When actor Sebastian Stan first read the script for “I, Tonya,” the eccentric biopic about former figure-skating champion Tonya Harding, he felt terrified.
Stan was considering the part of Jeff Gillooly, Harding’s abusive ex-husband who was convicted in 1994 for the attack on rival figure skater Nancy Kerrigan. “How could I ever play this?” Stan wondered. There were scenes showing Gillooly physically abusing Harding, manipulating her after the Kerrigan attack, and ultimately ruining her skating career.
But there were also moments of raw passion between them and a protective, vulnerable side to Gillooly that was at odds with the punchline that he became: “To Gillooly” meant “to kneecap someone.”
“I know there are a lot of really disturbing things that are happening in the movie,” Stan said in an interview. “Looking at the script, without trying to make any other judgments on the real people, what really came across to me was someone who was in love with this person to perhaps obsessive points, to a point where it was not healthy necessarily. But the same unhealthy, toxic love was coming from her towards him.”
“I, Tonya,” directed by Craig Gillespie from a screenplay by Steven Rogers, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last weekend and quickly became the most buzzed-about film as audiences cheered the eccentric, empathetic performances by Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding, Allison Janney as her caustic mother, and Stan as Gillooly. The film was reportedly picked up by Neon and 30West for about $5 million.
Stan, 35 years old, also plays Bucky Barnes (the Winter Soldier) in Marvel’s “Captain America” films co-starring Chris Evans, and he’ll reprise the role in the upcoming “Avengers: Infinity War.” He’ll also star in upcoming political drama “The Last Full Measure”.
He sat with MarketWatch to discuss “I, Tonya,” his indulgence in chocolate and books about space, and Bucky’s future in “Captain America.”
How did you approach Jeff Gillooly as a character? It seems easy to look down on these people, but you had to find the empathy for him.
The script had funny moments in it, it had scary moments, tragic moments. When I read the script I was like, “this cannot really be true.” I listened to the interviews that [screenwriter] Steven Rogers had with Tonya and Jeff, and I realized, “Oh my God, a lot of what was in the interviews is actually in the script.” Craig had a lot to do with it — the idea of tone, which was right from the beginning, the idea of something Fargo-esque about it. The sensationalism of it all. We had to play that along with finding anything that was grounding and that made it real. Things like breaking the fourth wall, talking to the camera, making the documentary-style approach — that helped a lot.
What were your thoughts on masculinity while playing him? There are times it seems he was trying to protect Tonya, even if his way of doing that was destructive.
I’m thrilled to hear that’s something you felt. I was sort of hoping for that. He was generally setting out to try and do the right thing but unfortunately was perhaps hindered and incapable by not having the tools to be able to do that in the right way. I think sometimes in life, we take things for granted. Not everybody has a psychologist in their mind that sits there and goes, “Do this, don’t do that.” Both of them are incredibly emotionally impulsive. It’s really unfortunate that sometimes, as is the case with Tonya obviously, we always tend to reflect the love that we get when we’re children. If you’re getting abandonment, if you’re getting abuse as a child, if you’re getting uncertainty when you’re a child, unfortunately you tend to look for that in your life later on and you think that’s love.
“You could say that they love too much. Sometimes maybe Jeff was coming from a place of, you love the thing that you have so much you’re squeezing it too hard. You gotta let it go. So anyway, that was a way in for me to something as opposed to trying to judge it and go “oh well, he’s a f-ing asshole and let’s just call it!”
Did you have to suspend judgment and just inhabit him?
There’s no judgment. You can’t judge a character, and you’re never going to always play characters that are morally sound or know right from wrong. Oftentimes it’s more entertaining to play characters that are living on the edge somewhere. With the exception of some of the villains on “Game of Thrones,” and a couple serial killers in our lifetime, people that even do horrible things tend to come from a place of serious need for love and care.
Are you a “Game of Thrones” fan?
I do like “Game of Thrones.” I really like it. I’m caught up. Now I gotta wait another year. What are they going to do? It’s so insane.
Is the vibe of “Avengers: Infinity War” different because so many characters from the universe are in it?
It’s always moving a year to two ahead, so everyone’s always growing. Which works because we grow as people also. So I would say they’re all a little bit different than when you’ve last seen them. The main players don’t go away. For me at least, having done two movies with [directors Joe and Anthony Russo] I feel like there’s a familiarity. I just come back and it kind of all still seems in the family.
You’ve played Bucky since 2010. There are rumors he’ll become Captain America.
It’s out of my hands. It’s out of my jurisdiction and that’s fine. But whatever decision they’ve got up next for me, I’m happy to comply.
What does the film “I, Tonya” mean to you at this point in your career?
If people are able to see past some preconceived ideas and find something relatable, something that they understand about the character, then I feel like my job is done. It’s always an exploration of trying to get better and trying to get deeper and commit more and challenge yourself. It just means more of going out there and finding the next thing that looks scary and terrifying.
What was your first job before acting?
Oh my god! My first job was in a movie theater. I worked at Cinema 6 in New City, New York. I was an usher. I sold popcorn. And then I moved into working for H&M (laughs).
What’s something you indulge in now?
Chocolate. I can’t ever get that out of my system. Really dark, German chocolate cake. Pizza’s pretty great, too. I buy a lot of books. I’m not as fast of a reader — I don’t get through them necessarily as fast as I should, but I like buying books. It’s been mainly non-fiction for the last couple years. Whether it’s history or biographies, I like learning about people and how they get to where they get. I like a lot of space stuff (laughs), stuff on how did the universe come to be? I’m definitely a nerd about [that].