Judas and the Black Messiah, a film about the assassination of Fred Hampton that debuts Friday, could be the vehicle that vaults Daniel Kaluuya once and for all into the cinematic stratosphere. Since Get Out and Widows, Kaluuya’s rise to greatest-leading-man-of-his-generation status has seemed like a matter of when, not if. And this role as Hampton, the Black Panther Party leader who was gunned down by police in 1969, could be the last rung on that ladder. Kaluuya’s costar in Judas, Lakeith Stanfield, is on a parallel trajectory. In 20 years, we could look back on Kaluuya and Stanfield’s collaboration in 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—two absolute superstar actors at the tops of their respective games, in service of a story with immense sociopolitical resonance.
And Jesse Plemons is also in this film.
Plemons plays the FBI handler for Stanfield’s William O’Neal, and as a result acts as the menacing white face lurking in a movie about a Black political martyr. It might seem like casting against type for an actor whom everyone seems to like—and whose long-term relationship with his Fargo costar Kirsten Dunst makes you wonder whether you really know what love is.
But Plemons can do menace. More than that, he can use his trustworthy guy-next-door face to mask an unsettling level of malice, as he did in his Emmy-nominated turn in Black Mirror. Or, he can switch back and forth from avuncular to creepy in order to confound expectations, as in his movie-stealing performance in Game Night. Plemons is rapidly becoming one of the best character actors out there, and his fascinating and fast-evolving oeuvre attests to that.
After a run of smaller roles as a child actor, Plemons broke out as Landry Clarke in Friday Night Lights, as an actual small-town Texan in a cast full of New Yorkers, Californians, and even the odd Canadian. Landry started out as a nothing part, the non-football-playing nerd sidekick to unlikely hero Matt Saracen. But he eventually blossomed into a beloved supporting character. By Season 2, Landry was dating the prettiest girl in school and had a major running subplot. (That this subplot is one of the show’s low points is not Plemons’s fault; it takes a lot to make viewers go, “You know, this is a bit much” while Jason Street is in Mexico getting a stem cell transplant from a shark.) By Season 4, Landry himself was the big football hero.
In a delightful coincidence, Plemons’s career has taken a similar route. He’s one of those actors with an ineffably watchable quality. In a New York Times profile last year, writer-director Charlie Kaufman explained how he’d come to admire Plemons enough to cast him as the lead in I’m Thinking of Ending Things without requiring an audition (much to Plemons’s own bewilderment).
While watching Breaking Bad, Kaufman was struck by how Plemons’s character, Todd, went from set dressing to a major antagonist with complete ease and little warning. “I never saw Todd coming, and I think that’s the thing about Jesse,” Kaufman told the Times. “It’s very interesting to watch him work because everything is just so small and underplayed, which is very valuable in film.”
In Friday Night Lights, Landry’s father was played by venerable character actor Glenn Morshower, an imposing red-headed Texan who’s played cops, soldiers, and dads in pretty much every movie and TV drama made in the past 30 years. If you need an authority figure with a drawl, Morshower’s your man. That could’ve been Plemons’s destiny, particularly because he hasn’t aged so much as changed overnight from relatable nerdy teen to relatable suburban dad. But in The Master, he played the son of Philip Seymour Hoffman, who’s become a common comparison for Plemons in recent years. (Common, if slightly lazy, as the late Oscar winner is sort of a shorthand for any top-tier movie actor who isn’t as traditionally handsome as Redford or Kaluuya.)
If anything, though, Plemons is the opposite of Hoffman. Hoffman’s greatest roles were distinctive and noisy and technically difficult—just look at the accent work he pulled off in Capote or A Most Wanted Man, or the manic character he played in The Big Lebowski. Plemons, on the other hand, never seems like he’s acting, even when he’s playing an absurd character. He blends into real life, even as his bright red hair, narrow eyes, and high forehead make him instantly recognizable. Whether he’s playing a drug trafficker, a cop, or a football star, it always seems like someone from that profession—who just so happens to look like Jesse Plemons—wandered randomly onto the set. The most memorable aspect of his performance in Black Mirror, for instance, is as the quiet, hangdog programmer Robert Daly, not as Daly’s malicious starship-captain alter ego. That calm verisimilitude not only invites audiences to empathize with him, but also makes him a perfect scene partner for actors who want to show their work a little more.
This quality’s always been evident, but it’s best demonstrated in Vice, in which Plemons plays Kurt, a fictional heart donor who narrates the film. Vice sets out to show how one 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 tie cause to effect by illustrating extremely complex processes. Vice doesn’t always succeed in doing this, but there are worse conduits for the everyman than Plemons.
At 32, Plemons has had two Emmy nominations and headlined a Charlie Kaufman movie. He’s traded jokes with Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams in a hit comedy, and embodied the everyman in a movie about the corruption of power and empire. Now he’s serving as the sinister face of American law enforcement’s dishonesty and violence in an acclaimed historical drama. He’s developed seamlessly from bit player to world-class character actor—and he’s only just now hitting his peak.