James Marsden Loves Playing Hollywood Dipsh*ts (For Now)
James Marsden knows where the line is. You need to if you’re going to spend multiple weeks of your life playing a fictional version of yourself for a TV experiment that’s never been tried before.
The veteran actor of many genres is the most recognizable piece in the new series “Jury Duty,” an eight-episode original for Amazon Freevee with one key twist: everyone on screen throughout a run-of-the-mill workplace dispute trial is an actor, except for Ronald Gladden, an unassuming jury member who thinks he’s part of a documentary project. Throughout the process, Marsden plays along as the lone celebrity in the jury pool, dropping hints about upcoming auditions and reminiscing about past roles.
This latest Marsden role became a puffed-up version of a recognizable Hollywood actor who fancies himself man of the people while also constantly inferring that he’s above it all. (He filmed “Jury Duty” right after playing a similar A-list superhero jerk in the most recent season of “Party Down.”) Taking on the challenge, along with the dozens of actors convincingly playing all the other moving parts in the “trial,” meant keeping a fine balance between making a comedy and a believable, benign immersive experience for Gladden.
“We called him The Hero throughout the whole thing, because we were creating a hero’s journey for somebody,” Marsden said. “If I saw any signs that he was tortured or that he was uncomfortable, I was ready to say, ‘I’m out. Pull the plug.’ And I was serious about it. I can’t sleep at night if I know that I’m making somebody, who doesn’t know that any of this is fake, uncomfortable in any way.”
The end result is a fascinating assembly of reality-blurring puzzle pieces, put together in a way that makes sure Gladden isn’t the only one who gets to enjoy some surprises. As Marsden explained in a recent interview with IndieWire, the hard part was not having a guarantee that any of it was even going to work.
IndieWire: It seems like one of the challenges of playing a role like this or the one you played on “Party Down” is that you almost don’t want to be seen as being too good at this.
James Marsden: I think I just stayed in that entitled, egocentric Hollywood, Hollywood dipshit, which I just find so much fun to play. Obviously, I love what I do. And I take it very seriously. But anybody out there that’s pretending like we’re the most important vocation in the world is just a little absurd to me.
This is maybe a little arrogant of me to say but it’s what Larry David must feel doing “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” right? He’s not that guy in real life. But there’s pieces. There’s parts of him in there that are, “Oh, I wish I could say this to that person.” But you don’t, because you’ve got to adhere to certain social standards. Through the conduit of fiction and a TV show, you can play whoever you want. So that’s what that was kind of fun. I’ve channeled actors and people that I’ve worked with over the last three decades of my career. Any time I’ve seen some really arrogant, entitled actor behaving absurdly, I just download, remember that, and then just funnel it into this. You just want to see those people fail. Anybody who’s that entitled, who is complaining about the temperature of their coffee while they’re sitting there in their cast chair, and everyone else is working around them? You just want to lampoon that guy.
Ronald comes off as a really sweet, well-adjusted person, but was there a part of you that was preparing for contingencies if it turned out that this process turned him into someone a lot less likable?
That sensitivity was always there on set. The challenge for me was that I was a point person for Ronald. It was essential that I had his trust, that we had good banter, that there was a friendship there. So, whenever I did something that he didn’t like or that he thought was really shitty behavior, I would then have to pull it back a bit and just be normal James to get back in his good graces. And then he would hopefully think, “OK. There’s a nice guy in there, he just kind of got carried away in that moment.” The show cuts the nice guy stuff out, and they just leave the jackass stuff in.
My first question to Lee [Eisenberg] and Gene [Stupnitsky] and David Bernad and Todd [Schulman] and everyone was, “Is this a prank show?” And they said, “No. Nobody wants to do that. He’s not the butt of a joke. We’re the butt of the joke.” I’ll make fun of myself all day long. And we can surround him with characters that are bizarre and weird and that can be where the comedy comes from. I felt protective of him from the beginning. You’re keeping someone in the dark for almost a month. You better be doing something virtuous. And it can’t just be for TV. So every day that conversation took place.
It seems like the same core rules still apply, even under these circumstances. The minute you start trying to oversell a joke or a particular moment, that’s when you start to lose what makes it funny in the first place.
JM: You get one take at all of this. There were moments of “Today, we were supposed to push this beat, but he got a little suspicious, so we’re not doing it. Lay off, we’ll find another spot in the next couple of days to push it.” It’s live theater, where the script continues to change. It was scripted that I was gonna get closest to him. And then I got to be so dickish with some of my stuff that you saw him kind of take a step away from me. Sure, he wanted to still be my friend when I was nice, but then it was,”He likes Todd, so we’re gonna beef up some moments with them.” It was constantly evolving and changing as you go along, which was really exciting. There’s nothing like it that I’ve ever done in my career.
Because you had to disguise what kind of production this was, it seems like this also stripped away a lot of the rhythms and basic components that you’d usually have on a more traditional set.
That’s the closest the real James Marsden came to the the exaggerated James Marsden, the “Oh, yeah, we gotta take a hour and a half bus ride to Huntington Park and some dingy old building.” You don’t get the creature comforts of nice lighting or makeup, or nice craft service, things like that. But for me, I wanted to ingrain myself in the middle of the whole thing. Not in some sort of hoity-toity method actor kind of way, but this is only going to be good if you really become one of the group on “Jury Duty.”
I was never more exhausted. I was so tired at the end of this whole thing, because it was your brain staying in character. And not only staying in character, but you’re in a high stakes tennis match. For eight hours a day, you just have to constantly be focused on don’t screw this up. There were pitfalls, little landmines everywhere every day.
This is such a delicate process and one that could easily have fallen apart at various points. How were you able to check in with director Jake Szymanski and the rest of the team to make sure this was working?
Even on a movie set, it’s hard to tell if if what you’re doing is good. It’s not cut together. You’re in a smokescreen. You’re just in a fog through the whole thing and you have little moments that you feel like might have worked. But this one, there’s a heart to the whole thing. That was our North Star and the comedy was gonna follow. I remember many times, saying, “Is this funny? Or is it cruel?” I had that always running through my mind. I lost complete objectivity about whether or not what we were doing was good or not.
But I didn’t pull any punches. I still went for it with my character. I would go home every day and write a list of ideas or funny things that I could maybe do or different reactions. What would the douchey James Marsden say? Every day is an opportunity to go in and create new, weird, exciting moments. You just cross your fingers and hope.
Now that you’ve been in the headspace of a jerk famous actor for a few projects, do you want to keep riding that wave or do you want to step away from that for now?
If I keep doing this, it’s gonna start to feel pathological. It’s gonna be like, “Boy, why does he like playing this role so much? Maybe this is his therapy. Maybe he is this guy.” Once you’ve done a certain type of role or told that joke a couple of times, you want to move on and find a different joke. So yeah, I think I could probably put that in neutral for a while.
“Jury Duty” is now available to stream on Amazon Freevee.