Sebastian Stan is a humble man. Humble to a fault. One couldn’t imagine a superhero from the Marvel Cinematic Universe played by such a down-to-earth, unassuming man. But since 2010, Stan has played Captain Bucky Barnes, who had his big break as a leading character in Captain America: Winter Soldier. Maybe that’s how Marvel and Disney trick us into seeing these movies: they hire nuanced, thoughtful actors and not just action stars. Resistance is futile.
This year is shaping up to be a big one for Sebastian Stan, with new roles where he gets to show his acting chops, such as his turn in I, Tonya, where he plays the scheming husband of the title character, and a lead role opposite Nicole Kidman in Destroyer. Although he lives in New York, Stan frequently travels to Los Angeles for work, and it is during one of his westward treks that we caught up with him, in the penthouse of the Shangri-La, a luxurious beachfront Santa Monica hotel.
You’re originally from Romania. It’s a country sometimes viewed as the Latin country of Eastern Europe. Do you have a bit of Latin/romantic in you?
Yes. I was born there and I left when I was eight. Then I lived in Austria for four years and then I came to the US in 1995.
I’m originally from France. Romanian is also a Latin language, like French.
Romanian is a little bit closer to Spanish and Italian, with some Slavic stuff added. I’d say the filmmaking there is seemingly close to French style. It’s sort of deep. Tragic stories about suffering! (Laughs) It’s like the real life. I’m a fan. I love a lot of foreign movies. I’m trying to reeducate myself of what’s going on there, and I’ve watched more Romanian movies lately.
Are they offering you parts over there?
No. I’m actually going back. First time I’m going back since 2004. It has been 14 years. I still speak the language fluently, although I have an accent. I’d like to find something one day potentially to reconnect. That’s the plan. I’m going back for their film festival. It’s nice to have I, Tonya screened there. It’s a good reason to go. One of my goals is to meet with these filmmakers, get to know them. You never know. We’ll start a conversation.
I read your mum is a pianist. Did that play a part in you choosing an artistic path for your career?
I don’t know. When we were in Austria for a little bit of time, in her mind she had always seen me as a creative type. She was pushing me a little bit towards acting, taking me to some open calls. She used to get a kick seeing me imitating people. I didn’t like it. I was in this tiny series when I was in Vienna, very briefly. I hated it. I hated the fact you had to be on the spot, you had to wait around to work. I was like “back off, leave me alone”. I rediscovered it on my own when I was a teenager in New York. I’m glad I did it later. I think she wanted me to discover it by myself.
What was it like to arrive in New York at 12 years old?
It was very weird. A lot of my childhood was kind of chaotic, moving around. But this is what life is – the life of an actor. You’re always moving, four months there, 10 months there. I’m kind of used to change; I crave it. I like relocating and going to a place I’ve never been and restart, get to know it. All that stuff is fun for me, when doing my job.
I think the first time you got some mainstream visibility was when you did the TV show Gossip Girl, right?
I did some things before that, but Gossip Girl, I think it was such a popular show; it was an unbelievable show. It was an amazing opportunity for me. First of all I was living in New York and it was shot in New York. I never thought my character would reoccur. Also one of my best friends was in it, Chace Crawford, so it was nice to reconnect with him. We were hanging out anyway, so it was like “let’s just go to work at the same time!”. I guess that was the first time that, here and there, someone was recognising me. I don’t think in the industry I was recognised for anything. But the show was so popular.
It was huge!
I forgot how popular it was. I think it was setting trends.
You’ve been playing Bucky Barnes for close to a decade now. How has playing the role of Captain Bucky Barnes changed your life?
Oh my God! I guess 2010 is when I started. It’s bizarre. It’s kind of strange! It’s certainly brought me a lot of exposure. I’m recognised here and there. It changed my life in many ways. From the perspective of having a lot of fans too. So many people coming up to you feeling they have a special bond to the character. It led to a lot of work opportunities as well, because of the exposure these movies have. It really catapulted me into the public eye, in a different way than I was used to. But in a nice way. I’ve been really grateful and lucky to come back and revisit that character over time. It’s even kind of strange to imagine what would life be without that character and without the people I’m playing with. It’s a giant family, Marvel, in a way. So you’re always looking forward to reconnecting with people, in a way. And you just hope it keeps going. I think to the outside world, it looks like they have a huge solution figured out: every movie’s a hit, every movie’s reviewed so well. But it’s really hard. I think every movie is created like it’s its first and last. That’s why it’s good. They’ve always come from a place of “let’s see what we can do with those characters”. It’s a big part of my life.
Was there anything that you wish you could have done differently for the role of Bucky Barnes, now that you know the character better?
No, I’m really ok with the way things went. I felt that at the time, I did the most I could do with what they gave me. The knowledge that I had was the potential of certain things, but not knowing 100% if it was going to happen. I have hope and I’m excited about the future of the character, but then again, that’s not up to me.
Do you think any of the aspects of the Marvel Cinematic Universe relate to real-world events? Like reflection about the role of government? Or is it true fantasy?
Look, I think it varies movie by movie, but there’s something to be said that these movies sometimes penetrate the real pulse of what’s going on. You can see it with Black Panther. It was not only a story that needed to be told, but it was something people wanted to see, needed to see. And there was a lot of themes that are prevalent to what’s going on today. So I think Marvel’s very smart with that kind of stuff, always finding a fine line between keeping you entertained and keeping you grounded so that you will be thinking of certain things. It’s an interesting time to have these movies now because they serve a lot of purposes. It’s almost like we really need heroes. We need leaders. There’s something subconscious there about the idea of feeling protected, feeling safe. Maybe these movies tap into something subconscious, into people’s desires, because we live in a scary world, it’s really terrifying out there. You turn your phone on and you’re shocked with all kinds of stuff, there’s another shooting, another attack, etc. I always think about one or two decades from now, when people will look back, how will they be looking at these movies and the pop culture of the time.
Are you surprised a movie like Captain America, which has very patriotic, “proud to be American” themes is doing so well overseas?
I think Captain America’s been sort of updated. He’s more relatable than people initially thought. He’s a man lost in time. He’s actually a very sad character. He’s trying to find his way. The ideals he grew up with and made him do the things he wanted to do are no longer applied the same way in the modern world. It goes to show that there’s something about these movies that transcends stereotypes and perspectives. Especially in Asia, in China, these movies are huge.
How has your relationship with all the other actors in the Marvel Cinematic Universe evolved over the past decade? Are you friends with some of them?
Oh yeah, for sure. I would say Chris Evans and Andy Mackie are probably the closest to me. Everybody gets along. I got to know different people this time around. I spent much more time with Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth and Scarlett Johansson. You said it’s been almost 10 years. You almost grow with those people. Some get married, some get divorced, some have kids, some moved houses. It feels like we come together, and a lot of things have happened since we’ve been in each other’s lives. It does feel like a family.
How do you think you would feel after the Marvel Cinematic Universe finally ends? Is it even going to end one day?
I don’t know. Everything ends and begins one way, but I don’t know. These movies are still bringing people to the theatre. Why go to the movie theatre when you have a nice plasma TV at home? You can watch it there. But I feel these movies are still serving that experience visually. You can watch on IMAX, with advanced sound technology. And a big part of this is that technology right now is so great to help those stories to be told. Ten to 20 years from now, you may be able to pick your favourite character and make him do whatever you want. Netflix may own a country at that point!
In I, Tonya, you play Tonya’s husband Jeff. Was it quite a departure? How did you get into character? Did the moustache help?
(Laughs) Anytime you have a moustache, it’s going to do something. People look at you, people look at it. It was just a great opportunity to do something different. It was fascinating because it was real people, they existed, they’re still alive. It was a wild story that always has some kind of weird mystique to it. You never know if that’s the truth. Or is there more? We may never know. But from an actor’s perspective, it was a great experience with an unbelievable cast, a really great director that I respected and taught me a lot. It was nice to lose yourself in the character. I enjoy being challenged and this was very scary for a lot of reasons, because he’s a live person and I’ve never played a live person before. He was a very controversial person. To this day I don’t really know the truth. Because based on her side of the story, he was loving at times, and then extremely abusive at others.
In the movie, he’s not really a villain…
No and that‘s the problem. I think in that movie, the villain is the American dream, in a way.
I thought the reason people liked that movie in the US is that even though the protagonists did some terrible things, in the end they wanted to win, and there’s nothing more American than this desire to win at all costs.
Exactly. And you see it with who is in office in the White House right now! That was very prevalent in our movie. And the winning aspect was exactly what you said. Everybody was obsessed with this idea of not being good enough, not having enough, got to do more, got to do this. And then something happened, and nobody knew how to react to it,
nobody was prepared. These were the people that grew up very poor, they didn’t have a great understanding of money, they didn’t have a great understanding of fame. But they wanted it. It’s also about abuse. Abuse happens early on, you learn, and keeps being repeated. And the people who are victims of abuse unfortunately grow used to the idea that there is some love attached to it, and continue to seek it later on. It’s about the message you’re telling your kids early on.
This fascination probably explains why the movie was named I, Tonya and not I, Nancy…
The title I, Tonya was inspired by the book I, Claudius, which is about the Roman emperor Claudius. It’s in our nature as people to be driven, to want to succeed. All these things are part of who we are. But what do we do with it? That’s ingrained. You could say, “How are we like that?” But go tell this to four generations back. Blame them! We’re still living very much in a time that’s been put in place decades ago.
I wonder if there has ever been an actor who did this to another actor to get a part they were both auditioning for…
(Laughs) Don’t put it out there! I’m sure there are people capable of it!
Are there any actors or directors whom you haven’t worked with and that you would like to work with in the future?
Of course. Andrew Garland is a director I was just talking about the other day. He’s incredible. Quentin Tarantino. I’d work with Sir Ridley Scott again in a second. I’d love to get a chance to work with Darren Aronofsky. Who wouldn’t work with Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg? Sometimes I’m worried about what’s going to happen when these guys are no longer around!
Can you tell me about the TV show you did a couple of years ago called I’m Dying Up Here?
It was a fun experience, it was a director I liked very much. It was based on a book about the Comedy Store in Hollywood. It was the ‘70s, guys like Jay Leno, Robin Williams – a world I knew nothing about. It wasn’t that comedic, it had some dark undertones. I love comedy. I’m still trying to figure out how I’m funny, how I’m not funny. It’s still a work in progress. But I’d love to be in a comedy one day. That would be amazing.
It seems your relationship with celebrity is somewhat ambivalent. Do you even want to be more famous? I talked to Justin Theroux last year and he is known for avoiding fame.
I’m definitely not seeking it. I like walking on the streets. I don’t know what it would be like to be someone who can’t walk on the streets. I have no idea what it would be like. I’d love to continue doing what I’m doing. Sometimes one is a by-product of the other. You can’t have your cake and eat it too, sometimes. I see it more of a responsibility than anything else.
Of course there’s pressure. But what are you doing with being famous? Who are you helping? Bring attention with you to certain causes? That’s how I think of it. Otherwise it’s just self-oriented.
Can you tell us about your other movies that will be released this year?
There’s one that I have just finished, which I was really happy about. It’s called Destroyer. That was a great experience that I was really happy with. Then there’s We Live in a Castle , which I filmed two years ago. It was a really nice experience, but a tricky film with a tricky story. In Destroyer, you can expect Nicole Kidman as you’ve never seen her before. I’ve never seen her play a part like this. She was unrecognisable in some scenes. It’s a really well-written script that was a bit twisted. It is set in Los Angeles and the city is a big part of it. The movie is about control and how we struggle with that. We all want control. Sometimes it’s also about who we present ourselves to be and who we really are. It’s a very interesting movie and I’m also excited because of the director, Karyn Kusama. She’s really talented.
Could you describe your own personal style? You’re a firm believer in letting your wardrobe do the work.
I try to not wear anything that has a log on it. Seemingly I like a lot of black, I like a lot of velvet. I like leather. I always seem to wear boots! I’m always learning about fashion. Especially this year. I got to wear Saint Laurent, Givenchy, Tom Ford – I was really lucky to wear some really cool brands. But I never discriminate between labels. It could be Hugo Boss or Coach. I’m much more of a visual person. If I see something that makes sense, I go for it.
Do you go to fashion week?
I did last year. It was great. I went to Tom Ford, Hugo Boss and Calvin Klein. They were all very different and unique. But it was cool, I liked it.
Is it easy to fit into the clothes after all the Marvel superhero training?
(Laughs) No, I’m not sure if I train as hard as I used to! Maybe it’s become part of my regular lie and I don’t not ice it anymore. Sometimes you have to lose weight, sometimes you have to gain weight. You just go with the job; the job just takes over.
You have millions of followers on Instagram. How did you develop your fanbase?
It’s always a learning lesson for me on social media. A lot of it happened with Marvel, obviously. I got on Instagram when the Winter Soldier movie came out, it was in 2014. It was strange. But now it’s become a really interesting way to be able to communicate with the fans. Sometimes a lot of people reach out and ask me questions or advice. And that’s always very fulfilling.
Today I had a blast visiting patients at @nyphospital Morgan’s Stanley’s Children’s hospital! Thank you for having me Aydin and Jacob! All in @marvelstudios #heroacts !! Help me and the cast of #infinitywar get to 1 million likes collectively on any of our #heroacts posts and Marvel and Disney will donate a quarter of a million dollars to @starlightchildrensfoundation !! #MarvelUnites #heroacts #Avengersinfinitywar
A post shared by Sebastian Stan (@imsebastianstan) on
What made you change your mind on social media? You used to not be on it.
I wasn’t on it because I didn’t think I was going to be good at it. I’m still trying to figure it out, in a way. I’ve figured out how to enjoy it, though. I have just realised it was a necessity, in a way. It was part of the way the world was going. When someone really explained it to me that it was a way to keep in touch with your fans, vice versa, that really opened it up for me. Before I thought, “What am I going to say?” At least now we have a connection.
How much do the fans mean to you?
Well none of this would happen without the fans. They’re the ones that go to the movies, they’re the ones that spend the money, they’re the ones that connect with those characters and relate to them. A lot of them put their hearts out and become vocal. I’ve had a lot of fans come up to me and tell me how much they relate to these characters, to the Winter Soldier, and how much he means to them. You need that support. That’s the feedback you’re looking for. Acting, to me, is an amazing experience. For me, personally, it’s gratifying. There’s a sense of release, a peace I get. But in the end, it’s a way to communicate something with somebody. That’s how I’ve always seen it. Here’s a character that’s going through this, maybe you’re related, maybe he’ll make you think about your life, make you question some of your decisions. How would you have acted in that scenario? It’s life on the screen!
Catch Sebastian Stan on the big screens in Avengers: Infinity War from April 25 onwards
Interview by Cezar Greif
Photography by Jeff Lipsky
Styling by Ise White
Grooming by Jamie Jandel
Production by Cool Hunt Inc