On character projection and risk-taking: An evening with Sebastian Stan

May 15, 2021, 11:38 p.m.

Sebastian Stan, most well-known for his role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) as Bucky Barnes (The Winter Soldier), spoke at a Stanford Speakers Bureau (SSB) and Cardinal Nights event on Saturday. You may have heard about the event from the SSB Instagram. Or maybe you had no idea who Stan was and only heard about it from a mega-fan on social media harassing you for your Stanford login. Either way, Stan was a true delight, and shared valuable reflections on professional acting and the prescience of MCU’s most recent installment, “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” (TFATWS).

In TFATWS, which takes place after the events of  “Infinity War” and “Endgame,” all characters undergo a reeducation, similar to what many experienced in this past year of social isolation, civil unrest and political upheaval. Stan’s character, Bucky, is healing from trauma, going to therapy and trying to come to terms with the past. As MCU citizens were forced to do after “The Blip,” in the wake of COVID-19, we are reacclimating to a strange new world. And of course, this show is one of the few in the MCU to highlight social justice issues, specifically racism in the United States. (The scenes touching on these subjects, Stan reveals, were not reactionary to Black Lives Matter Protests. Rather, they were already in the script before they halted production due to the pandemic.)

To Stan, the show asks the right questions, discussing what being Captain America means, who should hold that title, what it has stood for in the past and what it stands for now.

“You grow up with these stories [about the American Dream], and then you go, okay, but now what?” Sebastian Stan asked upon reflecting on the messages of the show. “Where does that take us now? Sometimes [those stories] feel like weights around your ankles as you’re walking forwards into the future.” 

Given his commitment to the show’s structure as well as his seeming personality parallels with his iconic character, it may come as a surprise that Stan was not initially interested in the role of Bucky. He instead auditioned for the role of Captain America, which went to Chris Evans. Still, even with the shield being passed on to Anthony Mackie’s character, Sam Wilson (The Falcon), Stan wouldn’t change anything about his character nor does he believe Bucky should be Captain America. He is ultimately grateful to Marvel for giving him his real big break with the character, and credits his MCU debut with opening many subsequent professional doors for him. 

“At the time I was just excited to have a job,” Stan said. “I didn’t think it was going to lead to me playing this character for 10 years, or that it’d be such a big part of my life.” 

As with many actors who play one character for an extended period, Stan has contributed significantly to Bucky’s character development. Not only did he originate the role, but he has since introduced many of Bucky’s most idiosyncratic qualities, including what Stan calls his “grumpy old man” humor. Stan shared that the focus on finding Bucky’s humor in TFATWS was instrumental to establishing Bucky and Sam’s dynamic. As many viewers know, their polar personalities are what keeps their growing relationship so engaging. 

Reflecting on Bucky’s typing as the old grumpy man, Stan joked, “Anthony Mackie was anything but that.” 

In their interviews together, Stan and Mackie sometimes seem to replicate the dynamic between Bucky and Sam — the mysterious introvert and the bubbly extrovert. One question from the event’s audience even inquired about a comment Mackie once made about Stan’s preference for socializing with his plants over other people. 

“Our relationship is this,” Stan said in response. “Remember when you were very young and someone from your neighborhood would knock on your door and ask your mom ‘can you play?’ Anthony Mackie is very upset that I won’t hang out with him because he’s [this] exhausting on a regular basis.” 

Many MCU fans find the similarity between the actors’ and the characters’ friendships comedic. However, Stan also reflected on a more sincere note about the difficulty of getting out of character.  He shared about his own challenges maintaining a strong sense of self while also endeavoring as an actor to understand all the complex interiority of his assigned role. Compounding this struggle are the expectations of an actor’s fans to maintain the fictions onto which they cling so tightly. 

“It can be difficult when the reality catches up to the fantasy of what [fans] project, what we see,” Stan said. “We tend to forget about the people behind these characters.” 

As an introvert, Stan depends strongly on quality time alone and a touch of transcendental meditation to keep him grounded. But his physical distance from Hollywood has also been a critical measure for resisting the wormhole of performance and artifice that defines it. He currently lives in New York. 

“One of the reasons I’ve always valued staying in New York is I never understood the [entertainment] business [of Los Angeles] entirely, and I never really wanted to,” Stan reflected. “I think Hollywood just goes towards what they think they need to do at the moment — it’s not a good compass. Living in New York has always grounded me.” 

Despite his frustrations with the questionable value system of Hollywood, though, Stan shared that America has always been a symbol of opportunity for him. Stan grew up in communist Romania, and his parents struggled to find their way out of the country to search for a better life. 

“It was by many circumstances along with real hard work that this is where I ended up,” he remarked. “I always credit my mom with that resilience.” 

Although as a Romanian immigrant he was not always comfortable in his own skin, he held tightly to the ideas of freedom and possibility that motivated his own parents to move, and he remains grateful for the life he’s led in America. In response to a question about how his Romanian identity has changed as he’s advanced in his career, he said “It’s an ongoing relationship. I’ve been more connected to Romania in the last five years than I have ever before, but it was a journey.” 

Leaps of faith like his family’s immigration to America have continued to define Stan’s career. He shared in the audience Q&A that he is often drawn to projects with famed actors because he knows it will elevate his own performances. From historical icons to superheroes, Stan’s characters have taught him that when it comes to taking on a role, an actor must be adaptable and relentlessly bold. 

“There’s no textbook to it,” he said. “Every project is its own animal. My number one thing is if it really terrifies me then that’s the way to go.”

As an actor, taking these risks, however, he has vast experience with negative feedback. When asked about rejection, something everyone goes through, Stan’s reply was that it is a tool that can drive you. There’s some equilibrium needed to be maintained, of course, between the negative feelings stirred by criticism and the positive feelings to be resilient in the face of that criticism.

“If one of them is overpowering the other, then it’s going to be difficult,” Stan said. 

To conclude the evening, a student asked which of his characters would get into and/or attend Stanford. His response: 

“None of them. They don’t seem to be that bright — I haven’t played that character yet.”

Malia Mendez ’22 is the Vol. 260 Managing Editor of Arts & Life at The Stanford Daily. She is majoring in English with a concentration in Creative Writing, Prose track. Talk to her about Modernist poetry, ecofeminism or coming-of-age films at mmendez 'at' stanforddaily.com.Kyla Figueroa ‘24 is the former Vol. 260–262 Managing Editor for The Grind, the 263 Screen DE for Arts & Life, and a staff writer for News. Throw pitches and questions her way — kfigueroa ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

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