Given the opportunity to portray one of Black Mirror’s most terrifying antagonists in Season 4 opener USS Callister—as reclusive programmer Robert Daly—Jesse Plemons needed to come to grips with a world he didn’t quite understand.
“It was on my list of shows that I needed to watch and didn’t get around to,” the Emmy nominee admits of the Netflix anthology. “I had all of my friends saying I had to watch it, and I just never did.”
With CSS Callister, Plemons found a character split in two—between the digital persona he crafted for himself and the invisible man that he really was. The little-recognized, mistreated genius behind a massively multiplayer online game, Daly lives a shadow life, using his tech wizardry for his own malevolent purposes. Creating digital clones of his less cooperative coworkers for his own private game, who are forced to submit to his will—forever trapped in digital space—Daly becomes the captain of his own space ship, the hero he can’t be in his own life.
Finding his take on the character, Plemons first latched on to Daly’s alter ego, looking to Star Trek’s Captain Kirk for inspiration. “The more we thought about it, the more [Kirk] just became inescapable—and the most fun, as well,” the actor says.
What was more difficult—even for an actor highly skilled in playing onscreen villains—was finding a way into “the real Daly.”
What were your first impressions when you read the script for USS Callister?
I started reading it and became really confused because it didn’t seem like the show that everyone explained to me—like, a strange Star Trek mock-up. I put the script down for a second and was just going to watch one episode, and ended up watching the entire first season in one sitting, and then the next season the day after—and then went back to the script and was immediately sold.
You’ve become known for your seamless ability to portray villains of all shades. Are these the roles you’re pursuing, or do they tend to come to you?
I don’t know. I think I shot that kid in a show [Breaking Bad] a while ago, and I haven’t quite shaken that. [laughs] Yeah, bad guys are always more fun to play, and especially not your straight-up, one-dimensional bad guy. I’ve been lucky to have played some really interesting characters that do some really questionable things.
What do you see as the throughline, in terms of the projects and characters you like to take on?
I guess the one thing that I like to think about everything that I’ve done is just, they’re all characters that I connect to, or feel like I need to play. I don’t really know how to articulate it, but there’s always just a feeling you get when you read a script, and it almost doesn’t even feel like a choice. When you factor in the people involved—and it’s still kind of wild to think about all of the ridiculously talented people I’ve worked with—that’s a huge element of the decision, who you can learn from and what interesting world you can play around in.
What’s your starting point in figuring out a character? Does empathy factor in, even with someone like Robert Daly?
Yeah, there’s usually a period of time you spend circling something, trying to find your way in—what choice or way of playing the part is most interesting and exciting to you. It doesn’t feel like a choice like, “I’d like to make this character empathetic.” I just try not to put any judgments on anyone that I’m playing, and work backward to attempt to figure out why they do what they do. Because it always stems from someplace.
In Daly’s fantasy world, what qualities in Captain Kirk were you trying to evoke?
I guess the essence, and the playfulness, and the seriousness with which he says everything. [William Shatner] was a Shakespearean trained actor, and there’s a reason why that show was so well loved. There are really few examples outside of him, you know? It seems like every sci-fi show in that realm, it all kind of traces back to him in a way. It seems like that to me, at least. He’s so iconic.
Black Mirror is known for its immaculate production design and general world building. What was it like, being dropped into that universe?
It was really, really impressive to me, what they were capable of doing on such a tight schedule. It seems like Charlie [Brooker] and Annabel [Jones] are usually thinking about at least three episodes at once, editing, shooting and prepping. So, just on a scheduling scale, it was kind of unlike anything I’d ever seen.
Then, they’re such unique worlds that they create. The first day stepping onto that spaceship was like, you’re immediately transported there. Then we got to shoot in [the Canary Islands’] Lanzarote, which felt like a different planet.
What was your experience of the USS Callister cast, given the unusual power dynamics at the core of the piece?
The first week during rehearsals, we all had a great time, really hit it off, and it was apparent really quickly how perfectly cast everyone was. Then once we started, it became a little more difficult to be the lighthearted guy that I was in the first week, spending hours torturing and yelling at people, or the other way around. [laughs] I feel like I got to really hang out with all of them at the beginning and then at the end. But it was, I think, one of the best ensembles that I’ve been a part of.
As a series, Black Mirror infuses the viewer with terror, in contemplation of our technological future. Do the issues it presents keep you up at night?
I think if you’re not at least curious, then something isn’t quite right; you’re in denial or something. It’s just such a massive change in everything. There’s that Herzog documentary [Lo and Behold] all about it. That was part of the draw, too, for me with Black Mirror; it was kind of the scariest horror movie, at least for me, that I could watch. Some of those episodes from the first and second season that I watched before I signed on, I had to take breaks, just because it all feels so possible.
It’s stunning how Callister lined up with Harvey Weinstein’s downfall last year, and the #MeToo movement that followed.
Yeah, it was something that I don’t think I thought of in the same light when we were shooting. It was more just on a smaller scale, and there’s more focus on trying to understand Daly. But it is wild how Charlie has this—whatever you want to call it—skill. He seems to not only predict new technological advances, but he really is tapped into something that does feel relevant and tells these stories in a way that only he can. If it’s adding to the conversation, then that’s great; that’s as much as you can ask for. But it definitely wasn’t lost on me, the way he treated women. Not at all.
When you think back now on your experience with Black Mirror, are there any specific memories that come to mind?
I think back to watching Billy [Magnussen] as [Valdack], having sparks thrown in his direction. [laughs] I don’t know. I’ve worked with Billy a few times now. I think back to that moment fondly.
What were the biggest challenges you faced with this project?
I think I always try to bring as much honesty as I can to whatever part I’m playing. You’re trying to get as comfortable as possible, and that’s always the overriding hope and worry: Let me just actually bring some life to this.
Are there things you enjoy about working in television, as opposed to the film world?
From a shooting standpoint, with television—with actual series, not limited series—you just have more time to enjoy it all. With movies, sometimes it feels like it’s over before you know it, and with some television…Like, this didn’t really feel like television. More so like making a movie. The same goes for Fargo; it just felt like making one really long movie at a pretty fast rate. But it all just depends on the story and the part and the people.
You have a number of promising projects lined up, including Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman. Looking forward, do you have any specific goals as an actor, in terms of roles you’d like to play or heroes you’d like to work with?
I’ve exceeded any hope or goal when it comes to working with your heroes. I feel like I exceeded that before the Scorsese thing, and now, it all just feels like a dream. As far as other roles I’d like to play, I just really want to keep learning. I’m always looking for something different, and I don’t know really what that is until it comes. I would like to eventually get into developing and creating something with friends.
Having worked with an elite group of directors, is directing something you see in your future?
I would love to. I don’t know when, and probably because of the fact that I’ve worked with so many great directors, I think I still have a lot more to learn. But it is something that I would love to do at some point. So we’ll see.