James Marsden: The Deep End

8.13.2013

By Natasha Vargas-Cooper

Under his unspeakably handsome exterior, there lies a drama nerd with a clever plan.

Photography by Matthias Vriens-McGrath | Styling by Grant Woolhead

Let’s get this out of the way: Does James Marsden know how good-looking he is? The answer is yes. “I know I have a face like a model,” Marsden says, half-embarrassed. “But I’m actually just a goofy drama nerd underneath.”

Take one look at Marsden and it’s easy to see why he’s so often cast as the top-dog romantic rival in films such as X-Men, The Notebook, and Enchanted. Unlike Ryan Gosling, with his hang-dog eyes, or Hugh Jackman, with his brooding manner, Marsden has a face that betrays no inner turmoil, no secrets. It’s like he jumped out of a propaganda poster for American prosperity; he looks pretty and smug. His all-American features could almost be described as corn-fed, were it not for the patrician cheekbones, high and hollow.

“I’m actually less comfortable being the smoldering hot guy,” Marsden says, smolderingly.

While his headshot screams hunk jock, his résumé shows the diversity of a character actor. “I’d rather play a goofball or a rube than a steamy leading-man role,” he insists. “I’ve never been that guy — I was a skinny loner in high school.” As evidence, Marsden submits his first major role: Putnam City North High School’s 10th grade production of Bye, Bye Birdie. Marsden didn’t play the young Elvis stand-in, Conrad Birdie, who causes legions of fictional girls to combust in a supernova of adolescent sexual vapors. Instead, he played Conrad’s foil, Hugo Peabody, the dorky, sweet, sensitive beta male. This playful, endearing version of him is something Tina Fey seized on for 30 Rock.

After 20 years of acting, Marsden has played Cyclops in the X-Men franchise; starred in the cultural phenom The Notebook; swished and sung through Enchanted and Hairspray; married Liz Lemon; played opposite the Easter Bunny in the children’s blockbuster Hop; revived Dustin Hoffman’s role in the remake of Straw Dogs; had a guest spot as an irresistible hippy neighbor on Modern Family, in which he ended up in a hot tub with gay couple Cam and Mitchell; and just wrapped Will Ferrell’s Anchorman 2, where he plays the polyester-suited heavy. Marsden hopes Anchorman 2 will open the door for more comedic roles.

“I think the key to comedy — and I learned this on the set of Enchanted and Hairspray — is that the audience needs to feel like everyone is having fun,” he says. “It’s so obvious to me and the audience when an actor is having a miserable time doing a movie.”

SLIDESHOW: MORE EXCLUSIVE IMAGES OF JAMES MARSDEN

Today we are both baking in the middle of a San Fernando Valley heat wave, waiting for our lunch of overpriced tartines to arrive. Marsden, though, looks like he just tumbled out of the Santa Monica surf. He’s tan and taut and seems just fizzy, effervescent. We’re talking about President John F. Kennedy, whom he plays in gay director Lee Daniels’s historical drama The Butler. (At press time, Daniels and the Weinstein Company were in an ugly public legal dispute with Warner Bros. over the film’s title; Warner has filed a legal claim saying the Weinstein Company can’t use the title because of a 1916 short film with the same name.)

With only two weeks to prepare, the Cuban Missile Crisis speech committed to memory, and two glue-on silicone cheek plumpers to round out his angular face, Marsden took on the 35th president.

“His speeches were like poetry,” he says before slipping into a pitch-perfect impression, quoting Kennedy’s famed civil rights address of 1963. “The fires of frustration and discord are burning in every city, north and south.” It’s uncanny. For Marsden, this sort of character role is his first passion.

“I’ve been a big fan of his work for a long time,” says Daniels from his edit bay in Los Angeles. “I saw a thespian waiting to bust out from his big tent-pole movies.” Daniels praises Marsden for his schoolboy-style work ethic on set: “The man loves to do his homework — and he did so much homework. He came in and did a perfect impression of John [Kennedy], but I told him, ‘OK, now you say the speech how you would say it.’ ” Daniels says Marsden’s eyes would go racing from panic, but then, with a little coaxing, he would deliver show-stopping takes. “I picked him because I think he embodies the youthful side of Kennedy that gave so many people hope.”

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