Jesse Plemons boldly takes on Shatner for 'Black Mirror's' Space Fleet episode

"There’s so much that can happen in one scene," Jesse Plemons says of his "Black Mirror" episode, "USS Callister." "It can be lighthearted and funny, and then in the next beat something turns and it’s very dark." (Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times)

Jesse Plemons first made his bones on “Friday Night Lights” as the bighearted, slightly hapless teenager Landry. He was such a natural that his next notable role, as the amiable psychopath Todd in “Breaking Bad,” was a disturbing surprise to fans.

“I feel like there’s very little in between for me,” the actor says, sitting in the Netflix offices in Hollywood. “They’re either wholesome, all-American nice guys or twisted, sociopath murderers.” He considers Ed, in “Fargo’s” second season, as one of the former, despite some questionable actions. “He was without a doubt slightly brainwashed by love, but he had fully absorbed the idea of the American dream, at all costs.” Plemons was nominated for an Emmy for “Fargo,” as was his costar and now-fiancée, Kirsten Dunst. (Their son Ennis was born in May.)

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With his star turn as Robert Daly in “USS Callister,” the first episode of Season 4 of the Netflix anthology series “Black Mirror,” Plemons goes where even he hasn’t gone before. “Callister” revolves around a gaming genius who gets no respect at the company he co-founded. He takes it out on digital copies of his colleagues in a private sci-fi video game inspired by his favorite show, “Star Fleet,” a clear homage to “Star Trek.” Capt. Daly reigns over his crew with ceaseless cruelty and a terrific William Shatner impression. The episode was nominated for four Emmys, including one for Plemons as the captain in his own head.

Let’s talk about that voice. Had you watched “Star Trek” before?

No, I was never really into sci-fi. So I went down a rabbit hole and probably watched every moment of Shatner and “Star Trek.” I found myself surprised to just enjoy the theatrics and the stakes of it, hearing that he was a Shakespearean trained actor, and seeing that he obviously approached that show as if it were as holy as Shakespeare. I can’t think of many things that were as fun to play around with. My favorite YouTube video that I came across was his reading of “Rocket Man.”

The song?

Yes! When we leave here, you need to look that up. I’m now obsessed with William Shatner.

You also assumed some of his physicality.

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Jesse Plemons in a scene from "Black Mirror." (Netflix)

Well, I’ll tell you one other tidbit. There’s no genitalia in “Space Fleet,” so all of us, well all of the men, were wearing these very tight, um, bulge removers. And we were trying to do what we could to differentiate between Capt. Daly and real Daly, so I was wearing this girdle as well, which definitely helped with my posture.

How did you create real Daly?

We shot most of the “Space Fleet” scenes first, and that type of character was something that I really hadn’t quite had the chance to play before, and it was so much fun. Two weeks later, when I got to the hair and makeup for real Daly, it was a serious comedown. The first day, we shot the majority of sequences in his apartment and the sequence when we first see him walking through the office, and everyone either makes fun of him or overlooks him; there was something about that day where it changed.

I think that’s the great thing about all “Black Mirror” episodes — it really leaves you with this feeling of not knowing how to feel. Because in a lot of ways I can imagine and try to understand what that feels like, to be overlooked, and there’s a part of me that’s like, thank God he had this game, because if not he might have been living these fantasies out in the real world. Really, he just needed to talk to someone.

Had you watched “Black Mirror” before signing on?

No, I read the first scene of “USS Callister” before I watched the show, and was really confused. It was not what people had told me the show was — it seemed just like a knockoff of “Star Trek.” So I put it down and watched a few episodes and thought, holy … this is all of my worst nightmares.

Sign me up!

Yeah, I’m in! I picked it back up and got to the second scene and was immediately in. It’s one of the strangest opportunities I’ve ever had. I’m always excited about something totally unique and fresh.

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This is a funnier episode than most of “Black Mirror’s”; the humor and horror are welded together.

There’s so much that can happen in one scene: it can be lighthearted and funny, and then in the next beat something turns and it’s very dark.

Why are you mustachioed right now?

Another bad guy. I’m playing an evil prince in the Disney movie “Jungle Cruise.”

Now that you’re a father, how do you juggle work and family?

It’s definitely tricky to take the first step back in. But at the same time it also kind of simplifies things, in the way that it forces you to deal with what’s in front of you in the moment, which is good. Obviously, it makes leaving much more difficult. But I’m very lucky.

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