Oklahoma native James Marsden schlepped around Los Angeles for nearly a decade, taking one small film or TV role after another, until he got his big break.
That was in 2000’s X–Men, the first in a lucrative series of colorful Marvel Comics movie adaptations. Marsden was cast as the mutant Cyclops, a role he would reprise in the next two X–Men installments.
The handsome young thespian’s career went into overdrive in 2004 – that’s when his role in The Notebook made him not only a star but something of a pretty–boy pinup (the series of shirtless Versace ads didn’t hurt on that score).
Since then, Marsden has made serious waves in Superman Returns, Hairspray, Enchanted, 27 Dresses, Heights, 10th & Wolf, The Box, the American remake of Death at a Funeral and, in 2011 alone, Hop and Straw Dogs.
He’ll be in Savannah Nov. 4, for a film festival tribute at the Trustees Theater.We spoke to Marsden on the phone from New York, where he’d just completed making an episode of 30 Rock.
Is there a plus or a minus side to being closely identified with the X–Men franchise? A typecast point where you’d say “I don’t want to be the guy who’s in all the X–Men movies”?
James Marsden: I would never say I don’t want to be the guy from the X–Men movies, because my longevity, and the opportunities I’ve gotten in this business, are largely due to being cast in those movies. It was something that certainly put me on the map. As well as being financially lucrative, they also were really well–made movies and were reviewed really well.
The only thing I’ll say about it is, I don’t look at the role I played in those films as something that really showcases my abilities. It was cool thing to be a part of, it was a childhood fantasy come true to be an action hero. But it was a big cast, and we were sharing a lot of the time, and you never see my eyes! There was never really that much for me to do.
You want to show people you are not just that guy. I’m really grateful to be a part of it, but it’s been fun to go on this path of educating people since then of whatever else I have to offer.
In the same year, 2011, you made Hop and Straw Dogs, two films that couldn’t be more different. Is that the sort of thing you’re talking about?
James Marsden: I filmed Straw Dogs first, actually, but Hop came out first. Straw Dogs was about as intense and sort of method as I ever got. I’m not that actor that does that. But that experience sort of messed with my head a bit, really digging deep. It was a psychologically intense movie, for the actors going through it. It’s not a fun movie to make.
I didn’t know if it was going to be a popular movie at the box office. So, after I did that, the opportunity to do Hop came along – and I was like “Oh, this’ll be fun, to change it up after that experience and do something for my children.”
It’s not like I’m trying to show off or show people that look, I can ride a unicycle and juggle at the same time! It’s not like a talent show! It’s not like an ego thing, trying to show all the different facets I have.
You sang in Enchanted and Hairspray. Are there more musical things in your future?
James Marsden: I hope so. That’s something that I’m thinking about more and more. Not “Hey look, I have a clothing line, I have a cologne, I can sing, I have an album,” it’s more from me feeling like I’m getting a little older. Realizing my mortality and going “All right, dumbass. You haven’t done anything with this. You enjoy it. You’re good at it. Do something with it.”
I don’t know how it’s going to manifest itself, or what shape it’s gonna take, but I’m thinking more about doing something musically. And that could amount to me just sitting home writing songs for nobody to hear.
The acting thing has been great, and obviously I know where my bread is buttered, so I don’t want to get too far away from that. But I’d love to do a Broadway musical or something.
I was surprised to see Daniel Radcliffe doing that musical on Broadway, and that he could actually sing and dance.
James Marsden: Yeah! I walked past the theater two days ago, and there he was with the bow tie and a big grin on his face, and I was like “Good for you, man.” It’s a great career move. To me, it just speaks volumes of the person – “I’ve got my movie career, but I don’t want to do just that.” People that go and do Broadway, it seems like they want to do it for them. And I admire that, I guess. Because you don’t get paid. It’s a brutal discipline. I always like the people that I see going to do that. You get the impression that they’re really doing it for the passion of it.
Your old X-Men buddy Hugh Jackman is a great example.
James Marsden: That’s just in his blood. That’s where he comes from, the theater, and he loves it. And he’s another one, he’s smart, he knows that “Hey I can go make a gazillion dollars doing Real Steel, have a good time and make a good movie, and make enough money that I can go make nothing on Broadway!” Well, not that he’s not going to make anything. But he gets back on Broadway, he does a show and he just loves it
You went to L.A. straight from Oklahoma. Do you ever have a sense of “I’m really lucky”?
James Marsden: Oh yeah, to the point where I think “How much longer till people figure out that I’m not all that? That I’ve been faking it this whole time?”
No, that’s not true, but that’s the neurosis of every actor, I would imagine. Most of the people that I know, we always think it’s our last job. What comes hand–in–hand with that is a tremendous sense of fear ... but moreso than that, a great deal of gratefulness. When I was 19 and moved to L.A. to be an actor, I didn’t think it was going to be going on this long.
Was there a lot of waiting tables in those early days?
James Marsden: I didn’t, actually. My father knew somebody who was a casting director, and this person knew a manager, who sent me out on auditions. And he was a legit guy. So I luckily got to skip a lot of that. And once I hit the ground in L.A., I started auditioning, and landing little roles here and there.
Most other actors who moved to L.A. hate me, because I don’t represent what the normal experience is.
There was a good deal of luck there. So yes, I always credit luck with a good percentage of why I’m successful. If you think there’s no luck involved, you’re crazy. But when you have the luck, you have to be able to deliver the goods, too.
James Marsden Tribute
Friday, Nov. 4
7 p.m., Trustees Theater
Followed by Director’s Choice (mystery film)
Watch the Straw Dogs trailer on this page