James Marsden: the other guy makes his move

After a run of playing jilted boyfriends in tights – and X-Men – James Marsden is on a roll, with turns in 2 Men, Endangered and as John F Kennedy in the Oscar-tipped The Butler

Thu, Aug 22, 2013, 16:23

Regular visitors to Planet Cinema might be forgiven for squinting a little during the frolicsome summer confection 2 Guns. Who is that untrustworthy Naval Intelligence Officer running around after Mark Wahlberg and Denzel Washington? Can it really be James Marsden, the chiselled sometime X-Man, beneath that sneer and buzz-cut?

“It wasn’t just the haircut,” laughs Marsden. “It was an opportunity to do something different. And any role in a movie with Mark and Denzel is a welcome gig.”

It’s hardly the first time that Marsden has affected a tonal about-turn. It’s not even his first villainous role. “Although sometimes I’ve been a villain in movies that nobody has actually seen,” he says wryly.

From the get-go, the 39-year-old has been defined by casting curveballs: he was a corny crooner in Hairspray, a severely tested husband in Straw Dogs, an unwitting drugtaker in Death at a Funeral, a witting drug-peddler in Bachelorette and the primary caregiver to Russell Brand’s Easter Bunny in Hop.

“I don’t see myself as being tethered to any one thing,” says Marsden. “It’s always about the role for me. I don’t know what I’m doing next. I like change. I like mixing things up.”

For all his best efforts, however, he has unwittingly carved out a niche as the Other Guy. Maybe it’s the clean-cut looks or the blade-like cheekbones, but, for a time, Marsden seemed doomed to keep losing the girl onscreen. To date, he has been cuckolded by not one, but two, superheroes – in the X-Men series and in Superman Returns. He lost out, romantically speaking, to Ryan Gosling in The Notebook and again to Patrick Dempsey in Enchanted.

“I know. I know,” he says. “It did look for a while like I was the Other Guy. There were films in between when I wasn’t that guy, but they didn’t seem to be so popular. So it looked like I went from Other Guy role to Other Guy role. I became aware of it and I remember thinking: okay, I’m enjoying myself but this is starting to look pathological. And what does it say about me that this is my common denominator? Even in X-Men it was like: wow, I get to be a superhero. It’s my childhood dream come true. Oh, but my girlfriend is into Wolverine.”

He laughs.

“That’s why I was really glad to get 27 Dresses. It broke the run. Just to not be some guy in tights serenading a woman when she’s not interested.”

When he isn’t the “Other Guy”, more often than not, he’s “The Guy”. The star of cheerleading bitch-frenzy Sugar and Spice and Tiny Fey’s primary love interest in 30 Rock has never shied away from girlier projects.

“But the romantic stuff is not my favourite genre,” swears Marsden. “I don’t have a problem doing it. But I never seek it out. It’s more the fact that as an actor certain projects come your way because maybe you look a certain way or maybe people know you can do this because you’ve done it before. And you can fight back and work to change it. But you have to keep working. So you will say ‘yes’ sometimes.”

Far from seeing himself as a romantic idol, Marsden insists he’s still the goofy guy from drama club.

“For me, it was always about being a good mimic,” he says. “I liked putting on somebody else’s clothes and becoming a character. It was not only fun; it was like a really interesting experiment. And I felt like I was good at it. I felt like this was something I could do.”

So I’m guessing he’s not a method actor?

“No way. I can’t take myself that seriously. I wasn’t classically trained. I don’t have any philosophy of acting. I can get in the zone, but I can still switch off. And I think that’s a useful skill because there are so many things happening on a set. I don’t know how you create an environment where you really are the character. Then what are all these people doing here? How do you forget about all the guys running around with cables and lights and cameras and people chatting about football games? If I had to stay in character I think I’d go crazy.”

James Paul Marsden – Jimmy to his friends – was born in Stillwater, Oklahoma in 1973 – the middle son between two older brothers and two younger sisters. His parents were both in sciences: his mother was a nutritionist and his dad was professor of animal sciences and industry at Kansas State University. As a teenager, Jimmy enrolled in Oklahoma State University with a major in broadcast journalism. He left after two years, plumping instead for a move to Hollywood and a series of auditions.

His parents can’t have been too happy when he ran off to join the circus, surely?

“Well, I think they quickly realised that I was not science material,” he says. “I wasn’t going to join the family business any time soon. My talent lay in another area and they were very understanding of that and very supportive. When I moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career, my dad supported me for a year while I was doing drama classes and musicals.”

He soon found work on the Fran Drescher TV series The Nanny and on a rebooted Saved By The Bell.

“My family thought that if it didn’t work out, after a certain amount of time, I’d come back to college. But I always just assumed it would. And I was so young and naive, I didn’t even realise the odds were stacked against me. I thought there was no way that it wouldn’t happen. I had that beautiful, stupid confidence you only have when you’re young. If I’d had a little more brains at the time, I never would have made the move or turned out for all those auditions.”

Even by the standards of Marsden’s varied oeuvre, 2013 is proving to be an exceptional run. Having already popped up in Robot & Frank, 2 Guns and Bachelorette, by Christmas the actor will have graced our multiplexes in Endangered, a thriller also featuring Billy Bob Thornton, and in Lee Daniels’s Oscar-tipped The Butler, in which Marsden plays John F Kennedy.

“I’m prone to doing a lot of research,” says Marsden. “When I got Cyclops, I remember completely throwing myself into 45 years of X-Men comics. So it was probably just as well that I didn’t know I was playing Kennedy too far in advance. He and Jackie were probably the most documented people of their age. There are so many books and so much material. He wasn’t just the leader of the free world; he was also a cultural icon. He was a movie star. He was very glamorous. He was so visible. But I literally just had a few weeks to prepare. I could have driven myself crazy otherwise.”

Before the awards season kicks off, we can catch Marsden trying not to corpse as part of the Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues ensemble.

“That job was basically trying not to laugh. You have to use certain techniques. I always end up pinching myself on my right leg. I need a degree of pain to stop myself. Because when you’ve watching someone improv and what they’re doing is inspired, you have to keep it together or the take is ruined. One of the greatest achievements for any actor is getting Will Ferrell to crack. Because he can keep a straight face so well. Occasionally you’ll break him. And you’re always very proud of those moments.”

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