Corey Stoll is, typically, doomed.
Maybe not always doomed, but certainly tortured.
To begin with, there’s ill-fated Peter Russo in Season One of House of Cards, a character that fueled the bingeworthy success of the Netflix hit drama and turned Stoll into one Hollywood’s most in-demand actors.
The bombastic, though destructive, boozehound machismo of his breakout Ernest Hemingway in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris certainly contrasts his character’s constant threat of death-by-vampire on FX’s The Strain. The writing’s on the wall for his character’s fate in round one of his new boxing thriller Glass Chin, and as for his plum role in Marvel’s next big summer superhero blockbuster Ant-Man, you can surmise his character’s arc by knowing that he’s playing the film’s villain.
Still, Stoll wears doom and darkness well. And as he rises the Hollywood ranks and finds himself on his biggest mainstream platform yet as the Big Bad “Yellowjacket” in a reported $130 million Marvel movie, he finds himself at a career crossroads that pop-culture pontificators most love to obsess over: the under-the-radar character actor who is graduating to mainstream leading man.
It’s a conversation with more potential for inner angst, self-doubt, and paranoia-inducing psychoanalysis to rival any of the tormented characters Stoll has played, and it’s one that he’s been forced to engage in as his resume continues to build with high-profile projects and the press takes a keener interest in his career.
But…isn’t that weird?
“It’s funny, because it is really strange, but it doesn’t really do anything to me,” Stoll tells me over a beer in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan in between a midtown meeting and last-minute planning sessions for his wedding the next week.
“I think when I first started trying to formulate coherent ideas about what it means, it was maybe a little confusing,” he says. “When the self-awareness forced upon you by the press first started, I think there was a sense of another layer of thinking about criteria of how to choose a role. But that’s passed. In some ways, it affects me only in the sense that I’m determined not to let that determine my choices.”
There’s a whirlwind involved in being branded a breakout star.
After House of Cards came out, Stoll received a Golden Globe nomination, basically his pick of TV projects afterwards (he selected The Strain), and opportunities to star alongside the likes of Tina Fey (This Is Where I Leave You), Johnny Depp (the upcoming Black Mass), and now as a major player in the Marvel Universe with Ant-Man.
“I actually think about it a lot,” Stoll says, about the whole character vs. leading man trajectory. At the beginning of his career, owed to heavier physique and longer hair, he saw himself almost exclusively as a character actor, even as his look became more neutral. “I think I continued to hold that self-image until I started working more,” he says.
And, as it turns out, being forced into constant discussion over the issue yields prudent wisdom.
“The more that I’ve answered that question—or struggled to answer that question—the less I understand what a ‘character’ is,” he says. “I think for a lot of people, at least in the casting world, it’s just shorthand for ugly. Or it’s shorthand for bad writing, where you only give a sense of a whole sexualized human being to those people who have symmetrical features.”
But with antiheroes and character studies the new normal in TV and platforms for smart creators to tell smarter stories expanding rapidly, “that’s less and less relevant,” he says.
Whether or not he’s a seasoned character actor, Hollywood’s newest leading man or its latest blockbuster villain, his career, at the very least, has become one of the industry’s most interesting.
Take these next few weeks, for example. He’ll debut the second season of The Strain on July 12, FX’s grotesque, campy, and utterly transfixing sci-fi horror series based on Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s vampire novel trilogy.
A week later comes the abrupt genre shift of Ant-Man, in which he plays the dastardly Darren Cross, aka Yellowjacket. Perhaps perfectly illustrating the breadth of his talents, Stoll says he’ll miss much of Marvel’s massive press tour planned to promote Ant-Man to shoot Michael Mayer’s big-screen adaptation of the classic Chekhov play The Seagull.
And before any of this, he fronts the very indie crime thriller Glass Chin, which hits theaters Friday. The film is a curio—albeit one that scored stellar reviews on the festival circuit over the past year for its stylized pulp storytelling and Stoll’s transfixing lead performance as a former boxing star.
Written and directed by Noah Buschel (Sparrows Dance and The Missing Person), the film is a boxing movie in which you never see the fight; a thriller in which the murder happens off-screen; and a classic noir that feels indisputably modern.
Stoll’s character, a well-meaning pugilist perhaps more bruised by his dire present-day circumstances than by the fight that ended his career, is, in the Corey Stoll way, a wounded brute that you can’t help but root for—Peter Russo with a pair of boxing gloves in his closet. Without a doubt, though, he’s a man.
“I somehow have found myself being cast a lot as really macho people, and it’s really not who I am,” he laughs. “As my bachelor party attests to, I would much rather do a wine tasting than go to a strip club.”
But in a town being swiftly invaded by identically coiffed clones plagued by alarming cases of vanishing body fat percentages and superhuman muscle tone, Stoll sticks out for his Everymanliness.
“I’m big and bald and deep-voiced and all that shit,” he says when I bring up that, among its admirably unidentifiable traits, the one thing Glass Chin and Stoll’s performance can unequivocally be called is masculine. “So it’s believable I guess to a certain degree. But it’s a character. And you know I got to play Hemingway, which was a similar thing, a sort of grotesque satire of manhood.”
So what’s the lesson here? “Maybe this is all because I prefer to play a character,” he laughs. “I prefer not to play myself.”
That’s where Ant-Man comes in.
After his success with Midnight in Paris, Stoll was essentially carted around Hollywood to take meetings with various filmmakers and studios, including Marvel.
Stoll was a comic book fan as a kid, to say the least. Enthusiast is one word. Obsessive is another. In fact, he may have even foretold the recent comic book movie boom, spending his days with his friends dream casting film versions of The X-Men or The Avengers.
The one thing he told Marvel at their meeting: “I wanted to be the villain!” He was very explicit about that, he says, and was actually brought in to audition for a handful of Marvel villains before landing his role in Ant-Man. (Naturally, he won’t say which ones.)
The basic tagline of Ant-Man is that a technological genius named Dr. Hank Pym (played by Michael Douglas) had developed a way to shrink humans to the size of an ant while retaining their full strength, but shelved it for ethical reasons. His protégé Darren Ross (Stoll’s character) discovers the technology and decides to use it on himself—becoming Yellowjacket—and militarize it. Eventually, Yellowjacket faces off against our hero, Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), a former con man Dr. Pym employs to save the world from Ross’s evil ambitions.
Stoll was actually hired for the film by its original director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead), who left the project last May and was replaced by Peyton Reed after disputes with Marvel over the film’s direction and its script. Countless words have already been written about Wright’s controversial exit, and comic book fans are rabid for any information they can get about it—something that Stoll has already become keen at handling.
“I think I’ve figured out a pretty good way to deal with it, which is that I’m not going to compare a hypothetical movie to a real movie,” he says. “And I’m not going to compare a script that nobody else has read to the final script. All I can talk about is the movie that we did.”
That movie, he says, perhaps expectedly, will be stellar, but also unexpected. “There were definitely some moments where I was like, ‘This is OK, right? I’m not hamming it up too much?’ But Peyton was like, ‘No, this is great.’ It’s just such a huge canvas and the palette is such bright colors.”
Again, as a lifelong comic book nerd, these Marvel films are not something he takes lightly, especially one he’s starring in. But he concedes that everyone above him, from Peyton Reed all the way up to Marvel president Kevin Feige, are even bigger comic book nerds than he, and have much more invested.
“That’s why I felt the courage to really ham it up in front of a green screen in a unitard,” he laughs. “Everything is conspiring to make you feel ridiculous, and yet you know that it’s going to be the best special effects team, the best editing, and that it’s all going to be so well done.”
Before he heads off for more wedding planning, Stoll tells me that he recently was sent a LEGO action figure of his character in Ant-Man, which he proceeded to rip open and assemble immediately. “There is a definite sense of a milestone there, having an action figure.”
Character actor? Leading Man? Who cares—he has an action figure. “That’s really cool.”