Warning: This feature contains spoilers about the film.
By Bailey Pennick
Aaron Schimberg kept it brief in his introduction before A Different Man had its world premiere January 21 at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival: “This is the one time I have to be able to show a film without anybody knowing anything about it.” A hush fell over the Eccles audience as the writer-director said that. It’s true. There’s before you see A Different Man, and then there’s after. The before is full of anticipation for the complex drama starring Sebastian Stan, Adam Pearson, and Renate Reinsve. The after is a rush of heart-clenching realizations about your own sense of self-worth, the true values of society, and questions about the ownership of your identity and story — even if you aren’t sure you want to own it yourself.
Edward (Stan) is an actor with a facial disfigurement who sticks to himself, doesn’t fix the leak in the ceiling of his apartment, and books parts in training videos for companies to learn how to treat people with disabilities just like everyone else. When his doctor tells him of a new experimental procedure that can “cure” his appearance, he decides to try it so he can be treated normally, like the people in the horrific training videos he shoots.
As Edward’s facial growths start to peel off — in a scene one can only describe as a moving Francis Bacon painting — instead of feeling relief, he still feels the need to hide who he is from everyone. That includes his playwright neighbor Ingrid (Reinsve), who has thrust herself into Edward’s orbit without fully letting him into hers.
His solution? To fake his own death and reemerge as a new “normal” guy hastily named Guy. This shedding of his skin seems to be working — he gets a new job as the most shiny of real estate agents and has a new, fancy loft apartment — until he sees that Ingrid has followed through on her goal to write a play with a part for him. Unfortunately, the play is about him, her dead neighbor, and their relationship through her eyes. This is where A Different Man starts to fold in on itself in a brilliant meta statement about representation and authorization within the entertainment industry.
“[The film] is playing with various disability tropes,” explains Schimberg during the post-premiere discussion. “Like the sad disfigured man in his apartment, and playing around with those elements.” Since Edward’s story starts with that trope, it leaves the viewer uncomfortable and upset when we see Ingrid using these same tired storylines. It proves that she never really knew Edward, but had no problem using his disfigurement to push through a play about her being a “good person.”
But, wait, weren’t we introduced to Edward in the same fashion? The film doubles down on this complication by having Edward-presenting-as-Guy beg his neighbor to let him play her version of himself within her off-Broadway show. Even with the face of an actual Hollywood movie star, Edward is bending his life around the preconceived notions of others. His desire to be both the before and after Edward is complicated further when Oswald (Pearson), an effervescent and charming man with similar facial disfigurements as the original Edward, enters the theater during rehearsal and proceeds to take his role and his relationship with Ingrid away.
On the subject of casting this complicated weave of an identity story, Schimberg recalls how thorny that was even within his own singular vision: “I thought you’re caught in a bind because some people said that casting Adam was exploitative, and then on the other hand casting a Hollywood star and putting him in prosthetics is also the opposite of what we think of as representation, even though it’s still very commonly used. So I was caught in a bind and I just thought: I’m going to do a movie that does both. I’m going to have a Hollywood actor in prosthetics, I’m going to have Adam be Adam and see what comes of it and build some kind of path forward.”
That path forward is a masterful film filled with tension. But while it might seem like the struggle is going to be between Edward and Oswald, A Different Man’s only true tension is within Edward himself. Stan excels as he wrestles with embarrassment and longing for his former face. Every time someone comments on Oswald’s appearance to Edward while he’s passing as Guy, you can feel the hot anger within him because they assume he agrees with their vile opinions.
“Suppression is a really bad thing,” Stan says, passionate about his character and this creative journey. “That was my take on [why Edward hid his true identity]. But I think, sometimes, when you spend so much time denying yourself you don’t have the courage in those moments to speak up.”
“That was kind of the hook we gave to Sebastian,” Pearson continues. “Yeah you don’t know what it’s like to have a disfigurement, but you do know what it’s like to not have privacy and to have your life constantly invaded, for better or worse.”
Stan nods his head emphatically, “Public property, right?”
Pearson nods back at him down the line. “Yeah, those are the kind of chats we had to get it right.” He pauses and chuckles. “I’m glad it wasn’t a physical battle because I would have lost that one.”