James Marsden Gambled on 'Dead to Me,' Now He's Reaping the Rewards (Exclusive)

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Standout Performances
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James Marsden is everywhere. He knows it too. “I get texts from people saying, ‘You are on my TV screen all the f**king time. How do you do this?’ I’m like, ‘I’m sorry!’”

There’s truth to the ubiquity of his Hollywood existence. Since coming onto the scene in the early '90s, Marsden, 46, has amassed an extensive resume of more than 75 credits (and counting), featuring roles so different from the others that it’s nearly impossible to put him in a box. If you’ve thought it, he’s probably done it. From playing the hot guy on The Nanny’s first episode to earning superhero cred as Cyclops in the X-Men franchise, to capturing hearts as the dreamy leading man in 27 Dresses, to dipping into the secretive world of Westworld as an innocent cowboy, Marsden has led a charmed career -- a fact he’d be the first to acknowledge. (When you can check Disney prince off the proverbial bucket list, you’ve reached a different level.) More impressively, he hasn’t slowed down since.

When Marsden hops on the phone on a Tuesday afternoon in June, he opens with an apology for mixing up the interview times as his Oklahoma niceness peeks through. “I told my PR rep, ‘I’m an actor. I never said I was smart,’” he playfully jokes. Somehow, we doubt that to be true; after all, he’s been more than a little busy. By mid-March, right before a nationwide lockdown was ordered, Marsden wrapped three incredibly varied TV projects during a six-month span, hopping back and forth from Netflix’s dark comedy Dead to Me to FX on Hulu’s period piece Mrs. America, to CBS All Access’ upcoming Stephen King drama The Stand. Ask him how he pulled off triple duty and even he doesn’t know. 

“It was harder on my sleep schedule more than the scheduling stuff,” he modestly brushes off. “I never want to be an actor who complains about too much work. That’s never been a problem for me [but] you never want to get to the point where you spread yourself too thin. I just hit it head on.” There’s a workhorse mentality behind Marsden’s modus operandi -- maybe his southern upbringing has something to do with it, maybe it’s supporting his three kids through college -- that becomes clear as day the more he speaks about why he can’t seem to cut himself some slack. “The projects were all so diversified and interesting. It was like, ‘How do I say no to all these? Is there any way, even if I lose some sleep, to work this out?’”

Dead to Me was one of those situations. When Marsden initially signed on to the twisty, subversive half-hour dramedy led by Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini as Judy’s douchebag ex-fiancé Steve Wood, he thought it would be a “one-and-done thing.” He couldn’t comprehend at the time that it would turn into the surprise of his career. “The thing you’re always chasing in this business is a formula that really works on every level. With Dead to Me, it became pretty evident halfway through that, okay, this show is something special. I started to get a little bit of remorse knowing it was coming to an end.” There was a feeling of “bummerness” -- Marsden’s word --when the season 1 finale rolled around. His character’s storyline was tied up in a nice bloody bow when Steve was ceremoniously killed and left floating in a Laguna Beach, California, pool. Marsden’s time on Dead to Me was up. Right?

If he hadn’t shot off an email to creator Liz Feldman after season 1 dropped last May congratulating her on the series’ early success and jokingly lamenting Steve’s demise (“Why have I been googling the percentage of possibilities of people surviving severe head trauma compounded by drowning?”), season 2’s most dramatic, telenovela-inspired move would have never even crossed the showrunner’s mind. To a large degree, Marsden manifested his unlikely resurrection as Steve’s dorky, fashionably incapable, dad joke–enabled “semi-identical” twin brother, Ben, whose unexpected introduction in the first episode sparked the season’s edge-of-your-seat turns and gasp-worthy revelations. 

“I’d be lying to you if I didn’t have a momentary feeling of apprehension, because it felt like, ‘Is this going to be something I’m going to miserably fail at? Just by what it is?’” he remembers asking himself once Feldman floated the twin idea to him a month after he sent the email. “It’s a soap opera trope, right? I mean, it can feel a little cheap. Then Liz was like, ‘I want to lean into that and really commit to the absurdity of the idea.’” That was all Marsden needed to take the leap of faith “and go for it.” Since Steve was so outlandish and egocentric, Feldman modeled Ben to his real-life personality, only way less cool. “He’s a kind, good man and he has these failed attempts at self-deprecating humor. Although physically his heart is not a good one” -- he’s had several heart surgeries -- “he has a much better heart [than Steve],” Marsden agrees. “He’s a genuinely better human being than Steve was.” 

There’s a perverse pleasure in seeing Marsden seamlessly transition from inhabiting a self-assured, charismatic douche-canoe like Steve to playing a well-adjusted guy like Ben without a mean bone in his body -- the ludicrousness of the whole thing creating an added layer of farce. “This is not going to work if it’s going to be the audience going, ‘Oh, well, it’s just James Marsden playing another role,’” he says. The challenge then became, “How do I make the audience forget?” The key was leaning into the physical aspects of Ben, from the floppy hair to the nerdy vests to his fumbling nature. It may have taken an episode or two for viewers to fully adjust to the new reality of seeing him as Ben, he speculates, because it was simply “so jarring in the beginning.”

Dead to Me
James Marsden as Ben Wood. Netflix

Though Ben may be more in line with who Marsden is when the cameras aren’t rolling, mining the comedy in that required a lot more work. “Steve came easier to me -- and I’m not trying to make myself sound like a great guy -- but he was so different than who I am,” Marsden says. “When people say, ‘Just be yourself,’ that can be the hardest thing for an actor to do. The more opposite the character is to me, in comedy especially, it’s more fun for me to make fun of a certain type of guy. With Steve, when you’re reading that he’s this cocky, manipulative, sometimes charming asshole who gets out of bed and jumps on a trampoline to get his heart rate up, those are strokes of genius. With Ben, there’s the sweetness but there’s also comedy coming from the uncomfortable, stiff attempts at humor. It’s just a different feel.”

Complicating Marsden’s performance was the fact that Ben is blissfully unaware of what happened to his “semi-identical” twin and spends most of the season trying to put the pieces together, not knowing that Jen and Judy are hiding the truth from him in plain sight. Playing to Ben’s aloofness forced Marsden, who spent the previous season playing the dead brother, to put blinders on. Easier said than done. “You have to dive into the naiveté of this guy. You have to clean the slate and come at it from that angle,” he says of his approach. “We fake it all the time, so it’s just, how good are you at faking it?” If Marsden was ever nervous about the weight of having been Steve coloring his portrayal of Ben, he didn’t dwell on it -- cracking a joke instead. “I’m very good at forgetting these days. I just tapped into my newly found talent of being forgetful, so it was easy for me to forget what happened to Steve.” 

There’s a childlike amusement when Marsden rattles off his favorite scenes from season 2: Ben’s sudden appearance on Jen’s doorstep (“Here’s this woman who killed a man, has no idea he has a twin brother, he shows up at the door and she’s staring at the ghost of the man she killed, essentially”) to Ben attempting to cheer her up by awkwardly showing off his uncool dance moves. Of the latter, Marsden says the script called for him to magically gain tap-dancing skills in under 48 hours. He persuaded Feldman to let him improvise and feed into Ben’s gawkiness: “I can dance like somebody who thinks he can dance.” It’s a big turn for Ben and Jen; soon after that scene, they begin to connect on an emotional level when Ben opens up about regrets he has about his estranged relationship with Steve, the harsh terms they left on and Ben having trouble reconciling that. “You get to swing from the rafters in that scene and go from one extreme to the other,” Marsden looks back. “It encapsulated a good percentage of who Ben was.”

But it’s the last five minutes of the finale that upends everything and brings it all full circle. After Ben gets a devastating phone call, he drunkenly crashes into Jen and Judy’s car at the stop sign Jen fought so hard for. And then, Ben flees the scene of the crime. “The first twin brother was guilty of a hit-and-run in the first season and now the nice twin brother is guilty of a hit-and-run,” Marsden says, the irony not lost on him. He confirms that the call Ben receives, left ambiguous to the viewer, is news of the police locating Steve’s body in the woods. There was no dialogue written in the script, only scene direction, so he asked Feldman to play the part of the person on the other end of the line so he could react in real time. What made it into the final product was that exchange.

“It ends like it does, which makes your mind go crazy, spinning, figuring out what the hell just happened. What did he see? What didn’t he see? What real condition are Jen and Judy in after that?” he says of the final sequence, which he still isn’t ready to watch. His personal choice. “The possibilities for the third season, it just breaks it all open in the most perverse way. Like, these poor people. They keep stepping on each other’s souls and each other’s lives and they try to, in their heart of hearts, do the right thing and the world around them keeps collapsing.” 

Marsden prefers to live in the here and now, and hasn’t given much thought about returning to Dead to Me if and when Netflix (hopefully) renews it for a third season. “I can’t even speak in that kind of absolute,” he admits, “but right now, we’re just taking it as it goes.” Even so, the actor can’t help but let his curiosity get the best of him about what could lie ahead. “I wish I knew exactly where season 3 is going to go. My mind could probably speculate on where that is, but it’s exciting to think about. I know there’s going to be more drama.” Minutes later, he throws out an idea that, in Dead to Me’s heightened universe, could very well work. “I was campaigning for this at the end of the second season, obviously semi-joking, but who the hell knows? Each season, there’s a new brother. In the third season, ‘Dan’ comes in. They’re semi-identical triplets!” Marsden laughs at the preposterousness. 

Dead to Me
James Marsden as Ben Wood. Netflix

Another not-so-crazy idea? Marsden acting opposite himself. Why the heck not? “We didn’t really ever talk about it, but I wouldn’t put it past [Liz]. You could go to a flashback to illustrate what their relationship was like,” he warms to the thought of Steve and Ben sharing a scene. “I’d love that challenge without getting into full-on Eddie Murphy where he plays, like, seven characters in the same scene [a la The Nutty Professor].” The moral of the story here: Marsden is willing to take the gamble on Dead to Me. “I’m open to any of it. And I don’t know that I’d take these kinds of chances for just any show -- but I would for this.”

As Marsden catches up on much-needed rest (“I came back and was ready to quarantine myself anyway”), it’s surprising to discover he hasn’t been on the receiving end of many individual accolades, especially since he’s been a part of numerous pop culture favorites. (See: Enchanted, Hairspray, The Notebook, 30 Rock, Ally McBeal, Anchorman 2.) Not that he got into acting for that stuff in the first place, though the occasional pat on the back is nice reassurance. 

“I do this for me, but I want people to enjoy the work. I want people to go, ‘He’s underappreciated. He does interesting things,’” he says. “I’ve been cast in things before where I felt like I was wrongly cast. I’ve been in things before that don’t really play to my strengths. And while it’s good to have the job, it’s not as creatively satisfying. Something like Dead to Me, there’s nothing that can take the place of a showrunner who understands your strengths and understands your abilities and how you fit into the narrative. And Liz just gets it -- gets what’s maybe appealing about me or appealing about my abilities.” 

Dead to Me started as a job that sounded like fun. Go play with Christina, Linda and Liz, shoot in L.A., see your kids when you come home from work and see what happens. I’ve learned not to put a crazy amount of stock into anything. I never think this one’s going to boost my career,” Marsden recognizes. “So when it does happen, it’s just an extra bonus. I didn’t think when I stepped into it, that it would become what it’s become, nor would I have thought I would be playing two different characters… That to me has become the surprise, the defining thing currently in my career, and I’m very, very proud of it.”  

 

ET’s “Standout Performances” recognizes the best of the 2019-2020 TV season. See more of our favorites below:

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