When it comes to appreciating hard-won success, there are two types of actors, according to James Marsden. ”One looks at it like, ‘Wow, I’m really lucky and I’m very grateful to be doing this.’ And the other is, ‘It’s about f—ing time.”’ Given that Marsden has waited 15 years to get his first chance to play a leading man, you wouldn’t blame him for feeling a tiny bit entitled. But spend just minutes in his company, and it’s obvious that Jimmy, as friends call him, falls into the first category.
”If you have a good time doing what you’re doing, then the audience is going to have a good time,” declares the down-to-earth husband and father of two. The Marsden Method worked its charm twice last year, both in the musical Hairspray and in Disney’s fairy tale Enchanted, where the actor brought flavor to supporting roles that could have been written off as sappy and one-note. ”Could I get hung up on the fact I’m running around in tights on top of a bus in Times Square with people staring at me?” the 34-year-old muses, referring to some of his more droll antics in Enchanted. ”Yes, I could. Or I could say, ‘I’m going to enjoy this, I’m going to go for it.”’
Now he and the rest of Tinseltown will see if that refreshing attitude translates to headliner status, when the romantic comedy 27 Dresses premieres Jan. 11. Playing opposite Katherine Heigl’s perpetual bridesmaid, Marsden stars as a laid-back newspaper columnist who doesn’t believe in the Hallmark version of love. It’s Heigl’s first big-screen turn post-Knocked Up, but that film’s overwhelming bow at the box office, three months into filming Dresses, may have affected Marsden more than his costar: ”I started thinking… Should I be playing this more like Seth Rogen?” Funny words, perhaps, coming from a onetime Versace model, but until now Marsden has always embraced a certain protean quality to his résumé (the conniving college student in Gossip, the sexually conflicted groom in Heights). ”It excites me, the idea that people might look at me and go, ‘He does that? That’s the same guy?”’
Yes, it’s that same guy who’s been working steadily since he was 19, starting out on television (like the short-lived family drama Second Noah and, later, Ally McBeal) and then jumping to the big screen in X-Men and The Notebook. It was his portrayal of the dashing jilted fiancé in that last film, a tearjerker with a cult following, that cemented his pretty-boy status. But Marsden is quick to shrug off the eye-candy stereotype. ”To me that’s a cop-out. You should be taken seriously for your talent. And I feel like I have talent.” So does his Enchanted costar Amy Adams. While Marsden’s looks did have her swooning — ”I found myself playing with my hair a lot when I was around him,” Adams giggles — so did his chops: ”He’s an extremely focused, hard worker, and he has a wicked sense of humor. He’s proven he has a really wide range, and I’m glad to see him getting opportunities to show it.”
A world away from lighthearted fantasy and romance, Marsden will next appear with Cameron Diaz in the thriller The Box from Donnie Darko helmer Richard Kelly. ”I like jumping around genre to genre,” explains the actor. ”I don’t want to be the guy who does the same thing over and over.” (See his upcoming cameo in road-tripping romp Sex Drive as a ”redneck who bleaches his tips and wears gold chains” for further proof.)
Top billing and A-list accolades aside, there’s one more sure sign Marsden’s star is ascendant: On a recent episode of Ugly Betty, he earned a major call-out when fashion-closet maven Christina gushed, ”I love James Marsden. I want to bake him naked and eat him for dessert.” The actor, flattered, simply laughed at the name-checking (”It makes me sound like a pastry”). But a more seasoned colleague had a different perspective: ”I told that to Cameron Diaz, and she goes, ‘You’re pop culture now. Get used to it.”’
A Better Boy Toy
With one action figure already on shelves, what would Marsden’s other roles look like made mini?
Marsden already exists in toy world, as visored Cyclops from X-Men (”When the movie came out, my son just assumed that every other kid had a dad who had action figures made of them”). But if he were extending his franchise, there’d be Richard White from Superman Returns and Lon Hammond Jr. from The Notebook, who would ”come with a tissue box and be in his war uniform.” Jokes Marsden, ”It would be called ‘The Other Guy Series’ — the guy-that-doesn’t-get-the-girl action figures.” Rounding out the set: Enchanted‘s lovable narcissist Prince Edward. ”It would be nice if he had a sword and, in the other hand, a mirror — so he could stare at himself.” Disney, are you taking notes?