The year 2023 will undoubtedly go down as the year of Marsden. Having successfully worked across film and television for decades, playing everything from a mutant hero in Marvel’s X-Men to a Disney Prince in the Enchanted franchise, Marsden is known for his versatility across drama and comedy.
This year, the actor is at the center of three fantastic comedy series vying for Emmy consideration. Awards Focus’ Byron Burton first met Marsden at the STARZ “Party Down” season three premiere, where he delivers a pitch-perfect guest arc on the revival of the critically acclaimed comedy series starring Adam Scott and Jane Lynch.
“Party Down” was one of many back-to-back projects for Marsden, wrapping up his tenure on Liz Feldman’s multiple Emmy nominated series “Dead To Me,” playing two very contrasting roles opposite Emmy nominees Linda Cardellini and Christina Applegate.
On the first season of the Netflix hit, Marsden portrayed the near-insufferable Steve Wood who was the abusive narcissist who convinced Judy (Caredellini) to flee the scene after the vehicular homicide of Jen’s (Applegate) husband. Steve would ultimately pushed Jen too far and wound up floating face down in her pool at the close of season one.
Feldman and the cast had such a wonderful time with Marsden that she had to have him back. In season two, Feldman introduces Ben Wood who is Steve’s identical twin brother. Marsden showcases his range playing the soft-hearted and corny doppelganger across the final two seasons of the series.
Marsden’s most prominent work this season, however, belongs to his brilliant first-attempt at long form, free-flowing improvisation. Marsden leads a cast of mostly unknown actor in Freevee’s “Jury Duty,” a series that’s the real life successor to Jim Carrey’s The Truman Show.
While the rest of the actors (the fake jurors and fake court room officials) had two weeks to rehearse for the infinite number of curve balls that would undoubtedly come there way, Marsden was coming off another project and had less than three full days to build his character.
And what a character it is… a self-obsessed actor who frequently mentions his work in Hairspray and Sonic the Hedgehog, missing no opportunity to turn the spotlight on himself and his career ambitions.
Marsden and cast are working with non-actor and solar panel specialist Ronald Gladden, a man who believes he is taking part in your run-of-the-mill documentary taking people behind the scenes of sitting on a jury. The seven episode series is riveting thanks to this incredible ensemble of performers, led by Marsden highlights the great scripts that served as the series backbone.
However, due to Ronald’s real-time reactions, the cast would often be jumping from plot beats written for the pilot to plot beats in episodes two and three. This high wire act was far from a sure thing, but thanks to incredible word of mouth, reviews, and social media buzz it’s peaking at the right time as Emmy voting begins.
Marsden spoke with Awards Focus regarding his work on all three series, having such a warm reception at the Television Academy’s screening event, and his lasting friendship with Ronald.
Awards Focus: You’re having a fantastic year. You never know when these projects are all going to be released. Across the board, it’s been fantastic for you.
Marsden: I’m gobsmacked at the enthusiasm that’s out there for “Jury Duty.” I was having a blast immersing myself in all of it, but the identity of the show was something that I’d never experienced before, so I didn’t have any expectations. And the day after it came out, I was walking down the street in New York, and every other person would stop and go, “Hey! Jury Duty!” Kind of wild.
AF: I thought the whole conceit of it was great. And it’s funny that Ike Barinholtz’s dad is the judge, having been a lawyer his whole life.
Marsden: I love that man so much, and he anchors the whole thing. I’m not sure that it would have worked if we didn’t have him. Those moments where we had to really feel like we were in court, and it had to have an authenticity and a grounded heaviness to it, Alan provided that. He was so nimble, too. He knew what the jokes were, and he would play into those so brilliantly. His adaptability for the comedy was spectacular.
AF: How was it when Ronald was willing to share something with you from his real life?
Marsden: There was a little heaviness in my heart for the whole project. We were having fun, but I was really clear with the producers that I couldn’t do anything mean-spirited to him. I would make an ass of myself, but I would never do anything to potentially humiliate Ronnie.
So when it was all over, I ran up to him and told him, “I know that this is a lot to process right now. Yes, the trial was fake, and yes, this was all semi-scripted. But our friendship and all the times we had hanging out were completely authentic.”
We’ve been in contact since and we’ve been out a couple of times together. He’s such a good human being who radiates humanity, and that’s one of the reasons why the show works. We don’t go too heavy on the sentimentality but there’s a heart there, and it’s decency. We’re celebrating his character, and I feel like we could all be a little bit more like Ronald.
AF: It is fun to see the ways you really kind of put pressure on him. Anytime he had responsibility, that was a great opportunity for comedy.
Marsden: He did it so subtly. Our comedy had bits that really could exist in a trivial, light tone. It’s those little subtle moments that you see it: his eyes going wide, or how he begrudgingly takes the role of foreperson. It’s so much fun. He gets surrounded by this circus of eccentric weirdos. He has to be the Pied Piper of them all and find a way to get us all to the finish line. Meanwhile, we’re trying to get him to the finish line.
AF: How was it just screening it for the TV Academy and getting that audience feedback firsthand?
Marsden: It was a nice barometer and representation of how people really enjoy the show and how much of a hero Ronnie is. We used the word “hero,” in our scripts.
When they pitched me the show, it was creating a hero’s journey for someone. We weren’t pranking someone. At the Academy, he got the biggest applause, and rightly so. I love that no one’s the real star of the show other than him.
The other actors and I are complementing each other, but by no means am I the star of this show. It’s all Ronald Gladden. It’s equal like it is when you’re really serving jury duty. The Academy had a really warm response, and there were big smiles on everyone’s faces. It resonated with me that we did something special. It needed to have substance and be something more important than just, “Hey we fooled this guy for three weeks.” It needed to have the celebration element to it at the end and be funny along the way.
It all worked. The audience was really pleased at the originality of it. I know I was. It was the idea of getting to see something it’s never really been done before. There’s been similar shows like Nathan Fielder, but this is kind of a unicorn and a hybrid of all of those. I liked the feel-good ending of this hero’s journey. I could tell when we screened this for the Academy that they really responded to the story.
AF: How involved were you in terms of seeing some of the early cuts? Did you have some wiggle room on the number of episodes, or was it firmly set and you just had to decide how to shape the story over a certain number?
Marsden: The latter. I had no say over the edits. I had no say over how many episodes I was in. It was just the old, abandoned courthouse. There’s no glamor lighting, there’s no, “Cut, let’s try that again.” We were flying without a net, which was the most exciting part to me. I’ve always loved improvisational comedy. Christopher Guest was a hero of mine. I’ve always wanted to be in one of his films. The Larry Sanders Show was a big inspiration.
Of course, Larry David, Curb Your enthusiasm and The Office too. Those are shows that I always felt like, “God, I’d love to get in there and muck it up.” With Jury Duty, it was the perfect opportunity to do that. But it was exhausting. At the end of the day, I was mentally drained by having to be on without hearing the word “cut” all day long. Not only are you trying to make sure you’re not the one that screws it all up, you’re trying to make sure that it’s entertaining.
We had our scripts and they had scripted beats, but there was no scripted dialogue. We just had to get from point A to point B and get Ronald from point A to point B. It was very liberating to feel like I was in control of my own ship within the parameters of this sort of petulant, bratty, entitled Hollywood-actor character I was playing. Maybe I enjoyed it too much. I was one of the troops, one of the cast. That was all the power I had.
AF: With the TV Academy, you’ll be celebrating “Dead to Me” with Christina, Linda and Liz very soon. Can you talk a bit about the opportunity to play the twins, and how you were won over on that idea of coming back as the much kinder twin, Ben?
Mardsen: If you set Jury Duty and Dead To Me side by side, it sure does look like I’m not interested in doing anything easy. I’m proud of that, to be honest. I don’t mind taking the big swings. In the space of creativity, that’s where the fun is. Jessica Elbaum, who produced Dead to Me, was an old friend of mine.
We did a couple of things previous to “Dead to Me,” like Anchorman 2. I got to meet Liz Feldman and I read for a couple of episodes. I knew the character was a smarmy, buffoon-ey boyfriend, and you get to see his downfall at the close of season one. But there was some playfulness to the character, and I got to know Liz and her writing. I’ve known Christina and Linda for a while. We just had such a great rapport and by the end of the show I fell in love with the whole family there. It felt like Liz knew what my strengths were and she knew how to write for me, which is such a gift. You don’t come across that often.
I was dead and curled up in some freezer somewhere by the end of the first season. I remember sending Liz a congratulatory email not only on the success of the show, but also telling her what a great chapter of my life it was and how much fun I had. I said, “So he’s really gone, huh? There’s no way I’m coming back.” She came back and she said, “Well, what about twins?”
I kind of laughed it off. And she said, “I’m serious. And I know it feels a little soapy. But the show has a little soapy element to it. And I feel like if we just kind of lean into that, it could be really great. We’ll make this guy very different from Steve, we’ll make him this sweet, lovable
golden retriever who’s lovesick for Christina’s character. He’s also got some pretty dark stuff hiding in the shadows.”
To me, that was far more interesting than playing Steve. There was quite a bit more depth with Ben, and I got to explore that in the third season. There aren’t a lot of people who make you feel safe enough to take big risks. I never felt more safe than in Liz’s hands and in her company of writers. Really going for it was just a very satisfying endeavor. I was worried that it wasn’t going to work, and we just willed it to work.
AF: With “Dead to Me,” “Jury Duty,” and “Party Down,” did the schedules ever overlap?
Marsden: “Party Down” and “Jury Duty” bumped up right against each other. I did “Party Down” at the beginning of 2022. I was supposed to rehearse for “Jury Duty” for two weeks with all the other actors, but I only had three days to rehearse because I was still finishing up “Party Down.” I had a crash course, and I just opened up the floodgates. “Party Down” primed me for the comedy and I just went for it. I was insatiable and the scripts were so funny.
These circumstances were crafted by some brilliant writers. I had a pretty long leash to go in and have fun satirizing an entitled Hollywood actor. That idea was just a goldmine for me, comedy wise. I went home and I wrote in my journal regarding what I did, and then looked I’d dive into prep for what we were doing the next day.
I would just write everything out: Lines I thought would be funny in case Ronnie makes a left turn, and I want him to make a right turn — what to say if he does or doesn’t know who I am. I wanted to be equipped with ideas to spout out at him or just something funny. I’ve never been more prepared in my life, because I didn’t want to be the one to bust the whole thing up. Exercising the improv muscle was so much fun.
AF: There’s not a lot of actors that have this sort of cognitive ballet to be able to bounce like that. You couldn’t just put any known actor in that role, so that speaks volumes that they chose you and also that you had the courage to take on this science experiment of a series.
Marsden: A lot of this was my relationship with David Burnett, one of our producers. He produces “White Lotus,” and we’ve been friends for almost 10 years now. He gets my sense of humor, and he’s another one who gets my strengths.
He said, “You’ve never done this kind of thing, but you’d be great in this style of comedy.” He was confident that I’d have a ball with it, and he was right. I’m not schooled in the rules of improv. Without sounding like my character here, I try to stay in some sort of a flow state where I’m really focused and present. And as I inhabited that character who’s really a playful one, I was always looking for opportunities to put my foot in my mouth and say something self-obsessed. This fictionalized James Marsden isn’t interested in having many conversations that aren’t about him.
As long as I stayed in that space, I stayed inspired and rolled with it. With the wrong person in that position, sometimes things can go really badly. Bad improv is not fun to see. I learned that from Anchorman 2, watching how generous Will, Steve, and Paul in action. It’s never a contest of who’s the funniest, it’s about generosity and how each actor complements the others.
AF: When you were doing the self-tape together, where Ronald helps you try and book an Oscar-caliber role, what was the plan?
Marsden: I had some ideas going into that day. I thought it would be fun to lampoon actors who take themselves too seriously, or silly acting class exercises and techniques. Then I thought, why don’t I kind of create some of my own bizarre things?
He didn’t know what it’s like to see an actor prepare. He was this really sweet soul who was trying to help me get this job. And I was this actor who was really trying to wring himself out and prepare himself, and I could come up with any absurd exercise. And he’d be like, “Oh, I guess that’s what actors do.” There were more bizarre things that didn’t make the cut, maybe because it just got a little too wacky.
We were in there for a long time, and what ended up on screen was a very abbreviated version of that audition sequence. He really was patient, and he never laughed at me if I did something ridiculous.
I did one take really terribly on purpose, where I tried to go to the emotion too heavy handedly. I was forcing out tears and crying and yelling. I told them afterwards, “How did that feel? That seemed a little forced.” He said, “Yeah, I don’t think you need to do that.” But it was fun, just getting in there and messing around.
There were times I’d get off the page of the script. I wanted to start with reverence for the script, of course. This is the greatest script that’s ever been written. The dialogue is just so easy to say — it’s a testament to good writing that it just flows out of your mouth. Then, as I start to go through the scene, I really suck, or you can see me working too hard at it. By the end of it, I’m frustrated and the scenes don’t even make sense. You see him just like cratering. But Ronald was there to sort of bolster me and make me feel good about myself.
AF: It’s magnificent, the projects that you have eligible for voting this season. What’s next on the schedule?
Marsden: Right now I’m finishing up some press. A couple months ago, I wrapped this movie with Michael Keaton and Al Pacino. It was this film that Keaton is directing and starring in where I play his son, and it’s a real heavy lifting, film noir drama. It’s a father-son story, and it’s the opposite of “Jury Duty.”
We’ll see if people can take me seriously in that (laughs), that was a fun bucket-list check working with Michael. I have Sonic 3 in the fall and there’s another thing that I can’t talk about yet, but I’m really excited about. I’ll spend the summer with my kids and recharge for whatever is next.
“Dead to Me” is available to stream on Netflix, “Jury Duty” is available to stream on Prime Video’s Freevee, and “Party Down” is available to stream on STARZ.