James Marsden Talks Conceiving a Very Different Version of Himself for ‘Jury Duty’
James Marsden wants to make one thing clear: Jury Duty is not a prank show. Indeed, looking at the new Amazon Freevee series, which premieres today, centering on one man (Ronald Gladden) who is placed on jury duty for a completely fabricated case and trial, one could assume the focus would be on doing the most ridiculous things possible, then pointing out a camera and mocking his reactions. But even following other fake reality shows with the same concept like The Joe Schmo Show, Jury Duty is distinct in its end goal.
“What the producers told me at the beginning when they pitched it to me,” Marsden explains to Parade.com, “is that we’re creating a hero’s journey for this man. So that, at the end of it, he can have hopefully have—if we do our jobs, fingers crossed—his Twelve Angry Men moment at the end, where he’s uniting all of these weird characters and, and becoming the leader of this jury.
Read on for James Marsden’s full interview with Parade.com. The first four episodes of Jury Duty are currently available on Amazon Freevee, followed by two more on April 14, with the final two episodes arriving April 21.
Jury Duty is obviously something very different than anything you’ve ever done before. What made you want to sign onto the project?
It’s a first for me in many ways. The format of the show is unlike anything I’ve seen before. It’s basically The Truman Show where you’re doing three or four weeks of doing jury duty that’s completely fake, in a fake, empty, abandoned courthouse that we populate with background players and a cast full of improv actors, and myself playing a heightened version of myself. And one guy who thinks the whole thing is real.
We talked about the why. But how were you approached about doing this, especially considering you are playing yourself?
So David Burnett is a close friend of mine. We’ve done a few projects together before. He produced The White Lotus and we did D Train together and a couple other things. And he came to me first and said, “Hey, we have this idea that we want to run by you. We’re looking for a celebrity to sort of play themselves.” He knew how much I love that world of improvisational acting. I’m a Christopher Guest sycophant, I love him. And the idea of having sort of a scripted outline of where you’re gonna go, but you got to be present and nimble and be able to pivot.
Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg, creators of The Office, were on the Zoom as well and said, “Here’s the concept. No. 1, it’s not a prank show, we’re not pranking this guy. We’re basically surrounding him with all these kind of crazy scenarios that we think are hilarious. You get to come in and be you and whatever version of yourself that you think would be funny.” And I’m like, “Well, I’d love to send up Hollywood and the entitled celebrity.” And so I get to play that version of myself. And then in doing that, can we get this guy to the finish line, and to the moment where it’s revealed to him that the whole thing was fake. The north star for me was always that we can’t be making fun of him to him. But we can make fun of ourselves and have a lot of fun with these situations.
When it came to creating this version of yourself, how much of it was something the producers created? How much input did you have into who this James Marsden was?
We all in unison agreed that this should be a guy who can’t stop talking about himself, can’t stop talking about the next project. He’s trying to get people to ask about the next project he’s doing. He’s clearly the most egocentric. He assumes that all of these normal people aren’t that interesting and how lucky them they get to share jury duty with James Marsden. The character was such a fun thing to play. Because like I said, you’re sending up the entitled Hollywood celebrity and sort of satirizing a very heightened version of what that would look like.
How did planning out what would happen in an episode of Jury Duty occur? Did you and all the other actors have an outline as to what should get accomplished on that day?
There was a structure and a sense that every day we would meet beforehand, for about an hour before Ronald got there. We show up in the courtroom; we go over the day’s beats that we’re gonna push. And then we would all leave and literally hide around the block to then arrive in our cars for court. So we would go over the day’s moments. And at the end of the day, when he got in his car and got taken to the hotel—because we all got sequestered—we would have to pretend to leave, and then come back and go over the day. Figure out which worked and which didn’t work.
Jake Szymanski, the director would say, “Did anyone hear him say anything that is alarming?” And someone would say, “I remember there was a moment that he said, ‘This feels like I’m on a reality show.’ So maybe he’s starting to get suspicious.” So the next day, we pulled everything back, and it was just boring court. It was just wasting film really, none of that is gonna make the movie or the show. But we have to do it so that it makes it believable for him. Because if it’s just comedic beat after comedic beat, he’s gonna catch on and go, “This can’t be real.”
You talk about being a fan of Christopher Guest and improv. But how tough was it to actually think on your feet without breaking or trying to show your hand?
I mean, you could always pull the ripcord. One of the great things about the show, too, is I’m not the star of the show. Every other actor in that room is the star of the show. And we’re all just fully equal, just complementing one another. And they’ve got some really, really funny people in this cast. With Ronald, there are cameras following him around. There’s a documentary film crew filming some boring documentary on jury duty. So if we’re in the deliberation room or the hallway, if I started to laugh at someone else’s thing, I could walk away or go to the bathroom.
But at the end of each day, we sat in a room, and it was a group interview. So you’re sitting there listening to the other characters, the other actors push their funny bits. And if you start laughing in that room, anything that’s going to tip the hat or make him get suspicious, you really had to suppress it. It felt like you’re on stage, like live theater. And there was this anxiety. Like, “Boy, we’re two weeks in with this guy. If I break character now, or if I screw something up.” What if, while he’s in the bathroom, I’m running out of the courtroom to the control room to talk to Jake and the writers going, “Hey, what do I do here?” I gotta make it back into the courtroom before he gets out of the bathroom. I don’t know how long he’s gonna be in the bathroom. I mean, if you break any of that stuff, and he sees a hidden camera or something, we’re screwed. So it was like, how do we make this funny, celebrate this guy, and get it to the finish line? So it was a constant dance throughout the whole three weeks of figuring out the high wire act element of the whole thing.
Lastly, how do you think you would do if you were in Ronald’s shoes? Would you be suspicious of all the weird things happening around you?
I probably lean more towards the suspicious side. Like, “Oh, hold on. This is performative.” I mean, I probably wouldn’t have handled it as well as he did. I don’t like a surprise birthday party, let alone being bamboozled for three and a half weeks of your life. I got excited that we’re creating a satire in the courtroom. But I also was well aware that this guy didn’t know this is fake. And immediately when the audience knows that he doesn’t know it’s fake, they’re on his side. So we better make them laugh. And we better make them know for certain that we’re celebrating this person’s character, a good-natured, very pure-hearted human being. And we’re not humiliating him or trying to prank him. We’re hoisting him on our shoulders and creating a path for him to become the leader of this group and unify all of us.