James Marsden Has Found His Place in TV — and Loves Not Being the Leading Man: ‘I’m Having a Ball’
James Marsden likes playing the jackass.
Especially when that jackass is the entitled version of himself he’s playing in Amazon Freevee’s breakout comedy “Jury Duty.”
The improvised docu-style series follows Ronald Gladden, a real person unaware the increasingly chaotic jury he’s found himself on is completely fake. Everyone around him — including Marsden’s portrayal of himself as the out-of-touch celebrity — is an actor playing their part in the ruse.
The acclaimed series has earned Marsden some of the best reviews of his career, at a moment when it seems like he is everywhere. Because he is.
In the past year, he closed the book on Netflix’s “Dead to Me” with its final season and popped by Starz’s “Party Down” revival for a few episodes playing another spoiled — albeit fictional — movie star.
Being the consummate comedic character ready and willing to make a fool of himself for the sake of the material isn’t where a young Marsden thought he would be at 49.
“When you’re young, you want to be taken seriously as a dramatic actor and sure, if given the chance, show that you can also do comedy,” says Marsden. “I never thought there was one thing that was my strength, but over the years, I just find myself being pulled back to making an ass of myself.”
Marsden has had his fair share of dramatic turns in projects like “X-Men” and HBO’s “Westworld,” the fourth and final season of which resurrected his robot character last summer. Again, he’s everywhere.
But the longer he’s been in the industry, the more honest he’s been about the roles he takes. At the end of a long day on set, the ones that send him home with a smile on his face, hungry for more, have often been the weirder, left-of-center comedy projects.
“I’m way more comfortable playing that than I ever was playing the leading man,” he says. “Even in high school, I would always do musicals and plays where I was the goofy guy who did impressions. I would go to school and do ‘Saturday Night Live’ bits and Eddie Murphy stand-up. Comedy is something I have always respected.”
And while he idolizes improv legends like Christopher Guest and recent co-stars like Ben Schwartz who are trained in the “yes, and…” style of improv, his career hasn’t been flush with opportunities to go off-script.
Until “Jury Duty.”
There were no scripts for the series, only story beats and prompts that cue up scenarios from which the actors can take the wheel. Marsden’s first major prompt instructed him to ask the judge to dismiss him from the jury pool because he thinks his star status will bring unnecessary distractions to the trial.
Unfortunately for the cocky Marsden he’s playing, the series doesn’t dare dismiss its biggest name on day one — nor did he want to leave.
“The projects I work on that do really well, I always look back and try to find the common thread,” he says. “I feel like those are the ones where I’m having a ball, and I’m having a ball in ‘Jury Duty.’”
What really stuck with him from the initial pitch was the opportunity to use himself as a vessel to poke and prod at the modern concept of celebrity.
“You’re telling me I get to play whatever version of myself I want to be and lampoon the Hollywood entitled, petulant brat?” he says. “It’s just too much fun to take the piss out of that.”
While “Jury Duty” and “Party Down” offer a similar brand of humor, “Dead to Me”’s final season remains something of a departure for Marsden.
What attracted him to the dark comedy, led by Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini, was the chance to play Steve, Cardellini’s character’s horrible boyfriend in Season 1.
This time, he wasn’t just the jackass. He was the bad guy.
“I like playing the cocksure guy who gets his comeuppance in the end,” he laughs. “And boy does he.”
Steve winds up dead in the pool in the first season’s finale, putting a violent bow on his one-season arc. But when he told creator Liz Feldman he would miss working with the cast and crew and jokingly suggested she could bring him back as his character’s twin brother, she took him seriously.
The show always leaned into soapy storytelling, she told him, but Marsden was skeptical. He didn’t want to spoil a good thing by selfishly holding onto it beyond its prescribed expiration date. But Feldman convinced him otherwise by asking a simple favor: trust her.
He did just that, making his debut in the Season 2 premiere as Steve’s twin, Ben, a funny, messy and loving balm to his brother, who still has his own flaws that fit right in on the tragicomedy.
“I remember still being nervous, especially because there’s a lot of heavy lifting in his story in Season 3,” he says of playing Ben. “But Liz masterfully layers the whole character with complexity. He wasn’t just this nebbish, goofy, insecure guy in love with Christina’s character. He was also wrestling some real dragons with his alcoholism and the loss of his brother. It became a lot more for me to dive into. That’s the stuff you shoot for.”
With four TV projects in a year, Marsden jokes he might have overextended himself. But really, he’s just proud of the work because it confirms a suspicion he cautiously embraces about his career — he’s found his groove.
“I’m kind of feeling myself,” he says, with a smile and a head nod. “You never want to get stuck doing one thing, but it’s hard not to look back and see what’s really working. It’s fun to get into a groove. I don’t want to be an actor who is looking for longevity in this business but is timid or scared to go for it. Some of these roles have been about just going for it.”
Having been bitten by the improv bug, he’s talking with “Jury Duty” creators Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky about what else they could work on, and he already has one idea.
“I think there could be a show around the jackass James Marsden,” he says. “It’s just him traveling the world trying to do benevolent things for people but he just makes it about himself.”
Whether or not he takes the jackass James Marsden show on the road, he is at least indebted to his alter ego for one thing. The distraction claim may have not gotten him out of “Jury Duty” on TV, but the show’s success might make it impossible for him to ever serve on a real jury again.
“I think I’ve got my out for the rest of my life,” he says, as the epiphany rolls around in his head. “I didn’t think of that. I could actually tell a judge I did a show about this and now everybody is going to think it is fake. Not that I’m excited about not doing my civic duty, but I think I may have a compelling case.”