Jake: This week I am with Sebastian Stan. Many of you have probably seen I, Tonya and Sebastian’s performance in that piece. We are going to have an interesting conversation with Sebastian, looking at I, Tonya from the perspective of an actor and also from the perspective of a writer.
And we’re going to be discussing something that is important to a lot of writers, which is understanding how an actor approaches a role, how a script develops beyond the point where you’ve sold it and then into the production side, and how a script evolves.
And also understanding what an actor like Sebastian looks for in a script: how you know when that is the role I want to play.
So, I wanted to just start off by asking you a little bit about when you first read Steven Roger’s script. What did you connect to about it that made you go, “I’ve got to play Jeff”?
Sebastian: It was kind of a hard one, to be honest, because it was so controversial. He was such a hated character; he was such a hated person in real life.
And in that aspect, it was really difficult– you start wondering whether that is something you could even do or you could even play. There was a lot of judgment there.
But, looking at it just as a script, and then as an actor looking at it, it felt like a goldmine. It was always unpredictable. It was tragic at certain times and it was shocking and then it could be funny.
And there seemed to be a very strong degree of honesty to it. You’re always looking for how authentic certain voices sound. And later I did find out a lot of the dialogue in the script came from the interviews that he had directly with them– not to take away from his genius writing– it just had a very authentic air to it, and I think you look for that.
And then as an actor you’re challenged by that because you go, “I don’t know if I could do that… and I can’t stop thinking about it.”
And I think, in that case, also them being real life characters had a lot to do with it. The whole thing was so sensationalized that you couldn’t really believe that these people existed or that they were capable of that. And it kind of led on a whole tangent of wanting to search for stuff.
Jake: Yeah I think it is interesting because, in a way, all of our stories come from life; even the most fictional stories come from life. And there is an interesting theme in I, Tonya that there is no one truth.
Jake: And you know even like the breaking of the fourth wall, like, “Yeah, this didn’t happen like this.”
Sebastian: Yeah, and it is interesting the fourth wall because that wasn’t in the script originally. That was the director coming in and suggesting that we break the fourth wall in the scenes. I could have seen Steven Rogers come up with that–but you know, the director just finished his sentence so to speak. So I feel like it is important to find that counterpart in your director.
Jake: Yeah I think it is an interesting thing about process for writers in that we see a lot of bad movies come out of Hollywood. And so, a lot of people are under the impression, “Oh I will just give them the idea and then they will figure it out.”
But you can see with a movie like I, Tonya when the writer has really done his job, and really built the movie around that theme. what it allows an actor to do with the role to make those kind of creative decisions about how you are going to perform it.
Sebastian: I always think it starts with the writing. I think that is the most important and the hardest part. I’ve always thought that actors make better actors with good material, which is why the in plays that you go to at the theatre sometimes end up being such great characters– like those Tennessee Williams’ plays– and those writers who sort of fleshed out these characters that you don’t usually get to see so much of nowadays.
Steven Rogers– first of all, two funny things about him as a writer–
One of them is he wrote this part for Allison Janney. Every movie he’s written he has always written a part for her, but he could never hire her, he could never get her. She didn’t even know! Because the director or the studio– somebody would want somebody else.
And he actually, finally, in writing at the negotiations of this thing told them, “I am not going to do this movie, I’m not giving you the script unless you have her attached to play that part.”
And the other thing is, what fascinated me about him was that he wrote this Christmas movie and he apparently just woke up and was like, “Well okay like what is the furthest away I can do anything from a Christmas movie?”
Then he saw this 30 for 30: and he was like, “Oh I, Tonya,” and I am like, “Okay well great, I wish I could wake up tomorrow and go like, ‘well I don’t want to do that theme anymore, I am just going to go onto this theme and produce this.’”
Jake: And he is a guy who is famous for rom coms.
Sebastian: Yeah I mean, I guess he wanted to change it up and go somewhere else with it. It was a very interesting script in the sense that you had these documentary types to die for, it was very similar to that in the sense that you know they talked to the camera.
Jake: So, I want to talk to you a little bit about research. I read some of your interviews about this, and you’ve talked a lot about how you felt, “I am not Jeff Gillooly.” And it was a little hard at the beginning to ask yourself, ‘How am I supposed to see myself in this role?’
And I think it’s interesting for writers because—I know for myself personally– no matter how much I’m in love with a character, there is a point in the writing where you are like, “This is just the worst character ever.”
You kind of fall out of love with them, and you have to find a way to fall back in love with them or to like recognize the piece of you that does live in them, or like the dream that you have that you share with them.
And I’m curious about, how do you allow yourself to fall in love with a Jeff Gillooly in order to play him?
Sebastian: Well first off let me start with when you approach material, usually you know if it isn’t a real person you kind of have free reign—not free reign but you are sort of, you are building a life from what you see on the script.
And you by talking to the writer you are kind of going, “Okay this is going to maybe– it could go here, it could go there.” But here, I didn’t really have that opportunity. It was much more, “This is the guy, so you are going to have to mold more to something.”
And in a way, maybe it is difficult because you are stuck in a box. And then in another way it is easier because at least you know where to target, so you are eliminating a lot of time researching stuff that won’t be necessary but you won’t know then unless you do it.
And the thing about him was that he is very difficult to read as a person. And then virtually everything that I found on him online was just really sort of negative despicable kind of thoughts people had.
There was nothing on him. “What was he like as a child? What was their relationship like when they started, was it always that chaotic? He denied everything, okay why? What does that mean? What is he like now at 50?”
So it was kind of a big question mark, except for these videos where I would see him sort of make these terrible faces, uncomfortable, like walking through as he is getting arrested.
But again, even when you have a real person, there is a tremendous responsibility for you with that. No matter what kind of person it is, you always have to go back to the script. Because, as an actor, that is your job, that is your map. And what is in the script is what you’ve got to follow.
In terms of finding something about him, in a weird way I had to come around and try to blend– and this was in the script also– this idea that they were this Sid and Nancy kind of crazy couple. And then Margot and I together basically built on that and tried to piece it in terms of, “okay well was it always like this? Was there a good part of it at some point? Was there a time when they were okay or not? And how did it get to this? Was it because she got more famous? Did he get more scared?” Understanding it like a really unconventional, toxic, terrifying-love story, in a way kind of opened me up to sort of something with him that was a little bit more understandable.
Jake: One of the things that I loved about your performance was that for me you really humanized a person that is hard to humanize.
Sebastian: Thank you.
Jake: And I think this is interesting as a writer as well because you know often times like in your first draft, your character feels like a little bit of a cartoon, or it feels like a little bit like “I got this one aspect of them but I am missing the full life that lives underneath there.”
So I always think of an actor as doing a rewrite of my script. But in a good way, in the same way that I would do a rewrite of my script. “Okay what is this really about? What is the one God I’m really worshiping here?” And for me in I, Tonya like it is the God of “there is like no one truth.”
Sebastian: Right. As a part of the backbone of what the thing is.
Jake: So like at least from my perspective, everything in that script serves it. From the fact that I have a very specific idea of who Tonya Harding, is but it’s not true. But Tonya has a specific idea of who Tonya Harding is and that isn’t true either.
And Jeff has an idea of who Jeff is and that isn’t true. But it also, it is true to him.
Or even like Allison Janney’s character. She has a very strong story about how she is a good mom–
Sebastian: In her mind yeah.
Jake: And we can see that that isn’t true. And then you know the whole movie kind of builds to Tonya basically saying “all the truth is bullshit.”
Sebastian: Yes, yeah, you mean like kind of like a button to that thing, so to speak?
Jake: So for me that is the next rewrite is asking, “how does everything start to serve that one God?”
Sebastian: It is interesting, yeah, because you and I were talking about specific lines that tie the whole thing together. And maybe that’s the fucking truth, that the things she says at the end, if you have that line maybe you can build from there.
Jake: Yes, yes exactly. And then you have like the process questions like the writer, Steven, has spoken about the idea that when he went to do these interviews, the first thing that stood out was like they all have a completely different take on the story.
Sebastian: Apparently, Tonya and Jeff, the only thing they ever agreed on was how awful the mom was. Everything else they didn’t agree on.
Jake: Yeah and Jeff saying “I never hit her.” I mean it is just like such a completely different point of view.
Jake: And so I feel like there is a rewrite that happens then, and then there is a rewrite when your creative team comes on board.
Sebastian: Yeah. I think the only thing that always I feel is so heartbreaking is there was a lot more there on the script that didn’t make it.
I am always fascinated about the process in the editing room, because there might be things that you love that you don’t need, or that take you away from the momentum of things. And that, I think, would be really difficult, you know?
Jake: Yeah for me that is the final rewrite– is what happens in the editing room. I would actually say there is probably another rewrite which is in the actual performance, things get discovered, you know—
Sebastian: That weren’t on paper at first.
Sebastian: That was the thing about– what made this movie so special. There was a trust there. You aren’t feeling protective. And you don’t always get that. Sometimes you try to get your script made, and then it gets in the hands of a director who is more established, and he is like “this is the kind of movie it is going to be.”
Jake: Yeah, and I think it’s about the humbleness with which you approach the piece. And you could see it in the performance–
It’s the same for us as writers. Everyone has got an ego, and all artists have egos, and sometimes we want to be the genius or we want to be the person who manipulates the characters or gets this effect from the audience or creates the great creation.
And there’s a real practice to bring yourself back to that place of humbleness where you go, “There are these characters speaking to me and I have to serve them.”
Sebastian: I remember I learned a while ago– not on this, on a different movie– we were having trouble with the scenes and the director finally said, “Look, alright why don’t we just do it once the way it is written, so we have it, so we understand, so we see it, so we try it. And then we can go from there and see if there is what we need to change or not change or whatever. But, let’s just do it and hear it the way it is.”
Because sometimes it is so easy to read something in your head and go to conclusions and then you haven’t even tried it.
Jake: Yeah and I think that is such an interesting thing for process. Whether you are a writer or an actor or director. In writing we think of it like, “I am just going to write exactly what I see even if I don’t know if it is going to work.”
Or, “I have this idea that came to me in a dream and I am afraid I can’t write it, or I am afraid it doesn’t make sense or it doesn’t fit my plan.” And writing means surrendering to the fact that there is like a part of you that knows better.
Sebastian: I don’t know how it is on that level as much as because as actors you kind of come in and, like I said, the material can elevate you. Or you can elevate the material too to some extent–
Jake: I think it is both, I think it’s fair to say you give that Jeff Gillooly’s role to another actor and you don’t get the same movie, and I am not saying that just to be complementary.
Sebastian: Everyone does it differently and I appreciate that. I always think the biggest thing I ever learned, and I feel like everybody should whether they are writers, directors, actors, whatever is like we should all learn script analysis.
That is one thing that really helped me out is just breaking down a script and learning moments.
I feel like the class I took with you, which I found to be very helpful, was because we broke everything down and that is going to help you no matter what you decide to do.
I just think, sure like in my head, it’d be nice one day to branch into the other aspects of filmmaking because you find out you have more to say or you want to try– you should do it, everybody should. I mean I am sure you probably tell certain writers to take acting classes I guess?
Jake: I actually do. I think you have to. I think as an actor you’re served by learning about writing because I think they are the same job, I just think that they are at the opposite side of the page.
The actor takes the words and finds the want underneath and finds the emotional need underneath, and finds those like little moments that are going to tell that story.
The writer is doing the same job from the other side of the page. They are improvising with these characters and they are seeing those little moments.
Sebastian: Yeah I think the thing I learned a lot from my experience with you is that, in terms of writing, inspiration can come from any number of things. I used to be very closed minded, in this mindset that you have to have this major idea, or “this is what I am going to say and then the movie is about this.” But it could also just come from an interaction you have like buying food, or some random thing that happens to you, or even from like sitting around.
I think that is the biggest thing is just sitting down and doing it as a way to get those two pages, even if they are shit. Even when you don’t have anything like jumping or talking at you to put down on paper. Maybe there is one thing in there that is going to be great, as long as you are just staying open.
Jake: Yeah, being an artist is really about being open.
Sebastian: And I would say I find being humble and open usually works pretty much when approaching everything– except, be aggressive about taking action and getting it and showing up to the page that day or to the set that day. Be aggressive about that, you know, showing up.
But I think the aggressive part really is linked to being passionate about something, and I think with acting if you recognize that it is a script you can’t stop thinking about– Go! Push yourself to find out what that is and why that is, like why are you having that reaction.
That’s what I mean about taking action. Instead of like trying to put it out of my mind, like maybe I should go on a tangent and let myself think about what would happen if I hadn’t bumped into that person and then we started talking… or whatever.
If anything sits on your mind, good or bad like maybe that is a good trigger for being aggressive.
Jake: It is like being aggressively open.
Sebastian: Yeah and then being creative with it. And that is the thing. Like maybe you’ve spent the whole day like really being miserable at your job and all you want to do is just scream at somebody but you can’t because you are a human being and we treat each other like human beings. But then when you go home you can scream on the page.
As opposed to, “I am not going to deal with it, it isn’t worth it, because I am writing a romantic comedy so I can’t write about anger,” you know like who knows like go against the thing that is in your head.
Jake: Yeah– I have always felt like that dialogue between acting and writing is so important, but I haven’t actually done a lot of interviews with actors so I am so grateful for you coming especially since you play in both fields.
Sebastian: Yeah I mean and I always I appreciate you having me on. And yeah, I feel like, you know, I can imagine like just having other people say out loud what you’ve written is probably important.
Jake: Yes and then you know what you hope for is, “Okay I hope they can do what I wrote.” And then every once in a while you get somebody, and I really can say, somebody like you, who can actually do more than you wrote.
Sebastian: It’s funny because you say that but even in rehearsing a scene as an actor, like one of the greatest things that ends up happening that you get out of it is go ahead and do the one thing that you really know in your mind that you shouldn’t do.
Like I am going to yell the whole scene because that is going to be over dramatic but at least you do and I don’t know something happens with going through those things even though you are like oh this is shit or whatever or this is some weird voice.
But then you go through it anyway so that you get it out of the way and you can get closer to what you really need to say.
Jake: Yeah I always feel like the monster is more scary when it’s in the closet and sometimes that monster in the closet that is haunting you is like actually the thing you need to know or like the thing that everyone is going to remember—whatever that thing is, like when you start to run towards and wrestle with those emotions–
Sebastian: Well I always think all those things are great starting points that is what you’ve got to look at it, it is like it is just a starting point to something.
Jake: Yeah and I guess that is really the thing right, if you want the life you want you’ve got to get started today. If you want to create the thing you want to create you’ve got to start.
Sebastian: Yeah I mean you’ve got to start and I think in your class a while back– you were always very eloquent in the way you were saying it but that writing really is self-exploration. Facing certain things that you may not be dealing with in every day and recognizing those things and giving them a voice.
And that’s what’s beautiful about it is that you can have that outlet if you allow yourself.
Jake: Well thank you so much for being part of this I am really grateful!
Sebastian: My pleasure, yeah absolutely.
Study Screenwriting with Jacob Krueger