James Marsden Loved Playing Himself in ‘Jury Duty’ – Interview

After playing a grossly fake version of himself in the new doc-comedy hybrid “Jury Duty,” he may be taking a break from the self-referential stuff for a while.

James Marsden knows where the line is. You have to if you want to spend several weeks of your life playing a fictional version of yourself for a TV experiment that’s never been tried before.

The multi-genre veteran actor is best known for his new series, “Jury Duty,” an eight-episode series available on Amazon Freevee with one key twist: Everyone on screen during the workplace dispute is an actor, except Ronald Gladden, an unassuming juror who believes he is part of a documentary project. During the process, Marsden acts as the only celebrity on the judging panel, dropping hints about upcoming auditions and reminiscing about past roles.

This latest Marsden role has become a bloated version of a recognizable Hollywood actor who fancies himself a man of the people while constantly inferring that he’s above it all. (He filmed “Jury Duty” right after he played a similar A-list superhero jerk on the last season of “Party Down.”) Taking on the challenge, along with dozens of actors who convincingly play the other moving parts in “ trial” meant striking a delicate balance between crafting comedy and creating a believable, good-natured immersive experience for Gladden.

“We called it Hero all along because we were creating a hero’s journey for somebody,” Marsden said. “If I saw any sign that he was being tortured or uncomfortable, I was ready to say, ‘I’m out.’ Pull the plug.’ And I meant it. I can’t sleep at night knowing that I’m going to make someone who doesn’t know it’s fake in any way uncomfortable.”

The end result is a fascinating assemblage of reality-blurring puzzle pieces, assembled so that Gladden isn’t the only one in for a surprise. As Marsden explained in a recent interview with IndieWire, the hardest part was that there was no guarantee that any of them would work.

IndieWire: It seems like one of the challenges in a role like this or the one you played in “Party Down” is that you almost don’t want to too good at that.

James Marsden: I think I’ve stayed in that entitled, self-centered Hollywood, Hollywood crap that I find so much fun to play. Obviously, I love what I do. And I take it very seriously. But anyone pretending that we are the most important profession in the world is a bit absurd to me.

Maybe it’s a little arrogant for me to say this, but that’s how Larry David must feel in “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” right? He’s not that guy in real life. But there are pieces. There are parts of it that are like, “Oh, I wish I could say that to that person.” But no, because you have to follow certain social norms. With fiction and a TV show, you can play with whoever you want. So that was the fun. I have directed actors and people I have worked with for the last three decades of my career. Whenever I’ve seen a really arrogant, entitled actor behaving in an absurd way, I just download it, remember it, and just funnel it into that. You just want to see these people fail. Anyone entitled to this who complains about the temperature of their coffee while sitting in the cast chair with everyone else working around them? You just want to light that guy up.

James Marsden Jury, Ronald Gladden

“Jury duty”

Courtesy of Amazon Freevee

Ronald seems like a very nice, well-adjusted person, but was there a part of you that was prepared for the unexpected when this process turned out to make him much less likable?

This sensitivity was always there on set. The challenge for me was that I was the most important thing to Ronald. It was essential that he trust me, that we have a good joke, that there should be friendship. So, every time I did something he didn’t like or thought was really bad behavior, I had to back off a little and just be normal James to get back in his good graces. And then you would hopefully think, “Okay. There’s a nice guy in there, and I was blown away at that moment.” The show cuts out the nice guy stuff and just leaves the jerk.

My first question to Lee (Eisenberg) and Gene (Stupnitsky) and David Bernad and Todd (Schulman) and everybody was, “Is this a joke show?” And they said, “No. Nobody wants to do that. He’s no joke. we are the bottom of the joke.” I make fun of myself all day. And we can surround him with characters that are bizarre and weird, and that’s where the comedy can come from. I felt protective of him from the start. You keep someone a secret for almost a month. Better to do something virtuous. And it can’t just be for TV. So every day this conversation happened.

Even under these circumstances, the same basic rules seem to apply. The minute you start overselling a joke or a certain moment, you start to lose what makes it funny in the first place.

JM: You get all of that. There were moments like, “We should have pushed this pace today, but he was a little suspicious, so we’re not going to do it. Get off, we’ll find another place to push in the next few days.” It is a live theater where the script is constantly changing. The scenario was that I would come closest to him. And then I got so hot with some of my stuff that you saw him take a step away from me. Sure, he still wanted to be my friend when I was being nice, but then it was like, “He likes Todd, so we’ll spend a few more minutes with them.” It kept evolving and changing as you progressed, which was really exciting. I’ve never done anything like that in my career.

James Marsden (C), Ronald Gladden (R) and the cast "Jury duty."

“Jury duty”

Courtesy of Amazon Freevee

Having to disguise what kind of production it was, it seems to have stripped away a lot of the rhythms and basic components that a more traditional set would normally have.

It’s the closest thing to the real James Marsden to the exaggerated James Marsden, “Oh yeah, we have to take a bus for an hour and a half to Huntington Park and some shabby old building.” You don’t get the comforts of nice lighting or makeup or nice craft service, things like that. But I wanted to be in the middle of it all. Not in an incredibly acting way, but that’s only good if you’re actually part of the “Jury Duty” group.

I’ve never been more exhausted. I was very tired by the end of this whole thing because your brain stayed in your character. And not only will you stay in character, but you’ll also participate in a high-stakes tennis match. For eight hours a day, you just have to constantly focus on not messing it up. Every day there were pitfalls, small landmines.

It’s such a delicate process that it could easily have fallen apart at various points. How were you able to check in with director Jake Szymanski and the rest of the team to make sure it worked?

Even on a film shoot, it’s hard to decide if what you’re doing is good. It’s not cut. You’re in a smokescreen. You’re just in a fog about it all, and you have little moments where you feel like they could have worked. But it all has heart. That was our north star and comedy ensued. I remember saying many times, “Is this funny? Or is it cruel?” That was always in my head. I completely lost the objectivity of whether what we were doing was good or not.

But I didn’t hit it. I still went at it with my character. Every day I would go home and write a list of ideas or funny things I could do or different reactions. What would hottie James Marsden say? Every day is an opportunity to step in and create new, strange, exciting moments. You just cross your fingers and hope.

Now that you’ve been in the headspace of a badass famous actor for a few projects, do you want to keep riding that wave or step away from it for now?

If I keep doing this, I’m going to feel sick. It will be like, “Boy, why do you love playing this role so much? Maybe this is his therapy. Maybe he is there is this guy.” Once you’ve played a certain type of role or you’ve told the joke a few times, you want to move on and find another joke. So yeah, I think I could put it on neutral for a while.

“Jury Duty” is now available on Amazon Freevee.

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