You definitely know Sebastian Stan. The 29-year-old rising star turned in memorable TV performances on Once Upon a Time, Gossip Girl and Political Animals, and he’s graced the movie screen in hits like Black Swan and Captain America. On top of that, Stan is an accomplished theater actor, having appeared on Broadway in 2007 in the Tony-nominated revival of Talk Radio. Nowadays he’s heating up the stage as a handsome, troubled drifter in Roundabout Theater Company's revival of Picnic. Broadway.com chatted with Stan about learning lessons from Ellen Burstyn, growing up in theater and finding what it takes to make it on Broadway.
You play a classic "bad boy" in Picnic. What drew you to the role of Hal?
When I was studying acting at Rutgers, I was obsessed with actors from the ‘50s. I wanted to emulate them, the Montgomery Clifts and James Deans of the world. Everything they did seemed so iconic and so romantic in some broken, terrible way. And this play is, at first glance, an opportunity to explore that world. The challenge was to make that real.
Was it difficult to tap into that ‘50s mindset?
Those black and white pictures, they look so glorious to us, but they’re real people, and so [the challenge was] making sure that they’re real characters, with real problems and desires and needs. Every character in this play is just so needy, it’s ridiculous.
What's the key to making a 60-year-old drama of small-town life speak to modern theatergoers?
That's one of the things that we talked about a lot in rehearsals: how to make this play, that’s got so many themes from such a specific time period, resonate with today’s audiences. I think what makes Sam Gold such a great director is he’s done an amazing job offering the audience a choice as to who they relate to the most and who they agree with. I think sometimes audiences leave worked up and rooting for different characters.
You and Maggie Grace just ooze chemistry. Did that come naturally?
I would say so. Maggie’s incredibly sweet, very generous and there’s a very open communicative relationship between the two of us about what it is that we need to do every night. I can say the same about the rest of the group. I feel very lucky that it’s a welcoming, warm, friendly group. You don’t always get that.
Do you see yourself as the sexy, shirtless type?
[Laughs.] Don’t we all try and think of ourselves like that at some point in time?
Is there pressure in going out on stage every night and transforming into a heartthrob?
Yes and no. That’s part of the excitement about it. There are times I show up at the theater and I’m really not sure yet how I feel. I like not feeling settled and comfortable in a situation, because it makes me feel like I’m still open to exploring different ideas. Every time we do the show, I see it as an opportunity to find a new moment that I haven’t seen before. There are things that hit you like a bullet, and you’re like, "I can’t believe I didn’t think of that months ago."
You grew up doing theater, and you went to [the famous summer camp] Stagedoor Manor. Would you describe yourself as a "theater kid"?
Oh, for sure! I went to a tiny, tiny high school where kids weren’t competing with each other for a part in the musical because there weren’t enough people. It was Stagedoor Manor that advanced what I thought doing theater was—the process, the rehearsal, the costumes and what goes on backstage and everybody’s part in it.
What is it about theater that you fell in love with?
There’s something very arousing about having an immediate response from people, right then and there. Theater really is much more of an actor’s medium because you’re in control of the editing of what the audience is going to see. You’re the one making those choices. There isn’t somebody else up there cutting the moment together for you.
You’ve taken on varied collection of roles in the last five years. What attracts you to a play or movie?
I’m trying to consistently do different things and not fall into a pattern. It’s very hard. Life happens at the same time, so that means there will be times when you’re suddenly looking at your bank account and there’s a certain amount left, and then what do you do? But I’ve been very fortunate in the last couple of years to be able to try different things, between TV and film and stage. When you read [a script], if there’s even one thing that pops up, one scene you get excited about, then it's probably a good part.
With Once Upon a Time, did you expect the Mad Hatter to turn into such a breakout character?
The credit there goes to Eddy [Kitsis] and Adam Horowitz, the creators of the show. I had never read a TV episode in a show like that. The introduction of the character was so specific, and there were so many layers in one hour, I knew it was going to be a real challenge and a real joy to do all those things in one episode. And actually, I think everything but one scene made it into what you saw. It was kind of a no-brainer to go and do [Once Upon a Time]. And it’s just such a fun character.
You’re also gearing up to play the amped-up role of Bucky Barnes in Captain America: Winter Soldier. Excited?
I’m completely excited to venture down that path. This is why January 1, 2013, was a glorious day to wake up to [laughs]. I’m very grateful and very lucky for what’s going on right now. I think you have to allow yourself to be excited about the magnitude of something like [Captain America].
Personally, what does it mean to you to return to Broadway after six years? What’s different this time around?
I feel like I can tell [a difference] from a physical standpoint. Vocally, I would lose my voice every time five years ago. From a physical perspective all the way to an emotional endurance, I sort of feel like double the human that I was, if that makes any sense.
What would you like to do next on Broadway?
I don’t know! I don’t want to ever swear off anything and say, “I’m not a musical theater guy.” But I’m not sure. It’d have to be a great combination like this one, where you have a great play and a great director and people in the cast that you can learn from. I can genuinely say that I learn a new thing from Ellen Burstyn every day. It’s been phenomenal.
See Sebastian Stan in Picnic at the American Airlines Theatre.