James Marsden frequently refers to a famous quote by art critic Robert Hughes: “The greater the artist, the greater the doubt. Perfect confidence is granted to the less talented as a consolation prize.” Though Marsden has been a working actor for 20 years, he openly admits he is still learning. “You never feel like you’ve mastered it,” Marsden says. “As an actor, you always think your last job is your last job, and you’re always doubting yourself and worried that people will see you’re a fraud.”
That Marsden became a movie star is not surprising; he has the classic good looks, easygoing charm, and natural talent of a matinee idol. In fact, the only person who might be surprised by his success is Marsden. He is self-effacing to a fault, at different points referring to himself as “boring” and “downright goofy.” But it’s that willingness to laugh at himself that has changed the game for him. After breaking through as Cyclops in the “X-Men” movies, Marsden spent years playing the handsome love interest who didn’t quite get the girl in high-profile films like “The Notebook” and “Superman Returns.” Things changed when Marsden gravitated more to comedy and character roles, beginning with “Enchanted,” in which he mocked his resemblance to a Disney prince. Since then, he has filmed roles as varied as “Death at a Funeral” and “Straw Dogs,” and stolen scenes in TV comedies such as “Modern Family” and his current “30 Rock” gig, where he plays Tina Fey’s lovable-loser boyfriend Criss Cross.
The next month will see the release of two very different films that showcase Marsden’s range in character roles. First up is “Robot & Frank,” a sweet indie in which he plays the son of former jewel thief Frank Langella, who bonds with a robot companion. That will be followed by the raucous comedy “Bachelorette,” in which Marsden “embraces my inner douchebag” as a groomsman looking to score with maid of honor Kirsten Dunst. For a character actor trapped in a leading man’s bone structure, Marsden couldn’t be more thrilled at where his career is. “It’s gotten easier to pursue character roles, because now I have a bit of an arsenal to show people the different roles I’ve done,” he says. “Now people know I’m not just the guy who fires laser beams out of his eyes.”
Boy Gets Girl
From an early age, Marsden knew he wanted to be a performer. He grew up doing school plays, watching movies, and perfecting imitations. For the skilled mimic, “Saturday Night Live” was essential viewing. “That’s how I got attention from girls in high school,” Marsden says. “I would do impersonations or just rip off Dana Carvey and Eddie Murphy and do voices and characters.” Marsden says the act backfired with the ladies. “Girls would go, ‘Oh, he’s a cute guy. Too bad he’s so goofy.’ ” Still, he says, “I liked showing off. And I tried to figure out how to turn that into a career.”
Though he had visions of palm trees and white sand beaches in California, Marsden tried to be pragmatic and enrolled in college to study broadcast journalism. “I figured I would be a news anchor in Oklahoma or something. That way, I could at least feed my ego a little bit and get to be on camera and be some sort of local celebrity,” he says. “But I soon realized I wasn’t satisfied, so I moved to L.A. at 19 to pursue an acting career.” Marsden says he was fortunate in that his father happened to know casting director Gary Oberst. The late CD connected Marsden with a manager, who submitted him for auditions. “I was lucky because I had someone who was legitimate and not trying to take advantage of me,” says Marsden, who has never formally studied acting. “It was really a combination of luck and having some natural ability and then stepping up to the plate.”
Marsden found success early—“I define success as working as an actor”—booking guest spots on such shows as “Saved by the Bell” and “Blossom.” Teen-centric films such as “Disturbing Behavior” and “Gossip” followed, at which point Marsden’s agent sat him down and told him to be selective. “He explained I was getting a lot of good response and could make this a long career if I made the right choices,” Marsden says. “And I realized at an early age that the choices you make in this industry—and in life—are important. Sometimes saying no is just as valuable as saying yes.” To that end, Marsden turned down a three-year contract on a soap opera in his first year in L.A. “It was a steady job and good money, and I would have been happy to do it,” he says. “But I was encouraged to turn it down and find the most challenging, interesting roles possible.”
Still, Marsden was aware that he was becoming typecast as the guy who didn’t get the girl. “That looks like it was by design, and it wasn’t at all,” he says. “It almost looks like it was pathological. But the thing is, for every one of those films, there were two or three projects I did where I wasn’t that guy. Those just happened to be the ones that everyone saw.” He was also aware that his onscreen roles had been more of the serious variety. So when “Enchanted” came along, in which a cartoon princess played by Amy Adams finds herself cast into the real world of modern New York City, Marsden was drawn to the goofy cartoon prince over the leading man. “It’s rare for me to get cocky about a role when I read it,” Marsden says. “But I knew exactly how to play that guy.”
Key to making “Enchanted” work was that the actors portraying fairy-tale characters committed to the roles without any irony. Marsden recalls that at an early table read, he, Adams, and Timothy Spall, who played his valet, sat with the director and tried to find the right tone. “It was like we were all standing at the edge of a cliff and we knew that once we jumped it would be fun, but nobody wanted to jump first,” Marsden says. “Finally, Timothy Spall said, ‘All right, at the risk of looking like a total buffoon, I’m going to fire away on this.’ And he just became a cartoon character, and we followed suit. But the key to it all, and Amy really set this tone, is sincerity. You can’t be winking to the audience or joking through it. The more ridiculous the character is, the more sincerity you have to bring to it.” His wide-eyed prince ended up stealing the show.
Marsden had shot “Enchanted” and was filming “Hairspray” when another game-changing role occurred via the romantic comedy “27 Dresses.” The part came about in a rather unusual way. Anne Fletcher was co-choreographing numbers with “Hairspray” director Adam Shankman when she arrived to set one day with the news that she had landed the “27 Dresses” directing gig. “I said, ‘Awesome! That’s so great! What role am I playing?’ Just as a joke,” Marsden says. “And she laughed. But two weeks go by, and she comes to me and goes, ‘Jimmy, I have something to talk to you about. Remember when you joked about being in my movie? Why aren’t you in my movie? You should be the guy.’ ” Marsden said he would happily work with Fletcher again. “She told me I might have to convince everybody else because they hadn’t seen me do much comedy yet,” he says. “But I tested with Katherine Heigl and got the role. And I got to be the leading guy who actually ends up with the girl.”
Marsden, James Marsden
After proving adept at lighthearted fare, Marsden continued to shine in comedy, whether stripping down for “Death at a Funeral” or playing a homeless Reiki therapist on “Modern Family,” one of his personal favorites. “To me, the more bizarre the character, the more I’m attracted to it,” he says. “The more I step outside my boring self, the more I’m excited to do it.” He continues to do drama; he’s shooting the action flick “2 Guns,” and he refers to his role in the remake of “Straw Dogs” as perhaps his most difficult to date. “I really pulled myself in deep, and it’s one of the reasons I went and did ‘Hop’ afterwards,” he says. But he confesses to being more at home with the “wackadoos” in comedies. “I have always weirdly seen myself as more of a character actor,” he says. “I have never been suave. I could never see myself playing James Bond. I suppose I could fake it, but I am certainly not James Bond in real life.”
The problem is that he looks like James Bond, and though it’s an awkward topic for him to address, Marsden says that it’s something he’s aware of. “I’ve gone after roles that were written to be a real average guy who is down on his luck, a guy who can’t get a girl or a job,” he says. “And I’ve had producers go, ‘You look like a movie star; my audience isn’t going to buy that.’ Or I’ve been told, ‘We’re going to go more character-y with this role.’ And I want to say, ‘I can do that!’ ” Still, Marsden isn’t complaining. “You have to be proactive and show people you can do other things. I look back at my 20 years of doing this, and I’m very proud to see all the different types of roles I’ve been,” he says. “I’ve been so lucky to jump from genre to genre and show people I can do different things.” He ends his thought by returning to a self-deprecating comparison. “You can think of me as a Swiss Army knife,” he says. “The knife isn’t as sharp as just the dedicated knife, but he’s got all these dedicated tools, and he’s good at all of them. He’s not great at one of them, but he’s good at a lot of stuff.”
Marsden is, of course, selling himself short; he’s pretty great all-around. And only getting better.