James Marsden has known Elizabeth Banks since 2005 when they costarred in the indie film “Heights” about five interconnected New Yorkers deciding their destinies before sunrise. The actors' new collaboration “Walk of Shame” — in theaters May 2 — is much broader and funnier in tone, but the premise contains similarities. In it, Banks plays a newswoman who saves a horrible day by enjoying a one-night stand with a handsome mensch (Marsden) and spends the remaining wee hours stumbling on foot to audition for the job of her dreams (and destiny). Marsden, of course, is as winsome and fun as he was on “30 Rock” as Liz Lemon's husband Criss Chros. For a man who has played both JFK and an “Anchorman 2” villain, he seems pretty at home playing down-to-Earth characters like Banks' hookup.
We caught up with Marsden to discuss his acting history with Elizabeth Banks, prepping for the role of JFK in “The Butler,” and what he thinks of superhero cinema now that he's a longtime alum of the “X-Men” franchise.
You've played a lot of jovial, nice, even goofy guys onscreen. What's the hardest part of playing a likable guy? Does it change from movie to movie?
James Marsden: I don't know if it gets any goofier than Corny Collins in “Hairspray.” That kind of takes it to a whole other level. This guy's a little less than that. I mean, I don't know. [Laughs.] I kind of let the script be the guide. When you read a script the first time, you can get what the writer is asking for in the character. You try to add organic, authentic elements of yourself to the character, and that's maybe where the goofiness comes in. So, sorry. Every so often I try to switch it up and do something darker in between. I do a “2 Guns” or “The Butler” or “Straw Dogs” or something. I try to change it up.
You've known Elizabeth Banks for a long time. These days, in addition to being a successful actress, she's a successful producer who seems to be constantly racking up great projects. Has she always been such an entrepreneurial, ambitious type?
James Marsden: Well, she still had all of those endeavors lined up — just at the time I knew her or met her, she hadn't realized all of those yet. She was lining it all up. But she was just as tenacious and driven and totally motivated. I'm so lazy. I'm just — for the longest time, I've just been actor for hire and have been really cool with it. But there are people out there with so much more ambition. [Laughs.] She's smart, man! She has all these things she wants to do, and she has the resources and she gets them done. When I sit back and watch that happen, it's easy to get jealous and go, “Why the hell aren't I doing that?” Well, here's why: Because she did it. So she was as focused then as she is now. She's made herself a little empire and I couldn't be happier for her. She's enjoying the hell out of it.
Have you two compared notes about your featured roles on “30 Rock”? I don't think I remember you guys in any of the same scenes.
James Marsden: You know, we never really talked that much about it. It was kind of a revolving door at “30 Rock.” I would see Elizabeth as she was going out and I was coming in. We never got to talk that much. I would imagine they were relatively similar. Though most of my stuff was with Tina and most of her stuff was with Alec, it was a pretty cool, laid-back family over there. A lot of very funny people who were welcoming new talent every week. The vibe on set was always cool. They take their comedy seriously, but it was a good experience for me. I don't want to speak for Elizabeth, but the few times I spoke with her, she only had great things to say about that. Unfortunately we never had scenes together.
In addition to your role on “30 Rock,” I thought you were great in “Bachelorette” and “Hairspray” alongside the funny women in those movies. Do you think you have a special onscreen chemistry with funny women?
James Marsden: I don't know if I've ever drawn that line, but that's an interesting observation. I don't know! A good question. I like funny people, guys and girls. I guess part of me thinks when you see someone like Elizabeth who's beautiful and could just be taking roles that require her to be beautiful, you see that she exhibits way more depth — especially on a comedic level — than one would expect, it's like, “Oh, that's an inspiring artist. That's someone I want to work with.” I feel the same way about men with that ability. When someone surprises you with your talents, I just gravitate towards those people.
Can you think of any actors who deserve more credit for being hilarious?
James Marsden: He gets the credit, but John C. Reilly. Absolutely one of my favorites. And Paul Rudd. He is so damn funny. I mean, he's a leading man. It's not like people don't know who he is; everyone knows who he is, and that he's a comedian. But he's a comedian first! He's not one of these guys that's just using his looks to get jobs. He uses his intelligence, acting chops, and comedic talents. That's the guy I'd go with.
Speaking of Rudd, which filming experience was more intimidating for you — joining the very funny, very improvisational “Anchorman 2” cast or taking on the role of JFK in “The Butler”?
James Marsden: More intimidating? They both were relatively intimidating in their own right. I'd probably say Kennedy, even if it was just a week's worth of work and five minutes of screen time. It's such an iconic, beloved historical figure and we all know who he was, what he stood for, what he sounded like, what he looked like, and how charming and intelligent he was. You want to be the last person to screw that up. That was probably more intimidating. That said, it wasn't a movie about Kennedy, so I was afforded some latitude. In “Anchorman,” I was just a fan. A nerdy fan of the original. So I guess when you hear athletes talk about — “Hey, do you want to be the guy with two seconds on the clock, they inbound the ball to you, then take the shot?” — and they all say yes. That's how I felt with “Anchorman.” “Do you want to jump into this world with a bunch of guys who are heavy hitters at the top of their game? They've got their own rapport and dynamic with each other, and you'll jump into that?” My answer is “Yeah! Definitely.” I was intimidated at the beginning a little bit, but once you're on set with Will and Steve and Paul — and I'd known them a little bit up until that point and how unselfish of comedic actors they are; they're just doing it themselves, setting each other up for jokes. Will would say things that weren't necessarily that funny, but he set up Steve to knock it out. And then Steve would do the same thing for Will. It was phenomenal watching them work like that. I just went in and had to be as prepared as possible to improv wherever it may go. But it was a pretty relaxed set, especially once you got in there and realized how supportive everyone is. It quickly became a blast.
And last: After being in the “X-Men” movies, can you even stand to watch superhero movies anymore? I imagine going behind the curtain sort of destroys the illusion.
James Marsden: I can still enjoy them, yes. You can see behind the curtain on every movie. It can be a little challenging to get lost in stuff when you see the work and sets and stuff. But good work transcends that and pulls you in. That goes for a superhero movie too. I wish — I don't know. In my opinion, we're seeing a lot, a lot, a lot of effects these days. I guess you have to have that these days, but I wish there was more restraint to some of them. I think Bryan [Singer] did an excellent job with the first couple of “X-Men” movies where he really made it about the characters and the story, then the effects, which were secondary to real theme of the movie. That's the kind of story I like more than just a spectacle for the sake of a spectacle. But that has its place too. Popcorn, you know. I can watch superhero movies. There sure are a lot of them these days.