“Where do you normally do these?” James Marsden asks. “You probably go to the Ivy or something.”
Well, no, not exactly, although this particular November morning is the first time an interview assignment has brought me to Patys Restaurant in Toluca Lake — a retro diner whose Web site heralds it as a “famous hot spot” and “home to many celebrities and entertainment industry professionals.” The location was suggested by Marsden because of its close proximity to the home he shares with his wife of seven years, actress Lisa Linde, and their two children — 6-year-old Jack and 2-year-old Mary. But the surroundings also seem a natural fit for the 34-year-old actor, who drives his forest-green 1969 MG to our interview, apologizes for his unkempt appearance (a scruffy beard grown for his next role) and, on screen and off, projects the old-fashioned wholesomeness of a 1950s crooner or matinee idol. If you didn’t know better, you’d swear he’d been cloned from the DNA of Bobby Darin and Troy Donahue.
It’s as another kind of mutant, of course, that Marsden first showed up on most moviegoers’ radar. Cast as the brooding, sight-impaired Scott Summers (a.k.a. Cyclops) in director Bryan Singer’s highly profitable X-Men (2000), Marsden soldiered dutifully through a secondary role in a movie less about acting than about fancy special effects, his eyes — one of a screen actor’s most valuable tools — permanently obscured behind an opaque visor. Three years (and a brief guest-starring gig on TV’s Ally McBeal) later, Marsden returned for the even more profitable X2. But when Scott Summers was dispatched to superhero heaven relatively early on in last year’s X-Men: The Last Stand, Marsden wasn’t entirely sad to see him go.
“Don’t get me wrong: I had a great time on those films, and they in many ways solidified my place on the map, or whatever you want to call it,” Marsden says. “They’re in the collective consciousness, whereas most of my other films aren’t. But then it becomes a challenge to prove to whomever that you’re not just that person, that you’re an actor who can do other things.”
Those “other things” have included a supporting part in 2004’s popular dime-store romance The Notebook, where his WWII soldier vying (with Ryan Gosling) for the affections of Rachel McAdams felt like the one authentically period element in a movie whose young cast seemed to be playing dress-up in Grandma and Grandpa’s wardrobe. Then, for Singer again, he played one more nice guy who almost but doesn’t quite get the girl, as Lois Lane’s other significant other in Superman Returns. (In between, he starred opposite Elizabeth Banks and Jesse Bradford as a sexually confused New Yorker in the affecting but little-seen ensemble drama Heights, which, true to form, ended with Marsden not getting the girl and possibly not getting the guy either.)
But it’s in 2007 that Marsden broke out as, of all things, a sparkling musical-comedy showman, first as the aptly named Dick Clark surrogate Corny Collins in this summer’s Hairspray, and now as the storybook prince marooned in Manhattan in Disney’s fractured modern-day fairy tale Enchanted, which opened over the Thanksgiving holiday to strong reviews and even stronger box office. If much of Enchanted’s press has centered around star Amy Adams, Marsden is hardly without his own share of scene-stealing moments, whether brandishing his sword at an oncoming bus in the middle of Times Square or engaging in this wonderfully deadpan exchange with his loyal liege Nathaniel (Timothy Spall):
“Sire, do you like yourself?”
“What’s not to like?”
Indeed, as Marsden himself puts it, “This year, particularly, people have been like, ‘Oh, that’s that guy?’ ”
To get into character as the well-meaning but hopelessly self-absorbed Prince Edward, Marsden drew on the back catalog of Disney animation classics for inspiration — an easy task, he notes, “because I have kids, these are the movies that play on a loop at my house.” The end result is something the actor likens to “a Disney smoothie. He’s a little bit of Prince Phillip from Sleeping Beauty, which was the first time a Disney prince was allowed to have a little personality and a sense of humor. There’s also a little Gaston from Beauty and the Beast — the posturing, without the villainy and bad intentions. I describe him as having an innocent narcissism. He doesn’t know he’s being vain.”
Unlike his latest cinematic alter ego, however, Marsden himself is almost terminally self-deprecating, loath to even call himself an actor (“I’m really a mimic,” he says) and quick to embrace his tabloid-free lifestyle in the media flyover zone. “There are some people who court that sort of thing and other people who don’t,” he says. “We hang out in Toluca Lake and go to Bob’s Big Boy on Friday nights because there’s a car show. I don’t know that that would make headlines anywhere.”
When Marsden was a Stillwater, Oklahoma, high school graduate newly bitten by the acting bug (specifically, a drama class he enrolled in “to get an easy ‘A’ ”), things were a little different. “I was an 18-year-old kid who was going to go take Hollywood by storm and be the next revelation,” he chuckles. “I was ignorant. It was a youthful confidence, but it actually served me really well. As you get older, you actually try to get some of that back — that blinders-on, it’s-going-to-happen mentality.”
As it happens, Marsden’s career opportunities did fall into place relatively quickly. Through a casting director who was a family friend, he secured representation, a modeling contract with Versace, and a role in the pilot episode of The Nanny. “A little job here, a little job there, and after six months in L.A., I was paying for my rent and my meals,” he says. “Very slowly, the tiniest of snowballs snowballed from there. At some point, the snowball got to be a nice size, and I wanted it to stay that way. That’s sort of now. I don’t want it to keep rolling. Or rather, I want it to keep rolling, but I don’t want it to keep getting bigger.”
Such matters may ultimately lie beyond Marsden’s control. In January, he’ll finally have his first bona fide romantic lead, opposite Katherine Heigl’s career bridesmaid in the Fox comedy 27 Dresses, after which he’ll join Cameron Diaz in the supernatural thriller The Box from Donnie Darko director Richard Kelly. Still, if Marsden’s days as a second fiddle and third wheel are numbered, he admits he’s nervous about the responsibilities that come with above-the-title billing.
“I’m more comfortable with the bar set low,” he says with a flash of his milky-white smile. “If expectations are low, you can only impress people. But if expectations are there for you to be the leading guy, and you’ve been paid X amount of money, you’re on a tightrope and all of a sudden you’re looking down. If it was up to me now, I would just stay on the up-and-coming list until I’m like 90.
“In music, there’s these independent bands that you know about but that not that many people know about, and that makes you somehow love them more. And the music doesn’t change, but if the general populace catches on and elects it as the music that should be all over the radio and movies, then psychologically something happens — you don’t like them as much.”
“That’s right,” I tell Marsden as we walk to the parking lot. “Once 27 Dresses comes out, I won’t like you as much either.”
“I’m just happy you liked me at any point in time,” he says. “I’m grateful for that.”