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James Marsden on Playing a Douchebag Version of Himself in ‘Jury Duty’

James Marsden on Playing a Douchebag Version of Himself in ‘Jury Duty

The Westworld actor breaks bad in Amazon’s genre-bending new courtroom comedy. “I wish I could tell you that I didn’t enjoy it.”

In Amazon Freevee’s runaway hit Jury Duty, James Marsden plays James Marsden. Not the James Marsden who has earned himself a reputation as Hollywood’s jovial song-and-dance man and charm personified, but a new version of James Marsden, who is an asshole. 

The series revolves around 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 catch, however, is that everything is entirely fake. The trial? Fake. The lawyers and judge? Fake. The jury of his peers, including James Marsden playing a satirical, egotistical version of himself called up to do his civic duty like us regular schmoes? Fake. All that’s real is Ronald.

Everything in Ronald’s orbit has been orchestrated by a team of comedy writers and producers, carefully choreographing the proceedings with all the rigor of a command center in a NASA space station. While outlines of each episode were laid out for the players, the improvised scripts evolved in real-time to suit Ronald’s movements and decisions. The result is eight episodes of long-form improvisation that feel like watching someone try to lay train tracks for a speeding carriage. Pulling it off feels like a miracle, creating one of the most original and, surprisingly, given the logline of the series, kind-hearted television conceits in years.

“There are a lot of reasons why I think people are into it,” says Marsden over Zoom. “But one of the main, I think, is that it is original. We are in this world where people don’t want to take many risks. We want to look at older IP and reimagine old films that were successes, and it’s just cool to come across something like uncharted territory.”

Of the cast of characters drawn up to wreak havoc on Ronald’s jury service, Marsden has possibly the toughest job. He’s the only person playing himself, but it’s a self-absorbed, ‘don’t you know who I am?’ parody. He has to be willingly unpalatable and out-of-touch, exhibiting the kind of behavior that would be career suicide if all the pieces of the puzzle of this series didn’t fall into place.

This week, James Marsden spoke to GQ about playing himself, leaning into being unlikeable, and making fun of his own career.

GQ: Jumping into this series must have been a whole different ballgame for you and your career. How was it inhabiting the mindset of asshole James Marsden?

James Marsden: It was such a joy. I mean, I wish I could tell you that I didn’t enjoy playing that character. To be given permission to send up the clichéd, entitled Hollywood celebrity in a way that’s subtle, but also, in moments, just absurd, got me really excited. He just thinks that everyone should be interested in what he’s saying, what script he’s reading and that there’s no conversation that’s interesting if it doesn’t involve what his next gig is. It was a goldmine for comedy.

There are some moments in the series with Ronald that feel too good to be real, like he’s somehow aware he needs to hit these comedy beats. There’s one scene early on where he says he hasn’t seen the Sonic movie, but then goes home and watches it after talking with you. What was your reaction to that?

I love the fact that he said “You’re in Sonic? I heard that was not a good movie.” The chorus of laughter in my head during that moment! That was so much better than him saying ‘Hey, I’m a big fan of your work.’ But there were moments when Ronald felt like he was a step ahead of us. There was a moment where Mekki Leeper, who plays Noah, was supposed to say “How do I get out of jury duty? I heard that if you say you’re racist they can let you off,” and Ronald beat him to the punch, saying “Hey, I saw this Family Guy episode where the guy pretends he’s racist.” We were like “Did Ronald read the damn scripts?” Talk about striking gold! I don’t know that the show works without somebody like Ronald.

Although you’re playing a version of James Marsden that wouldn’t necessarily be touched by Ronald going home and watching Sonic, you the real James Marsden must have instinctively found that very sweet. How did you stop those micro-reactions from flashing across your face?

Every night, before the next day of filming with Ronald, I was so terrified that I wouldn’t be prepared for anything he’d throw at me, so I would just write down in a journal everything he could potentially do or say and then and then anything I could respond with. I was armed with ideas in my head of how this James Marsden would respond and some funny things that he could do. But again, like, you can’t prepare for Ronald coming and going ‘Hey, I saw Sonic it last night,’ so you have to be nimble and quick and put that through the douchebag James Marsden decoder. I’ve never been more prepared in my life. It was the most method I’ve ever been, and I don’t subscribe to that style of acting.

Did you worry you’d be stuck as the douchebag version of you?

I would imagine it’s what Larry David feels like doing Curb Your Enthusiasm. I’m playing a version of myself that’s so wrong and says all the inappropriate things that would get me into trouble. It sure is fun to slip into that character and lampoon the entitled Hollywood brat, but I wasn’t so deep in it that I had a hard time stepping out of it.

I suppose you have to stay method in a sense, because if you break then everything breaks. Every new sub-plot makes the show feel like a Jenga tower that’s getting taller and more precarious.

A lot of people don’t think about this, but the further we go along with him, the higher the stakes are. He has to believe that this case is real! By the end of it, if you screw up two days before the curtain lifts, Amazon’s got two and a half weeks of footage that they’ve spent money on.

There are some funny moments of you humbling yourself and getting to lean into jokes and memes that have arisen over your career, like the idea that you’re the guy in The Notebook that she should have ended up with. Did you have fun getting to comment on those in this roundabout way?

My best friend is the actor Josh Hopkins, and he made fun of me with some version of that joke, like “He’s the guy from The Notebook, but he’s not even the guy from The Notebook.” So I stored that away and was like, ‘Oh, this is a good opportunity to use that.’ It’s funny nowadays because there’s this sensitivity to toxic relationships and a lot of people are now saying “Screw Noah, this guy is a great dancer, he was rich, he was trusting her to figure her own stuff out and she made a wrong choice.” Team Lon has come through.

You also poke fun at having been mistaken for Chris Pine in the past with this whole arc of losing a role to him. Was that something you came up with?

Yeah, I came up with that. I kind of drew from experience as he’s the one I get mistaken for the most. Probably not now anymore, because it was back when Chris wasn’t this giant superstar and we were both up and coming and, like, interchangeable, I guess. I was like, ‘Who would this James Marsden be the most pissed to lose a role to?’

It’s funny that he’s the person you were mistaken for because whenever those polls come up about who the best Chris in Hollywood is, I often see you thrown in as a kind of spiritual Chris.

Friends of mine send me tweets from people going like “He’s Hollywood’s real Chris.” It’s Chris energy, I guess.

Does Chris Pine know about this joke in the series?

I was at a birthday party on Saturday night and he came up like, “I hear that I’m a little fixture in a Jury Duty episode, I make an appearance through your dialogue.” I’ve known him for a while and we’re not, like, best mates but anytime we see each other we kind of laugh and give each other a hug because we have this kind of playful adversary thing going on.

You obviously knew what you were getting into, but it must have been hard to set yourself up as unlikeable to someone. At one point you trash a birthday party, and in another, you clog Ronald’s toilet. How did you navigate those big, cringing moments?

It was tricky. The hardest moments were the biggest swings. Literally, in the case of flipping the cake, it was written that I would destroy that party. Like, I would pop every balloon and I would throw cake at people. But as soon as I flipped the cake, I saw Ronald hanging his head out of the corner of my eye and it broke my heart, so I had to stop there. I didn’t have it in me. And taking a dump in his toilet, [both of those scenes] were the funniest moments when I read the scripts, but when I was saddled with having to actually do it, I was like ‘I’m not sure I can do this.’ When you’re there on the day, it’s like, ‘I’m not sure I can tell Ronald that I tried to pee but there was already a massive turd in there.’ Those were moments that scared me.

Once it was all over, did you have to convince Ronald that you weren’t actually the douchebag James Marsden you’d been for the previous three weeks?

The thing I wanted to do the most was run over to him as quickly as I could. There were several hours of footage of me just being ‘Nice Guy James Marsden’ where we were chatting, so I wanted to run over to him, look him in the eye and say ‘Hey, I’m sorry and that not all of it was fake.’ The friendships, the connection we had, the laughs we shared, that was all real. We love this guy, we all fell in love with him through the process. I was checking on him for a bit after and just calling him to let him know I was there, and he said something really profound. When someone said “You didn’t think it was fake when all these kinds of crazy things were happening?” He said, “The idea that I’m living in a world that is completely fake and manufactured, that all of you are actors and for three weeks this was a fake trial? That’s so much more preposterous.”

This story originally ran on British GQ with the title “James Marsden on playing a douchebag version of himself in Jury Duty: “I wish I could tell you that I didn’t enjoy it””

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