THE LEADING MEN: Sebastian Stan, More Than Meets the Eye in Broadway's Picnic
By Brandon Voss
February 3, 2013
Back on the boards for the first time since 2007's Talk Radio, the "Captain America" and "Political Animals" star reveals the truth about the shirtless torso that everyone's talking about.
Sebastian Stan's sex appeal has served him well in television dramas such as "Gossip Girl," "Political Animals" and "Once Upon a Time," but the Romanian-born actor's physical assets have never been so prominent as in Roundabout Theatre Company's Broadway revival of Picnic, which continues through Feb. 24 at the American Airlines Theatre. Returning to Broadway in William Inge's 1953 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, Stan, 29, plays Hal Carter, a handsome and charismatic drifter who sends a small Midwestern town swooning. Also readying to star in "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," the eagerly anticipated sequel to the blockbuster "Captain America: The First Avenger," the Stagedoor Manor alum shares the secrets and significance of his superheroic physique.
How did Picnic come about for you? Were you actively looking for more theatre work?
Sebastian Stan: I actually met up with our director Sam Gold about two years ago — in L.A. of all places. I'd heard such great things about him. He didn't know at the time when or if it was going to happen, but we started discussing Picnic. Then I read the play and thought it was great. I love the '50s and grew up loving works from that time period and from those great playwrights. Fortunately, the timing worked out, and we were able to do the play together two years later.
Your last stage appearance was opposite Liev Schreiber in the 2007 Broadway revival of Eric Bogosian's Talk Radio, which was also your Broadway debut. Why such a long absence from the stage?
SS: I had such a blast working with Liev, Eric, and producer Jeffrey Richards — those guys are really like the founding fathers for me when it comes to theatre. Ever since then, I've been trying to find something that would work for me to come back to Broadway. A few years ago I got close to doing A View from the Bridge, but that didn't end up working out. There have been so many funny circumstances in terms of how, when, and why things have happened in my career, but when I look back at my journey the last five years, I wouldn't change a thing. I'm totally happy with how it all worked out. It's just tough to find the right vehicle with the right people — and also the time to do it.
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.
Stan in Picnic.
Photo by Joan Marcus
If someone only saw production photos or video clips, it would be easy to say that the glistening muscles and shirtless scenes in Picnic are gratuitous, but Hal's titillating physique is actually an important part of the story.
SS: It's a very important part of the story. It's a big part of the play. But the reactions have been interesting. Have you seen the documentary "Mansome" by Morgan Spurlock? It's really funny and very accurate in showing where we've arrived in terms of our expectations of a shirtless man. Because we're in the 21st century and seeing so many in top physical shape has changed our perceptions of the masculine ideal, I probably would've been criticized if I were in same shape as William Holden's Hal in the film version. People would be saying, "He isn't in good enough shape for this role."
How does your physique inform your performance?
SS: I've had projects where I've had to be shirtless for a few minutes onscreen but nothing like this, so confidence is a big part of it. I knew that the physicality of the character would inform how he moved and how he perceived himself in the world. For so many years, Hal's confidence has been built on something that's not solid. He knows that people like the way he looks, like his body, want to take pictures of him with his shirt off, but there's not much else there.
Despite his good looks, Hal is very much an outsider. Can you relate to that?
SS: I can. I was born in Romania and later lived in Vienna, Austria, for a few years, and I eventually made my way over to New York in '95. My journey of growing up, looking for a sense of belonging in different schools, different countries, definitely helps me relate to the character's wanting to fit in. That's the closest parallel between me and Hal. Maybe that's something Sam Gold knew about me and thought that I could bring to the character — I'm not quite sure, because I've never asked him.
You were only 12 when you moved to the United States. That's not exactly the most ideal age to be different.
SS: Yeah, it was an interesting time. I really didn't want to be different at all. I lost my accent — although it still comes out every once in a while — but I just wanted to be like everyone else. It took me a few years to finally realize that I should actually embrace where I come from, because it's something that sets me apart. In my head, that's sort of what Hal's trying to do too. Hal's desperately trying to be someone he thinks he should be and someone he thinks will fit it. Finally, he comes across someone, Madge, who basically says, "Listen, dude, calm down and stop trying to be someone else, because I like you for you." The peace of mind he discovers at the end of the play is that it's OK to own who you are.
Stan and Maggie Grace
Photo by Joan Marcus
Sam Gold has been lauded for pulling beautifully naturalistic performances out of his actors. How would you describe your rehearsal process with him?
SS: Sam has an incredible eye for detail, and he's really a dream come true for an actor. He's amazing because he really guides you while at the same time giving you the freedom to explore the character and find your own way in it. We look for that courage and mutual trust in our directors. The rehearsal process was very specific but also freeing at the same time, and that's tough to be both.
Your sexual chemistry with Maggie Grace, who plays Madge, seems integral to the play's success. Did Sam encourage you two to bond outside of the theatre, or did he suggest any other tricks for enhancing your onstage relationship?
SS: Though we're all great admirers of Elia Kazan, there was no "I'll tell you something in your ear, then tell her something in her ear, and here we go." [Laughs.] Hal and Madge's relationship and how it develops is an important part of the play, but Sam was very helpful in making sure that we knew exactly what the relationship was at the end of the day, so that we didn't build it up to be more than it really is. We kept it very realistic. These are two people at the very beginnings of discovering an affinity for one another. A lot of it is sexual, and it's by no means the defining romance of the century that you're going to witness in two hours. He also reminded us that it's just one of the many other relationships in the play, which is really an ensemble piece. Sam was careful to make sure that the audience sees the perspectives of all of the characters and not just those of Hal and Madge, one relationship that happens to be a catalyst for a lot of other people to think, to feel, and to look at themselves.
Speaking of other onstage relationships, it's great to see you and Ellen Burstyn together again so soon after you played her grandson last year in the miniseries "Political Animals." Is that a coincidence?
SS: Yeah, it was just one of those things. We were still shooting "Political Animals" when I mentioned to her that I was going to meet with Sam Gold again and audition for Picnic. My original intention was to ask her questions about the '50s and her own theatre experiences. A week later, she told me she was meeting meet with Sam Gold as well to discuss her playing Mrs. Potts. I said, "Wow! Well, you'll be my first phone call if this works out," and she did end up being my first phone call. I'm very grateful she's a part of this, because I've learned a lot from her this past year. I feel like I came across an angel in the world, and I've been lucky to be under her wing for a little bit.
You studied at Rutgers University's Mason Gross School of the Arts and spent a year abroad studying acting at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, but when did you first discover your passion for acting?
SS: I did some theatre, mostly musicals, at my high school, but it was probably when I attended Stagedoor Manor. I specifically remember doing the musical Sweet Charity at Stagedoor. I was playing Vittorio Vidal, which is a very funny part, and some other small roles. I couldn't really sing that well, but there were so many fun bits, and I just remember the tremendous adrenaline rush I felt from being onstage and hearing the audience enjoying it. That's when I really began to understand the cycle of cause and effect between actor and audience in the theatre. It was a great feeling, and I've always cherished that.
What did it mean to you as an actor to make your Broadway debut in Talk Radio? SS: It was a very special sense of accomplishment — especially for someone like me who went to theatre school and theatre camp. Stagedoor was so much about kids wanting to make it to Broadway, and you're singing songs like "Give My Regards to Broadway," "42nd Street," and all that stuff. So of course it felt nice.
What was your first Broadway show as an audience member?
SS: Hmm, good question. I feel like we went to see Cats or something at some point, but that was before we even moved over here. I can't remember.
Would you be interested in doing a Broadway musical in the future?
SS: I don't think so. I don't think I've got the stuff that Broadway musicals are made of. But there are definitely many musicals that I enjoy. Hair and Rent might be my favorites.
I don't know how much your singing voice has improved since Sweet Charity at Stagedoor Manor, but you show off some impressive dance moves in Picnic. Was learning that choreography a challenge?
SS: It was pretty easy, for the most part. Once the basics were down, it was more about having fun and then forgetting about the basics. I just thought about Elvis Presley and how he could never stop moving when the music was going. I figured that Hal had probably seen Elvis and copied him.
You're headed to the theatre now for an evening performance. What are your pre-show rituals?
SS: I share a dressing room with Ben Rappaport — he plays Alan Seymour, Hal's best friend — so we put on some '50s music and just hang out, do some vocal exercises, and get in the groove of it. [Read the recent Playbill feature about Stan's Picnic co-stars.] That's about it. The real switch for me always happens shortly before I enter, when I hear Ellen's voice on the recording telling everyone to turn their cell phones off. Once I hear her voice, I just look down at my feet, see that I'm standing on the ground, and I know I'll be fine.