By Elle Morris
Photography by Jim Wright
There’s a sense, when you’re watching celebrities on the red carpet at the premiere of their newest blockbuster, that they’re as comfortable in front of screaming legions of fans as they might be sitting on their couch at home. There’s also a sense that they enjoy standing there, squinting under flashing lights and deafened by photographers crying out for their attention–and may even be basking in it.
Not so for Sebastian Stan. The evening I spoke to him was also the evening premiere of Captain America: Winter Soldier in LA. Although he was about to take a turn on the red carpet himself, he didn’t seem to know what to feel about the madness about to ensue.
“It’s not a normal thing,” Sebastian says of the red carpet experience. “You just see all the fans that have gathered and they’ve been there since…I don’t know what hour. And it’s one of the best feelings in the world.”
That’s not to say he takes the feeling as his Moment of Arrival. “I find that if feels better always being on the chase, as opposed to feeling like you’ve never arrived somewhere. Because arriving somewhere also means kind of an end… If anything you’ve arrived at one point and then it just sort of begins again.”
(We’ll see how it feels after Captain America: The Winter Soldier, catapults his name even farther into the Marvel fandom than Captain America: The First Avenger did.)
Sebastian Stan has had his share of beginnings. He’s lived in several countries. As a kid he grew up in Romania then moved to Vienna and finally New York when he was 12. While New Yorkers might have grown up playing Captain America with their friends, Captain America was never on Sebastian’s radar. “I didn’t even grow up with comic books,” he says. “I grew up in Communism. I think that’s the bigger coincidence–that I ended up playing somebody that has a red star on their shoulder.”
“[The move] was a long time ago,” he adds, “but at the same time I feel like it was the right age because I adapted pretty quickly. I had an accent and I was also so self-conscious–some people feel I still have an accent. But it got me to where I am today, and I’m happy it happened the way it happened.”
Sebastian still calls New York home–largely because he was just more accustomed to the urban way of life, as opposed to sort of more suburbia, spread-out type living. “For me it’s as simple as that, it’s just where we came when me and my family came to this country.”
From the first play he ever performed in, Sebastian knew that acting would be his calling. Since then he’s made it his business to be a triple threat: acting on television (Political Animals), on stage (he played Hal Carter in William Inge’s Picnic last year), and now stepping up to put his focus on film. When asked if he has a preference for a particular media platform, he pauses thoughtfully before deciding.
“They have their own challenges… I don’t necessarily prefer one over the others. At the moment, the movie experience is something I’m currently more focused on. But at the end of the day, it comes down to the material. … If it’s something I read and really respond to, or just get a feeling like ‘I have to somehow do this’, I gauge it by that.”
Flawed and conflicted characters are his preferred ones–as they often are with actors, and it’s easy to see why. “It’s sort of like going to a restaurant,” he says, “You have a menu… and you see all the things you can order; and you’re asking the waiter, ‘Hey, what’s in that? What kind of sauce is that? How do you cook that?’ It’s like wanting to order the richest thing [on the menu]. Rich characters are perfect characters. They’re always swinging to either side of the pendulum…” He chuckles and rushes to assure: “It doesn’t mean they would ever be fun to live in real life; I definitely beg to differ on that.”
Flawed? Conflicted? Rich? These adjectives certainly describe several of the characters Sebastian has graced us with – TJ Hammond and Bucky Barnes most definitely included. Not only because of the characters but also the space which they occupy. Concerning TJ, Political Animals followed the life of a prominent political family and all their personal troubles–and how those troubles, TJ’s in particular, followed them into the public spotlight.
“We live in a world where celebrity culture is really massive… For [TJ], [coming up with his character] was more like, [looking at] some of these kids of really public figures that end up taking the weight [of their parents’ public lives] and how they deal with it.”
And while living the very near-to-real life of a political celebrity through that experience doesn’t mean that Sebastian is going to run for office any time soon, it did give him more to think about when it comes to our politicians and political activism. “I have my perspectives and opinions,” he notes, “And as I get older I’m finding myself feeling like there’s more and more responsibility on my part as an individual to be present to the times, know what’s going on, pay attention, and to really have a point of view. But I have to remember that acting is a job and it’s separate from that. I don’t believe in necessarily mixing them.” Still, he continues, “I do believe that. Like, for example, I do believe that when you have that ability to reach out to so many people you absolutely should.”
With his increasing involvement in the Marvel Universe, Sebastian is certainly in for a much wider audience within his reach–since he comes to us from his great career on the small screen, and the craziness that came with comic fandom was sudden. “You’re in a football field as opposed to being at a ping-pong table,” he laughs, “You’re aware of it, you’re aware of what it is that you’re playing with, but at the end of the day you just gotta concentrate on doing your job.”
With a mental approach to such a huge change like that, it’s safe to say that Sebastian won’t be letting his new-found audience get to his head. In fact, he takes every job very seriously and does a lot to make sure he’s always self aware.
“I used to have this rule for myself that I would never go watch playback or a take we just shot,” he says thoughtfully, “and then I realized that I sort of should just get over that–you do learn about yourself when you watch playback. It’s not always my favorite thing; I’m always a little too self-critical but I do think there’s a benefit to [it].”
Watching playbacks and listening to the director has given him a bit of a taste for the process, but he doesn’t expect to be taking on a new role. “I have thought about it because I think everyone that’s an actor can’t help but think about it. A director has more control… But I’m not ready for that yet, I know that. I’m still trying to work on myself as an actor.”
And like many actors, Sebastian also gauges his character choices by depth of the material. Watching your average summer blockbuster film for a decent storyline can be an exercise in futility these days – advancements in CGI have made it so easy to dazzle visually that the writers have shirked their responsibility to develop a plot. Fortunately, for fans of the first installment, Captain America: The Winter Soldier offers a novel surprise for its audience.
“I have to say there’s actually very little CGI in this movie… Everything was kind of happening around us, which was really cool because you don’t always get that opportunity… There’s sometimes very much of a gap between, ‘well this movie is just an action movie, and this movie is a gritty, indie-drama.’ I think [Winter Soldier] has the right mix of story with action.”
Action indeed–as with any good superhero film, Winter Soldier promises hand-to-hand fighting, explosions, fire, car chases, more explosions, and plenty of guns. (It’s All-American Captain America versus best friend Bucky with a Red Star on his shoulder, after all.) It can be a good time for everyone, but it can also make the film a target–and the actors along with it–for those who believe media consumption to be the root of the uptick in gun violence that has plagued the US in the last five years. The idea that actors are responsible for violence because they take part in such provocative movies isn’t one that sits well with Sebastian.
“Two people can look at the same thing and one can go ‘Oh my god that was amazing!’ and the other can go ‘Wow, that’s really glorifying war and death.’ I feel like that’s more of a question for the filmmaker and the director… As an actor, I can’t walk into a project with a perspective or a judgement like that. I have to remove myself and do justice to what my job calls for.” But he does agree that the bigger the actor, the more choice they have in the roles they play. “I think there are situations, when you get to a level and are a big enough actor, that maybe you can go ‘as an actor [I] have the choice, so why [am I] picking those movies? Why [am I] picking those roles?’ Maybe then it’s more about what the actor’s take is.”
Captain America: Winter Soldier gave Sebastian the chance to brush up on his stuntman skills (which he’s previously gotten to show off in The Covenant). “We worked really hard for 3 months learning fight sequences and close combat and everything. It was kind of grueling, and it was really hard. It’s just repetition; you basically have to have a lot of patience for doing the same thing over and over again.” There’s a caveat, of course, when it comes to an actor doing his own stunts. “No film company is ever gonna want to insure me jumping up on a car that’s gonna drive 120 miles down a highway,” Sebastian laughs. “The thing is when you do get to do some stuff and you put the work in and you see it end up in the movie, it’s a good feeling–depending on the stunt.”
(Permissible stunts apparently do not include being laid flat on his back by co-star Scarlett Johansson, or skydiving without a parachute.)
Between a level head that’s always on the look out for new challenges, his determination to better himself as an actor, and his willingness to keep moving forward to the next project–it may not be long before film companies are happy to insure Sebastian for anything. And with Winter Soldier on track to solidify his spot in the current canon of celebrity fame, chances are they’ll want to get a head start.