As a child, Sebastian Stan occupied more countries than most people do houses. At the age of 8, he moved from his native Romania to Vienna, and then, four years later, to New York.
Now 33, Stan doesn't think all that dislocation was always healthy. But it may have given him a certain psychological edge in understanding characters who slip from one guise to another.
"It was hard. You're inhabiting different worlds, speaking different languages," Stan said in an interview recently. "But it helped me in a way. When you're young you just want to fit in. And when you're older you realize that what it really did was make you OK with feeling different."
Stan is decidedly a man caught between two worlds in Anthony and Joe Russo's "Captain America: Civil War." The new and well-reviewed superhero movie, which begins its U.S. run Thursday night after a massive opening overseas, has Stan revisiting his role as James "Bucky" Barnes, a.k.a "The Winter Solider." As viewers of the erstwhile film named for him know (and the first "Captain America" before that), Barnes was a respected U.S. military man — and childhood friend of Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) — later brainwashed into working for the Soviets as a kind of human instrument of torture, before (possibly) remembering his roots and seeking redemption.
As viewers of the new film soon learn, Barnes will continue to evolve, as will the significance of his role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The character in "Civil War" becomes, owing to past actions, a key fillip in the tension between emerging rivals Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Rogers' Captain America. He is, in a real sense, the pivot point around which all the action revolves.
As Stan eats a burger at a restaurant near his downtown Manhattan apartment on a recent Friday afternoon, he shows little of the prepossession of a man whose actions are about to viewed and scrutinized by hundreds of millions of people around the world.
His long hair hangs straight to his chin, a ballcap sits in his hand and his face wears the kind of stubble that is neither shadow nor beard. A pair of designer-casual shoes are the only hint of someone with a more upscale day job.
Stan recently moved to the neighborhood, and he's taking a breather from the kind of media siege that wasn't exactly standard for past roles on the likes of "Gossip Girl," "Once Upon a Time" and several New York theater projects. In a few days he will appear on a morning show ("GMA") for the first time and is about to embark on the type of circuit of late-night hosts (Stephen Colbert, James Corden) usually reserved for Super Bowl MVPs
It is a far cry from the actor who, on graduating from a theater program at New Jersey's Rutgers University, just wanted to stay busy.
"I really wanted to work. And for a long time that was key — the hustle," he said. "I was never really in fully in control of the jobs I had. And in a way it didn't matter."
Now, after being an ancillary part of the Marvel machine, he is set to become a central cog in it. And as with so many things for a man of a split past, he is of two minds about the idea.
Thoughtful with an earnest streak, the actor speaks enthusiastically of the comic book universe, invoking cinema history in a way that might enliven even the most superhero-fatigued — "these movies are like the 'Star Wars' or 'Back to the Future' of our era. People will look back 20 or 30 years from now and say, 'Man, those were great movies.' It's a stamp of this point in time we find ourselves in."
But Stan can also seem ambivalent about playing a personal part in helping a global capitalist wheel turn, offering a skepticism that would be refreshing to the general public if no doubt nerve-racking to his agents.
"You get to a point where you say, 'What's my life about besides flying around the world in first class?'" he said. "You take stock and say, 'Maybe there's something more.'" He says he's yet to figure out what that is, but at the very least it means other, very different kind of roles, including character dramas that require physical transformations and more theater. A name that comes up often with Stan is Joaquin Phoenix, and one senses in him an admiration for the kind of devil-may-care shapeshifting the actor is known for.
Anthony Mackie, who plays the Falcon in the "Captain America" movies and came to be good friends with Stan on the "Winter Soldier" media tour, puts it simply: "Celebrity is not something Sebastian considers to be a human emotion."
Of course, those ideals have a way of disappearing with the fame and riches of a summer blockbuster. To talk to Stan at the moment is to encounter someone whose own arc contains a comic book-level of uncertainty; there are few clues yet as to where he'll fit in on the spectrum of glee to grudging that applies to dramatic actors in Marvel movies. Will he be Mark Ruffalo, say? Or Chris Hemsworth?
And how much will be seek to become as well-known a face as some of those who surround him in "Civil War"? Anonymity is nice, but without recognition, there's also not as many of the perks.
At the very least there is much to chew on with this role. Stan sees in the Winter Soldier character some timely lessons, as there are with many characters in the MCU. If Stark represents the fears and hopes of a technological future, and Spider-Man epitomizes a culture in a state of perpetual gangly youth, Bucky Barnes offers another paradigm.
"There's a lot to [Bucky] that's very real to our world," Stan said. "This ambivalent place he's in. Should there be a government that's able to control things in a different way? Or is it about individuals and liberties?"
The lack of any clear answer is encoded in Stan's style of acting. Mackie notes of the performer that "he has this innate ability to make people want to watch him. It's this charismatic quality that's hard to explain or teach.
'"He has the most difficult role," Mackie added. "Most actors would play [Bucky] in a way that made you want to kill the guy by the end. And Sebastian puts you in a position where you're torn."
Joe Russo called Stan's performance "more complicated than any person in any Marvel movie because he's essentially playing three characters--Bucky Barnes, the Winter Soldier, and now this third iteration."
Anthony Russo said that Stan brought a kind of physical nuance to his performance that made them confident in his increased role. "He did things in 'Winter Soldier' that blew us away, finding a way to put forth a complex character even though he didn't have many opportunities to speak," said the co-director, noting the actor's on-set "Method style that could have him being calm and a little aloof to maintain that intensity."
Stan's ethic may come in part from his Romanian heritage. The actor speaks English fluently and without any trace of an accent, and hasn't been back to Romania in more than a decade (he doesn't have much family left there). But at least some of his go-getter attitude could be traced to his parents' coming-of-age in a communist country. An only child, Stan said idealized notions of America were pressed upon him from an early age.
"The things I learned from my parents, what was deeply ingrained in their generation, is this idea of opportunity and the freedom to have an opportunity. The way the United States was thought of is as a place you can have this chance to do anything, to say, 'This is my idea, and I get to offer it to you, and if you like it, I can profit from it.' It's why they were so encouraging of me to act too, because they knew how much easier it was to do here."
Stan worked on many theater productions in high school before eventually making his way to Rutgers and the hustle for roles shortly after.
In one of those projects, a Broadway staging of Eric Bogosian's play "Talk Radio" in 2007, Stan was part of a story about a local disc-jockey about to blow up big, and the complications that can follow. Stan feels like sometimes he's living out a version of that now.
"I think it gets a little harder as you find more success," he said. "As success happens, you have to figure out this question of 'What I am going to do next that stands out?' Because then you get seen as 'this thing.' Which is a part of you. But it's not really you."