Sometimes it’s better to be a household face than a household name. If you’re recognized for your face, you’re recognized for your work, perhaps one of the greater honors that can be bestowed upon a performer. James Marsden—an actor whose filmography reveals no distinguishable pattern, no sole interest in genre, story, or character—is hyper-aware of the place he has and continues to occupy in Hollywood. He’s appeared in projects as diverse as the X-Men series, 2007’s fantasy musical Enchanted, 2008’s romantic-comedy 27 Dresses, and now HBO’s explosive Westworld, and when asked about how he chooses his roles and if he’s particularly selective, he’s quick to interrupt with a cute, yet blunt “not really.”
Marsden, 44, isn’t sloppy, careless, or ungrateful though. If anything, he’s open and flexible. Throughout our conversation—over Old Fashioneds at the Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles—he often inhabits the voice of a hypothetical film critic. He likes to talk about his image, choices, and career from the outside looking in. “You can always look back and go, ‘Oh, why did you do that movie?’ But you could also look back and go, ‘I can see how he might confuse studio executives. What do I do with him?’” he says.
He narrows in on a type he’s found himself playing a lot: the lovesick puppy who doesn’t get the girl. And he sees how he got that reputation. It happened when Rachel McAdams chose Ryan Gosling in The Notebook, the 2004 romance that made stars of both aforementioned actors. It happened when Jean Grey couldn’t help but fall for Wolverine over Marsden’s broody Scott Summers in X-Men: The Last Stand (2006). It’s a pattern he brings up on his own accord, but is quick to dismiss. “I look at [these roles] through my own objectivity, if I have any. Like, ‘Oh. You were having a great time. Those are the ones that you actually forgot about the camera.’ Anyway, I was reminded of how much an audience really enjoys somebody having fun.”