James Marsden Is Everywhere, and Wants to Do Everything
James Marsden was in the only place he could be. Not in his acting career, which has been fruitfully darting this way and that for years—quite literally, sitting for a recent phone call in his car in the driveway of his Los Angeles home, the only spot where he gets decent cell reception. “If it sounds like I’m talking from a submarine, let me know and I’ll change positions,” he said sheepishly.
Marsden has, over nearly three decades in Hollywood, proven surprisingly amenable to change, recalibrating his hunky star profile to best fit each disparate role that has come his way. He and I were talking during the COVID shutdown because I, perhaps like many of you, recently noticed in my unending watching of things just how ubiquitous James Marsden seems to be. Especially, of late, on television. Marsden wrapped his two-season run as a hapless and later murderous robot cowboy on HBO’s massive sci-fi series Westworld in 2018; in the spring of 2020, he appeared in both the lauded FX on Hulu period series Mrs. America (as a smarmy politician and TV host who doesn’t do right by Cate Blanchett) and the Netflix sleeper hit Dead to Me, as the (spoiler alert!) twin brother of a man murdered by Christina Applegate in the season-one finale.
In the fall, Marsden will migrate to CBS All Access as part of the ensemble of a much-anticipated adaptation of Stephen King’s doorstopper 1978 novel The Stand. From science fiction to historical drama (with some satire), to contemporary dark comedy, to plague apocalypse is a pretty wide range to walk, yet Marsden has never seemed uncomfortable in building his curio cabinet of roles. He has become a true journeyman actor, one whose matinee-idol good looks can sometimes belie the thinking, shape-shifting performer behind them.
As for his recent TV boom, Marsden—who first broke out in the 1990s on television, as one of the hot young leads of the sticky-sweet adoption drama Second Noah—was simply following the work. “I was only interested in pursuing the interesting material and filmmakers regardless of the platform,” he told me. “There was definitely a time in the ’90s and maybe early 2000s when you could say there were some distinctions being made between ‘TV actors’ and ‘film actors.’ Some snobbishly felt that TV is where you go to make money and film is where you go to make art, an idea I never really subscribed to. There was a feeling to some that a film career was more prestigious and attractive than a career in television, but I don’t think I ever worried myself with whether or not I was perceived as one or the other.”
That the once Scorsese’s-eyebrow-thick line between TV and film has blurred considerably in the last couple of decades is a fact that’s been plenty expounded upon already. But for Marsden, who blew into the business with a square jaw and floppy hair at 19, possessed of the youthfully bold conviction that he could become “the next James Dean,” this egalitarian approach to form differs from that of generational peers like Leonardo DiCaprio, actors who have yet to set foot off the big screen.
Marsden has been a movie superhero three times—playing Scott “Cyclops” Summers in X-Men, X2, and X-Men: The Last Stand—and has stolen scenes in a big Disney film (as a goofy singing prince in the blockbuster Enchanted) and a weepy romance for the ages (The Notebook, in which he doesn’t get the girl). Earlier in his career, Marsden had all the makings of a classic movie star, one made solely for gleaming studio vehicles. But his instincts and interests (and, no doubt, opportunities) have led him elsewhere, as he’s slowly built for himself the kind of character-actor career that would be the envy of any Serious Actor with lots of conservatory training.
The fact is, Marsden, who‘s 46, essentially winged his way into a career on an accommodating breeze. He spent “a few semesters” at Oklahoma State, not far from where he grew up, before deciding to drive West in his Honda Accord to pursue his showbiz dream, which was then only a few years old. “I discovered being onstage, and my abilities as an actor, when I was 14 or 15 years old,” he told me. “The first time an audience applauded or laughed at a joke, it was the first time I felt like I could be good at something.”
He had the raw talent, and the looks, for sure. But he also had a high degree of good fortune—an almost annoying amount. Marsden’s father agreed to support him financially for his first year in Los Angeles, and set him up with a friend of his, whom Marsden said was “a very successful casting director.” That casting director in turn connected Marsden with a manager, and it was off to the races. Marsden realizes what an abundance of easily won riches this was.
“I had parents that supported me, I had a guy who was sending me out on auditions. I wasn’t pounding the pavement knocking on agents’ doors. I had representation right when I moved out,” he said. “I was very, very grateful and lucky. And then I was like, okay, now it’s up to you. Now you gotta do these auditions and make people remember you and show people why you should be cast in this.” In essence, he felt he had to retroactively earn the blessings bestowed upon him (genetically and otherwise), wanting to prove himself again and again in whatever audition was put before him.
“I felt like I was shot out of a cannon,” he said of that time. “I was lit up with excitement about being able to pursue the thing that I felt like I was good at. Maybe this sounds arrogant, but I feel like that was evident to a lot of the casting directors. ‘Who is this kid from Oklahoma who’s so excited to be here, and saying yes ma’am and no m’am?’ There’s something about watching someone do what they love to do. I would imagine that’s something that helped me early on.”
Pretty soon, the soap opera Days of Our Lives came sniffing around, and Marsden wanted to jump at the chance. “In my mind at the time, I was like, this is great! I’ll be paid to be an actor on a show my girlfriend used to watch every day? It’s the most secure job you can have as an actor. That means continued work for three years. My manager said, ‘Wait a second.’”
In fact, his manager was getting such good feedback from Marsden’s various auditions that he figured they could hold out to “catch bigger fish.” That more discerning tack eventually led Marsden to X-Men, in 2000, which helped secure his footing in the industry. But success didn’t dull Marsden’s drive or curiosity. “X-Men was the first time that made me feel like, all right, this is potentially going to put me on a global map,” he said. “People are going to know who I am. But I never wanted to rely on having a career because people knew who I was, or that I was playing an iconic superhero character. I wanted to be remembered and have durability because of my work, I guess. Not necessarily because of what I was associated with.”
Marsden’s unbridled eagerness to perform gradually evolved into a true design for living: “I wanted to target the good work; the good filmmakers, the good directors, the good scripts. But they could be any genre. And whoever cast me, that’s what I’m doing next. It wasn’t until about 10 years later that I looked back and started thinking, This is really cool. It looks like a decision that I made early on to purposefully go after different things every time. I looked back and I saw this colorful path of all these different characters and I thought, I’m going to adopt that as a career philosophy.”
As studio output has shifted away from the kind of mid-budget films that would have perhaps once been led by a movie star like Marsden and into the franchise I.P. model that X-Men helped kick off, it only makes sense that TV has drawn Marsden back. He did 13 episodes of 30 Rock back in the aughts, but only recently has he committed to multiseason runs of series. It’s not the time commitment that sometimes makes him hesitant to do a show, though. “The only thing that gives me pause before signing on to a series is not really being able to read every script and know how it all ends,” he explained. “I find myself always inquiring and asking the showrunners about my character’s arc and the overall storyline, squeezing them for all the information I can get before I sign on.”
Perhaps, then, Marsden is best suited to limited series with predetermined ends, like The Stand—a story about a disease wiping out most of Earth’s human population that has taken on a terrible, unplanned timeliness. “I know that the filmmakers want to handle it with the utmost respect for the situation,” Marsden said of the series, which wrapped filming on March 12, just as the COVID crisis was taking truly dire shape in the U.S. “Obviously, there’s been a lot of life lost through all of this. I hope somehow it resonates in a positive way and not in a reckless way.” Regardless, Marsden will, in theory, be done after 10 episodes, ready to move on to the next thing.
Though on at least one occasion, Marsden has talked himself back into a project he was supposed to be done with. That’s what happened with Dead to Me, which killed off his nasty boor of a character in a season-finale cliff-hanger, only to have him pop back up the next year as that character’s kinder but maybe no less oafish brother. “I sent [creator Liz Feldman] an email congratulating her on the first season. I said, what are the odds that someone can survive a massive head trauma compounded by drowning? How can we bring this guy back? And she said, ‘Well, maybe we can have twins.’”
That’s another quirky development in a peripatetic career that has been defined by quirky developments. I was curious to know whether Marsden has any sort of model in place, if he’s emulating anyone else’s successful journey through this most capricious of industries. “Jeff Bridges, I keep going back to,” Marsden replied. “That’s the career that I want. He’s doing interesting work. He’s got a country band. He does photography. I think he lives on a ranch. I like his career.” Marsden keeps a close eye on veterans like Bridges, “these actors [who] are known for being these marquee guys early in their career and then they start doing more character things, more comedy.”
Really, Marsden’s hope is simple: He just wants to do interesting work, with a quality of material that he has, after all that initial help, come to deserve by plugging away and honing his talent over the last 27 years. “I want to be around. Longevity and diversity of roles. I’m not interested in just playing the same old guy. To be honest, I’m more Prince Edward [in Enchanted] than I am Scott Summers in X-Men.”
Marsden has done just about every genre there is, so when I asked if there’s any box he’s still hoping to check, it took him a moment to respond. “I would love to see more Frank Capra, Jimmy Stewart movies come around. The sort of Tom Hanks roles,” he said. He’d also be interested in taking the lead in a biopic. He mentioned Frank Sinatra, which would allow Marsden to once again show off the singing chops he demonstrated in Enchanted and Hairspray. That kind of multihyphenating suits him. As he said, with a self-effacing laugh, “I’m good at a lot of stuff. I’m not great at one thing.”
While Marsden may say that his leaping around between genres and platforms is an accident turned mission statement, in truth he has been doing this sort of thing right from the outset. Over the crackle of his cell phone, fuzzing across the country from somewhere in his little corner of Hollywood, Marsden recalled his origin story. “In high school, there was a state competition for drama. There was a category called ‘Humorous Interpretation,’ and you’d play four or five different characters in a scene, but as one person. I don’t want to brag, but I think I got like third place.”
Source: Vanity Fair