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Sunday 20 May 2018

Interview: James Marsden

Mission for Marsden: His career has skyrocketed and with eight movies coming out in the next 18 months, James Marsden can afford a lighthearted look at near misses

James Marsden
James Marsden

Stephen Milton

It's fun to play 'Casting Couch' with Hollywood actors. And no, not in THAT way, you mucky bunch! That's a whole other daydream. I refer instead to the roles they either shot down or lost to another; the ones that got away.

Most are aware of certain audition rumours floating about on the interweb. They're prepared for such enquiries, brushing them off with a 'Don't believe everything you read'.

At least James Marsden's game for a laugh, even when faced with a surprise casting revelation. For starters, I begin with Pearl Harbour. Did he turn down the lead?

"Nope," he casually replies, nonplussed. "I auditioned for Ben Affleck's part but didn't get it."

How about Ryan Phillippe's role in 54 – flop bio of the notorious New York disco club? "It's out there that I said no but I only screen tested for that movie and also didn't get the job."

And saving the zinger for last; Soderbergh's stripper saga, Magic Mike?

James tentatively pauses. "Is that online?" he asks. "Is it? Yeah, that's actually true. I did turn it down but it wasn't the lead role.

"I actually forget which one it was but there were a variety of reasons why I did, mostly a scheduling conflict.

"It wasn't a sexy reason. It wasn't, 'Oh I don't want to be jumping around in a thong'. I really had no problem with that at all."

With his Ken doll good looks, all washboard stomach and smouldering patrician cheekbones, he would've certainly fit the mould as a greased-up exotic dancer.

And while scheduling conflicts is normally bullshit rattled out by the 'sincerest' of stars, in James' case, it's unduly believable. The man is one crazy busy actor.

Best known for his photogenic turns in 27 Dresses, Enchanted and X-Men as visor clad, Cyclops – sadly failing to make an appearance in next instalment, Days of Future Past – the 40-year-old Oklahoman, who made an honest woman out of Liz Lemon in 30 Rock, has eight, count it, eight pictures all queued up for release in the next 18 months.

Currently shooting Vince Vaughn comedy, Business Trip in Berlin, we'll soon catch him in Elizabeth Banks starrer, Walk of Shame and Kristen Wiig's next stab at quirky comedy, Welcome to Me.

There's also a little-known sequel you may have possibly heard of – Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues and his latest release, a poignant, subtle performance as JFK in The Butler.

"It's gonna be an Oscar season for me next year," he dryly replies, his voice muffled by a Californian cold.

A showy vehicle for Forest Whitaker, The Butler loosely bases itself on the life of Eugene Allen, head butler at the White House and his experiences through eight administrations, from Eisenhower to Reagan.

Whitaker plays the fictitious Cecil Gaines, the son of a cotton picker who flees the cruels of a Southern plantation to eyewitness key events during the African American civil rights movement.

He watches as Presidents Eisenhower (Robin Williams), Johnson (Liev Schreiber) and Nixon (John Cusack) struggle with racial unrest but it was John F Kennedy, played here with an uncanny similitude by Marsden, who makes the greatest impression.

"Obviously my thought when I got this part was, 'Please don't screw this up'.

"It's not a film about Kennedy and all the presidents are largely peripheral characters, but it's not lost on me that he's one the most beloved and well-documented figures in American history."

A central montage in the star-studded epic – which also features a breathtaking performance from Oprah Winfrey as Cecil's troubled wife, Gloria – is Kennedy's Civil Rights Speech, which had a profound effect on cast and crew when the square-jawed star delivered his interpretation.

"After I filmed the speech, a couple of crew members came up to me, African Americans, who had tears in their eyes telling me how moving it was.

"It was something very special, and you know, not many actors get to play one of the most important men of our times. It really was an honour."

While maybe lacking the same prestige and valour, the father of three – single since a divorce from actress Lisa Linde – is under no doubt about the significance of his next cinematic outing; Jack Lime, broadcast nemesis to Anchorman's Ron Burgundy. It was a daunting task.

"There's the script part and then there's the improv and you have to make sure you can keep up with those guys.

"What I've learned from working with Will [Ferrell] and Steve [Carell] though is how unselfish they are.

"They actually spend most of the time setting the other person up. There's no funniest guy in the room."

It wasn't James' first interaction with the Channel 5 news team. "I actually auditioned for the first Anchorman and was in the final running for Paul Rudd's and Steve Carell's characters.

"But I'm sure [director] Paul McKay had probably forgotten. I doubt it was like 'Lets bring him back, he got close first time round'."

Keeping schtum on the plot, Marsden admits he employed a rather painful technique to keep things professional on set. "At the end of shooting Anchorman, I had a bruised welt on my right leg. It came from my method to pinch myself, to create pain so I didn't break down in laughter with every take.

"And around Will and Steve, that's a difficult task. Keeping a straight face is impossible but you do what you got to do."

While the drop-dead facial features belie those of a Versace model – which incidentally James has experience of – it seemed comedy was always his first love, considering a debut professional gig in Fran Drescher sitcom, The Nanny as a hunky teenage suitor.

YouTube is armed with a selection of footage; does he ever take a stroll down memory lane?

"Don't need to because all my early stuff gets pulled out every time I do a talk show. I did Ellen, she had old headshots; I did Rove, he had old footage of when I sang in a bluegrass band as a kid.

"But you gotta have a sense of humour about it. The people that don't, c'mon we all started off somewhere.

"And with The Nanny," he adds, "keep in mind I'm a 19-year-old from Oklahoma, now being paid to be an actor on the set of a primetime TV show. At the time, that was the greatest job in the world."

Amidst 'pay the rent' guest appearances in Blossom and Party of Five, the actor had his first and only taste of Dublin when he landed a pilot for Camelot saga, The Castle.

"I worked there for about three weeks, round 1998, '97. It was with Patrick McGoohan and it was all 12th century knights and horses. It never got picked up.

"Honestly though, it's cheesy to say but I could have made a home at St James' Brewery. When I arrived in the city, I threw my bags down and went to the closest pub, McDaid's I think it was.

"I'd never had a Guinness before and it looked like everyone was drinking mud in a glass.

"But I finally tried one and it was delectable. So then I had to figure out how I was going to get it back on the plane to the States, not like the awful stuff we have over here."

Did he succeed in his efforts? "No... but there must have been enough coursing in my veins at that stage. So technically, I did."

The Butler is in cinemas November 15

Irish Independent

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