James Marsden has had steady success since he left Oklahoma State University in the early 1990s to pursue an acting career. His work in projects ranging from musicals to action films to comedies has given him career longevity and kept him from being typecast in spite of his blue eyes and leading man looks. He recently talked with the Stillwater News Press about how he got his start in the business and his newest project.
Q: The story we hear is that you and your family were on vacation and you met Kirk Cameron and his sister Candace and that they encouraged you to come out and visit in L.A. and that was part of what got you out there. Is that correct?
Marsden: That’s exactly right. It was a sort of convergence of me discovering theater and what it feels like to be on stage at 15-16 years old, middle school, high school, and feeling pretty good at it, at least enjoying it and at the same time I was on vacation in Hawaii and I stayed at the same hotel as the Cameron family...We exchanged numbers, kept in touch and they invited me out to come stay with them and watch a taping of “Full House” and “Growing Pains” and I thought, “Wow, what a cool lifestyle this would be.” I already had the bug for performing and then on top of it that was my dream to be in TV and film. So I kept in touch with them and they encouraged me to come out and give it a shot...Otherwise I would have stayed in Stillwater and probably gotten my degree.
Q: Your major was broadcast journalism?
Marsden: That’s what I was studying because I was a teen news anchor on “Good Morning Oklahoma” for one year. They went around and auditioned drama students in high schools ... Every day we’d have to get up at 6:30 in the morning and deliver two to three minutes of educational news. My payment, basically, was a scholarship to the state school of my choice...and so I was studying journalism/broadcasting because I didn’t really know what else to do at the time. I was under the impression that you couldn’t really have a career in musical theater, it wasn’t a real dependable job but it was something I loved to do. I thought journalism was something that if I stayed in Oklahoma that I could pursue.
Q: It seems like you went out there and started getting guest appearances on TV shows like “Party of Five” and seem to have worked really regularly over the years. It seems like it took off pretty well, fairly quickly.
Marsden: Yeah, that’s what happens when you're kind of young and naive and have all the confidence in the world. You kind of will it to happen. When I moved out I was like, “This is gonna happen, I’m just gonna make it happen.” I had a lot more confidence then than I probably do now and I was very lucky. My father knew someone who had moved to L.A. from Kansas and was a successful casting director and introduced me to a manager who was a legit guy and sent me out on 3-4 meetings a day. I just went in with a huge smile on my face like I’m just going to take over the town. I think it was refreshing for these people. I don’t know, I was just bold and confident and young started getting small jobs here and there. There was no small job when I started because it was like “You’re being paid to act,” you know, it was just great. So every job was a learning experience and I slowly started to pick up some traction and get a little more picky about the jobs I chose and realized that “Hey, if you’re smart about it, you do the right work, you can make a career out of it.”
Q: At what point did that click for you? Where you started not just thinking about getting work but thinking about what I want my career to be?
Marsden: Very soon, actually. One of the first jobs I got offered was as a series regular on “Days of Our Lives” and I thought “Wow, in a business where you don’t have consistency of work, you’re going from job to job, that seems like the most regular job and job security you can have, being on a soap opera”...My manager, this is about two to three months into moving to L.A ... and my manager had heard such good feedback that he said “I don’t think you should do this ... We should actually focus on getting you better work and something that doesn’t tie you down, that allows you to go do other things.” I was like, “So, I’ve been here for three months and I’m turning down three year’s work on an acting job?” And my dad flew out and was like, “What’s going on? Wait, he’s saying no to something?”... and the manager said he could get on a prime time show or even a movie career. Let’s focus on aiming for the top. So we started doing that. It was really a year or two in when I really tried to get picky about my options but that was only after a few guest star appearances ... I guess it was a slow realization of “Within the options that I have, pick the smartest one that allows you the most freedom to do other things.
Q: You’ve done a variety of roles too. You seem to work very consistently and you’ve done everything from comedies to action movies and you’ve done the romantic comedies. Do you have a certain type of film you like to do or you’d like to do more of?
Marsden: To be completely honest with you, I love all of them...It’s one of the cool things about being an actor, to be able to jump all over the place. I heard a lot of talk when I moved out about people getting typecast or pigeon-holed into one type of role and that stuck in my head. I was like, “That doesn’t sound fun to me.” The great part about being an actor is being able to do all different kinds of things and some people can’t. I guess I just always felt like I wasn’t exceptional at anything but pretty good at most things, like genre-wise. And when you’re starting out you take a lot of stuff that comes your way no matter what the genre is. So I found myself being considered for comedies where other people weren’t or being considered for dramas where other people weren’t. It wasn’t anything I did by choice but as I got older it was like, “Oh, people are starting to recognize that you can do a variety of things” and I started to view it as a real asset. Also, it just keeps it way more interesting for me. And after something like "Westworld" I immediately want to do a comedy or a musical or something to change it up.
Q: Speaking of "Westworld"...Season 2 is getting ready to launch April 22. What can you say about it?
Marsden: Very little. I can say that if you were in and invested in the first season then you will not be disappointed in the next one. It kind of sounds like a sales pitch but we’ve been given the green light to take the leashes off and really go full throttle this season. So we spent the first season setting up the characters, setting up the world and introducing it all to a new audience. Now that we’ve got their attention, again, we can kind of hit the gas. It’s going to be a whole lot of chaos and it’ll be interesting for my character because he was just coming around to his awakening when all hell broke loose, so it will be an interesting journey for him. It’s exponentially larger in scale. It’ll be fun but they’re very secretive...It feels good to kind of keep it from everybody and make people want it more and make it be a rewarding surprise when it all happens. I think it’s that much more fun for the audience when they don’t know much about it going into it.
Q: I’m sure there are probably fan blogs that break down every episode and come up with themes and ascribe really deep meanings to everything. When you’re approaching a project like this, do you look what this says about the relationship between humanity and technology and all of that or do you say, “This is a great story and this is something I want to do?"
Marsden: Kind of all of that. I kind of went into it with open eyes to learn as much about this as possible as well but at it’s core I felt like it’s satisfying on so many different levels. It’s a puzzle that people want to figure out. Like you said, all the fan pages try to figure out ahead of time what’s going on and that’s a testament to the impact of the show and how interesting it is. What really drew me to it from the beginning was, I feel like we live in this time where you see a lot of remakes. But the ones that are interesting to me are the remakes where the first iteration was a great concept but maybe handicapped by a two-hour time limit...so there’s only so much you can go into. It was like, Jurassic Park, a fictional theme park and what happens if the park attractions start eating the guests? And that’s what happened in the original Westworld. Our creations can come back and haunt us. So what I love about this show, is it takes that concept but it allows us to stretch it out over potentially several seasons and really explore where are we going with autonomy and AI? Is it a good place to be going?...And what’s even more interesting than that is the themes of holding a mirror up to ourselves and asking ourselves "What is humanity? When does consciousness begin, when does it end?" And that’s what I thought gave real substance to the material, that it wasn’t just a horror movie or a horror show. It was really thoughtful questioning. It’s a very, thoughtful, deep show and not something you can watch while you’re texting your friends. You’ve got to pay attention but it’s very rewarding when you do. There’s so much rich, thematic story-telling going on and really kind of relevant to where we’re heading right now. We’re sitting at home talking to Alexa, cars that can drive themselves. I guess it’s interesting to me just in general but then to be a part of it and play one of these sentient hosts is always really exciting to me.