James Marsden knows he’s inescapable. “Someone yesterday said, ‘My son has Sonic on TV all day long, every day,’” he tells Rolling Stone. “I never know whether to apologize or not. Parents must be like, ‘I’m so sick of seeing that man’s face.’”
The self-effacing 49-year-old is in a state of disbelief over his volume of work this past year. He’s taken on the endearing Ben Wood and his Machiavellian twin Steve (in Netflix’s Dead to Me), the tender-hearted bounty hunter Teddy Flood (HBO’s Westworld), the fatherly sheriff Tom Wachowski (Sonic the Hedgehog 2) and the charmingly dimwitted King Edward (Disenchanted). “I had to be really careful about not spreading myself too thin and really give the characters their due,” he says.
It’s also been a year of goodbyes for the veteran actor, who closed the book on Dead to Me, the recently canceled Westworld and Disenchanted, the long-awaited sequel to 2007’s Enchanted. “There were a lot of goodbyes this year,” Marsden says. “It was bittersweet.”
Marsden admits he doesn’t do well with downtime. Next year will be just as hectic for the star, who will return to screens in the Party Down revival, Jerry Seinfeld’s film Unfrosted: The Pop-Tart Story and the Michael Keaton-directed crime-thriller Knox Goes Away. And parents, fear not: the ball is already rolling on Sonic 3.
This interview contains spoilers for the finale of Dead to Me.
You’ve had a busy year! What’s been a highlight for you?
I was really proud of getting a Critic’s Choice nomination [for Dead to Me]. That’s something I’m not used to and that feels nice. Honestly, I didn’t know if the twin thing was going to work. I love Christina [Applegate] because she’s just no bullshit. She was like, “So you’re twins, huh?” and she patted me on the shoulder and said, “Okay, no pressure, but the season’s kind of on your shoulders.” It was like, oh shit, this is either going to be something cool, or this could so easily just be a gimmick and a soap opera. But the writing is so strong and rich on that show. The character of Ben was so artfully crafted on the page that it really made him stand out as a contrast to Steve. On the surface, he’s kind of this puppy dog, goofy, socially-nervous guy, and deep down he’s very broken. It definitely allowed me to ground the character more so it didn’t feel like a gag.
True to form, Dead to Me ends on a cliffhanger, with Jen presumably about to tell Ben that she killed his twin brother, Steve. How do you think Ben reacted to the news?
I’m sure it frustrated some people, but I like that there’s a little bit left to interpret there. My view is that this woman has come in and given this man purpose. She’s reestablished his belief in love. She’s made him feel seen and acknowledged, and I think that’s been absent for him since he was young. If she were to tell him — and I think she would — their connection is so strong that that would be something they would be able to work through. But also, I feel like it might balance them out a bit, give him some resolve. Maybe on some deeper level he knows it anyway. He loves her enough to understand how fallible and flawed we are as human beings. He recognizes how flawed and fallible he is, and she still loves him. I just can’t imagine a world where he would reject her. Sure, that’s got to hurt and gotta be confusing, but she’s given him a reason to live.
HBO recently announced that it was canceling Westworld after four seasons. I imagine it’s difficult to have the rug ripped out from under you with that. How do you feel about where you left off?
I’d be lying to you if I told you that the way we ended Westworld wasn’t a disappointment. I’m never going to speak without gratitude about any of my experiences, but it would have been nice to be able to complete the story we wanted to finish. I love this Westworld family. It was one of those unique opportunities to be part of something where I also would be sitting at home ravenously waiting for the next episode as a fan. I totally understand it’s an expensive show and big shows have to have big audiences to merit the expense, I just wish it was about more than financial success. But who knows, maybe there’s some world where it can get completed somehow. Maybe that’s just wishful thinking, because I know we had plans to finish it the way we wanted to.
There was a recent tweet saying that you should be more famous than any of the Marvel Chrises, particularly citing the song you sang with Idina Menzel on The Late Late Show, and your turn as Corny Collins in Hairspray. Are you gunning for a new musical role?
I’m really flattered that people are out there talking about me in that way. I mean, nothing against the other Chrises — they’re friends of mine, I’m in a fantasy football league with them. I would love nothing more than that. If I wasn’t an actor, I’d be pursuing a music career. Probably a really not-great one. But anytime I get an opportunity to sing, I just jump at it. For years I’ve flirted with the idea of doing an actual Broadway show. Attaching yourself to eight shows a week is a full-on commitment, and you’ve got to move to New York obviously, and we weren’t prepared to do that. Now that my kids are getting older that’s something I want to explore. There’s always room for more movie-musicals as well. I was bummed out because there’s a second half of the song that Idina and I sing that’s not in [Disenchanted]. It was probably cut for time, but I think it’s the prettier part of the song. It’s in the trailer, but it’s actually not in the film. Didn’t I read something just today about audiences being able to sue?
Yes! Ana de Armas fans rented Yesterday because she was in the trailer and then they sued because she wasn’t in the movie.
[Laughs] If you go back and watch the trailer, you can hear a snippet of the song. You know, I was goofing off on the first Enchanted and I was singing Dean Martin’s “That’s Amore,” and Alan Menken says, “You sound really good singing that, do you want to actually record that for the album?” So I went in and recorded a fully-orchestrated version of “That’s Amore,” and in the movie my voice sings over Robert and Giselle’s dinner date. I have so much fun in Hairspray and Enchanted and all these movies, like, that’s just me fucking having a blast. It’s nice to hear that [people want] more singing. I’m just trying to figure out how to manifest that.
We need to revive the MGM musical.
I’m with you on that.
I saw that you’re guest-starring in the revival of Party Down, correct?
I was really happy to see [the reboot]. I was wondering why the good shows are the ones that don’t get renewed. Adam [Scott] reached out and said, “Hey, would you want to come in? We’re reviving Party Down and we’ve got this fun role for you, this guy named Jack Botty.” Jack Botty like jacked body. I was a fan of the original as well. Ken [Marino] is brilliant and Adam’s obviously been on his meteoric rise and I knew I was gonna play opposite Jen Garner. So it just felt like that’d be a great, fun couple of weeks in LA. I’m in.
You’re playing an actor, specifically a superhero movie star. How did you pull from your own experiences?
It’s funny you bring up the Chrises — it’s a little bit of a satire of those guys. If you were to put them all into a blender, that’s the guy I’m playing in Party Down: just your typical Marvel superhero guy. Albeit, this guy is a lot less interesting than Chrises, and a lot more vapid.
Did you reach out to the Chrises at all for any superhero advice?
No, I didn’t want them to know I was sending them up. I didn’t make them aware of it, because if I reached out to them, then they would know that I’m mocking them directly. [Laughs] This way it keeps it a little vague. Of course we’ll dispel that once this article comes out.
You’re continuing the booked and blessed lifestyle next year. You’re in Unfrosted: The Pop-Tart Story.
Yes, god, I forgot about Unfrosted. That’s genuine. I’m not joking. Like, oh god, here’s the actor who gets so much work he can’t remember his project. I love the story, it’s the race to invent the Pop Tart in the early sixties. I was playing a ridiculous character, Jack LaLanne, who was the first television fitness guru guy back in the 1950s. I knew him only because later in life he was swimming from Alcatraz towing 70 boats in his mouth. I’m in a full-on leotard with dance slippers. You don’t gotta put a nickel in me if the character is ridiculous. The more absurd the character is, the more I’m gonna jump at the chance to do it. They’re literally giving me pin curls with a curling iron, and I was like, “Yeah, sign me up.”
I’d also love to know a little bit about this pivot that you’ve taken to this dramatic role in Knox Goes Away.
Knox Goes Away was one of my biggest challenges for the last however many years and the thing I was most excited about recently, just because it’s Keaton and I’m such a mega-fan of his. I really campaigned hard for this role and had a long conversation with him over Zoom, and I just thought, wow, what an epic opportunity to play his son and to be directed by Michael. But not easy, and not anywhere close to the tone of your Hairsprays and Enchanteds and Party Downs and Unfrosteds — very, very intense, film noir-style drama. I really had to dig deep for that one. So that’s another experience I’m really, really proud of.
It seems like a real 180.
I don’t believe we make these movies anymore. It’s not a $300 million Marvel movie, and it’s not an animated movie for kids, because that’s what people want to see in the movie theaters. I don’t care if it’s going to check every box at the box office, I just want to tell an interesting story with actors who are willing to really dive deep and go for it. I just was engrossed with the story, and I was so moved by the end of it. I called back immediately and said “I would die to do this.” I had a chat with Michael, and he brought me on board and I was just thrilled. I got so excited about the project and the script that I forgot how heavy the role is, and I had a moment where I was wondering, “Oh shit, am I gonna be able to do this?” All of a sudden I just started sweating. It’s been a long time since I’ve pulled this instrument out of a case in a dusty old attic. I had all those old feelings of self-doubt. But I think that deep down that’s what excited me about it. For me as an actor, it’s always more exciting to do something completely different than what you just completed. I’m literally in a leotard wearing ballet slippers as Jack LaLanne and then this movie comes along and I was electrified by it. I just feel so lucky that I haven’t gotten stuck in one box over the years.
I feel like being a jack of all trades is sort of the best-case scenario. You really get to do it all.
When I was a kid growing up in Oklahoma, I was a mimic. I had a good ear for accents and I could do different characters. I wanted to be a regular on Saturday Night Live. That was my goal. There’s an exchange I had with Tina Fey, I said, “My dream was forever and still is to be on Saturday Night Live.” She said, “I can see you hosting that really soon.” I went, “No, no, not hosting. A regular,” because I felt like that’s what my strengths were, and she was like, “I feel like you’ve got a cooler thing going on. You’ve been given these opportunities to do that, but in a movie-star career. Do you know how many actors out there get the opportunity to do the kind of range of stuff that you get to do?” That was never something that I did by design, it just sort of happened that way over the years. Now I kind of feed into it with the choices that I make, which is why I completely pivot after doing something like Unfrosted and Disenchanted to a movie like Knox Goes Away. That’s the real gratification of being an actor for me.