A Few Minutes With James Marsden, a Man We Love
Is James Marsden’s character alive or dead? A reasonable question to ask when watching him in almost anything lately: For two seasons he was repeatedly killed and brought back on HBO’s Westworld. Then on his next big TV show, Netflix’s Dead to Me, it seemed like he was finally playing a mortal human, killed off in the final episode of the first season, only to return in season two. Even his Sonic movie came back from certain doom. Perhaps the problem is Marsden is just too damn charming to kill off for good.
“I remember people saying… You got a good look. You’ll do well in this town,” he told me when we chatted in on May 13. “I never wanted to really lead with that. I wanted to be treated more as a character actor than a marquee-idol, good-looking dude with nothing else behind him.”
Ah yes, the classic challenge of being too good looking and too charming. I relate. But sure enough, Marsden’s character work is seemingly unending; in the past few years, he’s played opposite Cate Blanchett, Christina Applegate, a robot played by Evan Rachel Wood, and Sonic the Hedgehog. He knows how to stand out alongside Oscar winners just as well as he does, um, a CGI hedgehog.
In early episodes of Dead to Me, Marsden played Steve, a smarmy, aggressive businessman, and has now returned from the dead as Ben, Steve’s dorkier twin, in Season Two. What could have been classic soap opera material, in the writer Liz Feldman’s hands, is something much more sumptuous, a challenge that Marsden rises to seemingly effortlessly.
He talked with Esquire after wrapping the show’s second season, an Enchanted reboot, a film adaptation of Stephen King’s The Stand, and how he manages to dodge death so often. For now, the busy actor is laying low in quarantine with the rest of the world, getting some dad time in with his kids. “It’s been a tough time but also it’s a time of recalibration,” Marsden said. “Really, figuring out what’s important and what all the little things you used to ignore are. All the sudden, I’m like, ‘Ah, I have a backyard with fresh air and trees around.'” The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Esquire: Can you say what you were working on in Vancouver or is that still kind of under wraps?
James Marsden: Yeah, I was doing a few things. I was going back and forth from Vancouver. I was working on Stephen King’s The Stand which is another huge irony because that’s a book about a pandemic that wipes out about 99 percent of the population and society has to figure out a way of rebuilding for those one percent of people that were somehow immune. Yeah, it’s crazy. And then I was flying back and forth doing the second season of Dead to Me and a little bit of Mrs. America—the Cate Blanchett thing. So it was busy in the best way. Actors always like to be busy, but then I was definitely ready once we were done to come back and chill out.
You’re a whole new character in this season of Dead to Me. What is it like to pivot from playing one type of character to another when you’re juggling that many projects?
I guess when I first heard the idea, I was excited because anything that Liz creates—anything that comes out of her mind—highlights the real kind of interesting little corners of who we are as human beings. So I get excited when she comes up with something. She said, Look, I know this kind of could be like a corny soap opera-y trope to say hey we’re bringing him back and he’s a twin! So there was a little apprehension there because I was like… well not that I’m against the idea, I just hope that I can pull it off.
But then when she started going into detail about who [Ben] is and where we were going with the season and how he’s just a much better person than his twin brother… as an actor, to be given an opportunity to create that contrast and have people say, wow that’s the same actor doing that, I don’t know, it’s exciting to me. But it happened on the success of the first season which wasn’t a surprise, but was. You never assume every job you do is going to take off and be number one on Netflix and people talk about it.
I had a good feeling when we were shooting it, but and then it was like, I’m dead. So I sent Liz an email and was like, first, just congratulating her on the success of the show and then I sent hey, if you want to get your creative juices flowing in that mind of yours, I’ve been Googling the possibility of the odds somebody actually survives a traumatic head injury/drowning. Basically saying, Hey can I come back in some way? Because this family was so much fun to be with and the writing, I want you to write every comedy I ever do.
She called me back up a couple weeks later and was like, I know you were joking but we’ve been thinking about it, and what do you say about this? She’s like, You’re the most fun person to work with and you’re so kind-hearted and we’re going to use a lot of that and we’re just going to make you a little dorkier than you really are.
Well it felt a bit like an opposite Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde situation going on. These characters are so different, but one character can’t really exist without the other.
Basically the ending of the [season] puts [Ben] right in Steve’s position in some regard. So there’s a perverse element to the show that is somehow a huge guilty pleasure for me, just watching the show. I like how dark and perverse some of the storylines go. And then, what’s amazing is what springs from that is comedy and the human capacity to actually connect to people and feel. The show really touches on so many different things. But yeah it was, I just treated it like a whole new character, you know?
I mean obviously we had to be aware of any times I felt more like Steve in the performance. And I told Liz, I’m going to put a volume knob on me and you just come in and turn it up, turn it down. Just direct me left and right and she would say, alright let’s dial up the self-deprecating dad jokes and the corny, cheeseball dorkiness. Anytime I got kind of cocky or charming with a performance, she would say, “Okay, that’s where I saw a little bit of Steve. Let’s dial that back a little bit. Let’s make him a little more dopey.” So it was a cool process.
I’m sure that off set or when the camera’s not shooting, you and Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini have incredible rapport, but does that on-screen dynamic change with a whole new character?
We laugh and goof in between takes. They just look at me and are like, It’s so weird, Marsden. I prefer seeing you this way so much more than when I saw Steve. As fun as Steve could be to play, he’s this really nasty, narcissistic, money-laundering prick, and very egocentric and only about him. I remember Christina going, Boy, I sure do prefer you. There’s more James to Ben than there is to Steve. But I will say the first time we showed up on set, Christina gave me a big hug and she was like, first words out of her mouth were, So, twin, huh? No pressure but the season’s kind of riding on you, my friend.
Beyond Steve and Ben, I was taking stock and over the past few years. You seem to have the strangest collection of roles, in the best possible way.
That’s the goal.
Sonic to Mrs. America, and then Teddy in Westworld and this. What is it that you’re particularly looking for when you’re going in for a project?
I guess the best answer to that question is, I don’t have any preconceived ideas about the type of character I want to play. I sort of leave a very broad net for anything, really. Genre, type of character, whatever. I just take the scripts that I have been given by my manager and my agent and I read them all. I love that the projects are kind of all over the place, and I think that it’s become one of the things over the last 25 years that’s beginning to define what I do. To me, that’s such a feather in my cap, cause you’re an actor. You’re not a personality, which is nice. This is why you want to be an actor: to play different roles. Even in high school in Oklahoma, it was my dream to be a regular on Saturday Night Live, so I can do 10 different characters a week.
I don’t charge forward looking for the diversity [in roles]. I just take the scripts that I’ve been given and I consider, does it, is it a story I want to tell? Is that a project I want to be a part of? Is that a cast I want to be a part of? Is that a director I want to work for? You look back and it’s kind of this wonderful mosaic of, God, what does he do? The same guy who’s talking opposite a blue hedgehog is now opposite Cate Blanchett in a 1970’s women’s Civil Rights Movement show.
I’m just excited to see you finish something still breathing. When you initially died on Dead to Me this past season, I thought, Okay, at least if he’s going to die, he gets to die peacefully for once and not come back. And then boom: Season Two. It was like a whole Teddy, Westworld situation again. You cannot be killed.
I know. Isn’t it funny? It really is like, my god, the two things that are constant in all the things he does are: he dies and he comes back. I guess next up for me is a zombie movie. I haven’t really ticked that box yet.
My editor has this theory that actually Ben is just another iteration of Teddy in a Westworld park.
That’s great. [laughs] You know what, I hadn’t even really thought about that until you just mentioned all of it. I’m like, Oh right, yes, cause my role in Dead to Me is kind of Teddy. Yeah, that’s hilarious.
We have our fingers crossed that that’s a legitimate theory.
That really is a legitimate theory. That’s pretty good. Netflix and HBO would have to be in bed in some way together to make that happen I guess, but I like it. I like it a lot. What does Marsden do? Oh, he dies and comes back really well as a different character. Let’s cast him in this.
I remember sitting around Evan Rachel Wood on the Westworld set saying, Wait a second. That’s what being an actor is. We had this revelation… we’re like, we’re hosts. What do we do for a living? We go to work, we put on clothes, we turn into another character. We’re programmed to deliver lines. Not programmed, but you know what I mean. We have fake relationships with other people, much like a host, and they yell cut and you reset and you do the whole thing over again. That’s what being an actor is, is a host.
I like having roles that are kind of all over the place, and I like that this industry believes in me enough to know that I can kind of jump around. I’d rather be the guy who comes back, who dies, comes back as a different person. Dies and comes back as a different person. That’s the joy of being an actor.
At this point, if we’re gonna keep going with the unkillable character, we have to talk Enchanted. If Disenchanted happens, can you slide back into that world?
Oh, great question. Yeah, I think there’s a chance. You know, that’s been… not frustrating but it’s been… we keep hearing that this thing is coming back, right? Like, we did the first one years ago, and it was a huge success. We had so much fun doing it and the conceit was, it was very clever and kind of ambitious. It just really worked and largely due to Amy’s completely mesmerizing and enchanting performance, and it just was one of those where everything clicked. The formula worked, and we were surprised that they didn’t just order a new one right away, but I think at the time, Disney was going through a bit of a changing of the guards, and it may have gotten lost in the shuffle.
Now, it’s like, if they’re going back and bringing back all their classic movies, I sure have more hope than I usually do because every year it seems like they’re saying, We’re making it, and it never happens. So I’ve kind of trained myself to not think about it, and if it does materialize, then absolutely I would love to, I mean I wouldn’t necessarily love to jump back into the tights and puffy sleeves. But yeah, I’m totally down for that, but I think we’ve got to do it soon! I mean all joking aside, to be coming back and stepping back into the shoes of one of my favorite characters that I’ve ever played, would be a joy. It really would.
That’s one of my top five favorite experiences, and it’s rare that you just have a movie that works so well like that one did. It’s also a joy to work on and great people, and when that happens, you just want to do it again and again and again. So, fingers crossed on that one.