Some people listen to that little inner voice, the one that tells them to avoid danger, run away, play it safe. Sebastian Stan is not one of those people. “More and more as I’ve gotten older, when I read something that really kind of freaks me out a little bit and I get the voice that’s like, ‘Don’t ever go near this,’ then I’m more drawn to it as a result,” the actor said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “I find usually that fear is a good indicator of something that I have to sort of step into perhaps to understand better.”
While Stan is best known to most mainstream movie fans as Marvel’s Winter Solider aka Bucky Barnes (current MCU appearance tally: five starring roles in feature films, two cameo appearances, one voice role in the series “What If…?,” one starring role in the series “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier”), the actor’s career extends far beyond the superhero fray. When he’s not battling crime and inner turmoil on a global scale, Stan has built up an enviable body of work, including films from Karyn Kusama, Antonio Campos, Steven Soderbergh, Ridley Scott, and the late Jonathan Demme.
Even without a Marvel project in the offing — word on a second season of “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” has been mum — Stan’s 2022 has already been jam-packed. Hell, this month alone is crazy, between the final two episodes of Hulu’s well-reviewed limited series “Pam & Tommy” (starring Stan as Tommy Lee, plus a much-chattered-about prosthetic penis) and the Sundance horror hit “Fresh,” arriving this week on the streamer. Both projects offer very different Stans, just how he likes it.
“I feel like I’m just as anxious now about what do I do next as I was a few years ago,” Stan said. “I don’t know if that’s ever going to change, and I don’t know if I’m ever going to want it to change. I hate comfort. I don’t like to feel comfortable, work-wise. I feel it’s easy to get comfortable. I think it’s easy to get sort of trapped as an actor and to just do things.”
One common thread that has emerged over the last few years: Stan does his best work beside women, both in front of and behind the camera. “Pam & Tommy,” while created by Robert Siegel, has been directed by mostly women (Lake Bell, Hannah Fidell, and Gwyneth Horder-Payton all helmed episodes, in addition to Stan’s beloved “I, Tonya” director Craig Gillespie). Much of its emotional center comes from co-star Lily James, who turns in career-best work as Pamela Anderson. And “Fresh” is the first feature from Mimi Cave, in which Stan faces off against a compelling Daisy Edgar-Jones in a mix of rom-com and cannibal horror that earned many fans when it debuted at Sundance in January.
“I’ve certainly felt that the work that I’ve done opposite some of these incredible actresses has been the best work that I’ve done,” he said. “It all sort of started with ‘I, Tonya’ and Margot [Robbie] and that experience. After that, it was Nicole Kidman, Jessica Chastain, and then recently Julianne Moore, and Lily and Daisy, of course. Maybe I naturally gravitate toward [these projects] because I grew up with women, because I grew up with my mother and she was a single mom for a while. I don’t think about it. I just go instinctively where I’m pulled and it just happens that [working with women] seems to have generated the best results.”
Stan also noted that he’s been “lucky” to have worked on so many projects that not only feature exciting women in front of the camera, but behind it as well. He suspects that’s not any sort of coincidence.
“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve thought more and more about what it is that I want from [my career],” he said. “And I think what I want from it is to be able to go to a work environment where I can collaborate and where I can feel that we’re all on the same team and we all have a common goal and there’s support there and there’s a generous spirit about it. And quite frankly, that hasn’t been as easy on an entirely male-driven environment. There’s a lot of ego. I’ve certainly worked with older male actors who have taken time to put me in my place in my younger years. At the end of the day, it’s just like, where do you function at your best?”
“Pam & Tommy” has been well-received by both critics and audiences, but it’s stirred up some ire from the very people it chronicles. While Anderson has not directly spoken out about the project, sources have made it clear she doesn’t support the series (neither she nor Lee are involved with it). Lee hasn’t spoken out either, but one of his former bandmates recently lambasted the project.
Stan is open to any criticisms, but he’s also eager for people to understand the series is a dramatized retelling of an infamous story, albeit one with a major message.
“I think it’s important that everybody has an opinion and expresses what they feel,” Stan said. “Obviously, the scripts were really good and I think the guys [including showrunner Siegel] did the best they could to research the project. But I think we all knew going into it that this was a dramatized, heightened telling of the story. I think it’s difficult to sit there and pick apart every single stitching of every script and sort of say, ‘Is this what happened?’ We will never really know what happened because we were not there and we can’t assume or presume.”
Also important to Stan: that the series reorients our understanding of Pamela Anderson. It’s a female-forward story, and while everybody might be buzzing about Stan’s animatronic dick, it’s that element he finds essential.
“I think everybody on our end went into it with the best intentions to try and really offer a different perspective on this story than what had previously existed in the ’90s,” Stan said. “People just hear ‘sex tape’ and there’s confusion about it, if Pam and Tommy released it or not. They were very much the victim of this and, she clearly was [the victim] in more ways, because she was a woman and she was sort of cornered into these lanes through the ‘Baywatch’ sort of perspective. She was trying to be a mom. She was trying to have a career. She was definitely conscious in trying to take other avenues. And there was seemingly no support whatsoever about that. I see it from that perspective.”
And while “Fresh” might sound like a very different project, there’s that same thread: It subverts expectations audiences might hold about women (oh, and it’s scary, too). In this case, the unlucky-in-love Noa (Edgar-Jones) who meets the maybe-too-perfect Steve (Stan) and finds herself plunged into a cannibalistic nightmare, with a funny rom-com edge.
Stan first heard about the project from producer Mary Parent, whose Legendary Entertainment backed the film alongside Adam McKay’s Hyberobject Industries (Searchlight Pictures picked it up in advance of its Sundance premiere).
“We had a meeting and she told me, ‘I have this movie that I’m working on and might be up your alley. It’s this weird guy and then this girl and they have this sort of like weird relationship. And then he kidnaps her,’ and I was like, ‘Okay, cool. I’ll keep an eye out,'” Stan said with a laugh. “I mean, she didn’t really go very far deep into it. And then months later, this Deadline article came out that said Daisy Edgar-Jones had signed on to ‘Fresh,’ and I thought, ‘Oh my God, that’s the movie!'”
Stan had seen Edgar-Jones in the lauded limited series “Normal People” and found her performance “incredible.” Suddenly, he knew he had to be part of “Fresh.”
“I just emailed my agents right away and I said, ‘Please, can we find a way to get the script? Can I meet on this? I’d love to know what this is about,'” he said. “It was great reading the script, knowing that Daisy was going to be Noa, because I think that really informed a lot of how that experience was going to be. Daisy, to me, has such a world weariness about her, this wisdom and intelligence that’s just very inherent to her. And I thought, ‘This character is an intelligent woman. And, as a result of that, my character is going to have to hold his own with her in many ways.'”
Cave intrigued him too. “I’d done some research on Mimi. I knew this was going to be a first project for her, but I watched a lot of those music videos that she had done and clearly there was a visionary there and somebody who had a real take,” he said. “When I spoke to Mimi about it, I was like, ‘OK, this is going to be very special, very different.'”
Stan was cast a month later, and dug deep to figure out just who the hell Steve — who sucks Noa into one seriously fucked up world, but with style — was. It was definitely scary, but the results speak for themselves: He’s great in the film (and more on that to come later this week on IndieWire). He didn’t need to be scared, but it might have helped.
That someone might watch an episode of “Pam & Tommy” on Hulu and then skip right on over to watch the feature-length “Fresh” only speaks to the fluidity the actor embraces with his work. For Stan, divisions — film versus television, “Oscar movies” versus tentpoles, theatrical versus streaming — are not just uninteresting, they’re antithetical to what he loves about his job.
“There’s good work being done in different mediums, and there are movies that cost a million dollars which are just as impactful as the massive things,” he said. “Look at ‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’ which, in a pandemic, is the second-grossing film [of all time]. That is not just some coincidence, there is something to that. We don’t pay attention to that because it feels as though we’re categorizing things in certain perspectives. ‘This is an Oscar film, this is not an Oscar film,’ and it’s like, let’s look at everything and ask, ‘What does it bring us? How is it contributing?’ There was a community that went to see it and maybe needed to do it, even though it was a pandemic and it was dangerous, they still turned out. Maybe the movies aren’t dead, so let’s stop saying that they are!”
Stan isn’t just enamored of “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” he also pointed to Joachim Trier’s “The Worst Person in the World” as an example of movies being very much not dead. “That movie was done for how much? And it was a foreign film. Everybody should see that movie,” he said. “Should that movie have been nominated for Best Picture? Absolutely!”
Stan’s passion for storytelling isn’t just rooted in his career, it’s been part of his life for as long as he can remember. “I grew up with movies. That’s how I learned, that’s how I was educated. I came to this country and I didn’t speak English and I sat in a basement of a close family friend and I watched movies,” said Stan, who was born in Romania and moved to Austria when he was eight, followed by a move to America when he was 12). “That’s how I learned about stories. To me, this line of work is storytelling, it’s about communicating and finding a way for us to ask and deal with questions and awareness in another way that we can’t always do face to face. There is a catharsis to this experience.”
That’s why he likes to be freaked out. He knows the power of it.
“We have to keep trying to stay open in educating ourselves and understand as long as the intentions are right, that perhaps we can learn something from it,” he said. “It’s not always escapism. It’s not always just to be tossed around for pure entertainment’s sake. There’s a place for that too. At the end of the day, it’s about learning about each other and one’s self, and I’m a firm believer that sometimes that includes difficult things. We cannot pretend that certain things don’t exist. That is not the way that those things will be handled. We have to keep bringing light to things, even the things that are uncomfortable, the things that we don’t want to.”
Stan’s own openness even extends to — let’s be honest — sort of silly things, like the recent story that Pete Davidson, who briefly returned to Instagram after a hiatus only to deactivate his account days later, was only following his own partner Kim Kardashian and Stan. The pair have never met and Stan laughed when asked about the social media connection. “I have no clue,” he said when asked about the brief follow. “I’ve never met Pete. But I’m flattered. And if I ever do come across him, I’d love to ask him that myself.” He added with a grin, “If he ever wants to call me about ‘SNL,’ I’m definitely around.”
A Searchlight Films release, “Fresh” will be available to stream on Hulu Friday, March 4. “Pam & Tommy” is now streaming on Hulu.