Best of 2020 (Behind the Scenes): The story behind James Marsden's unexpected return to Dead to Me
In season 1 of Dead to Me, James Marsden completed the trio at the heart of the storytelling alongside Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini. But when Applegate's Jen bludgeoned Marsden's Steve to death in the season 1 finale, leaving him floating in her pool, it seemed unlikely Marsden would return (except perhaps in occasional flashbacks). But when he turned up on Jen's doorstep as Ben, Steve's previously unknown twin brother, it introduced a Jekyll and Hyde-worthy twist for the actor to sink his teeth into. Here, series creator Liz Feldman breaks down how she devised and executed Marsden's unexpected return.
The actor accepted his fate with a warm email to series creator Liz Feldman. "After season 1 premiered and Steve was pretty definitively killed off, James Marsden sent me an email in his very sweet, kind, generous way, thanking me for the experience and telling me how much fun he had and saying, 'Why is he Googling if a person can survive a traumatic brain injury and drowning?'" Feldman tells EW. "He's like, 'Seriously, if there was any way to come back, I would.' But he knew that it was a total long shot."
He was joking, but the email got Feldman's wheels turning. Was there a way to bring back this actor whom she and the entire cast adored working with?
"I had never considered that he'd want to come back. And we always planned on Steve being a one-season character," she explains. "So, I sat down with Kelly Hutchinson, who's another writer, and I told her about the email and we just looked at each other and at the same exact time, we were like, 'Twins?' We just started laughing because it's so stupid. We knew what a trope it was, and [could be] a bad soap opera. [But] I took that as a challenge and I thought, 'If we really grounded this twin character and made him a three-dimensional real person, who's got his own shadows and his own demons, maybe we could pull it off.' I also thought it would be so fun to see James play a totally different character."
Thus, the character of kind-hearted, chiropractor Ben, a man nursing the challenges of a heart defect and the demons of a drinking problem, was born. "Once we decided twins, this whole story came to me pretty quickly and we realized that there was an opportunity there," she adds.
We called up Feldman to get the details on everything from how she and Marsden devised a very specific physicality to separate Ben from Steve and what her favorite moments of discovery with the character were.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When you went back to James with this once you had come up with idea, what was his reaction? Was he nervous? Excited? All of the above?
LIZ FELDMAN: I called him a couple of weeks later and he just laughed when I told him. I said, "How would you feel about playing a twin?" I pitched him the arc of what Ben's journey would be in season 2 and how he would come and go with Christina and how he helps drive the whole season. And he was in. I'm so grateful that he's so game to take a risk like that.
Once you had that established, did you have a lot of conversations with him to further develop who Ben would be? Was it about wanting to make him as completely different from Steve as possible?
I wanted to challenge myself and the writers and him to come up with a completely different person. The truth is [James] is the inspiration for Ben. Because in real life, James Marsden is a sweetheart. He is truly a wonderful human being. The fact that he was playing this total a--hole in season 1, it shows what range he has because he is not that person at all. I thought Ben should be much, much closer to James. Ben is an alcoholic, which James is not. But in his heart and soul, Ben is a good man as James. I thought it would be interesting to see him play somebody closer to who he really is. He was the inspiration for that—just wanting to lean into James as his dorkier, wholesome self. He developed a total physicality for Ben, and he does gesticulate differently as Ben. He did a really incredible and subtle job of being a totally different person.
In terms of the looks of both, Steve is so slick and perfectly clothed and wears expensive suits. Where did you come up with Ben's look? His hair is a lot looser. He just feels softer all the way around.
I wanted Ben to be a regular, unsophisticated guy and somebody that, at first flush, Jen wouldn't even look twice at. I just wanted him to be as salt of the earth and grounded [as possible], like a guy that feels totally fine walking around in a fleece vest.
In terms of being on set and going through the process of shooting, for both you and James, did you have certain things either you knew to look out for, or he asked you to look out for, to really make sure you were differentiating and he wasn't flipping too far back into Steve or when he was doing Steve, bringing too much of Ben into those flashbacks?
We had an agreement from the get-go that I would flag for him if he ever crossed the Ben line into Steve. There was really only a couple of moments, only really specifically one that I can remember where I thought, "Oh, you know what? That hand gesture is a little bit more like Steve." So I did run in and be like, "Hey, that was a little too Steve." He just wants to do as good of a job as possible. He's so hardworking and dedicated in that way, that he's like, "Oh my God, thank you for telling me." He wants to get it right. And he, 99.9 percent of the time, nailed it as Ben. It was literally one time I was like, "That was too Steve."
Do you remember which scene that was?
It was the scene in episode 5 where he dances for Jen. At some point, they're sitting at a kitchen island, and I can't remember the exact line, but there was one line he said in that scene that just came out a little too cocky. Just slightly a tinge full of himself. We just had him pull back on that line, and it was all Ben from there.
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Can you tell me more about writing that first scene before we, as the audience and Jen as well, even realize that he's a twin? How did you figure out how to pitch that, tone-wise, and where exactly to place the reveal? Because also, very cleverly, it echoes season 1, where Judy has told us Steve is dead and then he's not.
It took a lot of thought in terms of how to ride that tonal line. As soon as we were going to introduce the twin brother, I knew that the reveal was going to come at the end of episode 1. It's Netflix and you know you want a juicy cliffhanger. What's juicier than that? It made me laugh every time I thought about it. Then we knew Ben would be picking up right where we left off in episode 2. The main goal for that scene was we want the audience to feel like Jen feels; we want to experience this reveal with her. When we shot that scene, the idea of bringing in a twin character made me feel a little bit nervous because I thought, "Oh, I had a successful first season, and now am I going to ruin it?" But when we shot that first scene with Ben at the door and Judy's like, "Ben!" "Who the f--- is Ben?" "I'm the f--- is Ben." They were all so funny in that scene, and they played it off so real that I just was instantly calm. Christina's face in that scene, where she's realizing, a) that she's not seeing a ghost and b) that now she has to look at the face of the man that she killed. She's just absolutely brilliant. They're all brilliant in that scene.
So, in terms of the concept of the character, Steve is — on the surface — very charming, but actually fairly psychotic and abusive. Ben is very gentle and kind on the surface, but then has these shadows of dealing with addiction and he has a heart defect. How did you come up with those being his specific "deficiencies" in contrast to Steve's much worse ones?
I thought a lot about how people become who they are. Especially when they have siblings. If you look at this narcissistic, toxic, ultimately really insecure, overachiever guy, who would be that guy's brother if they were twins? I have very good friends who are twins, and they always joke that one of them took more nutrients than the other in the womb. I thought, "Well, what if Steve was abusive in the womb?" He took more nutrients. I know this is kind of weird. But basically, then Ben comes out and he has a heart defect. And what does that do to a person when they grow up in the shadow of a "perfect sibling?" Knowing that Ben was going to have setbacks and limitations because of his health issues. What does that do to a young person? How does that help shape their personality? I thought it would probably make him a much more sensitive person because when you have some of your own issues, it tends to make you more empathetic to others. I knew that I wanted to give him certain parallels to Jen, in that they both have this difficult health history. They both have scars, but Ben's overall approach in the world is a bit softer than hers. I thought that would be a really nice balance for her.
Once you had this twins idea, how early on did you decide you wanted to make him Jen's love interest? That's so unexpected that we would have one actor play one character with one leading lady, and now you're going to pivot and have them with the other leading lady.
I guess I'm just a little bit twisted. It was pretty immediate. I knew that Marsden and Christina had good chemistry because they had scenes together as Steve and Jen, but obviously not romantically. So I thought it would be pretty unexpected, but if we built the character the right way, it would also be sort of inevitable and what if this might actually, in some weird way, be the perfect guy for her? It was very immediate that I realized this could be a love interest for Jen.
Through the flashbacks and from the end of season 1 as well, we see how much Steve antagonized and abused Jen and how he deals with conflict. Then, we really get to see a completely different version of a breakdown with Ben after the police station and also on the beach that night at the vigil. Did you plan that as two sides of the same coin, in terms of how these two guys are having basically an emotional breakdown in front of the same woman?
By that point, I was thinking less about Ben in comparison to Steve, and more than in relation to Jen. And always trying to play the reality of grief and what it's like to be in limbo, not knowing what's happened to his brother. At a certain point, you just have to honor the character in that moment and think a little bit less about how it contrasts to the previous season. We did intend to show not only that Ben has real feelings there of relief, but that he feels comfortable around Jen. That he feels like he can be vulnerable around her, which of course in the moment, [would] be incredibly painful for her.
I intended that to be an emotional breakdown. What I did not know was how funny Marsden was going to make it. That's one of those days I'll never forget because I was just absolutely blown away by the fact that he was making me tear up and feel so bad for him and then laugh within a span of five seconds. Just the way that he embodied poor Ben's sadness, it's almost like the character reverted to childhood for a minute, the way that he blurted out, "I'm sorry." It was incredibly delightful and unexpected, but also nuanced. To me, that scene just shows you how brilliant James Marsden really is.
In one episode, Ben dances for Jen in a blend of trying to cheer her up and also seduce her a bit. Did that come from James' background as a song-and-dance man?
Absolutely, yes. We knew that [Ben] had been a dancer as a child, and we just thought it would be very sweet and disarming in its dorkiness. And that it would also hit Jen in a soft spot because she's a dancer too. We were like, "How do we show the complete range of James Marsden?" I just remember [writer Jessi Klein] pitching that in the room and all of the ladies in our writers' room thought it was so cute. I guess that's candy for straight ladies.
Was there a moment or scene that really encapsulates the difference between Ben and Steve for you, particularly in how Marsden played it?
We already talked about one of them, which is when they get back in the car after learning that the body that was found wasn't Steve's. That one for sure stands out. But I think the scene in episode 5 where they're in the kitchen and Jen makes him show off his little dance moves and in a span of a few minutes, he goes from dancing like a total white guy nerd, and then breaking down about the fact that the last time he saw his brother, they had a falling out. I did not expect, nor would was it even really written, that he cry in the scene. But James really broke down and you could really see that this character had a lot of pain about the fact that the last time he saw his brother they had had a fight. I just was so blown away because you don't take it for granted when you have actors like Christina, Linda, and James. You know that pretty much anything you throw at them, they're going to hit out of the park. But I didn't even think to necessarily ask for that level of depth, and he brought it and really showed us what he's able to do.
Can you tease what we might see of either Ben or Steve in season 3?
I will tell you that both men will be making appearances in season 3, and Ben goes on quite the journey.