, speaking alongside Stone. “But I always had him in mind because I think he’s just basically one of the greatest of his generation. There’s no question for me.”

“He’s also a really nice and interesting person, which is always a bonus — when someone’s that talented but they’re also just lovely to be around,” Stone adds.

Shortly after the premiere of “Kinds of Kindness,” the filmmaker announced that his next project, titled “Bugonia,” will also star Plemons alongside Stone. “He’s now part of the troop,” says Lanthimos, proudly.

“Kinds of Kindness” adds to what’s been a memorable year for Plemons. Earlier this year, his scene in Alex Garland’s “Civil War” — in which he plays a jingoistic militant who chillingly asks “What kind of American are you?” — was the most memorable ( and much-memed ) moment from the movie.

“I just find people fascinating," he says. "I guess I’m trying to operate from a place of being curious and trying to figure out why. Because there is always some trail leading back to why. It’s never some mystery — rarely, maybe occasionally. But there’s always something. That’s what I find interesting and then you finish it and it hits you, all of that. That was definitely the case for ‘Civil War.’”

Plemons, who grew up in Mart, Texas, has often been called on to play such menacing figures. But he’s found ways to cleverly play with and invert that reputation. In “Game Night,” Plemons played the foreboding neighbor next door whose deadpan interactions ("How can that be profitable for Frito Lay?") were the movie’s comic high point.

But asked if Plemons sometimes feels resistant to playing darker, demented characters, an interviewer hasn’t finished the question when he eagerly responds, “Yes!”

“But also, like anyone I would think, you don’t want to be redundant,” Plemons explains. “It’s not like dark characters are all the same. But that’s what to me is eternally interesting and a gift about an actor. Yeah, I feel incredibly fortunate to be at a place where I’m able to be more selective. There’s a choose-your-own-adventure element. But there are times when, yeah, you just don’t really want to walk around in those shoes at this moment.”

That may be especially since Plemons' life is otherwise fairly blissful. He and his wife, Kirsten Dunst, who met while shooting the second season of “Fargo,” have two young children. But Plemons isn’t necessarily shying away from anything, either.

“I have conflicted feelings about it because there’s part of me that really believes there’s a point to it, and some of positive that comes out of showing something like, someone like that,” Plemons says of the “Civil War” character. “They exist. That’s one of the great possibilities in film to hold up a mirror and, without preaching, you’re forcing people to engage in a way where you’re hitting them first from a human level in a way that a lot of other mediums might not be able to do.”

That kind of thoughtfulness is what's made Plemons so in demand as an actor. He's noticed the shift most in the last year or two. (In 2022, both he and Dunst were Oscar nominated for their supporting performances in Jane Campion's “Power of the Dog.”)

“It’s just trying to hold on and hone your time-management skills,” says Plemons. "This experience, you realize you can do all the work you want but if you don’t settle into here and now and just play and go on a ride, then none of that matters."


Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle at:

Jake Coyle, The Associated Press