James Marsden: All-American romantic hero for our time
James Marsden, star of The Best of Me, a new movie by Nicholas Sparks tells Julia Molony why after divorce he believes in happy ever after
Last time James Marsden appeared in a Nicholas Sparks movie he lost the girl to Ryan Gosling. In classic weepy The Notebook he played Lon Hammond, the handsome, pampered young lawyer who, despite his devotion to Allie (Rachel McAdams) manfully stepped out of the way of love's young dream.
Now 41, with three kids and grey hair starting to come in, Marsden is still ridiculously good-looking in an overgrown frat-boy kind of way. He looks like he lives in an Abercrombie and Fitch catalogue; bright blue eyes, masculine jaw, with an ever-so-slightly self-satisfied set to his mouth.
Marsden was raised in Oklahoma. He worked as a teenaged news-anchor and studied broadcast journalism there before heading out to LA to try to make it as an actor. "I was pretty smart, I knew that the chances were it wasn't going to work out. I wasn't like (he puts on a redneck accent) 'Ahm gonna dew it mayn. Ahm gonna be a big movie star.' I knew that it was a risk. But I was like, 'you know what, if it doesn't work out I can come back to school and do something else, that I don't really want to do'. I sort of willed it to happen. Journalism was a fall back, almost. I probably wouldn't have ended up doing that either. Not that I have any disdain for it, obviously" he adds politely. "I probably would have got into music."
Many of the roles he's taken on have allowed him to play up an all-American cheese ball charm - the confounded fairytale Prince Edward in Enchanted, the bachelor party playboy in Batchelorette, and the singing, dancing TV show host Corny Collins in Hairspray. These were characterisations delivered with a touch of self-parody and a knowing wink.
But in The Best of Me he's gunning for straightforward, heroic sincerity right from the start. As the film opens, we see him on an oil rig that is about to blow. Our hero's first instinct (of course) is to risk his neck to save a colleague before being thrown hundreds of feet into the sea. Having recovered from his near-death experience, he is carried by circumstance back into contact with his teenage sweetheart, a spirited rich-girl called Amanda.
The real Marsden, lounging in a London hotel suite is quite the twinkly-eyed charmer. He seems totally at ease with the emotional earnestness of the subject matter - and indeed demonstrates a reckless fondness for cliche that would give Enchanted's Prince Edward a run for his money.
Less than fifteen minutes in he's already reeled off two of his favourite romantic quotations, "I'm going to mess it up," he says, deploying a smooth, chat-show smile. "I forget the guy who said it, 'a man saves his truest kind of love not for the woman he feels electrified and enkindled by, but the one in whose company he can feel tenderly drowsy.' At my age," he explains, "it's like, ah, I want that." But wait! There is more. "'A joy shared is a joy doubled. A sorrow shared is a sorrow halved,'" is another favourite. "I'm like, that's nice right?" I find myself nodding furiously. How could you argue with that?
Love in later life has been very much on Marsden's mind. And not just because The Best Of Me deals with the subject. Marsden's carrying a fair share of baggage himself - he has a divorce behind him, plus a new baby from a recent fling.
"The observation I've made is that what you want when you are young out of a relationship is so different from what you want when you're older. Obviously you want to love and give love and to feel that love in return. But you know, when you're younger it's like, 'oh he's attractive and, she's hot. . . It's all like, dopamine."
These days, he says, he is less at the mercy of the chemicals. "I couldn't imagine dating a 19 year old, or even a 25 year old for that matter, at this point. What are we going to talk about? I don't know anything about Justin Bieber." Maybe that's why his 2012 relationship with the 24-year-old Brazilian model Rose Costa who bore his child didn't work out.
He's never been one to believe in love at first sight. "It's like, well, what do you know about somebody just by looking at them? That's making love sound really shallow."
In The Best of Me, the protagonists fall for each other as teenagers and then meet again 20 years later. "Those feelings for one another are still very much there but they are coloured, in very complex ways. Like, she has some resentment towards how he handled things and he has some regret towards how he handled things and she understands why he is how he his. And she's in this relationship now - this marriage with children and that's complicated and not perfect. And it's just more complex and complicated I guess . . . But I think also, at that age when you do find love it's that much more depthful (sic) too, because of those things."
Gosh. It sounds like he's been giving all this stuff quite a bit of thought. He is "figuring it out!" he says cheerfully, but remains ever optimistic, despite setbacks.
"There are great things about getting older. I think we sometimes focus on the shit that scares us about it - it hurts to stand up. This hangover lasts a week. It takes me about three hours to wake up in the morning and not look like you went twelve rounds," but, "there is good and bad about realising your mortality. And I don't know, I couldn't imagine going forward in a life without that optimism - wanting to just shut the book and be like 'oh, I'm done, not dating anyone, don't want to see anyone else in my life.'
"Life is about that. If you look at it as chapters in your life, who was right for you at 22 may not be the right person for you at 40. And that person at 40 may not be the person at 60. But, I don't know, I continue to be mystified and in awe of life rather than trying to find every answer about it. It's humbling. But hopeful as well. To me also, it doesn't have to be a husband or a wife. To me the idea is just about wanting to share it with somebody who knows you better than you know yourself. And that could be a girlfriend or wife, it could be a best friend, it could be a family member. You don't want to go through life alone, obviously, but you want to share it with somebody."
He was pretty young when he first got married to the actress Lisa Linde, with whom he has two kids, but they split in 2011 after 11 years together. Would he do it again?
"I don't know. I've learned to not speak in absolutes. I wouldn't say yes, I wouldn't say no. When the situation presents itself I'll figure it out."
- The Best of Me is in cinemas from Wednesday.