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.