James Marsden loves playing his “Jury Duty” alter ego, a narcissistic jerk who’s “off his rocker”
James Marsden is not a jacka**, but he loved playing one on TV. In “Jury Duty,” Marsden shows up to do his civic duty alongside a room full of average mortals and nonchalantly lets everyone know how famous he is. As he ingratiates himself with Ronald Gladden, the easygoing hero of the documentary-style comedy, Marsden can barely contain his excitement at being recognized.
What Gladden doesn’t know is that this version of James Marsden is not the real Marsden. The civil case he and the other jurors are considering isn’t real, either. The only real element in this production is Gladden. And Marsden, working with the show’s creators Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky (who worked together on “The Office”) along with showrunner Cody Heller, was adamant about ensuring that Gladden emerge from the story as its hero.
Based on the escalating popularity of “Jury Duty,” that direction is striking a chord. Viewers have fallen for Gladden’s sincerity and forbearance, especially when he responds to characters like David Brown’s tech apparatus-obsessed Todd by showing him “A Bug’s Life” to let Todd know that he understands and accepts him. (The next day, Todd shows up to court wearing “chair pants.”)
Augmenting Gladden’s goodness is Marsden’s terrible behavior. While Gladden naturally makes the strangers he’s sequestered with for two and a half weeks into friends, Marsden’s alter ego tests everyone’s patience by constantly talking about a role he’s up for in a fake prestige drama titled “Lone Pine.”
“He’s constantly looking to get his feathers stroked,” Marsden tells Salon in a conversation conducted over Zoom. “But he’s not on set having his ego coddled by everyone. He’s there with a bunch of other normal people serving their civic duty. He’s not used to not being the center of attention.”
So Jacka** James Marden yanks our attention to him. But in a cast stacked with improvisational actors, Marsden is the highest-profile personality and the one with the least amount of improv experience. Yet he blends in easily and plausibly.
Marsden’s recent appearances in “Dead to Me,” “Party Down” and “Westworld” have established him as the type of performer who’s comfortable as a guest or co-star. In Gladden, he found someone worth supporting onscreen and off.
They still text, a note that adds yet another layer of sweetness to a show where kindness carries the day. That may be why the recently released commentary edition of “Jury Duty” is as enjoyable to experience as the first go-round with the show – you can tell these people genuinely like and care about each other.
Marsden spoke about the cast’s chemistry and the fun of playing the worst version of himself in our wide-ranging conversation.
The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What are some of the things that the conversation around “Jury Duty” is teaching you about the impact it has made?
Well, the fact that I’m still here that we’re still talking about it, to be honest. You always hope that something’s going to take off and catch like wildfire, like this thing has done. But I didn’t anticipate it, to be honest. So I was expecting maybe a week’s worth of interviews.
I mean, listen, it’s been a joy. I love sitting here chatting with you. That, to me is a barometer for how well the show is doing, like you taking the time out to chat with me today, a month and a half after it opened. I think it’s been around that amount of time, right?
It’s been around for a while.
Every day, there’s somebody going, “‘Jury Duty’ is the best show on TV right now.” And it’s a real testament to what we pulled off, and it’s a testament to I think, Ronald . . . having him at the center of it and being the spirit of the show, and his sort of pure-heartedness.
I’ve been watching TV professionally for more than two decades now. I remember and when I first saw this, I thought to myself, “Oh: It’s ‘The Joe Schmo Show.’ I don’t know if you saw that show when it was on Spike TV. “Jury Duty” is not that, of course. It turned out to be something totally different.
I actually never saw “The Joe Schmo Show.” And I did that on purpose, just because I didn’t want anything in my head to dictate what the show was going to be. I also didn’t want to get too scared because . . . I heard mixed things about it.
But you tell me. I’ve seen Nathan Fielder’s “The Rehearsal,” and I saw “Nathan For You,” and obviously all of Sacha Baron Cohen’s stuff, but that’s about it.
Well, first of all, Matthew Kennedy Gould ended up coming off as total sweetheart, But I don’t necessarily know that his sweetheart nature was what the producers meant to highlight. I think they wanted to feature somebody kind, but a little bit gullible. Also, it was a send-up of all reality competition shows like “The Bachelor” and “Survivor.” Even though the people around him are not behaving terribly, they are in this heightened environment. [Of note: TBS is reviving “The Joe Schmo Show” in response to the popularity of “Jury Duty.”]
In “Jury Duty,” you have Ronald, this kind, wonderful, but also smart, very emotionally intuitive person. Then you bring him into a very realistic non-reality setting, allegedly to participate in a documentary. . . . So we have this whole idea of, here’s someone who’s going into a situation expecting he’s being filmed. With that expectation, it seems to be a small miracle that he didn’t at some point, say, “Hold on for a second,” and then look to see if there are hidden cameras. How much do you think that fear of being found out added to the comedy?
The fear was absolutely what kept us focused and balanced and making sure that we don’t go too silly with everything. Because when you read the scripts, you’re kind of like, “This is absurd.” . . . So I think the fear of blowing it was a limiter to how broad the comedy could go. We had to keep it in the zone of, “This could actually really be happening.”
And like you said, he’s a really smart guy. But I think the greatest quote from Ronald was, “For me to be suspicious, to think that all of this was fake and everyone around me was an actor, that none of the trial was real, for me to assume that was so much more absurd than the absurd little things here and there that were scripted. Because,” he was like, “why would anyone think that there’s a show built around me?” I didn’t word it the right way, the way he did, but I think that was really profound. It’s so much crazier for me to think that what this reality really is, is actually happening. Does that make sense?
It makes complete sense.
Yeah. That’s way crazier and way more absurd looking than any of the scripted stuff we had going for him.
I think there were moments where he kind of was like, “Is this a reality show?” And then we would just dial it back and, you know, and then [there would be] six hours of boring court. And then he was like, “OK, well, maybe it’s not a reality show, because why would they be spending money on six hours of boring droning on in court?
That was the “reality bank” that the producers refer to in the commentary.
Right. So we’d feed that every day, especially early on. It was important to establish that we didn’t go out of the gates with silly stuff. . . . Once he got comfortable, and we got to know him a bit, and we as characters got a little agitated with the process, or like, overtired or annoyed that the whole thing, we could start pushing some of the other comedy beats. But, you know, you said just going back to your question, like, I’ve never done anything like this before. And Jacka** James Marsden is off his rocker.
I remember thinking halfway through filming, I was like, “What are we doing? I don’t even know if it’s funny. I don’t know if it’s working. I don’t know if the cameras are catching my bits.” Because you’re going nonstop. The cameras never yelled, “Cut.” You just always had to make sure if you’re doing a little something, you look around and see if there’s a camera on you.
Just to make sure that I do not miss this: did you know how to do the sign spinning that you did in the background during deliberation?
Oh, no. All I was thinking was, today is a light day for my character. He’d be annoyed that the most important part of the jury process – the deliberation, where they try to get a unanimous vote – that his voice does not count at all. I just was thinking he’s going to be as obnoxious as he can and try to draw attention to himself in whatever way possible. So I literally was just looking around the room for props. I was like, “What can I do in the background of everyone else else’s important interviews?”
That, by the way, that’s court evidence, spinning.
Jacka** James Marsden took evidence and turned it into, like “Mattress Sale Here.”
It just shows how obnoxious he can be.
You did a great job. I would have bought whatever product you were bringing to my attention.
Well, thanks for that. James Marsden would appreciate the compliment. And he would have probably told you that he played a sign spinner in a movie once.
I want to ask you about that James Marsden. It seems to me that there’s a certain type of actor who is willing do what you did, and with glee and joy. I don’t think that every actor would do it. Maybe I’m wrong in that.
No, I think you’re right. I mean, I don’t know. I think now, in hindsight, a lot of actors would be like, “Yeah, I want to do that.” But I don’t know, I wasn’t really seeing the danger there. What we do is so much fun. And it should be fun. And I’ve learned to never take myself too seriously with all of that.
I’m wondering if you brought any awareness of what people might be saying about you or celebrities to this character, this other version of James Marsden. Or did you just think, “What would this guy do that I would never do?”
Yeah, I think that was more of the latter of what you just said. One of the traits of a narcissist is not knowing that you’re a narcissist, right? That you don’t really care about other people’s days, or what’s going on in their lives or you only want to hear your horoscope. You don’t want to listen to anyone else’s dreams. So I loved that, to be given permission to play that character.
In real life I get noticed, I get my photos taken, but not to a crazy degree where it’s really encroaching on my privacy. But to be able to make fun of yourself and poke fun a bit, I don’t know. I’m making fun of the fact that he doesn’t get noticed as much as he wants to. And that’s actually kind of a reality, right? I don’t get noticed all the time. But now, the irony is that “Jury Duty” has sort of put me in a slingshot and at least for now. I’m getting recognized everywhere, because of this show.
What do you think was the worst thing that James Marsden did that you’re surprised that he got away with, in terms of how Ronald reacted?
I would say destroying the birthday party, flipping the cake was a pretty extreme thing for him to do. I was worried about that moment because it was written in the script that I just destroy it – I pop every balloon, I throw cake at people, obscenities would just go on. The guy has an absolute breakdown. And I saw immediately after I flipped the cake that Ronald was a little bummed out. And I couldn’t do any more. I just had to stop there. Have a little argument, look like an a**, embarrass myself, because I thought it was a pity party for him. But I think that was the biggest thing.
I didn’t want to feel like we’re traumatizing poor Ronald. The producers, I was driving them crazy throughout. But to their credit, they were all on the same page of, “Let’s be nice to this guy. Let’s never make him the butt of a joke.”
You can tell there was a lot of care taken with Ronald.
There was. I wasn’t going to do it unless we did protect him that way. Like, he was never going to be the source of the comedy as far as humiliating him, because I just think that’s unfair. It’s not an equal playing field, you know?
Let me approach what I first asked you in a different way: What do you think it is about the show that is most connecting to audiences?
I would say a couple of things. One, I think the audience is hungry for something original. We’re in a sort of risk-averse environment right now, where we only want to do IP stuff that’s been done before and reimagine it for a younger audience, because it’s safe. And that’s OK; I’m not slamming that. But you know, it’s exciting sometimes to take some big swings and try to do something different. Because I feel like the audience will respond to that, or at least they have the potential of them responding to it.
But I think the real thing of why it’s working is that there is a good-natured feeling to it at the end. And when I watch it, I feel like we were successful in keeping that our North Star through the whole time, of making sure we’re protecting this guy, and we really are genuinely celebrating him and his nature by the end of it.
People are wanting to see more real stuff, more reality-based stuff. But also, I feel like they’re a little more sensitive to, “Hey, let’s not do anything cruel. Let’s show off the fact that this guy is a hero. Let’s highlight it.”
Now that “Jury Duty” is out, the precise circumstances of the production cannot be replicated. I don’t know if you disagree with that.
No. I mean . . . I think there’s a there’s a version you could do, but it would have to be a new cast. I would think that if they’re going to try to replicate this, that it would be a completely different backdrop. I don’t know that it would be jury duty, I think it’d be a different scenario. But yeah, unless we just decided to do “Jury Duty 2” and have the whole thing be scripted, and Ronald be an actor in the show. But that would be like, “OK, now we’re making ‘The Office.'”
Right. That would lose a little bit of the magic.
And it might be a little self-indulgent. But I don’t know. It’ll be interesting to see what they do next, because I know Amazon’s probably chomping at the bit to give them another season of something.
To that end, there was so much discussion of “Lone Pine” that there was a moment where I wondered, “What if ‘Lone Pine’ were an actual movie?”
I definitely want to make that movie. I don’t know if it would last two hours but I would love to make a 15-minute short.
Would it be a comedy with a heightened dramatic tone?
I don’t know. Maybe it’ll be like a real pretentious, serious drama. And you can either laugh if you think it’s funny or not. That’s my view on it. Do you remember “Tropic Thunder”?
Oh my gosh, yes.
Remember the trailers in the beginning of the movie? That’s what I want it to be. If I did that with “Lone Pine” – which, I’m hell-bent on making this happen – I would approach it like a mediocre actor has been given an opportunity to win an Oscar and he has to squeeze it into these 15 minutes of film.
I really hope this happens.
We’ll figure out a way of doing it. And Ron has got be in it. We’ve got to get Ronald in “Lone Pine.” And then Chris Pine’s got to come in and do a cameo as well.
All episodes of “Jury Duty” as well as a newly-released cast commentary edition are streaming on Amazon Freevee.