Beyond the Winter Soldier: Sebastian Stan has always played roles that exist outside the binaries

A fascinating body of work reveals that delivering unexpected performances has always been his secret power

Published February 5, 2022 11:00AM (EST)

Sebastian Stan on "The Falcon and the Winter Soldier" and "Pam & Tommy" (Marvel Studios/Erica Parise/Hulu)
Sebastian Stan on "The Falcon and the Winter Soldier" and "Pam & Tommy" (Marvel Studios/Erica Parise/Hulu)

If you only know Sebastian Stan as Bucky Barnes, the stoic Winter Soldier, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you're likely not alone. His turn as Steve Rogers' (Chris Evans) loyal best friend turned brainwashed assassin turned traumatized hero has elevated the actor to impressive heights and kept him busy for a decade. But if that's been your only exposure to Stan, you're missing out on a fascinating body of work that spans both film and television (plus the odd Instagram video or two) and has long been defined by the 39-year-old actor's ability to not just disappear into roles, but make even the most unsavory characters appealing.

Unlike some of his Marvel co-stars, Stan has never fit into a particular mold. His résumé includes everything from recurring roles on fan-favorite TV shows like "Gossip Girl" and "Once Upon a Time" (his turn as the Mad Hatter was devilishly good at times and happened before the fairy-tale drama went off the rails) to small parts in Best Picture contenders like "Black Swan" and "The Martian." His choices have always been interesting, but rarely have they been predictable. 

Now, with three projects debuting around the same time — Hulu's limited series "Pam & Tommy," the Sundance thriller "Fresh," and even the spy drama "The 355" — he's finally starting to receive some of the attention he's arguably always deserved.

RELATED: "The 355" delivers all the glammed-up action you want from a badass women spy flick

Last year, Stan anchored the Marvel two-hander "The Falcon and The Winter Soldier" opposite Anthony Mackie, marking a return to television for the first time since a 2017 appearance in the pilot of Showtime's "I'm Dying Up Here." He hadn't been a regular presence on television since 2012's "Political Animals," Greg Berlanti's compelling behind-the-scenes look at a former First Family. Unfortunately, "The Falcon and The Winter Soldier" was hamstrung by a middling and uneven plot that attempted to merge a far-reaching political story about vigilante refugees with the intimate character-driven narratives of Bucky and Sam Wilson (Mackie). However, despite the messiness of the series, Stan showed flashes of the greatness we've known him to be capable of for years.

The Falcon and the Winter SoldierThe Falcon and the Winter Soldier (Disney+/Marvel Studios)

In "Political Animals," he wowed audiences as the anguished T.J. Hammond, the gay son of a former president (Ciaran Hinds' philandering Bud Hammond) and current Secretary of State (Sigourney Weaver's Elaine Barrish), the latter of whom has designs on the presidency herself. T.J.'s ongoing struggles with addiction contrasted sharply with the actions of his more stable twin (James Wolk), who served as their mother's chief of staff and was perceived by the media and the political structure of Washington as "the good son." It also served to underscore the brutal cost of his parents' ambition and penchant for putting the nation ahead of their family. As one might expect, the role provided meaty material for Stan while giving the limited series an emotional throughline. However, T.J.'s relationship with his grandmother — a former Vegas showgirl with no **ks left to give (Emmy winner Ellen Burstyn) — offered opportunities for him to break out of the character's persistent darkness and flash an easy smile, showing off an innate charm, too.

Although Stan received a Critics Choice nomination for his work on "Political Animals," it is not his only memorable TV role. A few years prior, in 2009, he starred in the short-lived NBC drama "Kings." The Michael Green-created series was loosely based on the story of King David and lasted just one season despite being a bold and visually engrossing modern retelling of the biblical tale. Ian McShane starred as King Silas, a powerful and commanding man who believed he was chosen by God to rule, while Stan portrayed his spoiled son Jack, whose womanizing ways hid the fact he was secretly gay. Landing somewhere between charismatic antagonist and tragic anti-hero, Jack is another entry on Stan's résumé that reveals his talent has always been there but gone underappreciated outside of certain circles.

RELATED: "Political Animals": Hillary Clinton gets her starring role

You can make an argument that Stan's best work has always been on TV. The long-term nature of the medium is well suited for the depths he's capable of reaching. But it's not as if his film work has been lacking either. Even in brief appearances, like in Steven Soderbergh's 2017 heist film "Logan Lucky," or 2008's "Rachel Getting Married," in which he appears as a patient at the clinic where Anne Hathaway's Kym begins the movie, he manages to leave lasting impressions. You can add to that list some of his more substantial roles as well, like Blaine in "Hot Tub Time Machine," or Jeff Gillooly, Tonya Harding's (Margot Robbie) abusive and criminally dumb husband in "I, Tonya." While Robbie and co-star Allison Janney rightfully received the most attention for their work in the latter movie (Janney won an Oscar for her effort), Stan and his perfectly terrible mustache deserve credit for giving a performance that straddled the line between slimy and chilling.

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If there's one thing that links Stan's work, it's that there's no obvious or discernable pattern to the projects he chooses. His three most recent are as dissimilar as one can get. Hulu's "Pam & Tommy," which reunites him with "I, Tonya" director Craig Gillespie, takes a page from the film's playbook and comedically dramatizes the events surrounding the infamous Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee sex tape scandal in order to reexamine them. The eight-episode limited series details how the stolen recording violated, exploited, and harmed Anderson (portrayed by Lily James in the show) while simultaneously raising Lee's status, and it makes everyone from the media to the curious public complicit. 

Sebastian Stan as Tommy Lee in "Pam & Tommy" (Hulu

For his part, Stan underwent a significant physical transformation, not just in terms of the Mötley Crüe drummer's trademark tattoos, which were reapplied every few days by the makeup team, but his natural physique as well. The effect was such that Stan seamlessly disappeared into the role — much like he had as Gillooly — and gave an engaging, if not always sympathetic, performance (probably rightfully so).

His uncanny ability to slip into almost any character and make them alluring is again at play in the stylish Sundance thriller "Fresh" (streaming in March), a film framed as commentary on the horrors of modern dating that quickly gives way to actual horror. Stan, who plays a surgeon named Steve, received rave reviews for his performance and is said to be at his most endearing and most terrifying in the film, as he imbues the character with all the charisma of a romantic leading man and the insidiousness of a psychopath.

In some ways, it feels like Stan has been preparing for this type of role for a while. He's played villains and countless misunderstood men who own the depths of their darkness, but rarely has he had the opportunity to take it quite this far. We've seen hints of a man unhinged in previous roles, but he's never been able to fully embrace this type of madness until now. Maybe if he had, we'd have had this conversation much earlier, because he easily carries the film.

Jessica Chastain and Sebastian Stan in "The 355" (Robert Viglasky / Universal Pictures

Stan's third and final project, the action flick "The 355," features the actor in a smaller role than the previous two. The movie — which was filmed in the summer of 2019 and is finally making the rounds — is an ensemble film starring Jessica Chastain, Stan's co-star in "The Martian." She leads an international group of female spies (played by Diane Kruger, Penélope Cruz, Fan Bingbing, and Lupita Nyong'o) who team up to prevent all-out war. Stan portrays Nick, a CIA agent with ties to Chastain's character who may not be all that he appears to be. 

You could say the role is business as usual since Stan long ago mastered the subtle art of playing characters who exist beyond the binaries of good and evil, hero and villain. He's methodically built a career out of portraying captivating men who are more than they appear to be on the surface. It's no doubt a welcome sight to see that more and more people are beginning to see and/or appreciate this. But the truth of that matter is, it's been happening for more than a decade if you'd only known where to look.

"Pam & Tommy" releases new episodes weekly on Hulu. "The 355" is available in theaters and on demand. "Fresh" streams March 4 on Hulu.

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By Kaitlin Thomas

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