Mr Porter, Dec 2013
Photo by Blair Getz Mezibov
For years, James Marsden wasn’t considered a funny guy. He doesn’t exactly have the look, after all. Preparing for a shoot on a crisp Friday morning in downtown LA, he looks more like one of those all-American cheekbones types, the kind who make excellent screensavers for 14 year old girls.
But then six years ago it all changed.
“I don’t know what happened,” he says, as a makeup guy lovingly blow dries his hair. “I guess I got funny all of a sudden!”
Ever since the camp musical Hairspray broke the seal in 2007, Marsden has become a go-to guy for dromedies, rom coms, sit coms, all kinds of coms. There was Enchanted, then 27 Dresses, then Death at a Funeral, Bachelorette and a handful of episodes of 30 Rock.
And now, he’s in the biggest comedy of the year, Anchorman 2, sparring with comedy gods like Will Ferrell and Steve Carell.
“I play Jack, the cocky hotshot news anchor who has a bit of a competition with Ron Burgundy at the network,” he says, inspecting his reflection. “It was such a blast. Those guys are such masters of improvisation. It’s amazing how unselfish they are.”
The prospect of mixing it up with the funniest men in America might intimidate some, but Marsden felt at home.
“I got the jitters a bit at first, but Will and Adam [McKay, Ferrell’s producing partner] are very welcoming of new talent. They encourage you to come up with your own jokes. Huge safety net. The real challenge was just keeping it together and not laughing. The big prize was getting Will to crack. I did it twice!”
Ferrell knew Marsden from The Bachelorette, which he and McKay had produced. Marsden played ‘an unapologetic douchebag’, a part that saw him humping Kirsten Dunst against the wall in a toilet. Clearly, Marsden had a blast there too.
“I like playing characters who think they’re great, but they’re not, you know?” he says. “They’re misguided, but they don’t know it – that’s a goldmine for comedy. Their confidence is misplaced.”
And yet Marsden’s confidence, has never been more well founded. After twenty years in the business, his life looks increasingly accomplished. A father of two, albeit divorced from the mother (fellow actress Lisa Linde) he turned 40 this year, a milestone that he rather shrugged off. “I knew it was coming for so long, it was like I’d already dealt with it. I’d already grieved!”
Nevertheless, 40 is when men are supposed to accept themselves, and finally come into their own. And it looks like it’s happening. Professionally, his batting averages are better than ever.
So far this year two of his movies have opened at the number one spot – it’ll be three if Anchorman 2 fulfils its promise. And they demonstrate something that every actor longs for – range. It turns out the funny guy with the cheekbones can do all kinds of things.
In the action feature 2 Guns, for instance, he played a crooked naval commander who tangles with both Mark Wahlberg and Denzel Washington. “I remember squaring off against Washington for a scene, and acting all tough,” he says. “But inside, I’m thinking, ‘oh shit, it’s Denzel. I’m going to get squashed.’”
Then in The Butler, a worthy picture about the civil rights struggle in America, he plays President Kennedy, and nailing the accent, it must be said. He’d record Kennedy’s speeches in his home studio and send them to the director Lee Daniels for notes. Daniels was thrilled.
“I was always a pretty good mimic as a kid,” says Marsden. “At school I used to do bits of Eddie Murphy stand-up, and SNL skits – that was how I got my validation when I was younger.”
He was a confident kid too. It takes brass to just up and move from Oklahoma City to Los Angeles at 19 to try and make it as an actor. But Marsden had no doubt. He literally went from doing impressions at school in Oklahoma City, to booking auditions in Hollywood.
“It was a bold step, looking back, but at the time I was just too excited to be scared,” he says. “When you’re young, you don’t think about things too much, so you take chances that you might not take later in life.”
To be fair, he had his father in his corner. A renowned food scientist, he offered to pay James’ rent for his first year in LA – “he said, ‘don’t worry about waiting tables, just keep your schedule free.’” And he passed on a priceless contact – a family friend who’d become a casting director, and who introduced James to his first manager. Within a week of moving into his little apartment in Universal City, he was being sent out to read for a line here and a line there.
And it was all uphill from there?
He thinks for a minute. “It’s more like hills and valleys,” he says. “Getting the X Men was a peak for sure. Starting to do comedies, that was another peak. And this year of course is big for me. But I never get too comfortable. Because there are down years too, and you just got to keep going after it.”
He taps the table, thinking of a name. “You know the actor Frank Langella? He once told me, that this business is like a card game. Sometimes you get a great hand. Sometimes it’s shitty. But you got to stay at the table. That’s what matters. Staying at the table.”
His nose powdered and his hair coiffed, he stands up and shakes my hand.
“Now I think I need to take some pictures.”