You Won’t Believe How Lizzy Caplan and James Marsden Sealed Their Friendship
Lizzy Caplan and James Marsden are friends. Good friends. Close enough that Caplan calls Marsden “Jimmy”—“When I hear ‘Jimmy,’ I’m like, Okay, that’s someone who knows me from a long time ago,” he says, smiling—and has programmed her phone so a very, er, colorful photo appears whenever the two of them get in touch.
“Your picture when you call me is of this Toblerone bar stuck in your butt,” the Fleishman Is in Trouble star tells Marsden, holding the proof up to her laptop’s camera. Some 4,000 miles away, Marsden—Zooming in from Bavaria, where he’s shooting an unscripted show for National Geographic—hoots and claps his hands.
A fitting image, considering the project that first brought the pair together. They met in the summer of 2011 while shooting Bachelorette, Leslye Headland’s caustic comedy based on her eponymous play, about three grown-up mean girls (Caplan, Kirsten Dunst, and Isla Fisher) causing chaos the night before their high school frenemy (Rebel Wilson) gets married. Marsden played best man Trevor, a charming snake who spends most of his screen time schmoozing Dunst. In their only solo scene together, Caplan’s Gena clocks Trevor on the head with a metal pitcher.
But though Gena and Trevor were mere acquaintances, Caplan and Marsden became good pals. “I was going through a divorce, and she was one of my closest friends during that time,” Marsden says. Apparently, Caplan was so supportive that she seemed like an expert adviser: “I don’t know if you were helping 12 other friends go through divorces, but…”
“No, I was too young for that,” she chimes in. But maybe the experience helped lay the foundation for Fleishman, an FX drama about a very different trio—played by Caplan, Jesse Eisenberg, and Adam Brody—grappling with middle-aged malaise. It’s a lot heavier than Marsden’s buzzy Jury Duty, a largely improvised comedy about a wacky courtroom where everyone is an actor…except for juror Ronald Gladden, who has no idea he’s being duped. “We’re surrounding him with a bunch of weirdos, this sort of circus of absurdity, and seeing how he reacts to it,” Marsden explains. “But we’re not going to do anything that’s going to make him the butt of the joke.” Unlike, say, that Toblerone bar.
Vanity Fair: What do you remember about the first time you met?
James Marsden: I remember meeting you at the read-through in New York.
Lizzy Caplan: We hadn’t met, and I remember thinking you were possibly going to be a bit of a dick. I don’t know why. And you were talkative immediately, and then I was like “oh, okay.”
Marsden: I was just doing my Method thing for the role
Caplan: He’s very good at playing a dick. The sweetie is very good at playing a dick.
Marsden: But we became close friends. The cast, we all bonded. We were staying at the Soho Grand and we would just take over that bar. And we sat through a hurricane, remember that? I forget which one it was.
Was that Irene? That was the hurricane that was supposed to be a giant catastrophe, and then in New York at least, it wound up not being a very big deal.
Caplan: Yeah, it was like a fart in the bath. But they taped up all the windows—people really locked us in the Soho Grand. It was so fun.
Marsden: It was fun. It was like camp.
Caplan: That was a very short shoot, but it felt really long. It was one of those very—they don’t happen all that often, but where everybody gets so close and you make these lasting friendships. And then after that movie, we would go out in LA all the time, for years and years. James was my big takeaway friendship, and now we just are constantly never in the same fucking place.
Around that time, there were rumors that you were dating.
Marsden: We were with each other all the time, is probably why. We liked to get the gossip going.
Caplan: Oh yeah. Love that side of it all.
Marsden: Remember just smoking our assess off? I was never a smoker [before].
Caplan: I know, I used to bring that out in people in my youth. It’s terrible.
Where did you both feel like you were careerwise when you met, when you were making this movie?
Marsden: I remember feeling like I was sort of in an in-between phase. There was a swell of popular things I was a part of in the late 2000s, like Enchanted and 27 Dresses. And then I went through the divorce, and then that kind of… I don’t know if that had any effect on it at all, but I remember [feeling] sort of disoriented, and it sort of leaked into my career. I don’t remember feeling on solid ground, career-wise.
Caplan: Yeah, it’s hard to feel that way generally. It really is cyclical. [Bachelorette producer] Jessica Elbaum and I, we were developing a pilot for a while that Leslye was going to write, based on a book.
Marsden: Leslye Headland?
Caplan: Yes. And that was a very long process that ended up being a road to nowhere. From that we were like, oh, Leslye wrote all these plays—let’s make Bachelorette. I remember how massive it was to get Kirsten, who just was a goddess in our minds. And then James, I remember being like, “Oh, he’ll never do it. He’s like, a famous guy.”
Everything back then just felt new and exciting, and like we’re going to take over the world. And work was everything—there was no home. There was only wherever we were in the world, and the people we were with were our best friends and our family. It was this all-encompassing time.
Hearing you talk about it, Lizzy, you sort of sound like Libby from Fleishman, talking about her youth with Toby and Seth.
Caplan: I know, it’s kind of crazy. It definitely feels like a different lifetime ago. [Fleishman creator] Taffy Brodesser-Akner wrote a lot about this. The Bachelorette shenanigans—that was the only thing that was interesting to me in my 20s. And now that I’m 40, the only thing that’s interesting to me is the idea of grappling with the things that 40-year-old people are grappling with. It feels rare to the point of almost feeling novel to explore these ideas, when the truth is we used to make stuff like this all the time. We just don’t make it anymore, for a litany of different reasons.
You mean entertainment for grownups.
Caplan: Yeah. When I was younger, I really liked stories about adult people in the adult world. So I was definitely drawn to that. Also, I was pregnant when I first started talking to them about [Fleishman], and I loved the idea of getting to be a tourist in that world—the world that is stifling Libby—because it doesn’t feel like my reality at all. And part of that is because I got to live this very full life, until I eventually got married and had a kid pretty late. James and I are polar opposites in that way; he did that very young, and I did it very old.
And so I didn’t feel the things that Libby was feeling. I didn’t feel suffocated and stifled, and like I had given up my youth and my potential for this other dream. It wasn’t me, but I was about to enter into this whole new unknown chapter. It felt like the safest way to dip my toe into those unknown and terrifying waters, while at the same time being really happy that my reality is a variation on that theme.
Jury Duty is obviously a very different type of show, but James, that also must have felt like leaping into an unknown, unpredictable situation. As an actor, the idea that you’re living a role and you only get one shot to do each scene—that seems really hard.
Marsden: I mean, I’m going to sound like the actor prick if I say, “Yeah, it’s really hard”—the actor prick that I play in the show. There was a whole lot of uncertainty about it, for sure. I’m not used to feeling that unsure. But I think that was part of the appeal as well. It felt original. It was a good company: it was Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky from The Office, and David Bernad, who’s a friend of mine, and we’d done a couple of things before. And Todd Schulman, who does all of Sacha [Baron Cohen]’s stuff for the Borat movies.
And so it definitely felt like there was an insulation factor. I felt like I was in good hands. I think I got so excited about the improv element of it, because that’s a style of comedy that I’ve always loved. Christopher Guest was always one of my heroes, and I love Larry David and The Larry Sanders Show. So I was always itching to do that kind of comedy. It was very contained. It was one take for five hours a day, and it was the most Method I’ve ever been. But it was the most absurdly Method character to do it with. But also just tremendously fun. I wish I could say that it wasn’t so fun, but I was having a blast playing someone who was just so unsavory and full of himself.
What caught me by surprise was that wildcard element of the guy who didn’t know the whole thing was fake. And that was the biggest struggle through the whole thing, was like… One, I was like, this is ethically questionable. What are we doing to this person for three weeks of their life? Two, from the beginning I went, “I don’t want to do a prank show.” I don’t want to do anything that’s mean-spirited or is going to turn the screws to somebody who didn’t ask for it. And I was reassured that we’re creating a hero’s journey for this guy, and hopefully by the end he’ll have his 12 Angry Men moment and unite everyone.
But it still was like, who the fuck’s going to see this? I don’t know what Amazon Freevee is. Is there a market for this? It felt like a couple of your friends grabbing some camcorders and, “This will be a fun idea, let’s go shoot it.” You know?
Caplan: May I say, that’s amazing that it worked.
Marsden: It is amazing that it worked. I mean, it really is. And that’s largely due to Ronald, the guy that we freaked out.
I can’t believe they found him. I can’t believe he exists.
Marsden: It would not have worked without him. He was walking into scenes that we had scripted as if he had read the scripts. It was perfect. It really was perfect.
Caplan: I need to finish it, and I’m sure it will get spoiled in this call. How hard was it to not shoot the other actors looks when he did something like that?
Marsden: I think the thing that kept everybody from breaking is because everybody was singularly terrified that they were going to be the one that would knock the Jenga thing over. It’s one of these processes where the further along you go, the higher the stakes are. So I think when those moments happened, they were little gifts. It was like, “holy shit, this is great. Don’t screw it up. Don’t be the one to fuck it up.” I think the fear, alone, was enough to make you not bust up.
There were moments where we came really close. But any time [Ronald] got suspicious, Jake Szymanski, our director, would just say, “Okay, guys, pull it back. Tomorrow, get ready for six hours of boring droning on in court.”
Both of you have done a lot of work in TV, from your earliest roles to now. How has the medium changed since your days on Saved By the Bell: The New Class and Freaks and Geeks?
Caplan: It’s totally different.
Marsden: I mean, I’m way older than Lizzy.
Caplan: 35 years older.
Marsden: In fact that’s when I moved to LA, in 1935. I remember back in the day, it wasn’t really spoken—but it was like, you were a TV actor, or you’re a movie actor. So there was a very clear distinction of snobbery between the two. I remember being told, “don’t do too much TV, because [then] you’ll never have a film career”—which was always preposterous to me. But now it’s, like, completely flipped. There’s no movies being made, and all the good content and the interesting directors and writers have migrated to television. Like, I could see your show, Lizzy—clearly that book could have been adapted for a film. Like Kramer versus Kramer, that’s the feel. But who’s making Kramer versus Kramer anymore?
Caplan: Nobody. Yeah, this felt like an indie film from, like, the ’90s or the early aughts. And they really don’t seem to be making very many of those. I hope that it changes. But yes, I agree with Jimmy: it used to be, television was a stepping stone to a film career. And now it’s completely different. I didn’t see it going this way, where television was the prestige medium. But because I did mostly TV, I got used to that, and that was the version of this job that I really always loved the most. I think it’s just because I’ve been conditioned to work at that pace. The constant changes, the constant rewriting—I find all of that very exciting.
Marsden: Remember doing 22 episodes a year?
Caplan: I don’t think I ever actually made 22 episodes. My shows always got canceled at, like, 19.
Marsden: Now it’s like, six to eight [episodes].
Caplan: I know. And it takes a year. That’s the other thing I am a little frustrated by. Even for Masters of Sex, which was a prestige cable show—we would shoot 10 or 12 episodes in three months. And now if you shoot 10 episodes, it’s like nine months. I do remember doing network shows, and you would shoot a script in six days. Party Down, the original Party Down, we shot each episode in four days. Biggest heartbreak ever, by the way, is that James is in the new Party Down and I didn’t get to hang out with him.
Marsden: That bummed me out. I almost just said, “No, I’m not doing this unless she’s there.” I showed up with a Toblerone in my ass.
Caplan: You have to come back. I’m inviting you.
If Party Down gets a fourth season, do you plan to be there?
Caplan: Yes. I am actively waiting for the phone to ring. I feel like it should.
Marsden: Come on, Starz.
Does Jury Duty sound like something you would sign on for too, Lizzy? If they had approached you to play “Lizzy Caplan”?
Marsden: You’d be so good at it.
Caplan: I think that would be a blast.
Marsden: Here’s the thing about Lizzy Caplan. When I met you, I knew you were someone who was just a hilarious, brilliant comedian. But then your level of emotional intelligence, and when you get into doing drama too—I remember the old saying, “if you can do comedy you can do anything.” And you are the poster child for that. You can watch her do something wickedly funny, and then turn around and do Fleishman and break your heart.
Caplan: We’re best friends forever. I love you, James.
Marsden: No, I’m not trying to wax your car. It’s the truth.
You got into this a little bit when you were talking about how the business has changed—but how is the writer’s strike affecting both of you right now?
Caplan: I mean, James had to move to Germany to do German-only television.
Marsden: Reality TV, unscripted.
Well, you could do a second season of Jury Duty in Germany, because they haven’t seen it yet.
Caplan: Yeah, totally.
Marsden: They won’t understand it, either.
Caplan: Yeah, I’m in New York to shoot this show. It’s happening. Our scripts are written. But there’s definitely a cloud of, “Are we going to shoot this show?” hanging over us at all times. [One week after our conversation, Netflix paused production of that show, Zero Day, due to the strike.]
I stand with the writers; I’ll stand with the actors if it goes to that. I hope for everybody’s sake this gets figured out quickly, though, because it’s like, echoes of COVID. Personally, I’m good on the “taking a breather” tip right now. I feel like COVID, we just got out of it—things really feel like they’re returning to normal. Which is not to say that this is not something that absolutely is warranted and needs to be done because I do believe that it does, but yeah. I just want… I’m hungry for a return to extended normalcy.
Marsden: I’m with Lizzy too; I stand with the writers as well and the actors, if they go as well. It’s a tricky thing, because we all want to work, and everybody wants this industry to keep thriving. But I think we’re in a recalibration point, and I think it’s overdue. I’m hopeful that we can all figure it out. We’re going to hopefully figure it out, and take some time to live our lives outside of our nomadic flying around, taking acting jobs all over the globe.
Well, maybe the silver lining would be a break that gets the two of you in the same city again. You could get out another Toblerone.
Caplan: Or the original Toblerone that’s been turned into a diamond in his little anus for the past 11 years.
Source: Vanity Fair