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.”
His theater background may be partly to blame. Born in Romania and raised in Rockland County, New York, Stan was 15 when he enrolled in Stagedoor Manor, the Catskills summer camp for young thespians. From there he hired a manager and worked with Audrey Kaplan at Applause Theatrical Workshops, ending up at Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts. (Like any actor intent on keeping up with the times, he browsed Backstage interviews and casting listings all the while.)
The only way to learn on-camera technique, he continues, is just to do it. “The earlier that starts happening the better, because that’s its own entity. I would hear that word ‘green’ all the time those first few years, or ‘not enough experience,’ or ‘doing too much.’ ” In fact, for almost three years after college, Stan went out for countless acting gigs and booked approximately zero.
“Most of the people I admire as actors didn’t make it until their mid-30s: the Mark Ruffalos, the John Hawkeses of the world.” Still, how is brushing off years of rejection easy? Stan has one particularly grisly memory. “One of my first big auditions for a casting director in New York—who’s amazing, I’m not going to say their name—I walked into the audition, and they were on their computer doing an email.” He mimes typing, banging his fingers on the table. “The assistant was behind them. And I said ‘Hi,’ and they didn’t turn around. They said, ‘Yeah, go ahead.’ And then I read with the assistant, and the casting director didn’t even turn once! I was in the same room, they were continuing to type the email while I was in there doing it! Just brutal.”
But therein lies the actor’s key to success. “I always look at auditions as not even getting the job as much as I’m just trying to connect with this casting director so they remember me for next time,” he says. Patience and perseverance paid off: that same casting director, after at least 10 more auditions over the next two years, gave Stan his first significant job.
“Those beginning years, looking back, they could be really tough and painful and hurtful but there was something great about it. And once it’s gone, it’s gone.” As crazy as it sounds, there was a nowhere-to-go-but-up mentality that proved freeing in audition rooms and on the many self-tapes Stan would submit. “You have the opportunity to sometimes experiment more,” he says. “It was just, ‘Get a job, any job,’ and then you were so grateful to work.”
And work he did. Stan’s on-camera cred grew with appearances on the CW’s “Gossip Girl” and NBC’s “Kings,” and he made a buzzy Broadway debut in 2007 opposite Liev Schreiber in “Talk Radio.” After seeing that performance, an impressed Jonathan Demme wrote Stan a part in “Rachel Getting Married,” a collaboration that would resume with last year’s “Ricki and the Flash.” It was during production on “The Apparition” (a horror film Stan says received “like, 5 percent on Rotten Tomatoes”) that producer Joel Silver put him in the running for 2011’s “Captain America: The First Avenger.”
For Stan, breaking into the realm of blockbusters is about embracing that early struggle, rather than just enduring it. “Expectations,” he says, “really fuck you up. It’s OK to have dreams, it’s OK to have goals, in my opinion. But I really think it’s much more about the climb and the work you do on the way up. The climb is really hard and really rough, but it’s also the best part because there are still places to climb up to.” Given his momentum—working with Ridley Scott on “The Martian” and stealing scenes in Melissa Rauch’s “The Bronze”—and his passion for the process, it’s only a matter of time before Stan reaches the very top.
As he’s heading out to do more “Captain America” press, Stan recalls something his acting teacher and mentor Larry Moss told him after his graduation. “He said, ‘You’d better start loving that process—getting the job, working on the character. Start loving the experience much more than the result.’ ”
Even those horrific auditions?
“You don’t have to love the auditions, no,” he says with a laugh. “You just have to love what you’re auditioning for.”