James Marsden on Not Playing Himself in ‘Jury Duty,’ Going from X-Man to Funnyman and Pondering the ‘Saturday Night Live’ Career He Wishes He Had
Live in Los Angeles long enough and you’ll see it with your own eyes: a famous actor hiding in public beneath a dark, nondescript ballcap, trying not to be noticed when, in fact, he very much wants you to know he’s there. It can happen in a shop, at Starbucks, at the movies — or, if you’re really lucky, jury duty.
Freevee’s new reality show Jury Duty follows a jury that’s presiding over a Southern California civil case in which the alternate juror is none other than Hollywood big shot James Marsden, who’s annoyed that he’s being taken away from his very important thespian responsibilities to deal with some stupid civic duty. Constantly bragging about the acclaimed auteur he has a meeting with — sorry, he can’t say which one — while patronizingly trying to evince a just-regular-folks air, Marsden is insufferable. (Especially pathetic are his attempts to “get into character” for an upcoming role by affecting an unconvincing working-man accent.) That’s why it’s even more impressive that Jury Duty’s central figure, a San Diego contractor named Ronald, tolerates Marsden’s preening as much as he does over the three weeks they spend sequestered during the trial and deliberations.
But two things become clear quickly: 1) Ronald is one of the nicest, sweetest men you’ll ever meet; and 2) he’s the only person on the show who isn’t an actor — although he doesn’t know that. Ronald has been told he’s part of a documentary chronicling how the American judicial system works, but in reality, everyone around him is conspiring to create a fake scenario to see how he’ll respond. The judge, the plaintiff, the defendant, the lawyers, Ronald’s fellow jurors (including Marsden): They’re all in on it. But the point isn’t to torment or tease Ronald. Over the course of eight episodes, the final two airing on Friday, Jury Duty proves to be an unexpectedly bighearted look at a good guy who tries to bring reason, compassion and common sense to an increasingly bizarre situation. You’ll initially tune into Jury Duty to see Marsden play a comically exaggerated version of himself, but you’ll keep watching because of Ronald, whose kindly disposition is downright touching.
If it seems strange that an A-lister would appear on a comedy reality show, then you haven’t been paying attention to Marsden’s career. The former X-Men star has spent a considerable chunk of his time since those superhero flicks playfully subverting the idea of the highfalutin movie star. Whether it’s Hairspray or Enchanted — or the less-seen but also great The D Train — the 49-year-old actor has often portrayed handsome men (some actors, some merely acting) who aren’t as perfect as their gleaming white teeth suggest.
Jury Duty is merely the latest example of Marsden’s dedication to avoiding being a stereotypical Hollywood heartthrob. On the series, he acts out, throws tantrums, demands that others care about his every need and generally delivers a worst-case scenario of the diva-ish celebrity. Marsden is very convincing in the role — all the while never once making you think he actually is that guy. It’s a testament to the rapport he’s established with his fans: We feel like we know him, confident the real Marsden would never be such a jerk. In the process, he lets Ronald be the star of Jury Duty. That’s very much in keeping with another Marsden tenet: He may be a leading man, but there’s a part of him that prefers being the supporting player, where the roles are often a lot more interesting.
Marsden’s an ace dramatic actor — for proof, look no further than Westworld or The Notebook — but when I spoke to him over Zoom recently, we focused on his comedic work, seeking the connective tissue between projects as different as Sex Drive and 30 Rock. Not surprisingly, he was the complete opposite of his Jury Duty doppelgänger: unpretentious, happy to laugh at himself, unfailingly modest. (He grew up in Oklahoma, and although he moved away from home a long time ago, there’s still something deeply Midwestern-decent about him.) We talked about the challenges and discoveries of doing Jury Duty, his X-Men past, his youthful dreams of being part of Saturday Night Live and the fantasy football league he’s in with several fellow A-listers. And he told me why he’s not worried about becoming the type of asshole Hollywood that he loves satirizing on screen.
Did it take a lot of convincing for you to sign on to Jury Duty?
It did. I mean, there was a great group of creatives involved from the beginning. It’s always something that’s important to me when I choose to step into a project or not: Are you in good hands? And it was Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky, who (were producers on) The Office. And then David Bernad, who’s a friend of mine, we’ve worked together on a couple of separate projects — he’s responsible for The White Lotus. And Todd Schulman, who does a lot of these kind of things with Sacha Baron Cohen. So it was good company.
Out of the gates, we had a conversation about what the concept was. It started to sound like, “Am I stepping into a prank show? Am I just punking somebody?” They actually beat me to it and said, “This isn’t a prank show. That’s not what we’re trying to do. What we’re to do is create a hero’s journey for this person who doesn’t know that the whole thing is fake. And hopefully, by the end of it, he has his 12 Angry Men moment and doesn’t have the existential crisis of The Truman Show.”
I got very excited to explore the world of improv. I’ve always just been drawn to that style of comedy, from Christopher Guest to Larry David to The Larry Sanders Show — everything where you have a comedic outline and you get in the room and get to play around. This one, there wasn’t even outside intervention — really, it was just once you’re in there, you’re in there, and you kind of get to do what you want to do. It’s live theater.
But I wasn’t prepared for the wild card, which was, “Who is this guy and what’s he like and what makes him laugh? What embarrasses him?” You had to be thinking about your character arc and trying to make it work and be funny — but, also, be nimble enough to pivot. If we want him to make a right turn and (Ronald) takes a left, we have to take a left turn. It was unlike anything I’ve ever done before. So in that regard, yes, it took some convincing. But I just went in headfirst. I’m glad it worked out.
At the start of the show, Ronald recognizes you, but doesn’t necessarily know all your credits. Did you have any conversation with the creative team about what would happen if he just had no idea who you were?
Yeah, those discussions took place: “Here’s another way to the comedy if he doesn’t (recognize you).” We purposefully planted me next to him (in the waiting room), and we planted a woman to come up and ask for a photo. So hopefully with that, it was going to open the door to a conversation with me sitting next to him, saying, “Hey, sorry about that, it happens all the time” — and maybe he would ask, “What are you in?” if he didn’t know me.
You had to be prepared for 10 different reactions. If he didn’t know who I was, there’s always a comedic angle you can take — it would be great to have an opportunity for me then to just painfully and embarrassingly keep dropping hints of who I was. If he didn’t know me from anything, it would be even funnier. I mean, a great moment of that whole exchange is when he said, “Oh, I didn’t see Sonic. I heard it was a bad movie.” (Laughs) If he was just this guy who was a super fan and just throwing praise at you, it’s almost not as funny. So I was kind of hoping he didn’t know who I was.
Have you ever had that in your real life? Someone who encountered you in public and said, “I didn’t see that movie, but I heard it was bad”?
All the time. (Laughs) No, but sometimes if you’re recognized by somebody, there’s a socially nervous thing that some people do: They don’t want to be the one that’s showering you with praise or to come off too much like a fan, so they go the other direction, which is like, “Oh, I don’t watch TV. I don’t know anything you’ve been in. You’re just a human being.” And I’m like, “Oh, you are actually the most affected.” They try to keep it cool by playing it the other direction.
Then some people just genuinely don’t know who the hell you are. It elicits interesting behavior from people when they see someone that they normally watch on TV or in movies on the street. Some people can handle it with grace and be like, “Oh, I like your stuff.” Some people just don’t know how to act. Some people will say, (tough-guy voice) “She said you’re in something. What are you in?” (Laughs) Then you just kindly say a few things. “No, no, no, I haven’t seen that. No.” And you’re tasked with figuring out for them what they recognize you from.
I imagine that’s one of the tough parts of being famous: “I don’t know who you are — please justify your existence by wowing me with your credits.”
Most of the time, it’s really sweet people who are genuine who just want to say, “Hey, I like your work.” But sometimes it’s someone who comes with some unspoken (jerk voice), “Hey, you know this is part of your job, right? You got to take a picture with me and you got to tell me what the hell I’ve seen you in. Because that’s what (you do for a) living — that comes with the territory.” You’re like, “No, it’s not really written anywhere that I have to do that.” (Laughs)
Ronald eventually realizes he knows and loves you from Sex Drive. Is he a typical Sex Drive fan you come across?
I wouldn’t say that there’s a type, per se, that enjoys that movie. I mean, Ronald’s one person, but you know who else loved the movie was Will Ferrell. He said, “Your performance in that is what got me interested in you to maybe come play with us on Anchorman 2.” So it just spans all different types. I mean, it’s a coming-of-age road trip — a guy who’s trying to hook up with a girl for the first time in his life, so he goes cross-country in a car to hook up with her. So I guess that type of movie is going to be appealing to a certain type of person.
By the way, that movie, I’m sure probably would get canceled if people watched it nowadays. (Laughs) But I had a lot of fun on that movie. Sean Anders and John Morris — they’re terrific, they just did the Ryan Reynolds and Will Ferrell movie — they kind of just let me do my thing. It was a character that reminded me of someone I went to high school with. I just basically mimicked that person. It was very funny to me — some overly macho guy with the ear pierced in the left ear, not in the right ear. And the blond tips and the kind of karate clothes. You thought, “I don’t know who’s going to see this movie, but I’m going to have a good time doing it.”
Did that guy ever learn you based Rex on him?
We were never really friends, me and this guy — it was just somebody who I modeled it after. I don’t know what he’s doing nowadays. (Laughs) Hopefully he’s not (reading) this interview.
The performance is really funny, but it’s also that hair and goatee that sell the character. That was all you?
I’m not typically one to go full-on out with the look changes and everything, but that was one where I was like, “Oh, I think this guy totally has a goatee, totally bleaches his tips and wears leather motorcycle jackets. He just wants to show everybody how tough he is.”
I don’t know if you remember the end of the movie — he turns out to be not straight. (Laughs) So that was a whole twist on the movie. But yeah, I went to (Anders and Morris) — they saw me having a good time with the role and they just thought, “Whatever you want to create, just go for it.” I told them, “I grew up with this guy.” He was such a funny character — peacocking, chest puffed out all the time.
With Jury Duty, you mentioned you were excited about getting to do improv. You haven’t done that much in your career, outside of maybe Anchorman 2. But what made it even harder is that Ronald isn’t an actor, and he doesn’t know he’s in a TV show, so it’s not like he can “Yes, and” with you. How is it doing improv with someone who isn’t aware what’s happening?
We had the good fortune of many, many hours in the courtroom and the deliberation room hanging out together that aren’t going to make a 25-minute episode. There were lots of times where we were just having real conversations. I would hear what he had to say, and if there was a joke I wanted to get to, I could try to steer him somewhere — he would either take the bait or he wouldn’t. If he didn’t take the bait, you just move on to the next one and find something else funny to explore. And there were days where I wasn’t supposed to be hanging with him — I would just go off and mess around with the rest of the cast and make sure that there was a camera on us, and we would do bits just to do the back-and-forth thing.
Anchorman 2 was a great reference because I learned so much on that movie. I got to watch Will and Steve (Carell) and Paul (Rudd) and (David) Koechner just set each other up. Some people, when they attempt improv, it’s like, “How do I become the funniest person in the room?” Always jockeying for the big laughs. But what was brilliant and very graceful watching these tremendously intelligent and funny people, they almost could read each other’s minds. Steve would say something, knowing that it was a meatball right over the plate for Will to knock out of the park. Just how generous they were with their improv. If you get to know somebody that well — and the rules of improv and the style of comedy — you start to read each other’s minds. “Oh, I see where you’re going with this. I see that there’s a little pot of gold at the end of it. Let’s get there together.” So I would do that with a lot of the other young improv artists in Jury Duty.
But with Ronald, yeah, you’re right. I mean, one, you couldn’t reveal that this was all fake, so there had to be plenty of organic, authentic conversations so that the groundwork was laid to come in and drop a comedy bomb of “Here’s the bit we’re now pushing.” But he had such a purehearted lightness about him that there was a playfulness to Ronald — he had a good sense of humor — so it allowed us to explore that world a little more with him without him being either put off or uncomfortable. He would embrace the eccentricity of all these characters and the bizarre circumstances that we kept unfolding in front of him — he allowed us to play more than we thought we might be able to.
Jury Duty is funny, but as it goes along, I noticed I was more interested in how sweet it is. Ronald is just a great, likable, genuine guy. Was that clear about him from the beginning?
You learn it as you go along. I didn’t know anything about him from the get-go: All they told us is, “Here’s his job. He’s got a girlfriend. He’s from San Diego. He’s 6-foot-6.” You don’t know anything until you get in the room with him, then you start to see him laugh at certain things and have a very warm and open attitude to this whole process. He was genuinely engaged in the case. So it became evident, even after a couple of days, that there was a kindhearted soul there. In my mind, I was like, “This is great, because now it’s unfolding to be the show that I was pitched” — a hero’s journey for this guy — “and, hopefully, he can find a way to be our leader and unite all of us in some great way.” I mean, there were characters that were written to test his (patience) — like Todd, they were next door to each other with the dividing door, and he would slip him notes. But (Ronald) ended up putting his arm around the guy and taking him out for a makeover and introducing him to the movie A Bug’s Life, which is about someone trying to fit in. His humanity was way more than we expected.
I wasn’t interested in doing something that was cruel to someone or that felt unfair. Three weeks, that’s a long time to mess with somebody’s human experience. The blurring of the lines of reality and fiction of what we were doing was unlike anything I’ve ever done before, but what happened was it was as much of an experience for me as it was for him. It was this journey that we both went on where there were moments where I was pushing beats that were written in the script, but then there were moments where we were genuinely bonding. It was really paramount to me — and important to the rest of the cast and producers — that by the end of it, he knew that those friendships that grew from (the show) were very much authentic and real. Credit to the producers, who said, “We got to protect this guy. It’s got to be a celebration of his spirit, of his character. He cannot be the butt of the joke.” I was very firm on that: “I’m not going to make fun of this guy or do anything that’s going to make him feel humiliated when all of this is over. Because this is three weeks of his life.”
But you’re just crossing your fingers and hoping that that’s going to be his response. That was the balance of the whole thing: “How do we make this not overly sentimental by the end of it, but have a heart, and that there’s still room for the comedy?”
Like you said, you two spent three weeks together. Was he bonding with the exaggerated, awful James Marsden character? Or was he bonding with you?
It was a mix of both. There was a lot of just genuinely me — not the exaggerated, pompous jerk. If I was that all the time… once I started to push it too much, he would actually move away from me, and I needed to stay close to him because I was a lot of the conduit to getting him to do certain things, so there were moments where I had to pull back. That was me being myself — then that friendship became organic and real.
It made it a little more challenging to push some of the more unsavory moments where I lose my shit, but I managed to stitch together this identity that could allow for both — that could allow for real genuine moments of connection with this guy and, also, moments where maybe I wasn’t my best self for the joke. But I imagined that that was probably pretty confusing for him at times. There were moments where we were having a great time and I was being a good dude, and then another moment I turned around and I’d go from Jekyll straight to Hyde — a really egocentric, not-good guy. That tested him a little bit. At the end (of the show) he was like, “One of the things I’m most happy about is that you’re not that (egotistical) person, because it was kind of breaking my heart.”
How hard was it to go through those three weeks thinking, “I don’t want him to think I really am this ego-driven guy I’m playing on the show”? If you did your job well, he’s going to believe that’s the real you.
When he really was thinking I was that guy, I knew I had to sit on it and know that by the end of it, he’ll know that that’s not really me. But it made for some uncomfortable moments. I never wanted to see him in distress — nobody did.
I remember there’s a moment where I destroy a birthday party (for another character) that I think is a pity party for me, and I’m the jackass. I’m not doing anything directed at (Ronald), but he’s witnessing me be a jackass, and in that moment out of the corner of my eye, I saw him hang his head a little bit. He was disappointed that I was being this conceited jerk and ruining someone else’s birthday party. He’s such an empath — he really cared about everybody there.
So I pulled it back — I was supposed to go full-on maniacal rampage at the birthday party, pop every balloon, throwing cake at people. It was (supposed to be) a full-on brat fest. But I saw him and he was bummed out, and I couldn’t do it. I was like, “At some point, you get too close to that line where this isn’t worth it for a TV show.” I come back to the party with a cake, apologizing, which was never scripted. The intent is for “James” to have some sort of apologetic moment where he’s trying to show a little grace and get back in the good graces of this friendship.
Saturday Night Live was something you watched a lot as a kid. Did that show first make you think about doing comedy?
It was something that got me excited about performing. I loved watching SNL growing up. I would try to emulate Dana Carvey and all his voices and sketches, and Mike Myers. I had all of Eddie Murphy’s stand-up routines memorized. I loved the idea of sketch comedy — of playing these different over-the-top, silly, absurd roles, but approaching them with real conviction and importance. The more absurd, the more real you make it — I don’t know, I just love that style of comedy. And I was kind of a mimic growing up and had an ear for accents and impressions.
I remember having this conversation with Tina Fey. I was like, “Oh, I would love to be on SNL.” She goes, “Oh, I think that’s probably still in the cards for you — you’ll host one day.” I was like, “Oh, I didn’t mean host — I mean be a regular on the show.” Just running from set to set and changing wigs. And it catered to my talents: At least at the time, I never felt comfortable being the leading-man guy. I always liked being these absurd characters and doing different voices. It was always just so fun to me.
I didn’t move to New York because I knew there was more opportunity for me in L.A. because of someone that my father knew who was a casting director who helped me find a manager — I had more connections there. Otherwise, I would’ve gone to New York and auditioned for SNL.
When you got to L.A., did you ever think, “Shit, I made a mistake. I should have gone to New York”?
I was happy in L.A. from the start, mainly because I started working. I went from literally mowing lawns in Oklahoma to doing guest spots on primetime TV shows. The idea that I was getting paid to be an actor — even if it was two lines on The Nanny — was crazy to me. It was like this crazy dream come true. I stayed (in L.A.) because I started getting good feedback and booking jobs — so, yeah, I don’t have any regrets about it. I could have seen what that path looked like had I chosen to move to New York to do SNL, but hopefully, the two worlds can converge at some point.
Your early TV stuff was in sitcoms. Did people see you as primarily a comic actor?
Not at the beginning. I was 19 and I was always in a letterman’s jacket, which was ironic because I was never in one in high school. (Laughs) I was always the one who was in drama and theater. But the people who were representing me were like, “Yeah, you’re a cute kid, good look — we can cast you as the prom king.” I just was like, “Man, that’s so funny because I was so opposite that in high school.” I had to make a real conscious effort to show people that I got comedy — that I understood it, that it’s something that was appealing to me and I was good at. It took several years to show that because it took opportunities to be able to prove it.
I know actors have to deal with that: “Hey, I may be really handsome, but I’m also a good actor. I can be funny.”
Sometimes people just want to go right to the obvious. (It would have been) easier for me to just say yes to the same kind of knuckleheaded, coiffed-haired guy. But I pushed against that in the other direction to open up a whole different world and spectrum of characters. I was successful over time, but it took a long time.
In fact, X-Men, as great as that was to be a part of — that put me on the map globally — it’s like, “Here’s this guy who’s a superhero.” God knows I wasn’t doing comedy in that. So that was great for my career — people knew who I was and I was being cast in other things because of it — but it didn’t do anything to help move the comedy needle forward. (Laughs) So I had to purposely offset that with other choices to show that you can do other things other than just fire laser beams out of your eyes.
Looking back, 2007 was such a huge pivot year for you. Both Hairspray and Enchanted were these big hits where you got to be funny. It felt like it was a conscious attempt to change people’s impression of what you could do.
A hundred percent. Those (roles) were huge targets for me. One, I love singing — it’s just a joy of mine. Two, it was an opportunity to send myself up. Those opportunities were unique in a sense that those two things (I was seeking) — that always seem like it’s one or the other — blended.
I always feel uncomfortable talking about (my good looks), because I don’t want it to sound like that’s something I didn’t wish I had or something that I wasn’t grateful for. Of course, that helped me a great deal in this business. I just didn't want it to be the thing that defined me. Corny Collins was a good-looking guy who was just kind of a musical dork — his name’s Corny. And Enchanted, I got to play the quintessential Disney prince, but also be a big buffoon as well. There was room to do both. I think that’s why I liked those two roles so much, because it afforded me the ability to show people that I could do comedy and that I could sing and dance — but still not push the boundaries too far of what they’re going to accept me as on-screen.
Something I think you’re very good at is playing conceited, vain or needy types without us thinking that that’s who you really are. A movie of yours that doesn’t get enough love is The D Train, where you play an L.A. actor whose career isn’t going as well as he would have liked. Then, someone from his high school graduating class, played by Jack Black, reaches out to him about a reunion, believing that your character is now this big Hollywood hotshot. That film seems to be part of a continuum of roles that started with Hairspray and Enchanted and extends through Jury Duty where you’re subverting the idea of the good-looking star.
That’s exactly what it is. Like with Enchanted and Hairspray, it’s a way of still being, on the surface, the guy who looks like he gets the girls, is the leading man. The role in The D Train, I look the way I look but also, underneath, (is) somebody completely different. In The D Train, it’s all of his insecurities and his ego that’s been battered by not being the cool guy in high school anymore — but then (the Jack Black character) comes out of nowhere who just worships him still, and it feels good to him.
I just feel like, “How do you create a character actor underneath the façade of this thing that is just a leading-man guy?” I don’t know — I just know when I read (The D Train), I thought, “Oh, this would be so much fun to play, but also heartbreaking.” That’s another reason why I like that film: It definitely takes a detour from what you think it is. You think it’s some buddy comedy with me and Jack Black, but it proves to be a lot darker than that. Darker but also a fun ride. (Laughs) There’s moments where you’re supposed to be laughing.
But, yeah, I’m always trying to deconstruct that image and find a role where you can still be the guy with the squeaky-clean smile, but get to show so many more interesting things, either from a comedy perspective or from a drama perspective. I’m trying to find roles where I can inhabit both of those things and the two can coexist. That’s a good example of one.
Reading the YouTube comments on your Vanity Fair video where you look back at different roles, one person wrote something like, “James Marsden’s characters never get the girl. We need him to start ending up with the girl.” Was that a conscious thing on your part that connects to not wanting to be the typical leading man?
I don’t know what that says about me. (Laughs) It started to look pathological — that that’s the only kind of role I wanted to do — but what happened was, I did several different roles that were very different from that kind of thing in between those movies, but those just happened to be the movies that actually hit. (Laughs) Those were the ones that were popular. So it looked like I was just always searching for those.
But, I mean, maybe there’s something to it. In high school, I wasn’t the guy who always ended up with the girl. It wasn’t by design that I chose to do those types of roles, but at some point between X-Men, The Notebook and Enchanted — god, name several others where I lose out on the girl — I started to be “that guy,” that became my identity. I was like, “Okay, now I have to do something specifically, like 27 Dresses, where I get the damn girl just to show that (I’m) not exactly that guy.” But yeah, maybe there was something to why I responded to those characters — maybe I was a little more comfortable being the supporting-character actor and not the lead guy.
Of course, on 30 Rock, you did get the girl.
Oh, right! I didn’t see ending up with (Liz). They asked me to do one season — I saw that Matt Damon was on there and Jon Hamm and all these brilliant actors, and thought, “Where do I fit into this?” (Co-showrunner) Robert Carlock had seen me in Enchanted, and he was like, “I just love what you do in that movie. Well, let’s just kind of be a version of that here, a love-sick puppy who’s just madly in love with her. A good-looking guy but doesn’t know it. He just pretends he’s kind of an average dork in the sweetest way.”
Robert showed me the role, and Tina gave me the role. I was like, “Okay, good: He sells hot dogs on the side of the street in New York.” (Laughs) “This is way more interesting to me. And what a nice little mix with Liz Lemon.”
(After my first season), I thought, “Well, that was fun, but I don’t know that it’s going to continue.” And they called and said, “Hey, we want to bring you back for another season.” I’m like, “It’s actually working? It’s funny?” I couldn’t gauge it on that show — I was like, “I think it’s good, but who knows?” And they said, “Oh, yeah, it’s great. You’re a perfect pair. Actually, (we’re) going to marry you two in this season.” I thought, “Jeez. Wow. Okay, great, let’s do it.”
I wondered if, in a way, it was good fortune to be part of the superhero-movie world early on, before it got as big as it is now. Maybe it would have been even harder to break out of people’s perception of what you could do if you were in the MCU today.
I don’t know that anyone would be complaining nowadays about being trapped in any of those films — I think it’s what everybody wants. But I don’t know, ask those guys who are doing them nowadays. I don’t see a world where that keeps you from doing other things — I see that as being a gigantic benefit and stepping stone to many other projects. But, sure, when you walk down the street, is that the main project people are going to know you from? Probably. But I would never view that as a bad thing.
I just feel very proud to be a part of one, and at the dawn of this whole superhero-universe movement that we’re seeing that has some legs. I wouldn’t have guessed that people would still be interested at this point. It’s insane how successful these movies have become and continue to be. They’re kind of the only movies that people go to the movie theater to see now — that and animated kids’ films. I don’t feel unlucky about any of it — I would probably do the same thing now if I got offered the opportunity to do what I did 20 years ago.
Speaking of kids’ films, I really liked what you did in the Sonic movies. You have to be the grounding element in movies that are otherwise pretty wacky. You’re the straight man playing off Sonic’s shenanigans. But, of course, he’s not really there when you’re shooting those scenes. How hard is that to pull off?
It has its challenges, for sure. I’m still getting dialogue back to me, because there’s a really wonderful improv comedian in Vancouver who would do Sonic’s lines — if ever I wanted to get off the page and play a bit and improv, he was always very gifted with that. We could mess around just to give Ben Schwartz more things to work with when he was in the studio doing his stuff.
But, definitely, you got to really focus to try to make it feel natural, because it’s the most unnatural thing. You’re staring at a tennis ball or you’re staring at a blue sandbag or a metal C-stand. (Laughs) So you have to look like a crazy person and know that they’re going to fill in the gaps. As much as I could, I just used my imagination to see Ben Schwartz sitting there and hear his voice and get the feel for how he would maybe respond — you just use your imagination. But, yeah, it was a technical challenge, because actors are used to looking each other in the eye — you feel this energy start to swell and a rhythm starts to be created by the back and forth of the dialogue that you share with one another. You get a little less of that when you’re talking to a stuffed animal. (Laughs)
Are you still in that fantasy football league with the Chrises?
(Laughs) Is that out there for public knowledge?
You’ve mentioned it in interviews, yeah.
I did? Jesus. Yes, I am. It’s not all the Chrises, but it’s a few of them. It’s a funny little group. I think I’ve done it for six years now with them. It’s fun — it’s our little secret group.
How competitive is it? And how did you do last season?
Well, you walked right into this one, because it does get very competitive, but it’s not without its playfulness, for sure. And I won last season — but under protest. I won last season and the season before. And the only other person who had done that is Chris (Evans), who started the whole league, so I matched him there. But this last season I won only because a game got canceled and never got played, I would’ve gotten beat, so it’s sort of an asterisk win. (Laughs)
I know the game you’re talking about: the Monday Night game between the Buffalo Bills and the Cincinnati Bengals. I had Josh Allen in that game, and I lost because his points didn’t end up counting.
That is exactly the game — the (person) I was playing had Josh Allen. And I was up maybe 15 points. I mean, Josh Allen, average, he puts up (more than that), so it wasn’t a guarantee (that I’d have lost), but I was definitely the (underdog).
So, this entire upcoming season, everybody else in the league is gonna say last season’s win wasn’t legitimate.
And, of course, I say that’s bullshit, right? I mean, deep down, I know that I didn’t really win it. But it’s a lot of just smack talk, (so I’m like) “‘Nope.”
What do you win? Is it a trophy? Money?
Bragging rights and fake money. (Laughs) We always bring a new person into the league every year or two, and we always tell them, after we’ve started playing, that it’s a $50,000 league — you got to pony up 50 grand. (Laughs) But, no, it’s really just bragging rights. It’s a bunch of friends who are just having fun. Actually, the most fun thing — I don’t think we did it last year — is figuring out, instead of what the winner gets, what the person in last place gets.
What does the loser have to do?
I think it’s like you got to take an old signed headshot to IHOP and ask them to put it on the wall. (Laughs) There’s always something humiliating you have to do, but I can’t remember what we did this last season.
Have you ever been the big loser?
Never lost the league. I don’t know if it’s a good thing or people are annoyed by me that I’ve always been pretty good at it — as good as you can be, because it’s all luck. But you got to be quick about lineups and getting news about injuries and things like that. But, yeah, thankfully I’ve never lost the league. I’m always the middle of the pack, closer to the front.
You haven’t lived in Oklahoma for a long time. Is there anything that’s still very Oklahoma about you?
I feel like I do nice things for people. My mother taught me good manners. You’re not the only pebble on the beach. Treat others the way you want to be treated. I’ve made a point to not ever let any sort of fame or success change who you are. Don’t allow yourself to let certain things go to your head.
I see myself doing things that are normal human-being things and getting rewarded for it with compliments: “That was really nice of you. Where are you from?” I’m like, “Oklahoma.” And they say, “Oh, that’s why.” And I’m like, “As opposed to what? Is that just not what everybody’s doing?”
I still wander into malls and Targets and Walmarts, and I forget that people were going to maybe stop and ask for a photo. I’m still naive to that. I don’t go in back doors to places. I don’t know, I feel like you’re just a human being out there in the world — go out there, have a good time, treat people with respect and be grateful for anyone that might recognize you or like your work. When I do that, that’s when I hear, “Where are you from? You must not be from L.A.”
You’ve been famous forever. You really don’t think about what might happen if you go out in public?
It doesn’t happen to the degree where it happens to some people. I don’t get followed by hoards of people — I don’t get chased. But I’m a little more aware of it when I’m with my kids. If I’m with my kids, I’ll think about, “I’m going to a public place,” and I’m like, “I don’t want to subject them to some of that.” But if I’m just driving down the street, I’m like, “Oh, I need to go into the Grove for something” — I’ll pop in there and then I’ll realize, “Oh, yeah, people are going to say hi and ask for photos and stuff.” It’s fine, you do it. I don’t think about it too much until I get there. (Laughs) But you shouldn’t — I mean, hopefully if you’re at a good place, you don’t have to alter your life too much to accommodate for all of that.
When you play these self-absorbed actor assholes — there’s also your role in the new season of Party Down — do you feel like they’re a release valve for yourself so that you never become that kind of celebrity?
I would never be letting it out because I don’t feel like I’m in danger of ever becoming that guy. There’s just something so deliciously fun about sending up that kind of Hollywood entitled celebrity. You could say that you’re sort of lampooning yourself, but I’ve never been close to being that guy. It’s fun to inhabit that character for a while — to play that conceited, fully egocentric person who is never going to ask you about you. He’s only going to want to hear praise and talk about his next project. To me, it’s just a fertile ground for comedy.
You said earlier, “You’re really good at making sure the audience knows you’re not actually channeling who you really are.” That’s important to me. Obviously, you don’t want anybody to think you’re really that guy. But I guess it’s the same kind of thing as Larry David — he’s playing an exaggerated version of himself that he doesn’t do on a day-to-day basis, but there’s things about that behavior of the character he plays on Curb that probably amuse Larry David in real life. It’s like getting to play some sort of evil twin alter ego.
Coming up, you’ve got the Pop-Tart movie and Michael Keaton’s Knox Goes Away. That’s a pretty big comedy and a pretty big drama. Where is your head right now in terms of what’s calling to you creatively?
Always about striking that balance. I don’t want to just do comedy, and I don’t want to just do drama. Whatever job I just finished, I tried to find something that’s very different than what I just completed. And this Michael Keaton thing came along — I mean, he’s an icon. To be directed by him and also play his son’s pretty special. I want to make sure that that creative part of me is getting fulfilled as well — that (movie) just ticked all the boxes.
I don’t know, I don’t think about it too much. Just within my options of projects that come my way, I try to be judicious about (picking) characters that are going to offset each other nicely from a broad scope of different types of flavors.
Earlier in your career, you had to convince people that you could do comedies. But when you started playing funnier, goofier roles, did you ever worry, “Maybe this is where I’ll get pigeonholed now. Maybe people will never buy me as dramatic again”?
I did early on. But now, I feel like I hear enough people compliment me on the versatility of the roles that I’ve selected over the years that I don’t feel like it’s something that I worry about too much anymore. I worry more about showing whoever your real self is on social media too much — it takes any sort of mystery out of the roles that you might play.
But, no, I’m not really that concerned about it. I feel like I’m one of those guys that, when people think about me, they think, “Oh, he’s never been pigeonholed to one thing.” Hopefully they think, “I know that there’s something interesting he found in that character.”