James Marsden Reveals the Surprising Twist in the New TV Adaptation of Stephen King’s The Stand
The X-Men, Westworld and Enchanted star James Marsden, 47, takes on the fate of humanity as Stu Redman in The Stand (Dec. 17 on CBS All Access). The limited series, which also stars Whoopi Goldberg and Jovan Adepo, revisits Stephen King’s apocalyptic story of a world devastated by a plague that wipes out a huge percentage of the population, and then plunges survivors into a life-and-death struggle between good and evil.
Why a series about a plague during the COVID-19 pandemic?
The book is over 40 years old and it’s one of Stephen’s greatest hits. We had not planned for COVID this year. Once you get into the show, it becomes less about a pandemic and more about what happens to humanity afterwards.
Who is Stu Redman?
Stu is basically an ordinary man from a small town in east Texas, a blue-collar worker. He’s thrust into the middle of this plague and, inexplicably, he’s immune to the virus. He doesn’t speak much, but when he does, there’s real purpose behind it. These types of people with moral integrity—that do the right thing even when no one’s looking—need to be celebrated more.
Did Stephen King write a new ending to The Stand?
We’re trying to stay as faithful to [the book] as possible, but we have a really special treat in that Stephen King wrote the ninth episode, which is a coda to his book.
Once the survivors of the plague come together, what can you say about the reset with Mother Abagail [Whoopi Goldberg] versus Randall Flagg [Alexander Skarsgård]?
To speak thematically, the story is about what happens when there’s a reset and what happens to humanity, the instincts of man and what’s left. Immediately there’s good versus evil, so it speaks a lot to the human experience and what happens when we have to start over. There’s some cool elements that come in later in the show. There’s a supernatural element to Randall Flagg, which is very Stephen King. There are some things that transcend what we actually would be going through realistically, but it’s mostly realistic.
COVID-19 isn’t anywhere near as lethal as the bug in The Stand, which wipes out 90 percent or more of the population. Having gone through this quarantine period, has it made you think about what it would be like to survive in a world where maybe everybody you love has died?
I think you made a good distinction there. Obviously, the severity of Captain Trips [the slang term for the virus in The Stand] is much more severe. And that’s not to say that COVID isn’t dangerous. Obviously, we’ve lost far more people than we should have. But I think it makes us all check ourselves and it makes us realign our priorities as to what’s important to us in this world, where we were taking things for granted, and how we want to live our lives, because we realize that it’s a pretty delicate thing; it’s a vulnerable life and existence. It certainly made me pick up the phone and call my family more during this time. It made me connect with people more. It made me care less about the things that used to worry me and more about staying healthy, staying positive and keeping a good connection with the people that I love.
Are you a Stephen King fan? Do you like to be scared?
I grew up with Stephen King. I read not all of his books, but most of them. Sometimes when you have a writer that’s so prolific, you feel like you can’t write this much and still have it be so rich in content and brilliantly done. He’s a popular pop-culture writer, but he’s also a brilliant wordsmith and he just always knows how to get under your skin intelligently.
I grew up watching his movies as well, and being terrified of Salem’s Lot, Cujo and, obviously, The Shining. I’ve always been a fan of his. He’s always had a real gift for scaring you in the most unsettling ways. It’s not just gore, it’s not just violence, it’s psychological, sometimes supernatural. And I think you can tell he’s fascinated with the human condition, and he writes in a way that we can all relate to. So to be able to be a part of this and celebrate one of his masterpieces is a pretty special thing.
You do a lot of comedy, but then you do something like Westworld that’s definitely a drama. Do you prefer comedy?
I love them both; they both have their challenges. It’s all in the character you’re playing and the story that you’re telling. The dramas that I’ve been a part of can wring you out and exhaust you. And the comedies can be just like a party. You go home less exhausted emotionally. I do think it brings out in me what surfaced in me when I was a teenager. I got into theater doing musicals, and it was mostly comedic stuff. I was a mimic. I would go to school and I’d memorize stand-up routines and SNL sketches. That’s how I first got my attention as an actor, or as a performer, I guess you could say.
I guess at my core I really do enjoy comedy, but I still would be hard pressed to say that I prefer one over the other. One’s just usually a lot more enjoyable than the other. You can usually see that in my performances. You can see me having fun with the comedy and maybe not as much fun with some of the drama.
Is there going to be a sequel to Disney’s Enchanted, in which you played Prince Edward?
I’ve heard they’re trying to work on a script. It does look a little more optimistic than five years ago.
What do you feel was the turning point of your career? Was it as Cyclops in X-Men?
I think that there’s different types of turning points. I think there’s performances that were turning points, and then there were epic $250 million comic book movies that were turning points in their own way, which is when people knew exactly who you were because you were playing an iconic superhero. I think X-Men was one in that category, where it was an important turning point for me because I was all of a sudden on an international map of people knowing who you are. The fan base of that comic was gigantic, so immediately you have a giant fan base just because you’re playing Cyclops.
Then I think creatively there’s other turning points. After X-Men, people would view me as the guy with the cheekbones. “I haven’t seen him do much more than that yet.” And then films and opportunities like The Notebook, Enchanted, Hairspray and 27 Dresses came along and people thought, “Oh, wow, he can do other stuff.” Those were turning points creatively, in my opinion. Yeah, it’s hard to ignore the impact that X-Men had on my career.
To me, it’s all about choices. Sometimes those choices come your way after being in a big movie. No matter what you did in the movie, if it makes $1 billion, sometimes those choices and opportunities to do work come your way, and sometimes it’s after a performance you give. You’re happy to be able to experience both, which is nice.
There’s a quote: “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” I was curious how it applies to your career because you tell the story about how Julia Roberts came up to compliment your work in The Notebook while you were meeting with the director and producers of Hairspray and, boom, you landed the job. Do you think you’re lucky?
I think it’s not black and white that way; it’s not just one or the other. Anyone that doesn’t recognize that a little bit of luck is part of it, I would disagree with. Now, you can make your own luck by being prepared when an opportunity comes your way. And I think probably I would say that’s the majority of it. But it would be difficult for me to say that I haven’t been lucky. I was lucky that my father supported me through my move to Los Angeles and financially supported me for a year, so I could focus on my career in L.A. If it didn’t work out, I would have come back and gone to school. I was lucky that he knew a casting director from Kansas who moved to L.A. He set me up with a manager who was a legitimate guy. I was given that opportunity and I was prepared for it. So there’s that coming into play too.
I could sit here and cite several different examples of why I got lucky, but I also took the opportunities and did the best I could with them. I think it’s a variety of factors that come into play there. I wasn’t originally even cast as Cyclops in X-Men. Jim Caviezel was. And for reasons to this day I still don’t actually know, it didn’t work out with him and I was next in line. There was a little bit of luck there.
In the past, you said that you would rather see a good rom-com than a bad action film. Is that something that being a part of The Notebook taught you?
Right, yeah, and I think back in the day we were saying things that we’re probably not allowed to say now, like this idea that there are chick flicks, movies that are skewed towards women. The point I was trying to make was a well-made movie is a well-made movie. It doesn’t matter what genre it is. I would rather see a really well-done romantic film, whether it’s a rom-com or a romance like The Notebook, than a badly made movie that’s supposed to be for dudes. I’d rather see the good film. I have no prejudice towards or against any sort of genre. A good film is a good film, regardless of the genre. I think that’s the point I was trying to make in celebrating the success of The Notebook.
You are pretty douchey in Dead to Me–good douchey—and you almost didn’t do it. You had told your agent you wanted to take time off.
I’m thrilled I didn’t. That has been such a gem of a project to be part of. [Creator] Liz Feldman just encouraged all of us to have a good time. Who knew that that would be what it’s become? It’s been a real fun thing to be a part of in a dark and douchey way. The third season’s going to be something completely different.