Sebastian Stan already has a big year ahead. He is currently appearing on-screen in The 355 and in the hotly anticipated miniseries Pam & Tommy. Stan will also be starring in the thriller Fresh, set to debut at Sundance before streaming in March. The man seems to be everywhere! Stan is familiar to many for his Marvel Cinematic Universe role as Bucky Barnes/the Winter Soldier, best friend to Steve Rogers (Chris Evans). While he definitely won fans in the first Captain America film, Stan stole hearts with his vulnerable performance in his second MCU outing, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It’s easy to write off the talents of an actor who is best known as a superhero, but Stan has proved—in the MCU and beyond—that he has quite the range.
If you’re looking to marvel (pardon the pun) at Sebastian Stan’s acting talents, here are his top seven roles on film and television that are absolutely unmissable.
7. The Last Full Measure
One of the more thankless roles on screen is that of the ‘interviewer’. You know what kind of role it is – a person meeting others, asking questions, and… that’s it. It’s difficult to be memorable and yet Sebastian Stan pulls it off in The Last Full Measure. Based on the true story of a heroic soldier in the Vietnam War, Stan plays a Pentagon staff member, Scott Huffman, whose political aspirations are seemingly put on hold when he’s asked to investigate a Medal of Honor request.
Stan spends the majority of the film hearing the stories of what happened during the war, and he captures the myriad emotions of Scott’s journey. At the start of the film, you can feel Scott’s annoyance at being handed this job, but he slowly becomes invested in learning more. Stan’s expressions subtly change as he transforms from a reluctant investigator to a man moved by the families he meets. The film isn’t perfect, but one can’t fault the actors, including Stan, who demonstrates a passion for sharing this story with viewers.
Stan starred alongside Nicole Kidman in Destroyer, a convoluted crime thriller where he played an FBI agent who had once been embedded in a criminal gang. Stan’s character, Chris, only appears in flashbacks when he and Kidman’s character, Erin Bell, worked together. The film is intense, and much of it is down to excellent direction by Karyn Kusama and the performances she elicits from the actors. Kidman stole all the headlines, but the rest of the cast, especially Stan, held their own. Unlike most of Stan’s other acting roles, Agent Chris is gruff and less conflicted. But he still has so many layers to him which makes Stan’s take on the character even more impressive.
He’s able to bring forth Chris’ professionalism when faced with the unhinged crime boss and situations he’s placed in. Stan plays Chris as a perfect foil to Kidman’s less experienced Erin, and that is a huge achievement in itself. Despite this being an action role, something Stan is known for, it’s really the quieter moments when Stan shines the most. His expressive eyes and nuanced acting add depth to a character that could have easily been one-dimensional.
5. Once Upon a Time
Sebastian Stan only starred in seven episodes of Once Upon a Time but we would be remiss if we left off his performance on the show. Stan plays The Mad Hatter, who, in the fairy tale world, just wants to make a better life for himself and his daughter. He strikes a deal with the Evil Queen (Lana Parrilla) but, suffice to say, no good deed goes unpunished, and Hatter pays a terrible price. In the post-curse/real world of Storybrooke, Hatter is transformed into Jefferson, a charming, aloof man with secrets up his sleeve.
Stan brings all the layers of his character to life through his acting. He can be sinister when needed but carries the demeanor of a tragic hero throughout. One can feel Jefferson’s loss and pining to be reunited with his daughter in every scene, and it’s the major reason why his performance is so memorable despite its brevity. One doesn’t expect stellar acting feats in genre properties, but Stan imbues Mad Hatter/Jefferson with a complexity that still makes us wish we’d been able to see more of this character.
4. We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Not enough people talk about this atmospheric adaptation of the Shirley Jackson novel of the same name. In We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Stan plays Charles Blackwood, the estranged cousin of the Blackwood family. He arrives in town, full of allure and adventure, but his younger cousin, Merricat (Taissa Farmiga), doesn’t take to him at all. Is she right to be suspicious of this man?
Sebastian Stan has the uncanny ability to balance charm and menace, and that comes to the fore in this film. He sweeps his cousin Constance (Alexandra Daddario) off her feet but takes the viewer with him. His big, uninhibited smile, combined with a sleek clean look wins us over. But it isn’t long before the cracks in his facade begin to show. When things don’t go Charles’ way, Stan channels the character’s toxic masculinity a little too perfectly. Don’t let the fact that this film slipped under the radar fool you, Stan is incredible as he pivots from being a dream man to the devil incarnate. He is scary and ruthless and such a tour de force in every scene.
3. Political Animals
Stan’s turn in Political Animals won him acclaim, and it’s obvious why. T.J. Hammond, the son of a political family, is the quintessential rebellious child; he’s hard-partying and addicted to all kinds of substances. In the miniseries, T.J. is openly gay, but his outing was hardly voluntary. Stan is a scene-stealer in this show, which is saying something considering he stars alongside Sigourney Weaver and Ciarán Hinds. His character carries a ton of pain, not least his heartbreak over a failed romance and his ability to constantly disappoint his family. T.J. also struggles with substance abuse and Stan effectively portrays the devastating cycle that an addict can get stuck in.
It’s obvious that Stan loves playing conflicted characters, and he skillfully brings T.J.’s internal battles to life with a nuanced and sympathetic performance. Stan’s face is at its most expressive in this show, especially during a party scene where he transforms from a jubilant party-goer to a dejected man looking for his next hit. In T.J. Hammond, Stan puts in a truly affecting performance that will allow you to understand and sympathize with this character.
The short-lived series Kings is the show that put Stan on the map. It’s a modern take on a biblical story and Sebastian Stan plays the crown prince of Gilboa, Jonathan “Jack” Benjamin. As anyone familiar with the MCU will know, Stan is the king (these puns just write themselves) of playing tortured characters, and Jack is the epitome of one. Jack is a complicated person; he is ambitious, insecure, and in the closet. To the outside world, Jack is a rich, privileged playboy living the dream, but in actuality, he’s hamstrung by an institution that won’t recognize his identity.
Stan is so compelling as this character as he seems to choose multi-faceted characters, and Jack is no different. Jack’s frustration at his duties impeding his happiness is palpable through minute emotions; on the other hand, his prejudice and antagonism towards his supposed political rival are aggravating. Stan breaks your heart with a vulnerable portrayal of a young man torn between two worlds. The greatest moment in the performance is when Jack is dealt a heavy blow that he has to power through alone. Stan’s ability to capture the character’s emotions bubbling to the surface while putting up a facade for his family is a sight to behold.
1. I, Tonya
If you’re a fan of the Stan, this movie is a tough watch. I, Tonya is the biographical film on the rise and fall of figure skater Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie). In the film, Sebastian Stan plays Harding’s husband Jeff Gillooly, a wretched man who was Harding’s co-conspirator in the incident that caused her downfall. Robbie won acclaim and nominations for her role, but Stan deserved just as much praise.
In the film, Gillooly transforms from kind to violent within the blink of an eye. In Gillooly, Stan embodies the unfortunate reality of domestic abusers – his character’s moods are unpredictable, and his insecurity is paramount. Stan ‘uglies’ it up (by Hollywood standards, anyway) to bring the character’s toxicity to surface level. He believably plays the character as both incompetent and chilling but veers away from turning into a caricature. I, Tonya is so far removed from what Stan is known for, yet he convincingly portrays the villain without faltering even once. While this role is a must-watch, it’s most likely not one you’d want to watch more than once. You’ll be left shocked at this performance because it’s Stan at his best, playing the worst.