James Marsden Refuses to Take Himself Too Seriously
“I’m going to try the Katsu burger, but I’m going to do it like the classic Hollywood actor, without the bun,” James Marsden says with a self-aware laugh from the seat across from me at Kimika, in the Nolita neighborhood of Manhattan. This I have come to know as classic Marsden: someone who isn’t just comfortable skewering the perception of an entitled, ego-centric actor, but who frickin’ loves to do it.
He sits in a posture that’s somehow relaxed and attentive, his eye contact so disarming that I now acutely understand why PopSugar once did a story titled “32 Times James Marsden Looked Drop-Dead, Disney-Prince Hot.” In fact, I’m ready to add a 33rd time. Marsden is commonly approached on the street with the line, “Aren’t you the guy from…?” He waits as fans shuffle through the possibilities: Cyclops in four X-Men films? Corny Collins in Hairspray? The other guy in The Notebook? They often come up short, but he doesn’t mind. There’s a playful, easy-going nature to Marsden that’s surprising given the three decades he’s spent working in an industry known for chewing up and spitting out its actors.
Take, for instance, an idea he has to start his own tequila company that’s really a satire on the self-seriousness of some of his contemporaries. “I want it to be the shittiest tequila I can find,” he explains with the same child-like glee he displayed as Prince Eric in several Enchanted films. “Plastic bottle with a piece of masking tape on it that says ‘Tequila’ and it’s $6 a liter. ‘This tastes like shit. Marsden’s Tequila. But it’ll get you fucked up.’”
That dedication to a sense of self-deprecating humor is part of the reason why he took a leap of faith and signed on to Jury Duty, the Amazon Freevee mockumentary that explores the American judicial process as seen through the eyes of a jury. However, as the show tells us from the outset, this is not a normal trial. Everyone involved is an actor, except for one person: Ronald Gladden, an out-of-work solar contractor who applied on Craigslist to be a part of what he thought was a straight-faced documentary about jury duty. No one, most of all Marsden, expected the show to be the breakout hit that it’s become—there’s even Emmy chatter. But that’s largely been Marsden’s modus operandi for the last thirty years: not breaking expectations so much as avoiding them altogether.
I think part of what people are connecting to with Jury Duty is what appears to be a very joyous process. Was it all fun, or were there moments that were frustrating or grueling?
As fun as Jury Duty was, it was a slog. It wasn’t anything glamorous. I was anxiety-ridden throughout. “What’s this show? What is its identity? Are we doing the right thing by this person? Am I funny? Am I going to screw it up?” I’ve never slept better because I would go home and just collapse, but then I’d wake up invigorated creatively.
You play a fake version of yourself in the show that’s no doubt informed by actors you’ve encountered in your life. How do you contend with that sort of self-seriousness?
You leave space for it. I do this bit on sets: I pretend that I’m that guy who’s constantly crying that people don’t understand how difficult it is to be an actor. “We suffer every day. There’s this little flame inside of us that’s so delicate and a little breeze comes by and can blow that focus out.” But it’s true! It is a weird thing that we do, and there’s different ways to compartmentalize it. I would never want to disrespect someone else’s process, if they need to be in a grumpy mood all day because it helps their performance. The only time I have a problem is when someone is blatantly mean. I won’t placate those personalities.
Everyone from Demi Lovato to Darren Aronofsky has shown love for Jury Duty. What’s that like, as someone who came up before the web was offering unlimited feedback?
Social media is now the majority of your press, because that’s where people are listening. I’m not sure we’d be sitting here talking about [Jury Duty] if it weren’t for social media. TikTok was the engine that put this show in a slingshot and shot it out into the universe. You gotta recognize the power of that, and embrace it. The original design of Sonic, everyone on social media hated it. [The studio] spent millions of dollars to redesign that, because people were talking. And they were right!
Are there projects you’ve done that were out of sight, out of mind and then years later, social media brought them back into the conversation?
The Notebook is a big one. Now, a younger audience is going, “She should have been with him [Marsden’s character]! Allie was in a toxic relationship!”
It’s in line with the moment we’re living in, where a lot of art and artists are being reexamined and reevaluated through a modern lens.
The Notebook was a time where we liked the bad boy. Now we want our heroes to be good guys. I think that’s the reason Jury Duty works. We weren’t doing what we were doing just trying to get [Ronald] to the finish line. It needed something else to buoy it, which ended up being this really gentle, kind human being, and it kind of surprised me that this very silly and absurd comedy had this touching throughline.
Showrunner Cody Heller explained to me this concept of “feeding the reality bank,” where you would spend hours deliberating the trial in an effort to make the more absurd moments feel grounded in something. What was that experience like?
Those days would happen after a day where Ronald got suspicious. I’d be genuinely taking a nap on the floor in the deliberation room. I brought workout equipment to do workouts. It was like, yeah, you’re really on jury duty. And it’s kind of… not fun. [Chuckles] But in the back of my mind, I knew it was what would make the other stuff work.
What did it feel like waking up the morning of the reveal?
The only thing that I was prepared to do was sprint up to the witness stand, give him the biggest hug, look him in the eye and tell him, “We weren’t trying to make you the butt of the joke. The friendship we created was real and we’re here to celebrate you.” You’re not gonna be able to process all of that in an afternoon. I can’t even take a surprise birthday party. So it was important to me that he knew that after that day, I was a presence in his life in a positive way. And then I started really feeding the reality bank, so he would know he saw the real me who cared and enjoyed his company.
What happened after the cameras stopped rolling?
I don’t think anyone really knew what to do. We all agreed that we had to have a wrap party, immediately. To go out with Ronald and have a couple of drinks and talk about the process. I knew I had to stay in touch with him, not out of obligation, but just as a human being. He’s gonna have a million questions, and I wanted him to feel me as a strong supportive presence throughout all of that. I was like, “I’m here for you as a friend. I hope this show’s gonna be a massive success. I hope it’s gonna be funny and have a heart to it. But I don’t know. So I’m with you.”
Has your life changed as a result of this show?
It feels like this journey is still continuing, and I’m sharing it with everyone who’s now experiencing it and hitting me on texts. I’m gonna get really heady here: I don’t want to put some sort of pretentious spin on it, but it really feels like we’re experiencing something that, as a culture, we all kind of needed. It wasn’t just simple, empty-calorie jokes.
There was a humanity to it that resonated.
I had so much fun with the ridiculous stuff, and satirizing the Hollywood actor and all that, but at its core, the takeaway for me is that it feels good to be somebody who’s going to elevate any situation that life might throw at you. I want to tell my kids that: be the person that makes the right decision even when no one’s looking. Without getting heavy-handed, the objective of the show—I don’t think it was ever meant to be some sort of sob story or an overly heavy, sentimental thing, but a little dose of that goes a long way. It’s a reminder that that’s the type of person I want to be. And that’s largely, if not wholly, due to Ronald Gladden.
What a note to end on! Perfectly put.
That piece of shit! [Laughs] He’s such a nice guy.
And how artful that what you were putting down, audiences are picking up. They could have been like, “Y’all thought you were being nice, but you’re actually assholes.”
We were very careful. Now I’m just trying to figure out how to parlay this into playing this role on another show. I want to do, like, a really pretentious Stanley Tucci show where I travel the world doing really charitable, benevolent things, but you only see me being terrible when the cameras “aren’t rolling.” I imagine it’s the same satisfaction Larry David gets from Curb Your Enthusiasm. It sure is fun to make fun of that [obnoxious Hollywood] guy.
Source: W Magazine