James Marsden on His Variety of Roles and the “Joy of Being An Actor”


“I don’t have any preconceived ideas about the type of character I want to play. I sort of leave a very broad net for anything, really…. This is why you want to be an actor: to play different roles.” – James Marsden

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Twenty years ago, actor James Marsden was best known as Cyclops from the X-Men films and stints on TV shows like Saved by the Bell: The New Class, Touched by an Angel, and Party of Five. Now, Marsden has become known for diverse roles in film and television, including playing a pair of twin brothers on the Netflix series Dead to Me. In a lengthy interview with Esquire, Marsden spoke about appearing on that series and how he relates acting to playing an android on HBO’s Westworld.

In Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, Marsden plays news anchor Jack Lime, an almost impossibly good-looking news anchor. It’s a joke that riffs on Marsden good looks (he’s a former model) and what he used to hear early in his career about how that would impact his career prospects. He says, “I remember people saying… You got a good look. You’ll do well in this town. I never wanted to really lead with that. I wanted to be treated more as a character actor than a marquee-idol, good-looking dude with nothing else behind him.”

Marsden remarks that when Dead To Me‘s creator Liz Feldman explained to him that he would play his season 1’s “semi-identical” twin brother in season 2, he was exciting about the prospect. He says, “When she started going into detail about who [Ben] is and where we were going with the season and how he’s just a much better person than his twin brother… as an actor, to be given an opportunity to create that contrast and have people say, wow that’s the same actor doing that, I don’t know, it’s exciting to me.”

Of course, Marsden points out that the challenge of vacillating between two characters on the same show is that sometimes he blurs their personalities. Marsden says he relays on Feldman to guide him if he goes too far in the “wrong” direction for one of the brothers. He explains, “I mean obviously we had to be aware of any times I felt more like Steve in the performance. And I told Liz, I’m going to put a volume knob on me and you just come in and turn it up, turn it down. Just direct me left and right and she would say, alright let’s dial up the self-deprecating dad jokes and the corny, cheeseball dorkiness. Anytime I got kind of cocky or charming with a performance, she would say, ‘Okay, that’s where I saw a little bit of Steve. Let’s dial that back a little bit. Let’s make him a little more dopey.’ So it was a cool process.”

Regarding Marsden’s varied career, he remarks that he has always strived to appear in a variety of different types of projects — just think of how different Westworld and Dead to Me are… and consider he just appeared in the Sonic the Hedgehog movie! On that, he said:

“I don’t have any preconceived ideas about the type of character I want to play. I sort of leave a very broad net for anything, really. Genre, type of character, whatever. I just take the scripts that I have been given by my manager and my agent and I read them all. I love that the projects are kind of all over the place, and I think that it’s become one of the things over the last 25 years that’s beginning to define what I do. To me, that’s such a feather in my cap, cause you’re an actor. You’re not a personality, which is nice. This is why you want to be an actor: to play different roles. Even in high school in Oklahoma, it was my dream to be a regular on Saturday Night Live, so I can do 10 different characters a week.”

Marsden actually compares his Westworld role — in which he plays the android “host” Teddy — to being an actor. He reflects on the role, saying:

I remember sitting around Evan Rachel Wood on the Westworld set saying, Wait a second. That’s what being an actor is. We had this revelation… we’re like, we’re hosts. What do we do for a living? We go to work, we put on clothes, we turn into another character. We’re programmed to deliver lines. Not programmed, but you know what I mean. We have fake relationships with other people, much like a host, and they yell cut and you reset and you do the whole thing over again. That’s what being an actor is, is a host.

I like having roles that are kind of all over the place, and I like that this industry believes in me enough to know that I can kind of jump around. I’d rather be the guy who comes back, who dies, comes back as a different person. Dies and comes back as a different person. That’s the joy of being an actor.

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