The first episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier ended with a huge reveal: there was a new Captain America and he was played by actor Wyatt Russell. Episode two let us get to know John Walker, the soldier hand-picked by the United States government to fill Steve Rogers’ uniform after Sam Wilson gave up the shield, and something was…off. Especially when he made it very clear to the title characters, Steve’s actual allies, that there was going to be turbulence between them going forward. Here is a Captain America who doesn’t play nice.

We recently sat down with Russell over Zoom to talk about his character, who has a reputation for sliding between hero and villain on a regular basis in the pages of Marvel comics. He told us about what changed in him since he auditioned for Captain America: The First Avenger a decade ago, how he fits in the new show’s unapologetic politics, and how Walker will be a shade of grey for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

You’re the kind of guy who could have his pick of a lot of superhero characters, and you did audition for the original Captain America role. So what appealed to you about John Walker as a character? What was it about him that made you say, “This is the guy I’ve gotta play”?

Because it was the first one that had come around that really had, I thought, a polarization to him, a dichotomy to him, that was built into the character. Which meant that he could go in many different directions. Sometimes I guess I was scared that superhero stuff could feel limiting, and this guy, the character and the way he was constructed, felt very freeing. Because you don’t know what he is, you don’t know what he can be, you don’t know where he can go. There’s a lot of questions set up, and when they set your character up with that many questions, I think that usually bodes well.

Since you auditioned for Marvel years ago, what has changed in you as an actor? You didn’t get Captain America 10 years ago, but now people are excited to see you as this very different character. What has changed for you as an actor to be able to tackle roles like this?

I think comfortability and being in my own skin in front of people. Comfortability in the choices that you make, and you let the chips fall where they may. Going through iterations of yourself as what you think you should be, or what you think other people think you should be. You go through those steps, and then eventually come to a realization of, “I am who I am, and I’m going to be who I am as a person.” These characters that I’ve played sort of end up speaking for you. I don’t live on Twitter or Instagram or anything, so your characters kind of have to speak for you. Once you get enough of those under your belt, then you don’t feel like you have to explain to people who you are as a person. It’s only your work that’s sort of ending up propelling you forward, so you feel confident in your ability to play a character. Before, I really wouldn’t have been confident. I would have been probably blowing around in the wind, not knowing what the hell I was wanting to do or how to get there. Just experience.

I spoke to [showrunner] Malcolm Spellman a few weeks ago, and one thing he made very clear was that he wanted the show to be very much about here and now, about race and social anxieties. John Walker doesn’t seem like a bad guy, but he’s very much an embodiment of white entitlement in a lot of ways. What is it like to play a character who is sympathetic, but who is also embodying a difficult subject like that?

It is, and it’s a person who – he’s been put into that situation. He’s fought for his country, and that entails going off and doing things that are pretty gnarly, and having to be that person and being thrust into that situation, a lot of which you really have no control over. The powers that be that are sending you places and making you do things, I think it does touch on that a little bit. Although not overtly. It does touch on that, where this person is the embodiment of, in a way, excessive force. How do we deal with that? What is his conscience like and how can he operate in the universe, and is he the best person for the job? All of those questions are very apparent and I think they strike a chord with people and that’s what makes it interesting. At the end of the day, that’s what makes the people at Marvel who are creating these things good artists, because they can use the social movements of the time to inform things enough – not so overtly. I’m averse to that, when you put something just to put it in because it’s out there. It feels organic. This was something that was in the works a long time ago, so they’ve been ahead of the curve on a lot of that stuff. Yeah, it’s something that is interesting to play and be a part of.

Speaking of John Walker and excessive force, in the comics, he’s been all over the radar: a hero, an anti-hero, a villain. Can you talk at all about his trajectory for this series? Is he going to be a villain? Is he going to have those shades of grey? What’s coming next for him in the next few episodes?

I like the shades of grey aspect of him. When you are, I think, in the military and have to do some of the things that they do, you have to have the ability to live in a grey area. You have to say, “I’m OK with doing things that you don’t think are right, but I do.” He’s gotta be OK with that, and some people are not going to be OK with that. That’s what he’s at odds with: coming back into this world being like, “Well, you all loved Steve!” “But Steve was the guy! He did it a different way!” It’s like, “Oh, God, now I’m worried what people think about me.” He’s worried about all these things that he’s never had to worry about before because he’s been operating in pretty much silence. No one really knew what was going on in those missions he was on, and now he’s out front as a PR person for the government. So he’s not used to being in that position. Moving forward, you’re going to see him, “How am I going to deal with those things?” How is that going to land with him?

You are in the rare position of being one of the very few father/son duos to be cast in Marvel movies [Kurt Russell played a major role in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2]. Do you and your father swap Marvel war stories now that you’ve both been different characters in Marvel projects?

I mean, the only things that are really similar is that – and this is the case for everybody – the suits are like, you’ve gotta be in them all day, and it puts you in weird positions and they are kind of difficult to wear for twelve hours a day. Other than that, I don’t know – we don’t really talk a lot about it. It’s hard to explain. It’s not the center of our relationship. It never has been. I guess I have to go ask him, because I’m getting this question a lot. I guess I should ask him.

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The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is currently streaming on Disney+.

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