TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. James Marsden has had a long career in Hollywood, playing the romantic interest in many comedies and dramas, but doesn't always end up with the girl. Recently, he's taken on some other kinds of roles. In the HBO series "Westworld," he was Teddy, one of the android cowboys in the Western-themed adventure park that goes wrong. And he did double duty in the Netflix show "Dead To Me," playing semi-identical brothers.
In his new series, "Jury Duty," he has a completely different sort of role, a satirical version of himself. Marsden spoke with our producer Sam Briger.
SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: The new show "Jury Duty," available on Amazon Freevee, has its roots in the old TV show "Candid Camera," where surprising and funny things happen to unwitting bystanders and hidden cameras captured their reactions. In "Jury Duty," a regular guy named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in a documentary about the experience of being a juror. He goes to the LA courtroom, is picked as the jury foreperson, and follows along the court proceedings. There's a small film crew following him and the other jurors around. What Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.
The entire courthouse has been fitted with hidden cameras, and everyone there except him is an actor - the other jurors, the judge, the lawyers, the plaintiff, the bailiff, everybody - and a lot of them are acting really weird and doing funny things. It's all highly improvised. The camera captures Ronald trying to navigate these strange people and circumstances, and he does so amazingly well, with kindness and grace, even when he finds out he's going to be sequestered for two weeks with his fellow jurors at a hotel. "Jury Duty" might have been a cruel show, but it's not. Ronald is not the butt of an elaborate joke. He's actually the hero of the show.
The only person he recognizes among the other jurors is the actor James Marsden, who's also been summoned for jury duty. This James Marsden is a self-absorbed and egotistical satirical version of the Hollywood star, played by James Marsden, our guest today. Marsden has been in a lot of movies and TV shows over his career, including "Enchanted," "27 Dresses," four "X-Men" movies, two "Sonic the Hedgehog" movies, "The Notebook" and "30 Rock." But before we get to that, let's hear a clip from the new show, "Jury Duty." Here, the potential jurors are sitting in the court waiting room and Ronald realizes that the man sitting next to him is James Marsden.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JURY DUTY")
RONALD GLADDEN: Dude, that's where I know you from. You're in "X-Men."
JAMES MARSDEN: Oh (laughter).
GLADDEN: I've been [expletive] thinking that this entire time.
MARSDEN: I didn't ask your name. Forgive me.
MARSDEN: Ronald. James.
MARSDEN: Nice to meet you.
GLADDEN: I was trying to pinpoint it. I was like, [expletive], I've seen you somewhere.
MARSDEN: Yeah, but I've been in, like, so much stuff. It's like "X-Men" and "Hairspray" and "Enchanted" and "Westworld" and stuff like that. "The Notebook" and...
GLADDEN: Oh, s***, you're in "Westworld"?
MARSDEN: (Laughter) Yeah, yeah.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (As character) I know him from "The Notebook."
GLADDEN: He's in "The Notebook"? Nuh-uh. What is he in "The Notebook"?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (As character) The other guy.
GLADDEN: He's the other guy?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (As character) The guy she really should have got together with.
GLADDEN: Oh, my God. I haven't seen that movie in so long. I didn't even - I didn't realize.
MARSDEN: I was looking at his socks over here. It looked like it said Sonic. And I'm in that movie "Sonic." And I was like, does he have Sonic socks?
GLADDEN: S***, you were in the movie "Sonic"?
MARSDEN: Yeah, yeah.
GLADDEN: That's the one with - the new one with Jim Carrey, right?
MARSDEN: Yeah. Yeah.
GLADDEN: That was not a good movie.
BRIGER: That's a scene from "Jury Duty" with Ronald Gladden and my guest, James Marsden. James Marsden, welcome to FRESH AIR.
MARSDEN: Thank you, Sam. Happy to be here.
BRIGER: It's great to have you here. So I just want to ask you first, when you heard about what the show was going to be about, did you have any reservations about doing it?
MARSDEN: I only had reservations.
MARSDEN: Yes, I did, of course. It was a very ambitious conceit. I was approached by my friend David Bernad, who was a producer of "The White Lotus." We've done a couple of projects together before. And he asked if I'd be interested in getting on a Zoom with Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky of "The Office," who - I was a huge fan of that show. And he gave me sort of a basic one-liner idea of the concept of the show, which is basically we're taking "The Truman Show," and we're dropping it in the middle of jury duty. And I said, OK, well, let's expound on that. Let's - what's my part? What am I doing?
And I got excited about all of the sort of improvisational element of the show and this sort of live theater part of the whole thing. So yeah, I'm a big Christopher Guest fan. I loved "The Larry Sanders Show." I love, obviously, "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and everything Larry David does. So it was - I was always looking for an opportunity to get in the room and play with improvisational actors. So that was exciting to me.
BRIGER: Because you haven't done that much of that - right? - in the past.
MARSDEN: No, I haven't. I mean, you know, yeah, no, not true improvisational shows that are - that's woven into the DNA of the show by nature. No, on "Dead To Me," Liz Feldman allows us to play occasionally, but the scripts are - you know, it's all written, and it's very tight. And usually we don't need to improv. But something like this was so unique, so different and original, and I was enthusiastic about being a part of something like this, but also apprehensive because I didn't know (laughter) if it was going to work.
MARSDEN: And yeah, I had many reservations. And the biggest one was the wild card of this one human being who's being dropped into this situation that is all fake and manufactured, and what that's going to be like, and what's he going to be like? And is this even something that is, you know, ethically right to do...
MARSDEN: ...Play with someone's human experience over the course of three weeks of their life? But I made it clear that it was important to me that I didn't want to be a part of a prank show.
MARSDEN: You know, I was not - that I was not interested in being cruel or mean-spirited at all. And they said, no, we're not interested in doing that either. What we're doing is we're creating a hero's journey for somebody. And what we're surrounding him with are this cast of bizarre, eccentric weirdos and hopefully carving out a path for him to become the leader at the end and have his "12 Angry Men" moment where he inspires us all and unites us. And then we pull the curtain back and celebrate him as a human being, and hopefully he's...
BRIGER: Show him what was it all about, yeah.
MARSDEN: Show him what it was all about, and hopefully he takes that in stride. And, no, but, you know, who knows how he's going to react? So the sort of unknown was appealing to me, but it was also terrifying.
BRIGER: So when you were thinking about making this satirical version of yourself, did you think about things about yourself that you don't really like very much and amplified them? Or did you come up with, like, a completely different character? Like, what did you base that person on?
MARSDEN: You know, to me, it was just the idea of lampooning the cliche, you know, entitled, self-absorbed, egocentric Hollywood actor was really exciting to me because I could - and I could, you know, I could do it as myself. And hopefully by the end of it, everyone would know that I'm satirizing that character, and...
MARSDEN: ...And it's not really me. You know, I do this kind of bit on set sometimes when we're sitting around waiting for the cameras to be set up. I'm not talking about "Jury Duty." I'm talking about every other movie or TV show I'm ever a part of. And I just think it's a funny little bit to, like, pretend like you're the actor who is trying to be affable and, like, self-deprecating. But really what comes through is the narcissism and the conceited nature of - you know, it's that whole thing of, like, I'd - I would do a little bit on set. It'd be like, I don't think people really, truly understand how difficult it is to be an actor. I know there are really tough and dangerous vocations out there, but I don't think people really know how hard it is. I'm sorry, the coffee is a little lukewarm.
BRIGER: These ice cubes are too cold.
MARSDEN: Right (laughter). Right. And so - I don't know. I just thought the idea of sending up that sort of trope and playing with it - and I'm doing it in my own shoes - was an exciting, funny thing for me to explore. And there's something about playing someone who thinks that the world worships them when they actually don't (laughter) at all and watching that person, you know, get humiliated, fall on their face, get embarrassed by the lack of enthusiasm in the room. And, I mean, this James Marsden is always trying to get the conversation steered back to him because that's the only conversation he knows, and it's the only conversation he's interested in.
BRIGER: Right. Well, let's just take a short break here. If you're just joining us, we're speaking with actor James Marsden. He plays a self-absorbed, satirical version of himself in the new Amazon Freevee show "Jury Duty." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF GWENDOLYN DEASE'S "PORKCHOP'S BLUES")
BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, our guest is actor James Marsden. He plays a version of himself, a self-absorbed, satirical version, in the new Amazon Freevee show "Jury Duty." Let's talk a little bit about the hero of the show, the real person Ronald Gladden. Like, so much relied on this guy. Like, either it could have been a terrible experience for him. Or, like, I mean, he could have turned out to be a horrible person. It was a real...
BRIGER: ...Tightrope walk, I think, to probably choosing...
MARSDEN: No, it was. And, I mean, there were a number of things that could have happened that would have torpedoed this whole endeavor. And we got really, really lucky with him, mostly with him because he just is one of the kindest, empathetic, you know, wonderful human beings that I've ever met. And he kind of took it all in stride and laughed it off and, you know, all the absurdity, the crazy things that are happening in the courtroom. So they did an amazing job of finding him.
And then we got to know him on day 1 - right? - when the cameras started rolling. And I had only had a few days of rehearsal because I was finishing up "Party Down" at the time. And the other cast members had another week and a half of rehearsals because it was very strategic, very choreographed. Where do you sit? It was just intricate. And I remember thinking, just sweating bullets, just like, I don't think I'm ready for this. I don't know if I'm going to be funny. I don't want to be the one to blow the whole thing.
MARSDEN: But all they told us was his name is Ronald Gladden. He's from San Diego. He's a solar panel contractor or something like that. And he's 6-foot-6. And have fun. And then, you know, the scripts say this, and this is what happens. But you kind of had to be like water and flow and pivot when you needed to because no one knew what he was going to say. No one knew if he would even recognize who I was.
BRIGER: Yeah. Well, he doesn't quite at first, right? Like...
MARSDEN: No. He doesn't...
BRIGER: Takes him a second.
MARSDEN: ...Which is kind of comedy gold...
MARSDEN: ...You know?
BRIGER: Yeah. Well, I mean, that's a great part of that clip where he's basically - you say, I was in "Sonic." And he's like, oh, I heard that's a bad movie.
BRIGER: Like, you must have wanted to crack up at that point.
MARSDEN: I did. But I knew that he just put a meatball right over home plate for me to...
MARSDEN: You know, it was like, this is amazing that he just said that. And it gave me an opportunity to look as crestfallen as I could and sort of, you know, brush it off and remind him that I was in other stuff. And it was a big movie. And it - you know? (Laughter). So it was perfect. I mean, it was really - there were moments where Ronald - there were scripted moments that he seemed to be ahead of us on that he kind of led us to.
MARSDEN: There's a moment in that opening sequence where we're in the waiting room where Noah - there's an actor named Mekki. He's one of our writers, as well, brilliant improv artist. And he plays Noah. He comes in, and he says, hey, how do you - I need to get out of this. I'm going on a vacation with my girlfriend. Any ideas on how you can get out of this? And it's scripted that Noah proposes the idea that it's a good idea to present to the judge that you're racist and that's why you should be let off. And before Mekki could get to that beat, Ronald proposed, hey, I saw this "Family Guy" episode where the guy says he's racist and tries to get out of jury duty with that. And he literally...
BRIGER: Yeah. He also says, like, I don't know if I necessarily recommend doing this, but...
MARSDEN: Right, right. Yeah. No, no. He was saying it sort of like laughing, like, not...
BRIGER: Yeah. Don't do this.
MARSDEN: Kind of as a joke, of course. He'd never expected this young man to actually use that tactic. And you see the terror in his eyes when Noah gets up at the voir dire and uses - you know, and that's the strategy that he goes for.
MARSDEN: So - but it was really amazing because, you know, as much as you can prepare for something like this, there's 20, maybe 30% of it is just like, you just got to be nimble and go with the flow. And if you - if we want Ronald to take a left and he wants to take a right, you got to take a right turn with him and adjust. And that was exciting and, like I said before, absolutely terrifying at the same time.
BRIGER: So how much, like, behind-the-scenes plotting and scripting was happening while you were filming the show? Like, I think it was, like, 17 days or something like that overall. Like, would you guys meet in the morning and in the evening to figure out, like, OK, he said this thing. How are we going to use this tomorrow? Or like, James, you need to set up this thing by making this sort of statement. Like, how much of that was happening?
MARSDEN: A regular day on "Jury Duty" was the cast would arrive at the courthouse about an hour and a half, two hours before Ronald would show up. And we would go through the beats of the day like, OK, all right, so today is about this. This is the voir dire. This is where so-and-so will get up. And Marsden will try and get out of jury duty by saying he's a distraction - da-da-da-da (ph). And we'll kind of go over the moments and think sort of, like - it's like a little mini-rehearsal before Ronald gets there. And we'd prepare ourselves for the day as much as we could. And then we would leave. And we would go hide in our vans that were supposed to be taking us to court or, early on, our own cars just around the block and with the walkie-talkies in the car. And, like, OK, our hero's landed. Our hero's landed. Cue Marsden's car. He can now come in. And we would start the day. And once you walk into that courtroom, you know, in the courthouse, it's all one take, right?
MARSDEN: It's one take. And your beats work or they don't. And at the end of the day, Ronald would get in his car or his van and leave. And we would all leave as well. And we would go hide around the corner...
MARSDEN: ...And wait for him to clear. And then we would come back to the courthouse and go over the day and what happened. Did anyone notice what he said? Did he say anything that was alarming or that he was suspicious? That beat didn't work. Or this - we didn't get to this beat. We'll save it. Put a pin in it, maybe see if we can come back to it tomorrow. And it was just a constant evolution as you went through the process.
BRIGER: You must have just been exhausted after every day.
MARSDEN: I was. Everybody was. When you're in this dusty, old, asbestos...
MARSDEN: Like, abandoned courthouse...
MARSDEN: ...With no windows and fluorescent lights - and you're there in character for sometimes five hours a day and doing two things. You're juggling, all right, how do I, you know, push my beats with him? How do I pick my moments with him? How do I make sure I'm not, you know, upsetting the apple cart and making - still making this believable, still making this funny? And - yeah, and throughout the day, like, you don't want to be the one that screws the whole thing up.
BRIGER: Have you been in touch with him since the show ended?
MARSDEN: Yeah, very. I was - actually chatted with him this morning and last night. I mean...
BRIGER: Oh, yeah.
MARSDEN: It was important to me and it was important to the producers and the cast and everyone who fell in love with this guy very early on that our North Star for this whole process was, he's got to know by the end of this that this was fake, but not all of it was fake. The friendships that were created, the relationships that he forged through the process of making this show were, in fact, very real, right? Like, our connections to him were organic and authentic and real. And all of us could not sprint fast enough up to him once the reveal happened and give him a big hug and let him know that. I was like, I can't do this and then let him know that it was all fake and go, hey; see you, bud. Nice to meet you. That was cool (laughter).
MARSDEN: You know?
BRIGER: Yeah, of course.
MARSDEN: I immediately exchanged numbers. I'm like, I'm here. Let's hang out. Let's grab a beer. Let's talk about the whole thing. And I just - I couldn't just leave him, nor did I want to. I mean, I really did create a real friendship with him.
MARSDEN: And everyone else on the cast did as well.
BRIGER: Yeah. I mean, another thing that was nice is that he gets a reward of, like, $100,000 at the end. So that's sort of...
BRIGER: He's compensated for his time.
MARSDEN: But I remember questioning that as well, you know, because I was so worried that we were going to be doing something ethically wrong, you know, that I was concerned that the check might have been a slap in the face, right? Like, punch someone in the mouth and then, like, throw cash at them.
BRIGER: Oh, yeah.
MARSDEN: (Laughter) You know?
MARSDEN: Would it feel like that? Would it feel like that? And most people are like, I think he's going to be happy to get the check, to be honest (laughter).
BRIGER: Yeah. But when you guys reveal to him, like, you can see, like, everyone looks really nervous. And, like, they don't...
BRIGER: It feels really awkward. Like, people are like, oh, no - what's going to happen? - because, yeah, it seemed like none of you really wanted to hurt him...
BRIGER: ...And, like, to have him feel, like, offended by this. But, you know, I really enjoyed watching the show. But I have to say, after watching the show, I've been feeling really paranoid about when I'm, like, out in public and something weird happens. Like, (laughter) I look around like, you know, am I on film? Is someone recording me? Like, it's...
MARSDEN: (Laughter) Yeah.
BRIGER: It gave me a - especially, like, the first day afterwards, I had a really weird sensation about it.
MARSDEN: Yeah, I think that's a normal reaction. I remember, when I first got involved, calling all my friends who are in the improv world. I remember calling Ben Schwartz. And I was like, here's the conceit of this show. And it's really ambitious. And what am I doing? I mean, like, am I - (laughter) you know, is this a good thing to do? His first words out of his mouth were, make sure they're not punking you.
BRIGER: (Laughter) Right.
MARSDEN: And I remember thinking that the first week. I was like, is this an elaborate - am I the butt of the joke of the whole thing, right?
MARSDEN: Everyone was questioning their - (laughter) not to get "Westworld," but their reality...
MARSDEN: ...As we progressed through the whole thing because it just could have been anything. And, yeah, I can imagine even the viewers going home afterwards thinking, wow, what if that was me? How would I handle that?
MARSDEN: I mean, I know me. I can't even take a surprise birthday party...
MARSDEN: Right? So again, it's like, who knows how this is going to affect him? And, yeah, I think that's a pretty natural response, to be questioning if people are following you around with cameras, especially nowadays when...
BRIGER: There's cameras everywhere. Like, everyone's got a camera in their pocket.
MARSDEN: There's cameras everywhere. And there's sort of a new blending, a fusion, that's going on of, like, scripted stuff mixed with reality.
MARSDEN: You know, the audience is kind of wanting to see a little bit more of that, right? I mean, we're obsessed with these, like, court cases with Gwyneth Paltrow and Johnny Depp.
MARSDEN: And it's like, that's our entertainment now.
MARSDEN: And so - I don't know. I feel like there's a - we're sort of steering the ship in that direction in our industry a bit. And maybe we're going to see a lot more of this sort of hidden camera stuff.
GROSS: We're listening to the interview our producer, Sam Briger, recorded with James Marsden, who stars in the new series "Jury Duty," which is streaming on Amazon Freevee. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. And John Powers will review a new film he says cuts to the very heart of what's happening in the world right now. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF RAMIN DJAWADI'S "PAINT IT BLACK")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview our producer Sam Briger recorded with actor James Marsden. He stars in the new series "Jury Duty," which is on Amazon Freevee. "Jury Duty" is a fake reality show that takes place in an LA courtroom. Everyone is an actor except for one real person, Ronald Gladden. Ronald believes he's participating in a documentary about jury duty. He doesn't know that everyone around him - the rest of the jury, the judge, the witnesses - are all actors who are improvising. They're all kind of odd, and their behavior is unpredictable. Marsden plays a satirical, self-absorbed version of himself serving as an alternate juror.
Marsden's other recent TV shows include "Westworld" and "Dead To Me." His films include "27 Dresses," "The Notebook," the 2007 version of "Hairspray" and Disney's "Enchanted," where he plays Edward, a satirical take on the Prince Charming type.
BRIGER: I want to play a scene from the movie "Enchanted." This is a Disney movie that spoofs the idea of Disney princesses and Prince Charming, like, tropes. And you play Prince Edward. You and Giselle, who's played by Amy Adams, actually, like, live in an animated world, a very Disney world. And the minute you meet, you sing a duet together and fall immediately in love, and you plan to get married,
However, your stepmother doesn't want you to marry Giselle, so she pushes her down a magic well, and she lands up in the non-animated, gritty world of New York City - I mean, gritty in a Disney sort of way. But so she meets Patrick Dempsey and starts having feelings for him, and she starts to, like, learn to appreciate her new world. You've also jumped into the well to try to go find her. And here you finally have, and this is at Patrick Dempsey's apartment. He has a daughter. And this is when you see her for the first time.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ENCHANTED")
MARSDEN: (As Edward) Giselle.
AMY ADAMS: (As Giselle) Edward.
MARSDEN: (As Edward, laughter).
PATRICK DEMPSEY: (As Robert) Could you - I'm sorry, but could you just be - could you just be careful?
MARSDEN: (As Edward) You.
DEMPSEY: (As Robert) What?
MARSDEN: (As Edward) You're the one who's been holding my Giselle captive.
DEMPSEY: (As Robert) Just stay calm.
ADAMS: (As Giselle) No.
MARSDEN: (As Edward) Have you any last words before I dispatch you?
DEMPSEY: (As Robert) You have got to be kidding me.
MARSDEN: (As Edward) Strange words.
ADAMS: (As Giselle) No, no, no. These are my friends.
MARSDEN: (As Edward) Oh.
ADAMS: (As Giselle) This is Morgan and Robert. This is Edward.
MARSDEN: (As Edward, singing) I've been dreaming of a true love's kiss.
DEMPSEY: (As Robert) He sings too.
MARSDEN: (As Edward, singing) And a miss I have begun to miss, pure and sweet, waiting to complete my love song. Yes, somewhere there's a maid I've never met who was made - who was made - to finish...
ADAMS: (As Giselle) What's wrong?
MARSDEN: (As Edward) You're not singing.
ADAMS: (As Giselle) Oh. I'm not. Well, I'm sorry. I was thinking.
MARSDEN: (As Edward) Thinking?
ADAMS: (As Giselle) Before we leave, there's one thing I would love to do.
MARSDEN: (As Edward) Oh, well, name it, my love, and it is done.
ADAMS: (As Giselle) I want to go on a date.
MARSDEN: (As Edward) A date. What's a date?
BRIGER: That's my guest, James Marsden, in the movie "Enchanted."
MARSDEN: It's so interesting just listening to the audio.
BRIGER: Yeah. It's great audio. So you're doing, like, a sort of a Prince Charming voice there. Like, how - what are you doing?
MARSDEN: I mean, we went back and looked at all the old "Snow Whites" and, you know, the classic Disney princes and "Sleeping Beauty," and they all had this sort of voice, you know? It was like they loved the sound of their own voice, and they loved the idea...
BRIGER: Yeah. It's like, I'm an actor, or something.
MARSDEN: Yes. Yes. It was very - you know, back in the day, in the '40s or whatever, they were just taught to do - you know, speech - they had speech lessons and whatever. And with the singing - I mean, I know that was an a cappella bit, but when we actually recorded that song, I had vocal lessons from a coach who was - taught operetta-style singing. It was sort of Mario Lanza. You know, it wasn't - because back in the older Disney movies, that's the kind of singing it was. It was operetta. It wasn't your modern Disney style, kind of more pop singing. So it was a style of music or a style of singing that I wasn't that familiar with and had to get up to speed.
But, yes, it was - you know, I thought Edward was someone who always - every statement is as simple or complex as it would be, not that he was ever saying anything much complex - too complex, but it had to be a proclamation, right? Everything - I'll have a bagel. You know, and it had to have an exclamation point at the end of it. And I just think there was such fun to be had to just be this unabashed, romantic prince who just is in love with being in love. He's in love with the idea of Giselle, and he's in love with his - the sound of his own voice, and just goes through - moves through life with just, you know, an optimism that's unmatched (laughter). It's like nothing can - you know, you can't imagine him ever getting cynical about anything. And, wow, what a, you know, ignorance is bliss kind of way to live. And it was a lot of fun to play because obviously I'm wearing the big giant puffy sleeves...
BRIGER: (Laughter) Yeah, that's right.
MARSDEN: ...And swinging the sword and the hair is flopping around and, you know, just - it was a blast. It really was so much fun.
BRIGER: You know, you've had quite a few roles where you play, like, the passed-over romantic interest. Like, there's this movie and "The Notebook" in particular. But you could even say, like, your character Teddy in "Westworld," there's a little bit of that. Like, why do you think...
BRIGER: ...That you've had those roles? Were you typecast, do you think?
MARSDEN: I don't know. I mean, for a while it became - it started getting more traction than I ever intended, right? I mean, there were roles in between all of those big projects where I wasn't playing the, you know...
BRIGER: Right. Sure.
MARSDEN: ...The guy who doesn't get the girl or...
MARSDEN: ...The simp or whatever, you know. But it just so happens to be the ones that became big successes (laughter) were those ones where the roles were - you know, whatever, the movies, I was playing, you know, the guy who ends up kind of getting cuckolded or whatever you want to call it. And it started to look pathological, like I was choosing these on purpose (laughter). And I'm like, no, no, no, no, no. This is not by design. It just sort of happened that way. So we didn't know "Enchanted" was going to be just a massive hit. "The Notebook" became, like, you know, this - still, to this day, is incredible how...
MARSDEN: ...The legs that that movie has.
MARSDEN: I will say, though, nowadays - what I'm getting a lot more of now is, she should have ended up with him (laughter). So a lot of people nowadays, like, especially a lot of Gen Zers are like, that was a toxic relationship...
MARSDEN: ...Between Noah and Allie. She should have been with James.
BRIGER: You know, you do some nice singing in that scene. Like, it's - obviously, it's not, like, probably the style of singing that you like to do, but - and it's - when I was watching a lot of your roles, like, you actually sing in quite a lot of different roles that you've been in. Like, in - there's this whole season of "Ally McBeal" where you sing all these tunes. Like, first of all, like, did you sing a lot as a kid? And, like, how - I guess you were known in Hollywood as someone who could carry a tune, huh?
MARSDEN: Yeah, I think because I've been afforded opportunities to show that I can. I mean, with "Enchanted" and, like, even "Hairspray"...
BRIGER: Right, and "Hairspray," too. Yeah.
MARSDEN: ...I was - right. I was singing as a character, so it wasn't really my voice, you know? But "Ally McBeal" was probably the closest thing to what I normally sound like, right? It's more of, like, Harry Connick, kind of Sinatra, both of whom I grew up emulating.
BRIGER: Yeah. I want to play a little bit of you singing from "Ally McBeal," where it sounds like you spent quite a lot of time listening to Frank Sinatra sing "The Lady Is A Tramp" because, you know, you're following, like, his staccato phrasing. So I was wondering if he was a hero of yours as a singer. And - but before you answer that, let's just hear a little bit of you singing "The Lady Is A Tramp."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ALLY MCBEAL")
MARSDEN: (As Glenn Foy, singing) She gets hungry for dinner at 8. She loves the theater - doesn't come late. She'd never bother with anyone she'd hate. That's why the lady is a tramp. Doesn't like dice game with barons and earls...
BRIGER: So that's just a little bit of...
MARSDEN: My voice is so high.
BRIGER: Yeah, it is high, though.
MARSDEN: I sound like such a kid. I sound - (impersonating deep voice) and now I'm like a...
BRIGER: Well, even when you're speaking - Yeah. When you speak in that show...
MARSDEN: (Impersonating deep voice) ...A grown man.
BRIGER: ...You have a higher voice, for sure.
MARSDEN: But, boy, I - and my vibrato is so just, like, rapid fire. Yeah, I grew up loving - my mother used to listen to the old standards, and I remember just really gravitating towards the old Great American Songbook. It was Gershwin and Rodgers and Hart and Sammy Cahn and all these greats. And I loved orchestration of these big, you know, slamming big bands and just - I just loved it. One of the reasons I got into Hollywood and I wanted to be an actor is because I always felt like I had a pretty good ear.
And I started doing, like, plays and musicals in high school. And it was the first time in my life I felt like I might be good at something. Whether I was right or wrong (laughter), it felt like the audience's reaction was positive. And I had so much fun performing. And I would - I was kind of a parrot. I would go to school and do - I would totally plagiarize - or I wouldn't have plagiarized, but I would do, you know, Dana Carvey sketches from "SNL." I would - I had all of Eddie Murphy's stand-up, like, memorized. And I would go into school and get - and do these characters and do impersonations and impressions and get laughs.
And it was, like, a great source of validation for me at the time. And that kind of went into music as well. Like, I would sing along with Harry Connick or sing along with Sinatra, and I would kind of try to make myself sound like them. And so it's one of the reasons why I still have a hard time, to this day, with someone saying, you're a proper singer, like, you're, you know, trained. And I feel like, I don't know if I'm a singer or if I'm just an impersonator (laughter)...
BRIGER: Interesting. Huh. Yeah.
MARSDEN: ...You know?
MARSDEN: But yeah, it's always been a talent of mine that I always really enjoy. It's something that I - actually, part of me likes that it's not the thing I do for a living because I can kind of protect it and keep it - I don't know - just keep it fun without any sort of expectations that you got to put food on the table, you got to sing for your food or whatever.
MARSDEN: It's just something I enjoy. I love it. I love the expression of it. I love how it feels. And if I weren't an actor, I probably would have pursued a music career. And it would have lasted maybe a couple of weeks.
BRIGER: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with actor James Marsden. His newest show from Amazon Freevee is called "Jury Duty." More after a break - this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF LIZZO'S "GRRRLS (OFFICIAL INSTRUMENTAL)")
BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, we're speaking with actor James Marsden, whose newest show on Amazon Freevee is called "Jury Duty," where he plays a satirical, self-absorbed version of himself.
You know, one of your earlier big breaks was on the "X-Men" franchise. I think there was, like, four movies you were in.
BRIGER: And you played Cyclops - like, for people who don't know, is a mutant who can shoot lasers out of his eyes. And he has to wear these special visors all the time to keep the lasers from just, like, you know, destroying everything, like, whenever his...
MARSDEN: Ruby quartz-plated, yeah.
BRIGER: Yeah. Yeah, there we go, ruby quartz-plated. So this was probably a great gig to get, but I was wondering if it was a bummer for you to have to act all the time with these goggles on your head. Like, your eyes are - I mean, are probably some of your biggest tools if you're an actor. Like, was that kind of annoying in some ways?
MARSDEN: (Laughter) It was definitely - I mean, look, it was a gigantic movie.
MARSDEN: It was - it's hard for me to look back on that and have any complaints at all being involved with that. That said, as an actor, you're - you know, the character is kind of a stiff and a bit of a Boy Scout, and he's meant to be a foil to Hugh Jackman's more, you know, roguish...
MARSDEN: ...You know, fly by the seat of his pants, kind of wild-card guy. And then you throw the goggles on top of it. It's like, well...
BRIGER: (Laughter) Yeah.
MARSDEN: ...I don't have much dynamic range here to explore (laughter).
BRIGER: Yeah. Like, would you, like - I need to flare my nostrils in this scene to express, like...
MARSDEN: Right? I know, yeah - clench my jaw. I remember when we were rehearsing a scene and I didn't have - because we were rehearsing, and I didn't have my glasses on, you know. And I was doing the scene. I think it was with Famke and Hugh in the bedroom when he's like, you know, you're going to tell me to stay away from your girl, and that whole thing. And it was - weirdly wasn't working. Like, we really - it was a weird day because it was - we were all trying to figure out and Bryan, the director, was trying to figure out why it's not working. And what's the hitch, you know? And we all - all of us felt like, oh, God. We're getting fired today.
MARSDEN: This is it, every one of us. And I remember Hugh saying the same thing to me and Famke saying the same thing. And just all of us were like, we suck, we suck (laughter). And I remember doing the scene. We came in the next day to rehearse it again. And I didn't have my glasses on. And Bryan is like, what are you doing right now? This is, like, absolutely perfect. And I was like, well, I don't - you're looking me in the eye (laughter).
MARSDEN: I'm giving you something that I can't give you with the visor on. And he was like, oh, right, right, right (laughter). So - and then you don't want to overcompensate by using your voice. (Speaking deeply) I'm - you know? Like...
MARSDEN: But it was a little bit of a - you know, it was a speed bump, I guess.
MARSDEN: It wasn't - but again, I can't look back on that experience - I'm so grateful to be a part of it. And it just, you know, shot me out of a cannon at the time. And I was - whatever - 26 years old. And everyone in the world knew who the X-Men were at that point
MARSDEN: And I'm fulfilling a childhood fantasy. And it put me on the map. It opened up a tremendous amount of opportunities for me. And then I thought, well, now I'm going to go and hopefully find the roles to show everyone that I'm not just that guy.
BRIGER: You know, I'm just wondering - I think it's objectively clear that you're a very attractive person. And I was wondering if you just, like - in your life, did you ever have a realization of that, like, and that that would mean that there would be sort of attention towards you, like, maybe wanted attention or sometimes unwanted attention?
MARSDEN: Yeah, I guess there was a realization at some point. It's so funny, though, because I was not that guy growing up, I really was not. I was goofy. I was, you know - I was the silly actor guy doing bits. I didn't know how to get a good haircut. (Laughter) You know, I didn't care what I was wearing. I just, you know, would have my shirt on inside out and mismatching socks. And I just - you know, in Oklahoma it was like, the girls wanted the, like, jock who's the quarterback of the football team, is 6-foot-2, cornfed boy. And I was, like, this 145-pound shrimp...
MARSDEN: ...Who just was like, (murmuring), I can do a good Mike Myers, you know? (Laughter) It's not the sexiest thing in the world. I just never looked at myself that way until I turned about, like, 17 and I sort of started coming into myself. And I started hearing it back from other people. Like, you know, I remember this girl friend of mine, Leslie (ph), in high school. And she was, like, my pal. Like, we were buddies. And then when I got to senior year of high school, she was like, what happened to you? And I'm like, what do you mean?
MARSDEN: She's like, you're actually kind of hot now (laughter). So I was like, wait, what? What does that even mean?
MARSDEN: I wasn't the guy who was getting the girl in high school. And maybe that's why I was attracted to those roles.
MARSDEN: But I did realize at some point that, you know, if you accept that as, you know, something that's part of your nature and it can be an absolute asset in this business, then embrace it.
MARSDEN: And don't lead with it. Don't rely on it as a crutch. And just treat it like it's a bonus, you know? And I remember this acting coach once - I think there was an acting coach who came through Oklahoma once. And I took his class. And he said - he looked at me and he goes, you don't need to be thinking just some, like, marquee, good looks, you know, superstar. He was like, you need to be thinking Jim Carrey because you look the way you do, but you need to be something else on the inside. And I was like, yeah, actually, I relate to that way more (laughter).
MARSDEN: But, you know, you could weaponize it a little bit in Hollywood. You can just be like, all right, hey; this is a good thing. It's going to snare me some good roles.
BRIGER: (Laughter) Right. Yeah.
MARSDEN: And then I'm going to show that I'm - there's, you know, more than meets the eye with my performance or with my take on it. And I never wanted to be the guy who was just cast as the good-looking dude in a leather jacket.
BRIGER: Well, James Marsden, it's been really great having you on. Thanks so much for being on FRESH AIR.
MARSDEN: Thank you for having me.
GROSS: James Marsden spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. Marsden stars in the new series "Jury Duty," which is streaming on Amazon Freevee. After we take a short break, John Powers will review a new film by a director John says is unmatched at capturing how social forces twist people into knots. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF NOBUYUKI TSUJII'S "JEUX D'EAU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.