It’s 4:45 on a Tuesday afternoon, and Sebastian Stan is singing over the phone. “Have yourself, a merry little...”
We had been in the middle of a conversation about the actor’s new film, I, Tonya, in which he appears alongside Margot Robbie and Allison Janney, when he began to croon. Stan was clearly feeling seasonal in a holiday sense, but given the early response to the film, it might be a good idea to start embracing awards season, too.
Best known for his role as Bucky Barnes/the Winter Soldier alongside Captain America in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Stan’s performance in I, Tonya, couldn’t be further removed. “For me, this movie and the Marvel world are miles apart,” he says.
The actor plays Jeff Gillooly, Harding’s on-again/off-again-eventually-ex-star-crossed-lover and in the presence of other acting powerhouses—Robbie and Janney have been widely praised for their performances as the titular skater and her mother, respectively—he holds his own with a surprising amount of nuance, considering some of his bad (not good!) behavior depicted in the duration of the film.
The movie is based around a series of present-day interviews with both Harding and Gillooly, one often contradicting the other. The result plays like a Coen Brothers-plotted, fourth wall-breaking sports biopic, and takes a hard look at the events surrounding the incident that took place over two decades ago—with the nature of celebrity and what it means to win examined along the way. Nearing the end of a long junket, Stan took some time to chat with VICE about his character, the film, and more.
VICE: One thing that’s certain about I, Tonya is that your character has cemented a spot in the film mustache hall of fame.
Sebastian Stan: I’m trying to think of what other mustache’d characters there have been. I’ll take that as a compliment.
It's without a doubt a compliment. So, what first attracted you to the movie?
Steven Rogers just wrote an amazing script. It was so insane to read it that I had to find out whether or not it was true. Having seen the 30 for 30, The Price of Gold, I was familiar with the story, but the script was giving a whole different take on what happened that we hadn’t really seen before. It started with that, and then it just was really well-written and captivating, and at the same time, there were real people here. The idea of having to mold to someone, as opposed to creating a character, was also attractive.
You and Margot play off each other really well. Did that chemistry build as filming went on, or did it click right away?
I feel like it clicked right away. We had the screen test and it went really well. We were laughing and it just seemed really collaborative. There was always a sense of trust there. Her commitment has always been, to me, at least on this film, 120 percent. So, there was never any fear or hesitation about where to take a scene, because I knew that she was going to meet me halfway.
The movie plays Tonya Harding as this sort-of endearing figure. Your character, Jeff Gillooly, not so much. What goes into playing a character who’s not supposed to be likable?
Well, you can’t really judge a character. You have to let that go, and you have to try to understand why they do the things they do; I’m not sure I really did to this day. I had to find something based on the interview and the way it was written, and remember that the movie is also told from Tonya’s perspective. In Tonya’s perspective, Jeff was portrayed in all these ways. In the end, I kind of just tried looking at it as a toxic love story of sorts, that involved two people who were unfortunately matched because of their upbringing, and whose relationship became more damaging and unhealthy with the more fame that she gained.
Especially with him, it seemed in the script, at least—and he denies this part—but in the script it seems that he was always playing this balancing act between actually being really sweet, and then also being extremely violent. It was trying to find that balance, find middle ground, and that’s about tone within the movie. We really worked hard in terms of finding the right amount of violence, versus making the movie over-the-top where it alienates the audience. At the same time, it’s not a slapstick comedy either, where you’re just not taking anything seriously.
You’re actually playing two versions of Jeff: the ‘present’ version, removed from what happened 20 years ago with the incident, and then the version playing that story out in real time. How do you approach playing two different versions of the same guy?
You have to look at it like a detective: you gather all the facts and you lay them all out in front of you, and then you objectively look at it and connect the dots a little bit, and try to put together a life. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to meet with him, because I didn’t know what he was like when he was in his 20s, and I didn’t know what he was like now. I knew the footage that was out on him after and during the incident, but that was about it.
What was the experience like when you met the real Jeff?
It was a bit strange, because I had spent two-and-a-half months, or whatever, looking at him and hearing him every day. So, then you meet the person, and you sort of just do a lot of double-takes. It was informative on those particular issues. At the same time, I’m sure it must’ve been quite strange for him; I don’t think he ever really thought that somebody was going to play him someday.
The three principal players on this movie are yourself, Margot Robbie, and Allison Janney. What was it like to share the screen with those two in such strong roles?
I think they’re huge roles, absolutely, and they’re getting the attention that they deserve. I mean, it’s a very important relationship in the movie, between the two of them—it shapes the rest of her life, and I couldn’t picture anybody else doing it.
You have a couple scenes alongside both of them. What was that like?
It was great. I’ve always admired Allison in a million movies that she’s done, and she’s always been phenomenal. She was all those things in this movie: some of the takes, she would crack you up and start laughing. The end of the diner scene is pretty much that—she improvised something, and we had a genuine reaction to it. There’s other times when she’s very scary. You’re always in great company, and that’s always going to make you better.
You mentioned the 30 for 30 that was made. This is a well-known story—why is now the right time for the theatrical version?
I think when you see this movie, you’re going to find that it’s probably more relatable than you think, because of the times that we’re finding ourselves in, and the way that we continuously strive to be obsessed with celebrity and how we handle that. The way that social media works— media in general—hasn’t really changed since the 90s.
There’s issues, obviously, in our country now about what it means to be a winner, and what it means to be a loser. All these things are still being dealt with, and I think the movie ends up landing in a very appropriate time. Also, the notion that sometimes one thing that can happen when somebody’s getting a lot of coverage, is that you become desensitized to it—you forget the humanity of the person, which is essentially what happened to her. So, when you see this movie, I think you gain a little bit more compassion for what she’s gone through, a little bit of what that experience must’ve been like.
Follow Evan Romano on Twitter.