[Ed. note: Spoilers ahead for episodes 1 and 2 of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. All quotes have been edited for concision and clarity.]
The premiere episode of the new Marvel Cinematic Universe series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier follows up on a plot thread from Avengers: Endgame: The original Captain America, Steve Rogers, has retired, and passed his shield on to his friend and partner Sam Wilson, a.k.a. the superhero Falcon. Invited to become the new Captain America, Sam passes on the honor — and almost immediately sees the U.S. government anoint a different Captain America. Wyatt Russell (Overload, Everybody Wants Some!!) plays John Walker, an American soldier who winds up with Cap’s shield, his costumes, and his alias. He doesn’t have Steve’s powers, but in episode 2 of the show, he’s portrayed as a patriot who’s taking up the Captain America role as his latest duty to his country.
That’s a departure from the comics that inspired his arc, which give the character a more complicated history, both as Captain America and as a figure known as U.S. Agent. But Russell tells Polygon he avoided reading up on past versions of the character. “The problem with reading too many of the comics is, there are too many storylines to follow,” he says. “So it doesn’t really help me find this storyline, because he’s different in all of them. That’s what makes Marvel fun and cool, that’s what’s great about comics. But it doesn’t help me with the MCU version of the character. Following the storylines just gets super-confusing.”
Russell says he did look John Walker up on Wikipedia. “And I read for five minutes, and it was like, ‘Okay, no more, I’m more confused than when I started.’” Instead, he looked at comics art of the character. “That told me who he was, in terms of figuring out how to how to play him. He’s got a different vibe as a person [than Steve Rogers], and he fights differently.”
Russell says just reacting to co-stars Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan gave him a handle on John Walker’s personality, and that series director Kari Skogland and on-set lead producer Zoie Nagelhout were also helpful sources. “I was able to ask them questions and give them my ideas and have them talk me through what was going on. You use each other to come up with the best version of the story. Everybody at Marvel’s great, so I felt confident with the personnel.”
“Kari is an unbelievable listener. She doesn’t come with solidified ways in her head that she wants you to be. With John, there’s no prior information in the MCU, so we’re creating something new. And in doing that, she allowed me freedom to try different versions of the character as we were shooting it.”
One part of the story he doesn’t seem to have engaged with, though, is the series’ take on race in America. Head writer and show runner Malcolm Spellman says Falcon and the Winter Soldier was a chance to explore the Black experience, but Russell thinks of the new Captain America as outside that story.
“I honestly don’t think he’s thinking much about the bigger issues,” Russell says. “They weren’t something I thought about much when we were shooting. He’s just the person who’s putting on the suit to try and protect people from the world. I think a lot of that has been put on to the show from events that have happened since we started filming, which have been interesting, and interesting to put on the show.”
Because the first two episodes of the show seem to have John blithely stepping into a role Sam agonized over, and replacing one of the MCU’s beloved longtime heroes, fans have seen John as a low-key villain. Russell is fully willing to embrace that response. “What I liked about John in the first place was the polarizing aspect of him. I wanted to play that as a character. And as an actor, that’s kind of what you want — I always like playing characters where however you feel about him is how you feel. However they feel, I agree with them. I’m just there to do the job and disappear, and John will live on in DisneyPlusLand.”
The idea of the character living on raises some interesting questions about his future in the MCU. Asked if he’d be willing to carry on playing John in the movie franchise, Russell said “I hope so! We’ll see what happens to John. But look, I’d never say no after this experience with Marvel. Whenever you get the opportunity to work with people like that, you do it.”
He thinks as Falcon and the Winter Soldier unfolds, John Walker’s role will surprise the audience. “You definitely will learn more about him, and more about what he’s gone through, and how he reacts to certain situations. And you’ll start to understand a little bit of the inner workings of his psyche as the series continues.”