Sebastian Stan had been acting for nearly a decade before Marvel came along. The Romanian-American actor was filling out roles as secondary and background characters for years during the 2000s in movies like Rachel Getting Married, The Covenant, Hot Tub Time Machine and Black Swan, and on TV shows like Gossip Girl—more than once playing an antagonist. But Stan is not a grizzled character actor: He is handsome, youthful and, above all, unusually sweet-looking. He has soft features, big, puppy-dog eyes and an invitingly goofy grin, and even now he appears younger than the pushing-40 reality. Stan’s is an easy face to be drawn to, and thus an apt one to cast sneakily in roles as villains and bullies because it is so effortless to be disarmed by him. The people over at Marvel must have noticed this. It’s why Stan became such an immense breakout once they got ahold of him back in 2011, taking keen advantage of his boyish looks and experience countering said looks in roles as jerks and assholes, and turning it into massive success. From there, Stan has been turning it into a success that is all his own.
Opposite Chris Evans in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s introduction of the popular hero, Captain America: The First Avenger, Stan played Captain America/Steve Rogers’ fated best friend and war buddy, Bucky Barnes. In this first Captain America installment, Stan was a heart-tugging death scene. But in reprising this role (with a twist) three years later in the far more acclaimed sequel, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Marvel exploited one of the oldest tricks in the archetype book. Positioning Stan as friend-turned-agent-of-death for the fascistic secret organization Hydra, Stan was a messy-haired, brooding, baby-faced killing machine. But in simpler, more timeless terms, he was another misunderstood bad boy. And as a person who was detrimentally on Tumblr during the most of the 2010s, I can speak intimately to Stan’s status as an object of intense desire in the role. His long-haired, black-makeup-smeared visage proliferated GIFs, photosets and homoerotic fanfic ships between him and Steve Rogers (which I am certain persist to this day). Quite frankly, people went fucking nuts for Bucky Barnes. In turn, they went fucking nuts for Sebastian Stan.
Still, Sebastian Stan was not quite a star. He is more at home in co-lead and supporting parts, the latter of which Bucky Barnes very much was despite his prominence and veneration. Even as Stan graduated from the cinematic arm of the franchise, he moved into a co-starring role alongside Anthony Mackie’s character, Falcon, in the spin-off series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Stan is more of a character actor than a star, and it’s a title into which the performer has begun more easily to slide post-MCU. But even before the MCU’s Phase One concluded in 2019, Stan had been gradually carving himself an acting niche in indie films separate from the superhero franchise that made him. He had already played support in films from major directors—Ridley Scott’s The Martian, Jonathan Demme’s Ricki and the Flash, Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky—but it was playing Jeff Gillooly in Craig Gillespie’s biopic treatment of the infamous Tonya Harding scandal that drastically altered Stan’s perspective on what he wanted out of his career. Challenged by the role, he became more open to films that demanded more from him, like as an undercover cop opposite Nicole Kidman in Karyn Kusama’s dark thriller Destroyer.
Now with his sadistic turn as the charismatic, cannibalistic villain in Sundance breakout Fresh, and as Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee in Hulu’s biopic limited series about Lee’s leaked sex tape with Pamela Anderson, Pam & Tommy (reuniting Stan with director Craig Gillespie), 2022 not only feels like Stan’s year, but like he is the closest he has ever been to establishing himself as a true creative force. Fresh in particular, while fun, would not work without Stan’s buoyant magnetism and wit, the tame horror elements and heavy-handed subtext on modern dating alleviated in part by his screen presence. It’s no wonder why Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones) was so seamlessly charmed by him one day at the grocery store, exhausted by the dating scene and thrilled by a kind, down-to-earth and confident older man who, unbeknownst to her, happens to be a cannibal and purveyor of human flesh for the black market. As said cannibal, Steve, Stan is equal parts winsome and sociopathic. Like Noa, we feel betrayed when Steve reveals his true self. We were just as fooled by him as she was. How couldn’t we be? Just look at him!
As Tommy Lee, Stan is kind of perfect. He adds an extra little something to the fictionalized interpretation of this real-life person that would be lost without him in the role, something that Lee himself lacks. In the show (I guess in real life too? I’m not familiar with Tommy Lee—this scandal happened the year I was born) Lee is established as, well, an asshole. A bit of an entitled bully. The kind of character that Sebastian Stan is not unaccustomed to portraying. But Stan looks, quite frankly, nothing like Tommy Lee, and this only works to his advantage. In addition to Stan’s compelling take on the hotshot rock star whose star is quickly fading from view, a performance which oscillates seamlessly between funny, infuriating and empathetic, it’s Stan’s countering appearance that gives Tommy Lee more of a sympathetic edge, whether Lee deserves it or not (he often doesn’t). It’s the very thing that has made Stan such an inviting presence in film even when he’s playing antagonistic.
In an interview with IndieWire from 2018, Stan claimed he wouldn’t necessarily turn down the opportunity to play the lead in a franchise. But he notes that, right now, he’s grateful that Marvel has given him the freedom to pursue meaningful roles in smaller works of art that really move him. In a perfect world, this is what tentpole franchises would offer actors and directors alike, and what is occasionally touted as the reasoning behind indie filmmakers taking on large superhero projects; the freedom to pursue passion projects afterwards. Yet it is often the reality that creatives more prominently involved with the superhero industrial complex have difficulty (or disinterest) in branching out in exciting new ways afterwards, despite the oft-purported “one for them, one for me” rhetoric. Instead, some seem to be stuck inside the system. Though getting their start in compelling indie dramas, exciting actors like Elizabeth Olsen and Brie Larson have become noticeably absent in the smaller cinema landscape as of late, mostly gearing themselves towards continued franchise work; Robert Downey Jr., on the other hand, has claimed that he will never make another indie film again. Meanwhile, Thor: Ragnarok and Thor: Love and Thunder director Taika Waititi seems mostly disinterested in returning to his affecting, low-key New Zealand comedy roots outside of small TV gigs. It is fascinating—and mostly disheartening—to see which artists become disappeared by the franchise system, and which, like Stan, use it to thrive.
Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.