Sun. Aug 9th, 2020

Interview: James Marsden talks ‘Dead to Me’ and supporting powerful women

The interview contains spoilers to season two of Dead to Me.

After his character met a very convincing end during the Season 1 finale of Netflix’s Dead To Me, the actor finagled his way back into things on Season 2 with a cheeky email to creator Liz Feldman.

His turn on the show alongside Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini marks the latest in a string of collaborations with groups of strong, female protagonists. Marsden also co-starred in this year’s Mrs. America on FX and spent two seasons on HBO’s Westworld.

For Marsden, it’s no accident. He takes pride in taking a backseat to stories that are much bigger than himself. In fact, it’s where he’s most comfortable.

I talked with James Marsden about season 2 of Dead To Me, the challenge of playing twins, Orange County jerks and why he hopes people can see him as more than just a pretty face.

Daniel Trainor: Hi James! How are you?

James Marsden: I’m very good, my friend. How are you doing?

I’m good! Though it’s a bit of a tricky question to answer these days.

Well, you try to figure out whether to lie or tell the truth. But that’s the truth, actually. I’m doing pretty good, you know? We all have our ups and downs, for sure. I gotta stay positive. 

Exactly. I try and stay positive when I’m in minute 15 of my living room exercise routine and I just want to throw myself off the roof.

[laughs] Are you in New York or LA?

I’m in LA.

At least we have a little more space here in LA. It’s maddening, but we’ll come out of it and we’ll all be shot out of a cannon. 

Oh, for sure. Well, thank you for taking some time. I’m really excited to chat with you.

Likewise!

I read that, perhaps half-jokingly, you had sent an email to Liz Feldman that you wanted to come back after meeting a pretty certain end at the conclusion of Season 1. I’m curious – how serious were you about that proposal, and how seriously did you think that she’d take it?

I was very serious about it, even if I did it in a playful way. I signed on for one season and obviously I didn’t really know if it was gonna work, but I thought the writing was strong and the cast was great and I love Liz Feldman. I knew going into it that the character was going to meet his demise, but it was such a fun ride, and I didn’t expect it to be as successful as it was. You always hope that that something’s going to do as well as it does, but I’ve learned over time not to expect it to happen. So, for me it was like…how do I get to just be completely selfish and wedge my way back into this show? It was an upset from the first season. Christina and Linda are absolute gems, wonderful people, I’ve worked with both of them before. It was a party every day on set. I loved it. The writing was smart and sharp. I told Liz ‘I want you to write every comedy I ever do, if you’ll have me.’ 

I sent her an email just saying ‘congratulations, so well deserved…I’ve spent the last day half-celebrating, and half-exploring online the possibilities of surviving a blunt head trauma compounded by drowning.’ I was in grovel mode. She knew that I was doing it in a playful way, but she also knew that I wasn’t joking. What I’ve learned in the 27 years I’ve been doing this, is that you can have everything on paper lined up to be perfect, and the project can somehow be missing something or it can not work for a variety of reasons. When you have something where everything clicks and the formula works, you do everything you can to keep that together, or as an actor to stay a part of it. I was like ‘man I’d love to plant a seed in your head – I’m down for whatever.’ 

She called me a couple of weeks later, and said ‘I know you were playing with me the other day, but I could tell that you were really interested in coming back and I didn’t know you before the project, and now I realize how different you are from Steve, and you were such a joy to work with. We want to figure something out. What about twins?’ My first reaction was ‘oh shit can I pull that off?’ It was a little bit like is this gonna feel cheap to the audience, or is this gonna feel soap opera-y. She said to bring any of that criticism or doubt, I want to lean into that. I have an idea for this guy, who’s Steve’s twin, who’s been living in his shadow his whole life. He’s not a shark, not as confident, not as slick, but he’s a much better human being. He’s a kinder, gentler, more compassionate human being, with a better heart. Even though physically he’s had problems his whole life. She illustrated this really wonderful characterization for me, that was in stark contrast from Steve, and I was like, ‘hey if I’m gonna take this kind of chance, I’m gonna do it with your creative guidance.’ You work with Liz Feldman and you know that you’re gonna do five different takes and you know when she gets in the editing room she’s gonna pick the smartest, funniest one. It’s knowing that you’re in good hands creatively with somebody makes it easier to take a leap. I was very grateful that she invited me back

Were there any days during Season 2, especially early on, where you did have to catch yourself and say “oh crap, I’m not playing Steve anymore?” Was it difficult to say “ok I’m a totally different human?”

I got into acting in high school and junior high and my strengths were, like, doing ten different SNL sketches. Dana Carvey and Phil Hartman and Jim Carrey. I was into playing different characters. Not to sound like it’s a gag, but I was down with coming up with this character who’s a completely different person who’s in the same show. A challenge for sure, because you didn’t want to feel cheap. But, yes, there were lots of conversations about what he looks like, what kind of clothes he wears, what’s his occupation. He’s a chiropractor, and there’s a lack of confidence socially, there’s a self-deprecating nature to the guy, and his attempts at social humor fall flat, but at his core he’s a really good person. Or tries to be. And he’s got his demons and his dark side, but I think every day he does try to make the right choices. In playing that, a lot of it was in the writing, so that work was carved out for me and then I took it and just showed up on set. I wanted it to feel like his own fully realized character. Liz would say after each take ‘That was great, now let’s lean into the dorkiness more, let’s lean more into his humor.’ Then we’d do another take and she’d say ‘that was good, but I saw Jimmy Marsden coming in there, and starting to be charming, and when you get charming with your portrayal, I see Steve more, and when you do that it shows confidence, and I don’t think Ben is that confident so let’s dial that back.’ He’s always on his back foot, but his moral compass is strong. So she would really guide me day-to-day, and it was a great safety net. That separate objective opinion from someone who knows what she wants, knows who the character is. That collaboration with her was a great system. 

To go back to Season 1 for a second, have you spent any time around rich snobs in Orange County, because as somebody who grew up in OC for a little while, I just want to commend you for really nailing Steve.

[laughs] I appreciate that! No, I’m not as familiar as you are with that type of personality, but I do feel like that personality you can find no matter where you are. Although there’s probably a very specific thing in the Orange County area. The outfits that Steve would wear – it’s like beachy, but I’m also in finance or whatever.

Definitely has a corner office and a really nice convertible.

Right. But it’s important how he’s perceived. His image is as important as what’s underneath. I loved playing Steve. He’s an absolute piece of dog shit, but it’s a fun thing to play. He’s manipulative and really scary when he loses control.  I like playing this villain who is a dunce at the end of the day. He’s saying ‘I can’t talk anymore my bath is running,’ like what is that? Jumping on the trampoline to get his heart rate up looking like a total buffoon. I just like those little touches of how douchey he is, and then to be able to play with that you’re not celebrating these kinds of guys, you’re making fun of them. And also just somebody who’s so unsavory. I like playing the confident idiot. The guy who thinks he’s god’s gift to everybody, but underneath it all he’s a coward. He’s a bully and within the performance, I like making fun of those kinds of guys.

And what a dream to be able to play both those characters on the same show. Was it hard to keep it a secret that you were coming back for Season 2? 

Yeah it was, actually, because I didn’t think the show was going to be as big as it was. I don’t want that to sound negative, I’ve just been doing it long enough to know – do the work, believe in the story that you’re telling, try to challenge yourself to come up with something really interesting in your performance that you’ve never done before, and move on. If it becomes a success, fantastic. If it doesn’t work, then okay cool. You create the work and you move on. I don’t look backwards. It’s like with ‘The Notebook,’ people ask ‘Did you know when you were filming it that it was going to be such a gigantic classic?,’ and I say ‘no, nobody did!’ You always hope that it’s going to, but your expectations are muted enough to know it could go either way. So, when ‘Dead To Me’ was such a success on Netflix, it hit all the right notes at the right time, it was super cool. It’s a cool feeling to be a part of something that really works. To answer your question, I’ve been on ‘Westworld’ for five years, you know, I’ve gotten good at keeping secrets. To the point where my agents and PR people were making predictions! 

What was it like when the season dropped? ‘Dead To Me’ is such an easy show to binge. People love it and you know they’ll be watching. On the day the show was released, did you just kind of sit back and laugh to yourself like ‘Here we go, people are finally going to find out I’m back?’

Yeah, I think my main focus was on how Ben was going to be greeted. How is he going to be received? I think there were initially some eyerolls, and then over time you forgot about Steve, and you start to buy into him being the twin brother. Going off the success of the first season is a good feeling because you feel like you’re on solid ground. You feel like, creatively, there’s going to be an appetite for this. People are going to want to know what happens next in the story, and your stress levels are lower. That said, the challenge of playing a twin brother kept those stress levels high when we first started. But, it’s twofold. One, you’re excited that you have a built-in audience already. Two, you lose the element of surprise to some degree. It’s the sophomore syndrome where the expectations are so high that it’s almost impossible to meet them. Season 2 of ‘Westworld’ had its challenges, it was just a different feel. It was the same with this! It’s the same show, but a different turn of events. Luckily we came out of it with most people really enjoying the second season, as well. 

Christina Applegate, Linda Cardellini, Cate Blanchett, Evan Rachel Wood, Frances Conroy. You look at the last few years of your career and it is a murderer’s row of female co-stars. How much of that was a conscious decision and how impactful was it to work with such strong, powerful women?

I’ve been very, very fortunate. Thandie Newton, Sarah Paulson.

The list goes on!

Yeah! It’s been fantastic. It sort of started with ‘Westworld,’ which was about this classic gunslinger, iconic cowboy who feels like he has to be the one to save a damsel in distress. He’s like ‘stay by my side, young lady, I’ll take care of you.’ It takes that and completely turns it upside down. I always make my creative choices based on the stories that are being told and how relevant the story is to where we are in our evolution as humans. For me to be able to be a part of these shows allows me to support this long and very overdue movement for women. Like in ‘Westworld,’ you’re supposed to be the male hotshot lead who saves everyone and it turns out Dolores [Evan Rachel Wood] is the one that wreaks havoc on the world. I find that not only interesting from a storytelling perspective, but to compare it to where we are on our journey as human beings and as a society. 

I’ve never felt as comfortable being the leading man as I was being a supporting character anyway. [laughs] So I feel very fortunate to be an important part of these narratives being told and supporting these incredible, brilliant actresses in a time when it will resonate the most. I feel very lucky to do that. I want to continue to serve that evolution for women and for anyone whose voice has not been heard as much as it should.

I think that’s very commendable. You know, your ability to adapt makes you such an interesting actor. You never know what you’re going to do next. 

Well, thank you. I hope I don’t confuse people. When I started out, the agent that was sending me out on auditions was like ‘yes, I’ll represent him because he’s got a good look and he’s a cute kid.’ As great as that has been, I never want that to be my most defining attribute. I’ve always seen myself as being more of a character actor. I seek out roles that allow me to play with diversity, which I think is one of the great liberations about being an actor. I’ve been having fun with it and I hope that audiences continue to have fun watching me do it. 

I think it speaks to your talent that, for somebody as handsome as you, I’m incredibly excited to talk to you about your career. I think you’re doing something right.

That means more than you know! I appreciate that. 

So, we talked about you emailing Liz Feldman after Season 1. Now that Season 2 is over, have there been any late night emails to Liz about Season 3? Things aren’t looking great for Ben!

[laughs] No, it looks like he might be getting himself into the weeds. 

These people just can’t stay out of trouble, James!

I know! If you think it’s just going to be rainbows and unicorns on ‘Dead To Me,’ that’s a fool’s errand. Just when you think that these people are finally going to find some peace and some happiness, that’s when the rug gets ripped out. The emails to Liz now are like ‘wow, I’m so grateful to be a part of this.’ I think I joked on the last day of shooting ‘hey, I’ve got an idea…how about a new brother for every season?’

Triplets!

He works at the zoo! 

Anyway, I’m more excited about watching Ben figure out his situation. It will be interesting to see how he reacts to his newfound shitstorm and if he finds out that Jen [Christina Applegate] was responsible for his brother’s death. It will be exciting and it will be some very complicated, complex situations for Ben. But hey, that’s just my own speculation. And, somehow, I know as dark and perverse as it gets, somehow Liz will make it funny. 

James, thank you so much for your time. You’re so much fun to watch on the show.

Oh Daniel, that’s very nice of you to say. I look forward to when we get to do this again.

Both seasons of Dead To Me are currently available to stream on Netflix.

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