James Marsden Breaks Down His Career, from ‘X-Men’ to ‘Westworld’ | Vanity Fair

published on July 2, 2020

– So a lot of people ask if you were

You know, if I was scared

It was a scary move to just
uproot yourself from Oklahoma

and move to California without
really knowing anybody,

and I say, "No, it was the opposite

"It was thrilling

"It was exciting because
I was doing what I wanted

"to be doing"

I wasn't mature enough
or old enough to know

how badly I could fail

Going back to Oklahoma and
finishing school just wasn't

an option in my mind

I'm very grateful that the business

and the fans have allowed me
to play around a little bit

and not just do one thing

I'm James Marsden and this
is the timeline of my career

[upbeat music]

– Maggie!
– Daddy

– Mr Sheffield, I was just–

– You were just leaving!

– Right

– My very first job was the pilot episode

of The Nanny, starring Fran Drescher

I had two lines

I had just moved to Los
Angeles from Oklahoma

I was 19 and

I was just young and,
I guess, naive enough

and confident enough to make the move

I got an apartment and,
luckily, I had a friend

of my father's, who was
a manager at the time,

he agreed to get me new headshots

and send me out on auditions,

and this was one of the very
first audition I went on

Again, it was a couple of lines

I was making out with the
daughter on a balcony,

I was asked to leave the party

It didn't

It wasn't really any big stretch

but if you weigh that
between staying in Oklahoma

and working at a fast food restaurant,

I was excited and over the moon
just to be doing something,

anything at all as a paid actor

– So you studs lined up who you're taking

to the Homecoming dance yet?

– I was going to take Julia Roberts

but she got married on me


– Chad Westerfield in Saved
By The Bell: The New Class

Got to check that off the
old career bucket list

That first year of my career in '93,

I did a lot of episodic
comedy TV, stuff like that

I did Blossom, I did an
episode of Party of Five,

so it was all like

When you're starting out,

you kinda just take
whatever comes your way

I was a big fan of the
original Saved By The Bell

It was a cool kinda
welcoming into the business

to be a part of something
that I remember sitting

on my couch, in my living
room in Oklahoma, watching

– Har-dee-har-har

– I made a mistake and I am
never gonna be forgiven for it

I am always suspect because I screwed up!

– My So Called Life was
just starting to take off

They wanted to sort of
Jared Leto kind of young,

long haired teenager who is
one of several adopted kids

by this family, who also
adopt all these animals,

hence Second Noah

You know, we shot it on film

It was a ABC primetime family show

Like, that's when I started showing up

in Tiger Beat magazine

Remember all those teen beat magazines?

I remember after we shot the pilot,

we had a big, kind of,
dinner party with the cast

and the producers at this
steakhouse in Tampa, Florida,

I think I probably had a drink

and I probably shouldn't have
been drinking at the time,

and I got up and sang some old standards,

and the producer looked
at me and she goes,

"When this goes to series,
you're gonna be in a band"

And sure enough, the series got picked up

and she had me singing every
episode with my guitar,

looking all smoldering and
singing about all my

My sadness lurking inside

– See what I mean?

– Where's my sister?
– She's upstairs sleeping

– Where are my parents?
– At a meeting

– Yeah, what meeting?
– Steven, you're hurt

– I'll live

– So I started auditioning
for more film roles

and Disturbing Behavior came along

That was David Nutter,

who was a really great
television director,

did a lot of The X-Files

David really wanted to
make it really smarter

than your run-of-the-mill
teen horror flick, I guess

So it was a little more psychological

than some of the other jump
scare teen horror films

And there was this young newcomer to

the business named Katie Holmes,

and she had done this show
called Dawson's Creek

I was like, "Well, that seems
like really good company

"That show is just blowing up"

It was the first time for me to be cast

in a lead role, really, as like the guy

I'm on a poster

I'm on a movie poster at a bus stop

There was a building on the
side of Sunset Boulevard

that was my face plastered on
it with Katie Holmes as well,

and Nick Stahl

I didn't wanna get cocky
because I always felt like

as soon as you get comfortable,

they're just gonna pull
the rug out from under you

and it's all gonna go away

But this was my first
foray into doing a film

that was gonna end up in theaters,

which was pretty damn
exciting at the time

– It's fine

– Gossip and news are the same thing,

they've always been the same thing

People tell stories,
that's what makes us human

– I was still trying to find my footing

as far as what type of roles
I really wanted to pursue

You know, I was young and I
wanted to be taken seriously

as an actor, and I still do,

but I think every guy goes
through that James Dean period

where they just

They want to be Marlon
Brando or James Dean

and to do that, you have
to prove that you're

a dramatic actor

That cast was Lena Headey,

who we all know now from Game of Thrones,

Norman Reedus, who we all
know now from Walking Dead,

Josh Jackson, Kate Hudson, Eric Bogosian

I mean, it was an insane cast,

And Davis Guggenheim directed the movie

And he had me and Lena, and
Norman share an apartment

in Soho in New York City

because these three were roommates

It was the first time I
felt like I'm being treated

like a significant actor,

like someone whose got
skills and natural ability

and can kind of flow on set

It turned out to be a good film

– And I like gossip, it's fun

– It must just burn you up
that a boy like me saved

your life, huh?

You gotta be careful, I
might not be there next time

Oh, and Logan,

stay away from my girl

– On Gossip, the costume designer,

she was getting ready to work on this

new Fox film called X-Men,

and I was like, "What's X-Men?

"You mean, like, the comic book X-Men?"

She was like, "You'd be
great for one of the roles

"You should come in and
audition," that's how she talked

I immediately called my
friends from Oklahoma

that were big comic book nerds and I said,

"Who is this guy, Scott Summers, Cyclops?

"Tell me more about him"

and they gave me every edition
comic that I should read

"This is very insightful into who he is

"and where he comes from and"

I also realized that the
guy is like six foot five

in the comic and I'm, you know, five ten,

five ten and a half,
five ten and a quarter

So I remember going
into the first audition,

they were having me read with Famke

Famke's really tall so I wore big boots,

to give myself a little extra height,

and a tight T-shirt, did push ups,

and I did these curls with
my arms to get all pumped

And, you know, it's just
what you do as an actor

Or I did anyway, I don't do it anymore

I auditioned for X-Men, I
think, four or five times

My last audition,

I didn't hear back for
a while and I thought,

"Oh well, I'm not even gonna
ask my agent who got cast

"It'll just bum me out"

I remember getting a call, thinking that

that ship had sailed,

and I remember them saying,

"Congratulations, you booked
Cyclops, you booked X-Men"

And I thought, "There's no way, that's


I think what originally had happened was

that Jim Caviezel had been cast

I still thank him to this day for that

For whatever reason he had
to drop out for, thanks

'cause that was a big one

But this cast with Ian
McKellen and Halle Berry,

Patrick Stewart, very
fresh faced Hugh Jackman

Hugh and I, we put our suits
on for the very first time

and they were these one
piece, leather suits

that had no side-to-side
movement at the waist

because it was all just one piece,

and we had to vault over this wall

and none of us could get over the wall

because our suits were so stiff

Add to that, that I couldn't
see out of these glasses

or the visor that I was wearing

I've never felt less like a superhero

I think, at some point, we all were scared

that we might lose our
jobs on the first one

During the process, no one
really felt like it was working

Like, this could be cool
or it could be a disaster

And we had our premiere on Ellis Island,

overlooking the Twin Towers
with fireworks going off

and it was just like,
this is what I imagined

when I was a kid of what Hollywood,

or having success in
Hollywood, would look like

It was pretty spectacular and a lot of fun

to watch it take off

And then even more fun to
step into the second one

– No, no, no, it's okay
It's okay, it's me

I'm so sorry

– We came back and the scope was bigger,

the script was bigger,

the costumes were more
fine-tuned and refined

and there was a little more
muscle built-in to the leather

A little more mobility in
the movement of the suits

It was feeling like the train
was just starting to take off

They just had the following formula

The recipe was spot on and it worked

and I got to be a part of it

– Scott!

– [shrieks] Stop!

– Something big happened
that made us all think,

"Well, we're not sure that
they're gonna do a third one"

There hadn't been a script yet

Bryan Singer left the
franchise to go do Superman

They asked if I wanted to
play a role in that movie

– That article that you wrote

– "Why The World Doesn't Need Superman"

– No, no, no, no, the
other one from years ago,

before we met
– Well, which article?

I wrote dozens about him

I was practically his press agent

– "I Spent The Night With Superman"

– Superman had left, Lois
Lane had stayed behind

and found a guy, a human,
who is close as to Superman

as possible,

and I was like, "Sure,
I'll take that role"

And then I heard the wheels
started turning much faster

on X-Men three

There was a moment where it
felt like it might've been

an either/or

Like, make a choice

It turned out that we were
able to work out the schedules

And then when I finished actually
shooting Superman Returns,

I was able to go back and
do a couple of weeks on

About a week and a half on X-Men three,

where Cyclops meets his end

– What's he doing here?

– He's staring at you

– Oh Miss!

I'm all better

Now, how's about that date?

– The Notebook was an audition

and I think everybody had
been cast at that point

Obviously, it was a tremendous cast

and a really interesting
character in that he's not

like some jerk who's

You know, the audience
is rooting for her

Rooting against him, you know?

He's actually a really nice guy,

he met Allie too late

There were moment where it felt like,

was this really schmaltzy?

Is this

Are people just gonna roll
their eyes at this movie?

And then I remember seeing some
of Ryan and Rachel's scenes

and Garner and Gena Rowlands' stuff

and I was like, "Whoa,
Nick Cassavetes is

"He's making something special here"

There was a sense that
everyone collectively wanted

to elevate the material

I don't know, at the time,
people would use the phrase,

"Chick flick," which I never liked

To me, a movie is either
a good movie or a bad one

I'd rather see a great chick
flick than a bad action movie

I remember going to the
premier, and it was in Westwood,

and they were passing out Kleenexes,

and I was like, "Don't do that

"because people are gonna
come in and [mumbles]

"It's gonna ruin their expectations

"They're gonna go, "You
think I'm gonna cry?

""I don't need this""

And they were like, "We've
tested the movie, trust us

"We need them, they need them"

And I remember seeing the movie
and I was crying like a baby

like we all did

And I remember going to
the bathroom afterwards

and there were grown men
splashing water on their face

in the bathroom and I was like,

"Man, that was something
very, very special"

[upbeat music]

– 'Cause it's time for
the Corny Collins Show

Brought to you by Ultra Clutch Hairspray

♪ Oh every afternoon when
the clock strikes four ♪

– My agent called and said,

"Hey, what do you feel
about doing a musical?"

'Cause I think they were
considering Ashton Kutcher

and Jake Gyllenhaal and a couple of

other people for the role, and I said,

"All right, when they're not available

"or when they don't wanna do it,

"I'll be waiting in the wings"

And I remember sitting down in New York

with Craig, Neil and
Adam Shankman to audition

and just to have a general
talk about the role

Four o'clock in the afternoon,
a little bar off Broadway,

I feel this tap on my shoulder

and it's Julia Roberts,

and Julia Roberts leans in and says,

"I don't mean to interrupt but
I love you in The Notebook"

And I stood up as fast as
I could and gave her like

the most uncomfortable hug

and I said, "I love you
in everything you do"

But then she just said, "Sorry,
I didn't meant to interrupt"

and walked out

In my head, I was like,

"That had to have just
gotten me the role"

And then as soon as my brain thought that,

Adam Shankman went, "I
guess we'd be kind of stupid

"to say no to the guy that
Julia Roberts just said hello to

"and loves your work"

That happened and I got
to be Corny Collins

Most fun times in front of
the camera I've ever had

It was a party

I've always wanted to
do a Broadway musical

but I've always been a
little bit of a coward

But Hairspray allowed me to
kind of exercise those muscles

a little bit

One of the more special
projects I've been a part of

♪ I'm the man who keeps
it spinnin' 'round ♪

– Are you in league
with the wicked old hag

who sent my poor Giselle
to this foul place, Artie?

– It's really rare for
me to read something

and go, "I've got it!

"I know exactly what to do"

The closer you get to that feeling,

I think the more success you're
gonna have playing the role

or more fun you're gonna have as well

So I remember reading
the script of Enchanted

and reading this character, Prince Edward,

who, you know, just loves the sound of

his own voice too much

So I auditioned for it and
they liked the audition,

and I remember saying,
"Do you want me to sing?

"Is that part of the audition?"

And they were like, "Oh
no, no, no, we're just

"We're casting for the acting parts"

And I was like, "Oh, that's

"That's kind of a bummer"

And then

And Amy was cast

and they wanted to hear me and Amy sing

We started singing old Disney songs, like,

just kinda messing around

I think they were surprised

I think they were

'Cause Amy comes from

Like, she has got a huge
musical theater background

She used to

I don't know if she'd agree with me

She was like, "I used to
sing on cruise ships"

I don't know that that qualifies
for a huge music background

but I remember sitting in
the makeup trailer with her

and Idina Menzel, and Amy would

She was like a fan standing on the side

of the road at a premiere

and Idina Menzel walking in front of her

Every day, it was like,
"Idina, will you sing

"two lines of Defying Gravity with me?"

When we had our first
read-through of the script,

it was Amy and I and Tim,

and we had like a rehearsal session

And we were kinda looking
at each other like,

"How big are you gonna go with this?"

"I don't know, how big are
you gonna go with this?"

And we all just kinda went, "[bleep] it!

"We gotta go for it

"You can't half ass this

"You gotta like commit"

– Don't try my patience!

– I know you didn't take my car, Ian

I'm gonna lift up this door
and my big, fucking glorious,

bitchy Judge is gonna
be sitting right there,

gleaming at me

– I got sent this script which was like

a coming-of-age comedy called Sex Drive,

and I was at the point where I was like,

"Do I need to go do a
coming-of-age comedy,

"like a Meatballs kinda movie?"

Although I have a
special place in my heart

for those types of movies

And I'm like, "Just take a peak at it,

"just the read script"

And I read the script, and the
character was, like, juicy

That's all I can say

Bleached tips,

earring in the right
ear, not the left ear,

motorcycle jacket,

taekwando pants,

tough guy redneck

But he was like this abusive older brother

who drove this car called the GTO Judge

He was in love with the car

and the younger brother steals
it to go on this mission

to meet this girl he met online,

and I am just determined
to find my brother

and end him

I just had so much fun

Sometimes, I gotta rein
myself in with, you know,

going a little too over the top

Sometimes over the top works

and I think in that situation, it worked

– Very green here, isn't it?

So green!

It's like I'm inside a lime

– I got a call from my agent saying,

"Hey, there's a table read for this

"It's Chris Rock, it's Martin Lawrence,

"it's Danny Glover, it's Tracy Morgan"

Where do I sign?

But it was just a table read at the time

And I'd seen the original
and it was perfect

No one does farce like the Brits

And I remember Alan
Tudyk played my role

"My role," I played his role

This is a guy who is nervous about meeting

his girlfriend's

Oh sorry, his fiancee's
father at a funeral,

which is a predominantly black funeral

To calm him down, he takes
what he thinks is valium

and it's acid

To me, it's like that's just comedy gold

So I did the table read, got big laughs

and I remember Chris Pine was
in the table read as well

We walked out of the
table read and he goes,

"You're gonna get that role

"and that's the role that I want"

And I was like, "You wanted the"

I was like, "It's the
best role in the movie"

I said, "I don't know if
I'm getting it but"

He goes, "After what you
just did in the read-through,

"it's yours"

And he was right, I ended
up getting the role

It was the coolest acting exercise

because it was like, "I
can't do anything wrong,

"I'm on acid

"Whatever the script says, okay

"All of a sudden this
plant looks like a llama

"and I wanna talk to it,

"so you gotta follow me over
there to talk to the llama"

I'd never done acid,

too much of a chickenshit,

and I was at

I was like, "Who's gonna know
what an acid trip is like?"

Teamsters in their 50s and 60s

that grew up in LA and grew
up in the 70s were like,

"Hey, what's this like"

"Oh well, you know, the trees
would sorta be vibrating

"The trees would be purple
and see the telephone wires?

"They would be sort of
vibrating and stuff"

So every day, I would
ask a new teamster, like,

"What was their experience on acid?"

That was my preparation for the role

– I know you were looking

– Liz, there's someone in the apartment

♪ Someone thinks you're special ♪

♪ In every single way ♪

♪ I wrote this song to wish you ♪

♪ A happy Valentine's Day ♪

– Criss Chros on 30 Rock

You know, it was like a
time period when people

like Matt Damon and Jon Hamm
and these people were showing

up and being boyfriends to Liz Lemon,

I thought, "Yeah, good company to keep"

And who knew that like
after the first season

The season that I did, I
think it was the sixth,

I was like, "I doubt I'll
be asked to come back"

Usually, it's like they'll
have a new boyfriend

for Liz every season

Not to say anything disparaging about Liz,

she's not that kinda girl

But she never really had the
best luck with the boyfriends

So I thought, for sure,
I wasn't coming back

and they said, "Hey, we'd"

Robert Carlock, one of
the head writers there

and a brilliant man, said,

"We'd love to have you come
back for another season

"We want you all to get married"

I was like, "Criss Chros and
Liz Lemon getting married?


It was perfectly written

It was meta-humor

It was another one that was
just firing on all pistons

It was, like, I think the
first time in my career

that I was like with the major
league players of comedy

– Yeah, this is cover!

– 'Cause you pretty much
destroyed my career

You realize what it did to me

by making me call myself Jack Lame?

It was a living hell!

I had to get a new driver's license

I can't get restaurant reservations!

– Again, another story of
me doing the read-through

I sat in the read-through
with Will and everyone

from the original one

I got lucky in the read-through again

and it got huge laughs

Seth Rogen and Jonah
Hill were all in there

and everyone's laughing, it's like

It was a surprise that I
was, that Marsden was funny

It was sort of the general feeling

And Will told me later, he goes,

"I saw you in a movie called Sex Drive

"You were so damn funny in that

"and that's why I want
you to be in this movie"

So that's how I got cast as Jack Lame

Just being on that set with those guys

and listening to them
riff of of each other,

talk about another party

It was just like,

you know, you wake up
excited to go to work

and just to hang out

It was so relaxed

and so ridiculous

– It's like a frat or KISS Army,

you're in it for life

– But maybe someday soon,

we'll have the life we've
both been dreaming of

– No

You never will

– Everyone knew at the time,
HBO was in a whole other level

I was shooting a movie
called 2 Guns with Wahlberg

and Denzel Washington, and my agent said,

"Hey, I know we're wanting to concentrate

"on films more right now,

"but Jonathan Nolan has written
a brilliantly crafted show

"for HBO"

I Skyped with Jonah

and we sat on the phone
call for about a half hour

and he just told me what his ideas were,

and what the philosophies
of the shows were

I had very limited access to scripts

I read the first episode, I think,

and nothing beyond that

And he gave me a little bit of information

about where it would go

Existential, where we're
going with humanity

and "what is consciousness

"and when does that begin and end?"

And they ended up casting Evan and I

I quickly got to be pretty
proficient with a pistol

and on a horse

They didn't want you learning
too quickly on the horses

You had to walk around Melody Ranch

on a horse, walking them,

you couldn't get them over
a canter or even a trot,

with a bicycle helmet on and
you just felt kinda ridiculous

We would get on set and
then we wouldn't have

the helmets on, obviously

We had cowboy hats and

And they'd go, "Okay, just
come screaming over this hill

"as fast as you can on the horse!"

It was a little bit of like, "Holy shit

"I hope I don't fall off this thing"

They were very measured about
when the cast got the scripts,

and as the scripts kinda came
along while you were shooting,

you started to realize what was going on

and where these characters
were going, so it was

It was an amazing experience
to sort of watch it all unfold

It was cool to see Teddy's evolution

And you see these classic tropes
of the wild west gunslinger

who saves the fair maiden

and you just turn that on its head,

and, all of a sudden, Evan is
the tough guy and the hotshot

and she doesn't need saving at all

So rewriting that playbook a little bit,

it's been a special, special experience

– I got some reckoning to
do before I can be with her

– It's the government
wack job who keeps trying

to kill us unsuccessfully

Nice of you to swing by
on your way to Comic Con

– Yeah, what are you wearing?

– It's a flight suit,

designed to modulate my body temperature

and reduce drag
– Yeah, and yet

you are still are one
– Hoo hoo

– And this is another one

Sonic was just like, "Hey, let's

"Let's have fun"

It was another opportunity
for me to tick off two

more boxes, which is one,

be a part of the iconic Sonic
coming to the big screen;

two, work with one of
my heroes, Jim Carrey

What can I say about the guy?

He informs so much of
what I did in high school

and in college,

and wanting to be an actor
and wanting to be a comedian,

and physical comedy

To be opposite him, screaming
at you and berating you

and punching you, it was a lot of fun

It was

That movie mixes perfectly,

bringing this beloved
character to the big screen

with big, cool action sequences and

I get paid to do this?


This is just fun

– Punched him in the face

– Hi Judy

– Hey

– I wanna talk

Hello Abe

– Hello Steve,

you asshole

– So I was really tired after Sonic

I was like, "I don't wanna anything"

And my agent was like, "Liz
Feldman wrote this thing,"

and Jessica Elbaum, who I worked with,

of course, with Anchorman

She was like, "Marsden,
you'd be great as this guy

"And it's Christina and Linda
Cardellini, who love you

"He's a bit of a douche but"

I'm like, "[moans]

"Played those guys, how do
we make him interesting?"

And I got on the phone with Liz Feldman

She goes, "Look, just read
the first couple of episodes

"I think there's a great opportunity to be

"this kind of jerk, douchebag, dickweed

"and have so much fun with it,

"to the point where you're
making fun of those kinda guys"

I was reading it and just
laughing out loud, and going,

"Oh my God, this is so
much fun to play this guy

"He's so despicable"

But he's a baby,

like a big wimp

And then just, again, another one

Like, "Oh, this is a lot of fun

"I'm having a good time
playing this dirt bag"

I don't know what that says about me

People loved it and it was
exactly what people needed

at the time

And sometimes, it's just on the page

Like, "Oh, this is really funny

"Can I be a part of this?"

I'm interested to see
where the industry goes

and where this business goes,

but we're always gonna want storytelling,

we're always gonna wanna
laugh, always gonna wanna cry

and feel, and have somebody
take us down that path

It sounds kinda dorky, I know,

but that's the human condition

We're always gonna want that

and I feel pretty fortunate
to have been accepted

into this industry and that world

where people wanna see you on the screen

It's a great feeling when
someone taps you on the shoulder,

be it Julia Roberts

or be it just a random fan on the street,

that you made an impact on somebody

That's the stuff that I hunt

Those are the roles that I look for

and there's always something
new that's coming from it

I feel very lucky and, you know,

you just wanna keep doing it as long

as you can keep doing it

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