Jesse Plemons had never felt so lost. It was early March 2019, just a few days before he was supposed to start shooting Charlie Kaufman's "I'm Thinking of Ending Things," and Plemons had a question for the director: What, exactly, is the movie about?
On the surface, the show, adapted from the novel by Iain Reid and released on Netflix, appears deceptively simple. A man named Jake and his girlfriend embark on a snowy drive to meet his parents. Afterward, they drive back.
Or do they? The story's true nature remains tantalizingly out of reach. As their circumstances grow increasingly strange, the characters' shared sense of reality begins to smear, and the film unfolds like a Rorschach blot: What you ultimately make of this lonesome little tale depends on what you bring to it.
Plemons knew that with a storyteller like Kaufman, a bit of disorientation was to be expected — after all, this was the man who had written meta mind-benders like "Being John Malkovich" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." Plemons had hoped things would get better once rehearsals started; after the first rehearsal, he was convinced they wouldn't.
He started to question if he was the right man to play Jake. He had just come off supporting roles in "The Irishman" and "Vice," and Kaufman had offered him the role without an audition.
"I had no clue that Charlie had any idea who I was," Plemons said. "There was a part of me that was like, 'Are you sure, Charlie? You want to see me do something first?' "
With only two days left before the shoot, Plemons went to dinner with Kaufman and his castmates still feeling unmoored. To his surprise, the other actors said they didn't understand the movie, either. Even David Thewlis, who had worked with Kaufman on "Anomalisa," admitted to some confusion.
"David finally asked Charlie, 'So, can you tell us what this is about?' " Plemons recalled. "And Charlie was like, 'You know, I don't know.' "
Some actors might have been alarmed by such a confession, but to Plemons, it all suddenly made sense. He had been trying to figure out something that was meant to be experienced rather than analyzed. "Charlie kind of arrived at saying, 'I think we just have to accept that we don't know, and just accept that we're going to fail sometimes. We have to embrace that.' "
He also realized why Kaufman had hired him. There was nothing that could be done on this film but live in the moment, and if that's what you want from an actor — well, that's why you cast Plemons.
"It's very interesting to watch him work because everything is just so small and underplayed, which is very valuable in film," Kaufman said,
Plemons has spent the pandemic quarantined with fiancée Kirsten Dunst and their 2-year-old son, Ennis. "It forces you to look at what's in front of you," Plemons said, and it has reminded him that in work and in life, it pays to stay in the moment.
There was a brief flicker on his face. And then a smile. "I guess I didn't know I had a philosophy on life," he said.