Let’s say you’re playing an American soldier with severe post-traumatic stress disorder struggling to assimilate back into society. For the last several decades you’ve also been forcibly brainwashed to forget compassion and embrace violence to the point of desensitization, but memories of your old life as a decent man begin to emerge. Sounds like a juicy role for an actor, right?
These are the challenges facing Sebastian Stan in “Captain America: Civil War,” the newest comic-to-big-screen installment from Marvel Studios. Don’t be fooled by the whiz-bang action sequences and glossy production values of such blockbusters; actors playing superheroes must flex their acting muscles as much as those in prestige dramas—not to mention their literal muscles, too.
“When I go to work I don’t discriminate it as a comic-book movie,” says Stan over coffee at Manhattan’s the Gander. “It’s full-on commitment. That’s all you can do.” Stan and his Marvel Cinematic Universe co-stars, who include such awards season heavyweights as Mark Ruffalo, Tilda Swinton, and Michael Douglas, are using sheer talent to elevate the ostensibly lowbrow genre.
“Comic-book movies are mythology in a way, and there are a lot more parallels in them with what’s going on in the real world than people want to discuss,” Stan points out. His “Captain America” character, the Winter Soldier (né Bucky Barnes), for instance, is a scarred serviceman without a place to call home; Stan need only look at the state of veterans’ affairs today to take the role seriously. “A lot of these people come back and they don’t know how to function in the world anymore; the world is not embracing them in the same way. That was a big part of this character’s journey in this film: Understanding the world that he’s finally found himself in. How is he going to function there?”
This level of actorly preparation isn’t usually associated with sci-fi flicks raking in billions of dollars. “People have their own stigmas about it,” says Stan frankly. “I know when people are considering me for jobs sometimes it’s, ‘Well, you’re in a comic-book movie.’ And I’m, like, ‘But I’m killing myself to try to do the best I can!’ ”
“Sebastian embodies the notion of a hardworking actor,” says Joe Russo, who co-directed both “Civil War” and the franchise’s second installment, “The Winter Soldier.” “His level of commitment is fantastic. He really finds the greatest level of detail in his performance.” In establishing a middle ground between Bucky and the Winter Soldier, he says, Stan conveys volumes while saying very little. “It’s the hardest thing to do as an actor, to convey emotion and subtlety without speaking.”
Anthony Russo agrees. “He has to come up with such a complex inner life. I think when you see him perform the character you see that, you see the complexity in his eyes and his physicality. He tells an amazing story through all those tools.” It helps that on the big screen, he adds, Stan is easy on the eyes. “It’s that phrase: The camera really loves him.”
According to Stan, listening is one of his biggest challenges in front of the lens. He marvels at Marlene Dietrich’s ability to remain still and allow audiences to project emotion onto her. “The trick is to shut off your brain,” he says. “ ‘Be interesting! Do something interesting! You’re staying too long in the same angle!’ It has to be about courage and you have to deal with that part of your brain that likes to edit and censor you. Maybe some don’t have that. I, however, do.” Continue reading