Judas and the Black Messiah, a film about the assassination of Fred Hampton that debuts Friday, could be the vehicle that will propel Daniel Kaluuya once and for all into the cinematic stratosphere. Since Get out and Widows, Kaluuya’s rise to the status of the greatest man of his generation seems to be a question of when, not if. And that role of Hampton, the leader of the Black Panther Party who was gunned down by police in 1969, could be the bottom rung of that ladder. Kaluuya’s co-star in Judas, Lakeith Stanfield, is on a parallel trajectory. In 20 years, we could look back on the Kaluuya and Stanfield collaboration the same way we look at Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in All the president’s men, or Denzel Washington and Tom Hanks in Philadelphia cream—Two absolute superstars at the top of their respective games, serving a story with immense socio-political resonance.
And Jesse Plemons is also in this movie.
Plemons plays the role of the FBI manager for Stanfield’s William O’Neal and, as a result, acts like the ominous white face that lurks in a movie about a black political martyr. It might seem like a counter-type for an actor everyone seems to love – and whose long-term relationship with his Fargo co-star Kirsten Dunst makes you wonder if you really know what love is.
But Plemons can be threatening. More than that, he can use his trustworthy guy next door face to mask an unsettling level of meanness, as he did on his Emmy nominated round. Black mirror. Or, he can go from avuncular to spooky in order to confuse expectations, as in his movie theft performance in Game night. Plemons is quickly becoming one of the best character actors, and his fascinating and rapidly evolving work bears witness to that.
After a string of small roles as a child actor, Plemons erupted as Landry Clarke in Friday night lights, as a true small town Texan in a cast full of New Yorkers, Californians and even a few Canadians. Landry started out as nothing, the non-football nerd sidekick of unlikely hero Matt Saracen. But he eventually became a beloved supporting character. In season 2, Landry was dating the prettiest girl in school and had a major subplot. (That this subplot is one of the low points it is not Plemons’ fault; it takes a lot to get viewers to say, “You know, it’s a little a lot” while Jason Street is in Mexico for a stem cell transplant from a shark.) In season 4, Landry himself was the great football hero.
In a delightful coincidence, Plemons’ career took a similar path. He is one of those actors with an ineffably observable quality. In a New York Times profile last year, Writer-director Charlie Kaufman spoke about how he came to admire Plemons enough to tell him to I think to end things without requiring hearing (much to Plemons’ astonishment).
While watching breaking Bad, Kaufman was struck by how Plemons’ character, Todd, went from set-dress-up to a major antagonist with utter ease and little warning. “I never saw Todd coming, and I think that’s the problem with Jesse,” Kaufman told the Times. “It’s very interesting to watch him work because everything is so small and underrated, which is very precious in the film.”
In Friday night lights, Landry’s father was played by venerable actor Glenn Morshower, a towering, red-haired Texan who has played cops, soldiers, and dads in just about every movie and TV series made in the past 30 years. If you need a shuffling authority figure, Morshower is your man. That could have been Plemons’ fate, especially since he didn’t age so much that he went overnight from a nerdy teenager to a suburban dad. But in The master, he played the son of Philip Seymour Hoffman, who has become a running comparison for Plemons in recent years. (Common, though slightly lazy, as the late Oscar winner is kind of a shortcut for any prominent movie actor who isn’t as traditionally good-looking as Redford or Kaluuya.)
If anything, however, Plemons is the opposite of Hoffman. Hoffman’s biggest roles were distinctive and boisterous and technically challenging – just look at the accent work he pulled off in Hood or A very wanted man, or the maniacal character he played in The great Lebowski. Plemons, on the other hand, never seems to act, even when playing an absurd character. He blends in with real life, though his shiny red hair, narrow eyes, and high forehead make him instantly recognizable. Whether he’s playing a drug dealer, a cop, or a soccer star, it always seems like someone in that profession – who aptly looks like Jesse Plemons – is randomly walking around the set. The most memorable aspect of his performance in Black mirror, for example, is like the calm programmer and watchdog Robert Daly, not like the malicious alter ego of Daly’s captain. This calm verisimilitude not only invites the audience to empathize with him, but also makes him an ideal stage partner for actors who want to show their work a little more.
This quality has always been evident, but it is best demonstrated in Vice, in which Plemons plays Kurt, a fictional heart giver who narrates the film. Vice sets out to show how an unlikely man, Dick Cheney, came to consolidate political power and change the course of world history. The challenge with big issues like war, political propaganda, and climate change is how to link cause and effect by illustrating extremely complex processes. Vice It doesn’t always succeed, but there are worse conduits for everyone than Plemons.
At 32, Plemons had two Emmy nominations and was the headliner in a Charlie Kaufman movie. He traded jokes with Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams in a hit comedy and played the common man in a film about the corruption of power and empire. Now he is the grim face of US law enforcement dishonesty and violence in acclaimed historical drama. He’s grown seamlessly from bit player to world-class character actor – and he’s only just reached his prime.