by scott huver
photography by brian bowen smith | October 24, 2014 | People
Drama, comedy, music… latte art? Is there anything pretty-boy-turned-actor A-lister James Marsden isn’t good at?
Tuxedo (price on request), formal shirt ($385), and bow tie ($115), Ermenegildo Zegna. 337 N. Rodeo Dr., Beverly Hills, 310-247-8827
Anyone familiar with actor James Marsden’s body of work has probably come away with the notion that he’s got a pretty broad skill set. He can effectively pull off drama (The Notebook), comedy (30 Rock), romantic comedy (27 Dresses), superheroics (X-Men), singing (Enchanted), and dancing (Hairspray). But that’s only the half of it.
Away from the screen, the actor admits he has a passion for perfecting… well, whatever happens to catch his fancy at the moment. “I’m a hobbyist,” he says. “I get into things, and then that’s all I do.” The pursuits at which he’s become a functional expert are many, diverse, and ever-growing, from the understandable to the arcane: triathlons, cycling, fly-fishing, auto racing, Star Wars, guitars, photography, wristwatches… even coffee. “I got this really fancy espresso maker and I had to learn how to pour latte art,” he explains. “I had this professional barista come to my house and show me exactly how to do it. I got obsessed with grinding my own beans.”
His latest obsession, courtesy of his new film, The Best of Me—like The Notebook, a lushly romantic adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks novel in which Marsden’s character reunites with his high school sweetheart 20 years later but finds familiar obstacles threatening their second chance at love: “I learned how to cut an onion!” he laughs. “I cut my finger doing it, but there’s a proper way to chop vegetables in the kitchen. I needed to look like I knew what I was doing.”
There are few actors who have been more dizzyingly versatile than Marsden over the past two decades, constantly proving that he’s got more in his arsenal than the accessible male-model looks that first opened doors for him. “When I was younger, I was always going to be cast as the preppy, good-looking guy at school,” he says. “It was a good thing when I was 19. That helped me get work, and within those opportunities, I tried to show that there was more ability… more talent. My main struggle was I never bought myself as the cool guy because I wasn’t that guy in high school... I see myself more as James Bond’s goofy younger brother, as opposed to James Bond.”
Stretch velvet Dylan ’60s jacket ($1,950), stretch velvet super-skinny pant ($585), white button-down shirt ($355), and silk bow tie ($170), Gucci. 347 N. Rodeo Dr., Beverly Hills, 310-278-3451. Black patent dress shoes, Ermenegildo Zegna ($750). 337 N. Rodeo Dr., Beverly Hills, 310-247-8827
Marsden’s breakthrough role was Cyclops, the square-jawed, super-serious leader of the mutant superhero team in X-Men, primarily serving as an uptight foil for Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine. “That was something that definitely took me to another level, but I never felt like I was doing what I was best at,” he says. “Beyond X-Men, my choices were more about showing people that I could do comedy.” He cleared that hurdle with his gallantly madcap stint as Prince Edward in Disney’s musical fairy tale send-up Enchanted. “That was like, ‘Whoa—not only can he make fun of himself, but he can sing!’ Then Hairspray followed right after it, another one that [showed people], ‘Oh, he can be funny!’”
Being funny allowed Marsden to break away from becoming typecast as the guy who doesn’t get the girl in romantic triangulations. The cult favorite romcom 27 Dresses elevated him to leading-man status and cemented his ability to generate laughs while also closing the on-screen deal. “That kid is hilarious—like, literally, spitting-my-food-out kind of funny!” says his costar Katherine Heigl. “Like, all the time. He’s so funny and so charming, yet down to earth. I have a lot of love in my heart for Jim Marsden.”
Bond vivant? “I see myself more as James Bond’s goofy younger brother,” insists James Marsden, here smokin’ in Gucci: Stretch velvet Dylan ’60s jacket ($1,950), stretch velvet super-skinny pant ($585), white button-down shirt ($355), and silk bow tie ($170). 347 N. Rodeo Dr., Beverly Hills, 310-278-3451. Black patent dress shoes, Ermenegildo Zegna ($750). 337 N. Rodeo Dr., Beverly Hills, 310-247-8827
Growing up in Oklahoma, an outdoorsy kid among five children born to a college professor father and nutritionist mother who split when he was 9, Marsden long had his sights set on making people laugh. “I always did goofy accents or characters from Saturday Night Live—that was the ultimate for me,” he remembers. He naturally gravitated toward showbiz sensibilities; during a cross-country trip after a stop in stodgy Washington, DC, 9-year-old Jimmy informed his father, “‘I’m more of an LA kind of guy.’ And I hadn’t even stepped foot in LA yet!”
Marsden took drama classes in high school and briefly studied broadcast journalism in college, but realized his 9-year-old self was on to something. “I never had the mind for going into finance or selling insurance—it was all about doing goofy cartoon voices or little bits and skits,” he recalls. “I felt like an outcast, because being an actor in Oklahoma—you can’t really make a living off that. I decided when I was 19, after three semesters of college, to just pack up and move to LA and give it a shot.”
Suit ($2,295), dress shirt ($250), and tie ($135), John Varvatos. 8800 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood, 310-859-2791. Piaget Altiplano 40mm watch, in white gold and diamonds, Piaget ($29,000). 323 N. Rodeo Dr., Beverly Hills, 877-8PIAGET. Black patent dress shoes, Ermenegildo Zegna ($750). 337 N. Rodeo Dr., Beverly Hills, 310-247-8827
He arrived in Hollywood with a foot already in the door. “It’s not a great story, but it’s the truth,” he prefaces. While on a Hawaiian vacation he met and became friendly with actor Kirk Cameron, then at the height of his Growing Pains teen idol-dom, and his family, who later invited him to visit the sitcom’s set as well as that of sister Candace Cameron’s series Full House. “I thought, ‘Oh, what a lifestyle!’” Marsden says. “It was really seductive.”
He eventually fell out of touch with the Camerons, but not the idea of giving showbiz a go—something encouraged by continued correspondence with a Growing Pains crew member, who believed Marsden’s looks and sense of humor promised a shot at stardom. “When you hear that now, as an adult, you think, You’re just leading lambs to slaughter, right? That’s like going to Vegas and saying, ‘You’re going to win the jackpot.’ But I was just naïve enough—which you need. You don’t want to know how far you can fall. You just want to look out and see how far you can go.”
Two-tone Tonic suit ($2,495), shirt ($390), and velvet bow tie ($195), Marc Jacobs Collection. 8409 Melrose Pl., LA, 323-866-8255. Classic 46mm Chronograph watch, David Yurman ($4,800). 371 N. Rodeo Dr., Beverly Hills, 310-888-8618. Black patent dress shoes, Ermenegildo Zegna ($750). 337 N. Rodeo Dr., Beverly Hills, 310-247-8827
His father also had a friend of a friend in talent management who sent Marsden out on auditions, landing him plenty of opportunities to play roles with character traits best summed up as “good-looking.” But when offered a long-term contract on a soap opera, he overrode his Oklahoman instinct to snatch up steady work and held out for more interesting options. “I’ve learned that being selective is sometimes a smart path to a longer career.” Prudence and patience still pays off—the guy with the cover-boy face is now a comedic go-to favored by funnymen Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, who were so won over by his read-through of the Anchorman 2 script as a favor that they hired him for the film on the spot as well as casting him in the breakthrough VOD hit Bachelorette and the forthcoming comedy Welcome to Me.
Today, Marsden balances work and family time with his 13-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter from his first marriage to actress Lisa Linde, and 18-month old son from a previous relationship. He recently turned 40 and appreciates “being relatively young while they’re at fun ages. Young by LA standards, I guess—by Oklahoma standards, I’m an old father.”
Green velvet and silk three-piece suit ($4,225), cotton dress shirt ($495), and silk tie ($175), Dolce & Gabbana. Beverly Center, LA, 310-360-7282. White-gold 45mm GraffStar Grand Date watch with black dial, Graff Diamonds (price on request). Saks Fifth Avenue, 9600 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, 310-205-2400
Certainly his career momentum remains full speed ahead. He’s back in a straight dramatic role with The Best of Me, which he calls “an opportunity to go back to a fan base that knows me. I haven’t done a movie like that in a while, and it was nice, an unabashed love story.” And while many actors—including stars collecting big blockbuster paychecks to play to type—may envy Marsden’s increasingly varied filmography, he’s now looking for something perhaps more elusive than the diversity he’s enjoyed. “It’s been great to be the guy who is viewed as multipurpose, but the only thing that’s absent is that defining role. And that’s maybe something I’d want to zero in on,” he admits.
He settles on Jeff Bridges as a role model: superstar status, artistic achievements, musical pursuits (Marsden’s readying his own singer/songwriter side gig), and a place in the pop cultural iconography courtesy of The Big Lebowski. “I need to find my Dude!” concludes Marsden. “Maybe that’s part of it, now that I’m 40, now that I can’t get by on my 19-year-old good looks. You become a man, and those are the roles that you’re going to play. For sure they are more interesting.
“This has been like a little Hollywood therapy session,” he confesses with a chuckle, only half joking. “I’m figuring out a lot about what I think about myself—and I don’t think of myself that often.” What he thinks about most, of course, is mastering those ever-changing hobbies, and Mr. Perfect admits there’s one pursuit that continues to vex him: “Yoga,” he frowns. “Although the yoga people would say that it’s not something you can suck at—you’re good at it by doing it, no matter what your capabilities are. But that’s my mentality: I have to be the best! I have to be the guy who can twist his back and stand on his head.” Is there any doubt he’s going to get there?
Styling by Neil Rodgers for Tracey Mattingly; Grooming by David Stanwell at soloartists.com using Bobbi Brown; Photography Assistance by Lee Wall, Kevin McHugh, and Brandon Smith; Video by Nardeep Khurmi; Sitting Editor: Danielle Yadegar