There are a lot of appearances by Breaking Bad alums in Netflix’s El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, but perhaps none is more surprising than Jesse Plemons. And the surprise isn’t the mere presence of the dearly departed sociopath Todd, rather how much of a presence he is, virtually serving as the second most prominent character and turning a good chunk of El Camino into what Plemons jokes is a “buddy road trip movie.”
Like Bryan Cranston’s Walter White and Jonathan Banks‘ Mike Ehrmantraut, Todd is brought back from the dead via flashbacks by Breaking Bad creator and El Camino writer-director Vince Gilligan. Unlike those other more iconic characters from the series, Todd hangs around past just one scene, as we spend a day with prisoner Jesse and Neo-Nazi Todd, who killed Jesse’s girlfriend in front of him and who Jesse will eventually strangle to death. What starts as Todd asking Jesse for a favor while Uncle Jack and the rest of the crew is out of town leads to a trip inside Todd’s Easter-like apartment, where they will dispose of his Hispanic maid who was killed for finding money in volume M of his encyclopedia set (“I wonder what she was looking up…M for Mexico maybe?”). They will then journey into the desert to bury her, and to show how truly broken Jesse is during this period. After Todd says a few words about the deceased, he sends Jesse to grab some cigarettes from the car’s glove box, where he also finds a gun. Holding it firmly in his grasp, Jesse eventually hands the gun over to Todd after being promised a night of pepperoni pizza and beer. With Jesse in tears, Todd wraps his arm around the man whose life he’s made a living nightmare.
To learn more about his extended return, EW chatted with Plemons, who went on to memorable roles in Fargo and Black Mirror after Breaking Bad, about his “confusion” upon learning of El Camino, whether Todd was testing Jesse, and the “unfortunate” discovery that Todd was still lurking inside of him.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was your first reaction when you found out Vince Gilligan was working on El Camino and wanted you back?
JESSE PLEMONS: Surprise and confusion were the main feelings. It’s just something that I never expected to happen. I remember really well the day that Todd was strangled, and I never imagined to step into Todd’s crazy shoes again. I was working in Atlanta on something and had missed a few calls from a number that I didn’t recognize, and I just assumed that it was a telemarketer and sort of picked up frustrated and then heard Vince and [producer] Melissa’s [Bernstein] voices and they told me they had an idea. I was very intrigued, and the script was even better than I could have anticipated.
You were surprised to get that call to begin with, so were you even more surprised at how much of a presence Todd was going to be? A lot of Breaking Bad alums came back for like one scene, while you’re out here almost in a Todd-Jesse buddy film.
Yeah, buddy road trip movie. I assumed it was a scene or two and was surprised to find out that it’s a significant part of the movie. I didn’t really think I had too many more questions about Todd that needed answers, but, then, in reading the script, my mind just started racing all over again. I feel like there were pieces of Todd that I hadn’t really thought about. The relationship with Jesse was one where there were a lot of great scenes from the show, but it was a different side of Todd, and I think it was one of his happier days, just getting to spend the day with his good pal Jesse — never mind the unfortunate task they had to do. But it was always so much fun.
How do you view that Todd and Jesse relationship? It really does seem like Todd genuinely likes Jesse, and maybe even looks up to him a bit.
I think it’s kind of like a man’s best friend situation. [Laughs] I really think he looks at Jesse with some admiration and feels close to him, because he’s probably been more honest to him than most people. I wasn’t sure if I was going to talk about this, but, while we were shooting the show, I got a dog that is getting old now, but I kind of viewed Jesse with the sort of characteristics of my dog, and I think in the same sense of a dog not knowing what’s best for him, like, “You do need me, you may not realize it.” And also, Todd did save Jesse’s life. So it’s almost like best friends and a dog and owner-type relationship.
That’s an interesting comparison, especially with thinking about one of my favorite scenes, which was them out in the desert burying Todd’s maid. Todd asks Jesse to grab some cigarettes from the glove box, and Jesse finds a gun, Todd talks him into putting it down via promises of beer and pepperoni pizza. How did you view that scene? Was Todd testing his prisoner? Or did he just forget about the gun?
Someone else asked me if I thought it was a test. I didn’t read it like that. I think Todd actually slipped up because he was having such a nice time, and then was genuinely hurt that Jesse would pull a gun on him. But, I feel like however anyone wants to take it, go for it.
What was it like getting back into the mindset of Todd? It’s been six or seven years since you last played him, and I was struck rewatching some of the final season episodes how young you were. And, like anyone, you’ve grown through different experiences and just the fact of getting older.
You can say it: I look different. [Laughs] There’s obviously an innocence with Todd, but once I spent some time with the script and watched some of those scenes from the last few seasons to just remember who Todd was and talked to Vince, I was surprised at how easy it was to slip back into. It was a long time ago, but it was a very big part of my life. The scripts were so well-written and so vivid and in a lot of ways it felt like we picked up right where we left off. But I was fairly nervous that first day, just to see if I could do it again. It took a few takes, but fortunately — or unfortunately — Todd was still lurking in there somewhere.
What do you like about playing Todd? Like you said, he has this innocence to him despite all of the terrible things he’s done. That’s on full display in one of the best small moments when he’s driving out to the desert and he signals to a trucker in hopes of getting him to honk.
I like the fact that he’s so hard to peg or define. As I was saying, about feeling closure at the end of the series and not feeling like I had too many more questions about him, but then reading the script, I was all of a sudden flooded with questions about Todd. He’s a person who the more you look into, the more confusing he becomes. Obviously, he’s stunted and missing some critical piece that allows him to understand the weight of his actions. He does show empathy at times, but then at other times if it’s justified in his mind for whatever reason it’s really plain. He’s got some sort of survival instinct; I’m sure his childhood was not what anyone would want. I love the sort of rabbit hole you can go down in trying to figure him out.
You’ve played so many different types of characters over your career so far, but do you find a Todd or Robert in Black Mirror, these hard-to-peg people who aren’t a traditional protagonist, to be more interesting to play?
Definitely. Even starting with Friday Night Lights, what I was drawn to with Landry, especially in high school movies and shows, is it’s tough to get past stereotypes. He was not a nerd as you’ve seen before, he was his own unique person, and I’m drawn to that, characters you haven’t seen before and you can’t put in a certain box and write off and know them entirely.
You mention Friday Night Lights, between that and Breaking Bad, you’ve been a major part of two all-time great shows, and early in your career. So, with some distance now from when you worked on them, is it surreal to think about how lucky you’ve been?
Yeah, I think I should retire soon — quit while I’m ahead. I have no idea how it happened. Right place, right time, right part, right time. It’s just such incredible training ground being on a series like Friday Night Lights or Breaking Bad; it definitely shifted my focus and perception of what I thought acting was. I learned so much on both of those shows.
Speaking of incredible training grounds, you’re in The Irishman (streaming Nov. 27 on Netflix), which has premiered to rave reviews. What was that experience like working with so many legends? Just looking around and seeing Martin Scorsese and Al Pacino and Robert De Niro.
It’s like having a ticket to the Legendary Movie Mobsters Ball every day. Again, it’s just crazy the endless difference a day and a phone call can make and just totally alter your life in a matter of seconds. It’s really difficult to describe. I’m still a little speechless over the whole experience if you can’t tell. I was really excited to find that, aside from the incredible actors they are and the unbelievable director that Scorsese is, they’re all extremely welcoming and do their best to put everyone at ease. It was just so much fun to be a fly on the wall and watch some takes during scenes that I wasn’t in. I’ll never forget a second of it.