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Sebastian Stan jumped at the chance to try his hand at improvising for the duration of Drake Doremus’ latest relationship drama, Endings, Beginnings. Starring opposite Shailene Woodley and Jamie Dornan, Stan plays an Angeleno named Frank, whose erratic behavior complicates a budding relationship between Daphne (Woodley) and his friend Jack (Dornan). Despite being intimidated by the exercise of improvisation, the actor knew it was important for him to see what he was capable of without the comfort and safety of a script.
“I’ve always felt protected by scripts, lines and scenes. I feel like I’m one of those people who’s opened up much more by scripts. I’m not as witty on my own,” Stan tells The Hollywood Reporter. “This was one of those different experiences, and I would certainly do it again. I’d be curious to see if I could ever use parts of [improvisation] in a bigger movie. … So, maybe this was really a training experience for that.”
Before the coronavirus pandemic shut down the entirety of Hollywood, Stan was just a few weeks away from wrapping Marvel Studios’ The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, the MCU’s first foray into scripted television for Disney+. Since many fans have wondered whether the show would maintain the look and feel of its theatrical counterparts, Stan is now shedding some light on how cinematic the streaming show is.
“It felt like both. In a lot of ways, it felt like a movie,” he recalls. “What I loved about it was that, tonally, it was very much in the same world that Captain America: The Winter Soldier was, which was one of my favorite experiences that I’ve ever had, period. So, in a sense, it was grounded and very much in the world as we know it. But, it’s also really jam-packed with a lot of massive, massive action scenes mixed with deep focus on character. These characters are getting so much more mileage for all of us to explore them. We can put them in situations that we’ve never been able to put them in before because you now have six hours as opposed to two.”
Now a year removed from the release of Avengers: Endgame, the highest-grossing film of all time, questions are still being asked about Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Bucky Barnes’ (Stan) concluding moments. While many fans agree with Rogers’ choice to pass his iconic shield on to Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), there’s also a contingent of fans who wanted to see Bucky take on the mantle of Captain America from his best friend. To Stan, Steve was giving Bucky the same gift he gave himself: a life.
“Steve is saying to Bucky, ‘You’re going to go and do that, too. I’m not going to put this thing on you. We’re both going to live our lives — the lives that were actually taken from us back in the ’40s when we enlisted,'” Stan explains. “So, that’s where I felt they were at the end of the movie. I don’t think there’s a desire or any conflicted thoughts about taking on that mantle. Sam, to me, was always the clear man to take on that mantle for numerous reasons, which also comes with so much more baggage that’s going to be explored in the show. I guess you’ll have to tune into Disney+ to find out why. (Laughs.) At the end of Endgame, for either Steve or Bucky, it’s really not about the shield.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Stan elaborates on the process of improvising an entire movie, the latest with Disney+’s The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and his interpretation of Steve and Bucky’s last moments in Avengers: Endgame.
How’s everything with you in New York?
It’s alright considering what people are going through out there. I’m pretty lucky. I haven’t been home in a long time, so it’s been good to be home. You always feel weird when somebody says you can’t do something; it’s difficult to grasp that quickly. But, in truth, if I wasn’t working and I had time at home, I would probably be doing what I’m doing now. I’m writing, watching a lot of movies and just taking advantage of this time to chill out and get back to being present, something that is more and more difficult in our lives. I’m finding that my motivation is all over the place. Once I get to about 3 o’clock, I’m done for the day because it’s hard for me to get my focus back. So, I try to do all the important bits in the morning. Once in a while, I’ll go out for a run in the very early morning because I know nobody is around here in New York, and I was able to grab a couple of really cool stills of Times Square empty. It’s just weird, but anything to make a day go by. (Laughs.) This is where we’re at.
So, as I said to Dornan, I felt like I was invading the characters’ privacy while watching Endings, Beginnings. Did you feel that level of intimacy as a performer?
Yeah, man, it was extremely intimate right from the beginning. I was familiar with Drake’s work so I kinda had an idea going into it, but I didn’t really know what the process was going to be like. It really just started with this one-on-one meeting that Drake and I had really early on; we ended up talking for three hours about everything, basically. I don’t think either of us are small-talk guys anymore, so that felt very natural. I loved how honest he was about life experience, relationships and the curiosity of it all. So, we really hit it off. When I met him, I think I was trying to sway him to think of me as Jack, Jamie’s character. Personally, I felt a little closer to that character, but when we made the movie, Drake made me believe I was wrong. (Laughs.) We had an outline of what the movie was trying for, but the specificity of the performances, the relationship dynamics and the chemistry really made it feel like we were discovering it in the present moment on the day. There wasn’t a lot of rehearsal. Shailene came in late in the movie, and we probably had about two weeks where we were kind of rehearsing and just getting to know each other a little bit. The rest was a day-to-day, on-set trial and error in order to see what would light people up.
Since you had just come off a string of massive Marvel movies, was it nice to get back to basics with a film like this, so to speak?
Well, yeah, it’s just different. Particularly in the last two years for me, I’ve been so much more aware of directors like never before. I’ve desperately wanted to work with very specific directors — Drake being one of them. Then, when you go on that set with a specific director you’ve wanted to work with, they have a very specific vision, and I just immediately know that I’m going into somebody’s very specific vision. On the bigger movies, for example, I had a relationship with the Russos over three movies, and I knew the way they were working. Every time, I sort of felt like we were picking it back up again, but just in terms of format, structure and overall scope, I knew they were making a very different movie each time. On these little movies, sometimes, the director can take these very specific points of views, and you’re just in the hands of that. That’s what makes the experience different because it’s that director’s vision, and it’s very oriented to that particular person. That’s how I felt with Drake, and that’s how I imagine other specific directors are. I recently worked with Antonio Campos [on The Devil All the Time], who’s another director whose movies I love, and I’ve always wanted to work with him. Again, he has a very specific approach, vision and how he wants the thing to look and feel. You kind of just surrender to that.
When your character, Frank, first meets Woodley’s character, Daphne, at the New Year’s Eve party, they jokingly put distance between one another. Since many of us are now watching entertainment through our present-day lens, have you realized how ahead of the curve you were in this case?
(Laughs.) I didn’t even think about that — you’re right. It’s interesting to think because we don’t know, really, what the ramifications of this social distancing will be. We may still feel the effects of it well into the next couple years. It’s going to be a while before we get life back to “normal,” but will it ever really go back to normal? That’s the stuff that remains to be seen. I can definitely see a world where people are much more conscious about personal space, perhaps. I don’t know. Shailene and I were talking in another interview the other day, and I was like, “Listen, I know you’re a hugger — and so am I — but do you think people are going to want to be hugged by us after this?” I don’t know.
At least we can now opt not to shake hands without offending anyone.
Well, apparently, no one liked that. I was not aware that that was not a fun thing to do. Yeah, that might be gone at this point.
I got a kick out of Frank’s The Pianist reference. Did you name a different movie for each improvised take?
(Laughs.) No, that was the only time I referenced a movie. Every time it was different. One of the things that I learned with Drake really early on was to never try and do something that worked again. That reference worked; I didn’t know he was gonna use it. Doing it again — even remotely getting close to it — goes against his way of working. You’re just recreating a moment, and he wants everything to be very fresh and in the moment. I have a friend who always picks on me for watching heavy, intense, dramatic movies by myself at home on the weekends. He just makes fun of me all the time. So, the reference came from that. I love all movies, but I just love watching the heavier dramatic movies. (Laughs.) So, it came from remembering that in the moment and just saying it. It was odd enough, but it made it.
I asked Dornan this question, but I’d like to get your take as well. How do you ensure that you’re improvising as the character and not as Sebastian?
That’s the problem. I don’t know. Even though we’re improvising as honestly as possible, we’re still kind of doing it with a direction from the outline. I think that is what gives it an element that’s still affected rather than me just going up there and saying how I feel. And then, in the editing room, which is what makes Drake brilliant at this, he finds the moments; the way he cuts is just fascinating to me. I remember saying to him, “Drake, no take is the same. I don’t know how you’re going to cut this. It’s impossible.” And yet, he made it work. He found the conversation, and he found the moments. He’s got a very specific way of cutting that I love which is the reactions and so on. He really filtered those performances in the editing room as well. There was a lot of back-and-forth dialogue between me and Shailene that never made it, but again, it’s about him picking what he feels is right for who each character is.
Did you have any history with improvisation before this experience?
No, not at all.
Were you intimidated by it?
I definitely was. Absolutely, I was. I didn’t have an audition for the movie, but I had that three-hour session with Drake where we talked about different things and topics. I think he was just curious to see how honest our conversation could go, and I just wasn’t afraid of that. It was very scary at the beginning. It’s that question you asked, where you go, “Well, this isn’t really who I am. I don’t do these things that this character does.” I’ve always felt protected by scripts, lines and scenes. I feel like I’m one of those people who’s opened up much more by scripts. I’m not as witty on my own. This was one of those different experiences, and I would certainly do it again. I’d be curious to see if I could ever use parts of it in a bigger movie. Believe it or not, on those bigger projects, you do use improv. You do the scenes a couple times. You get it as it’s written on paper, and then you say, “Let’s just do this one more time and try it out this way. Let’s just see what happens and then we have it.” Sometimes, that ends up in the movie because it’s weirdly a sort of wildcard. So, maybe this was a really training experience for that.
Shifting gears to some obligatory Marvel questions — did you shoot The Falcon and the Winter Soldier like a TV show or movie?
It felt like both. In a lot of ways, it felt like a movie. Again, we’re not finished; we still have some stuff to do. What I loved about it was that, tonally, it was very much in the same world that Captain America: The Winter Soldier was, which was one of my favorite experiences that I’ve ever had, period. So, in a sense, it was grounded and very much in the world as we know it. But, it’s also really jam-packed with a lot of massive, massive action scenes mixed with deep focus on character. That’s what’s really exciting about this. We’re getting to keep it in the world of the movies, so it’s recognizable that way, but at the same time, these characters are getting so much more mileage for all of us to explore them. We can put them in situations that we’ve never been able to put them in before because you now have six hours as opposed to two. It’s always a discovery.
Prior to the shutdown, is it true that you were only a week away from wrapping?
No, we were probably at least two or three, but don’t quote me on that.
At the end of Avengers: Endgame, between the dialogue and your performance, it seemed pretty cut and dried that Bucky knew about Steve’s plan to remain in the past with Peggy (Hayley Atwell). Were you surprised that some people didn’t entirely pick up on that?
I don’t know if I was surprised. The internet completely misconstrued something else and made it entirely into something that it wasn’t, but later, I sort of became aware that people really felt like we needed to have more between the two of them or something. But, it hadn’t occurred to me because at the same time, that scene was saying so much with subtext. That being said, how do you put it all together in a three-hour movie? To merge all those different stories together, you could’ve had another movie of everybody saying goodbye to each other. So, I love how much people care about those two characters and that they wanted more from them, but I just took it as “This is as much screen time as we’ve got left before the movie ends.” It was already such a long movie. And then, it’s just the knowledge that these guys have always known each other’s moves, so to speak. They knew each other so well that they could say, “Okay, I know what he’s going to do, what decisions he’s going to make and I support that.” Yeah, it’s just what it was. That’s what was on the page, and that’s what we shot.
Bucky hugged Steve and said he was gonna miss him. To me, it’s crystal clear that you played it as knowing Steve’s intent.
Oh, a thousand percent, yeah. I played it as goodbye. What I was playing was, “Okay, I know he’s going, and he’s not going to come back. I can’t talk about it, because if I do, then they’re going to try and stop him from doing what he wants to do. So, I’ve gotta support that.” That’s what I was playing in the scene. Suddenly, when he shows back up again, I’m playing it like, “Oh! Well, he didn’t tell me he was gonna do that. I knew he was gonna leave, and even though I knew what he was going to do with the shield, I didn’t know he was gonna pop up over there now and be older.” So, I was playing that. Look, I love a good scene with dialogue, but sometimes, I find it really interesting when there’s not a lot said. And funnily enough, it’s sort of been the trademark of Bucky. Then, you’re watching behavior, you’re watching the eyes and you’re wondering what they’re thinking. You’re more involved and tuned in. So, it’s always fun for me to try to do as much as I can without dialogue. It’s exciting as an actor because then I wonder what people are getting out of it. In that aspect, it’s fun.
Some people still lament the fact that Steve didn’t give Bucky the shield in order to take on the mantle of Captain America. Bucky may have been brainwashed, but Captain America is such a symbolic position that you can’t just write off 50 years of transgressions by The Winter Soldier. I also have a hard time imagining that Bucky would even want that role. Since you know Bucky best, what’s your impression of Steve’s choice?
The MCU — as I saw it from my humble perspective — is a bit different in that regard to the comics. Where we arrived with him at the end felt more like he was in a place with a desire for some sort of release: to start over, start life again in a way, find out who he is again on his own and leave all this behind. Yes, it all happened, but at some point, you gotta own your mistakes, what happened and try to start over. That’s where I felt like the character was at the end of Avengers: Endgame. It’s also what he wanted for Steve. Like anybody that ends up traumatized by a war experience, he was affected by it for the rest of his life. So, what felt like a desire there was for a restart — for him and for Steve in a way. It didn’t necessarily feel like the shield was gonna be that. Steve going back in time and saying, “I’m gonna take something for me now. I’ve been here for all these guys, and I’ve done the best I could. I’m just a man, and I’m going to go back and try to live my life.” I feel that is something that Bucky would want for his best friend, and at the same time, Steve is saying to Bucky, “You’re going to go and do that, too. I’m not going to put this thing on you. We’re both going to live our lives — the lives that were actually taken from us back in the ‘40s when we enlisted.” So, that’s where I felt they were at the end of the movie. I don’t think there’s a desire or any conflicted thoughts about taking on that mantle. Sam, to me, was always the clear man to take on that mantle for numerous reasons, which also comes with so much more baggage that’s going to be explored in the show. I guess you’ll have to tune into Disney+ to find out why. (Laughs.) At the end of Endgame, for either Steve or Bucky, it’s really not about the shield.
I really loved 2018’s Destroyer, and I thought you were great in it. It continues to blow my mind that director Karyn Kusama isn’t able to do whatever she wants. Granted, she just got Universal’s Dracula…
I already emailed her about that. I said, “You know I’m from Romania, right?” and she goes, “Yes, yes, it’s very early — and there’s a pandemic. Hopefully, we’ll see you in four years.” (Laughs.)
What comes to mind when you reflect on that experience and working with her?
Thank you for mentioning that movie. I love that movie, I love her and I had such a great time on it. I would love to keep finding projects with her — projects that kind of push you in a different direction. Again, this goes back to your earlier questions about these smaller movies, and I was referencing the vision of a director, how important that is and sometimes surrendering to that. That’s what that movie was for me. Karyn saw this character and movie in a certain way, and it was my job to learn that world, the tone and fit into it. I loved her as a director because she was so specific with me from the get-go. She also really allowed me to discover it on my own. We talked about the tattoos, the look, his history. … It was very collaborative before we started, and then, when we started, it was actually very specific. She was one of those directors that made me feel so safe and confident in my choices, simply by the way she communicated with me. I think that came from her absolute confidence in what she wanted and what she saw. I really wish more people had seen that movie. Maybe they have by now; I don’t know. And obviously — Nicole Kidman. It was one of those dreams to work opposite her. It was a good package.
Endings, Beginnings is available now on digital HD and May 1 on VOD.
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Lisa Marie Presley