“I’m haunted by that movie Birdman,” Sebastian Stan tells me as we sit in a hotel room at the Los Angeles Four Seasons while the press day for Captain America: Civil War unfolds around us. Based on the number of men and women with headsets stationed near doors, you’d think there was a head of state in town — and really, how far off is that comparison? The Avengers actors aren’t running any nations, but they do represent Disney’s flagship franchise, one so elaborate they had to invent a term for it: a cinematic universe. By the time Civil War leaves theaters, this universe will have made Disney $10 billion worldwide; knowing that, the pomp and circumstance doesn’t seem so overblown.
Stan, who plays Bucky Barnes, a.k.a. the Winter Soldier — namesake of the second Captain America movie and an even bigger part of this new one — is clearly trying to wrap his head around this superhero life. Thus, the reference to Birdman: a movie about an actor attempting to erase the memories of his superhero alter ego by staging a serious play; a movie in which an actor’s superhero alter ego follows him like a ghost, reminding him it’s the hero people want to see, not the washed-up actor and his play; a movie that exists as a rebuke to the tights-clad tentpoles that have taken over the industry. This seems like a matter for a licensed therapist, not one of the revolving door of journalists coming through press day. Is Stan worried that his alter ego, the Winter Soldier, will overtake Sebastian Stan, the actor?
“I think that depends on what choices you make as an actor in your time off," he explains. "But it’s an interesting — I love how in Birdman, it talks so much about where the persona ends and when the person and the character become the same thing. Because I’ve seen that happen with certain people. Certain characters become so popular, right, because people just love to see them.”
It’s a valid consideration for a guy like Stan, who has chops and experience and was certainly not raised with the expectation of becoming a movie star. Born in Romania, Stan made his way to the United States by the age of 12 and studied at Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts, including a year at Shakespeare’s Globe Theater in London. After school, he did work on the stage, including a run with Liev Schreiber in Eric Bogosian’s Talk Radio — here’s Stan doing a Bogosian monologue — as well as on film and TV, highlighted by a recurring role on Gossip Girl and parts in Black Swan and Rachel Getting Married.
Schreiber and Stan have both now done stints in the superhero-industrial complex (the former played Sabretooth in the X-Men movies), a testament to its stranglehold on the industry; it doesn’t get much farther from Marvel than Bogosian. But Stan sees this as a good thing, a testament to the work actors have done in these films, which, he believes, are growing increasingly more sophisticated and nuanced, better able to both satisfy a wide range of audiences and deliver a quality product on their own. His work in Civil War is a great example: He provides a sort of case study for these heroes’ contradictions, a well-meaning superhuman who, when he falls under the wrong influences, becomes a weapon of mass destruction.
“It’s always the actors like the Heath Ledgers, people that go against the grain, who kind of change that up,” Stan says in explaining why he thinks the relationship between actors and these roles have changed. “I mean, Christian Bale — I never think of him as Batman. That was just a part. He’s done all these other things that make you think of him in different ways.”
Stan’s preoccupations make sense, then. In person — or at least in the measure of a person you can get in the 12 minutes you spend with them in a hotel room while a publicist watches you talk — he’s witty, charismatic, genuine; he asks me to tell him what I thought of Civil War, honestly, and he compliments my jacket. We discuss the beards of his co-stars Paul Rudd and Chris Evans. “It’s funny seeing Chris do the press tour all the time, because I get it. I know why he grows that beard," Stan says. "You want to remind people, like, hey! I’m a person!”
And while Stan's set to feature in I’m Dying Up Here, the Jim Carrey–produced Showtime series focused on the ’70s comedy scene in L.A. (Stan really wanted to work with Jonathan Levine, who directed the pilot), his slate going forward is mostly blank. It will certainly be filled with more work in the MCU, with which he’s now been involved for six years, ever since he took the role of Barnes after missing out on Cap. But, beyond that, he has the freedom to establish a post-Winter Soldier Stan. Or, as he sees it, the burden to do so.
“Everything they told me when I got cast in 2010 is coming to fruition,” Stan says. He then wonders about the future of the Marvel movies after Civil War, and the responsibilities that fall to the Russo brothers and MCU architect Kevin Feige: “What the fuck are you going to do now? Where are you going to take this thing now?” The same question could be asked of Stan — only he’s the one asking it.