THE LEADING MEN: Sebastian Stan, More Than Meets the Eye in Broadway's Picnic

By Brandon Voss
03 Feb 2013

Stan and Maggie Grace in Picnic.
Photo by Joan Marcus

Picnic was written and takes place in the 1950s. What makes it relevant for today's audiences?
SS: It's very hard to redo plays from that period because the times are so different now, and one of the challenges comes from the fact that plays from the time period dealt so heavily with sexual repression and the repression of women. But Picnic is also about chasing the American Dream. People came out of World War II with the idea they were going to climb to the top because this is America, where all dreams come true. A lot of those themes are still relevant today, which is why I think the play is still important.

How does your character figure into that?
SS: Hal's somebody who's grown up in this world with the idea that if you do this, dress this way, behave this way, work this way, you'll be successful and your life will be peachy. Unfortunately, that wasn't the truth. At the same time, the Beat movement is happening, so Hal's wrestling with the idea of what America's promising and also struggling with the opposite idea of being independent, free, and following his own impulses and instincts. The character represents a piece of the future that's coming.

The play's exploration of mankind's obsession with physical beauty also feels current.
SS: It's just as significant today as it was then. Inge was writing something very important about vanity and how people were perceived in terms of being quote-unquote good-looking, beautiful or pretty. In the play, there's something shameful and dirty about it. Our obsession with beauty has not changed. When we see something that turns us on, we either appreciate it or judge it. It's so primal. We still dismiss people if they're pretty; we don't care how they feel, because they should just be happy looking the way they do. That's something we were trying to say with this production — and if I may be so bold, based on some other peoples' perspectives of it, I think we've made that statement quite clear.

Yes, your impressive physique has certainly caused quite a stir among audiences, and many critics focused on it in their reviews. At what point in the process were you told that you'd have to get in peak physical condition to play this part?
SS: No one told me that at all. I've always been a healthy person, so maybe they just trusted me. No one said anything to me about going to the gym or anything like that. I don't think anyone needed to say much, because the play itself says enough, and I knew I needed to be shirtless for half the play. This also coincided with some of the physical preparation I've been doing for another project that's directly following this one.

So you were already buffing up to reprise your role as Bucky Barnes in the "Captain America: The First Avenger" sequel, "Captain America: Winter Soldier."
SS: Yeah. And it's funny, because everyone's had very different reactions to my physique. Somebody who came to see the show said to me, "Don't you think you're in too good of shape for this? No one looked like that in the 1950s." But I watched a lot of movies from that time period. Because Paul Newman had been in the original Broadway production of Picnic, I watched a lot of Paul Newman movies like "Cool Hand Luke" and "The Long, Hot Summer," where he played a homeless drifter, and he was in incredible shape — ripped, tan, and glistening. So I didn't find myself to be out of line when I was physically preparing for the role.