Exploring Marsden: rising star James Marsden talks about skating with drag queens, his X-Men 3 hopes, and giving his all as a sexually conflicted groom-to-be in Heights
James Marsden is holding on to a few secrets about his new film Heights: “I don’t want to ruin the plot for people.” But he’s up-front about the gay thing. “Sometimes I’ll read something where a straight actor [playing gay] will get defensive and go, ‘No, no, no, it’s acing. I’m straight and I want everyone to know I’m straight,'” explains the Oklahoma-born actor, who’s best known for portraying the visor-wearing Cyclops in the smash X-Men films. “It’s like, ‘Come on, guys. Stop being pussies. Now you sound like you’re not so secure with your sexuality. Now you sound like you’re hiding something.'”
Heights is all about one of those guys who’s hiding something. In this ensemble drama produced by Merchant Ivory and directed by first-timer Chris Terrio, Marsden plays Jonathan, a dashing and successful Manhattan attorney who’s about to marry his live-in girlfriend, Isabel (Seabiscuit’s Elizabeth Banks). What Isabel doesn’t know is that Jonathan has a past love affair with one man and is hot and heavy with another even as they plan for their wedding.
Costarring Glenn Close and Jesse Bradford, it’s a smart, fresh look at an age-old dilemma–the perfect date flick for gay men and their ex-girlfriends. Assuming they’re still speaking.
And Marsden, coming off his nervy turn as a gay lothario accused of giving Scott Speedman HIV in the new-to-DVD indie The 24th Day, hits all the right notes as Jonathan. “I loved the tone of the script,” says the actor, who also recently appeared in the hit tearjerker The Notebook. “I thought it really captured modern-day living in Manhattan and how nuanced relationships can be.”
Tomorrow, Marsden–along with his wife of five years, Lisa, and their 4-year-old son, Jack–jets off to Australia to shoot a role in X-Men director Bryan Singer’s highly anticipated Superman Returns. But today, he’s in a New York state of mind.
“There’s nothing like shooting a movie there,” he says. “You feel like you’re at the center of the universe.”
In Heights your character’s secret life is revealed when his photographer ex comes to town with a sexy exhibition of past lovers. Does that mean that there are nude shots of you we should look for on eBay?
[Laughs] No. Let me clarify. In one shot you see me from the waist up with my arm behind my head, and then on the opposite page is a full-fledged nude. That’s not me. Although I should tell people it is, because the guy is gifted.
The movie really nailed New York’s sort of artsy intelligentsia theater-world culture. Have you had much experience in that world?
Not at all. I had to get coached a bit on the Manhattan lifestyle. I thought I’d gotten rid of my Oklahoma accent completely, but the director, Chris Terrio, would go, “You’re holding on to that r a little too long.”
[Spoilers follow.–Ed. ]
For some gay men in Jonathan’s situation, getting out of that last serious relationship with a woman is a lifesaving escape. It’s like an enormous weight has been lifted.
For some people, it is like that. But for others, maybe it’s not so black-and-white. That’s what I chose to believe about Jonathan. I believe that he absolutely loves Isabel and that they probably have good sex, but there’s an innate part of him that’s attracted to men. That, to me, was more layered and interesting than Jonathan just dealing with having to tell her he’s gay and then “Ah!” he’s set free. It’s more complex than that. There are so many variables, I believe, that affect one’s sexuality. Was it Gore Vidal who said ‘For everyone, there’s a [different] degree of sexuality’? I respond to that. I think that that’s true. For me, anyway.
Do you think if Isabel had forgiven Jonathan, he’d have stayed with her?
Possibly. At one point he says, “It’s you I want. Let’s forget about this and move on.” I believe this is Jonathan not being strong enough to deal with it.
But instead Isabel has a great line–
“I don’t care about what you want anymore.” She’s been dealing with what everyone else wants instead of listening to what she wants, and she finally stands up for herself.
I appreciated how, without being sappy, Heights gave Isabel’s heartbreak its due.
I agree. It felt real, like a real relationship. I can imagine how a woman in that situation would feel destroyed and very insecure about their own sexuality because “he chose a man over me.” I have a friend who just turned 40, and he hadn’t told his mother he’s gay until recently. I asked him why, and he said, “It’s kind of an unspoken truth. I feel like if I tell her, it’ll just destroy her.” Though it’s different with a mother-son relationship [than a romantic relationship], I’d imagine most women in either situation would think they did something wrong–because the person is completely rejecting their gender.
Tell me about filming the scene on the rooftop where Isabel catches Jonathan kissing another man.
Before we had this kiss scene, the other actor [Jesse Bradford] and I had a talk and said, “The worst thing we could do is to do it 50%, so let’s just fucking do it and be in the moment and be these guys.” Did I get off on it? No, but you know what? If I kiss a girl in a movie, I don’t really get off on that either, because you’ve got 10,000 people and a camera pointing at you and you’re worried about what your next line is.
Out singer Rufus Wainwright appears in Heights as another of your photographer ex’s conquests. Did you get to interact with him?
No, and it really made me sad, because while we were shooting this movie, his music was all I listened to. [Director] Chris [Terrio] promises me for the premiere well get together and maybe do a duet or something.
You showed that you have a fine singing voice on Ally McBeal. Ever thought of pulling a Hugh Jackman and doing a Broadway musical?
Actually, Hugh was interested in me being his boyfriend in The Boy From Oz. I recently saw that he’s got this deal at Disney to produce three movie musicals, so I e-mailed him and said, “I see you’re doing some musicals.” He replied, “Yeah, now our career objective is to get you into one.”
You were born and raised in Oklahoma. What do the folks back home think of you playing gay roles?
I was a little concerned about how my grandparents or my mother would react, knowing I had to kiss a guy or whatever, but they get it. They realize that you’re an actor and you play different characters. Actually, my father was with me when Heights premiered at Sundance, and he was so cool about it.
When you first moved to L.A., did you experience culture shock?
Some. When I first moved to Hollywood, a good friend who’s gay helped me get acclimated. We went to this event at a roller rink and there were cross-dressers running around and, to be honest, I was a little uncomfortable, because it was something I had never seen before. And my friend said, “I just like to think of it as different colors.” He kind of set that idea in my head. One thing I pride myself in is, I’m really good at seeing everything from other people’s eyes. I don’t expect you to be like me, and hopefully you don’t expect me to be like you.
When you hear about these homophobic people who feel so threatened by somebody’s sexuality, to the degree that our president wants to amend the Constitution? I mean, are you kidding me? Are you fucking kidding me? Are you really so threatened by somebody’s sexuality? It seems ludicrous to me. We should all take a deep breath and relax and just let everybody do their thing.
Being an attractive guy in show business, I’m sure you’ve had your share of guys hitting on you. Is it different than when women do it?
Guys can be more aggressive, but it hasn’t really been a problem.
Do gay roles like the ones you played in Heights and The 24th Day offer you a chance to show your stuff in a way that big-budget movies don’t?
Certainly. If you’re serious about this business and want to have a long career, you have to be open and willing to explore other personalities. I’ve done some really cool big action movies, and they’re great to be a part of, because the whole world sees them. On the other hand, it creates an appetite to, you know, put on a new suit.
And lose the Cyclops mask and show your eyes for a change.
Playing Cyclops was a challenge in a whole different way. Then I was lucky enough to finish X2 and go right to something totally different with The Notebook.
Which can make me cry just thinking about it.
I almost cry every time I see it. [Laughs] Some people think it’s hokey, but I think it’s nice to see those types of classic love stories still being made.
You’ll soon been seen in The Alibi, which stars your X-Men cohort Rebecca Romijn. I assume she’s not naked and blue in this movie.
Yes, it’s great to work with her again and not have her blue. Although it’s always good to have her naked. [The Alibi is] a fun movie. Steve Coogan plays a guy who creates a very elaborate alibi service for people who want to cheat on their boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands, wives, and whatnot. I play this rich kid who’s a pompous, arrogant jerk, and when things start to get bad, all his true wimpiness gets exposed. Then I’ve got 10th and Wolf with Giovanni Ribisi and Val Kilmer and Dennis Hopper. It’s about these kids whose fathers were some of the last of the Philadelphia mob, and they have to choose whether to carry on that legacy.
And then Superman Returns.
I’m playing Lois Lane’s fiance. It’s basically The Notebook all over again. [Laughs] No, actually it’s very different. It’s very, very cool.
Will you play Cyclops in X-Men 3?
It’s very complicated. I want nothing more than to be a part of X-Men 3, especially since they’re probably going into the Dark Phoenix saga, which would include my character a lot, but the schedule might conflict. I hope it all works out. I told them I’d do it for free.
What’s your favorite X collectible?
You should ask my son. He plays with my action figure. He tortures it and throws it onto the roof of my house, into the pool.
Do you see much of an overlap of X-Men and 24th Day fans?
It’s kind of two different markets. Although I was in the Phoenix airport and the guy making my drink at Starbucks goes, “James Marsden, right?” I go, “Yeah.” And he goes, “X-Men, 24th Day.” I went, “That’s eclectic grouping,” and he goes, “Well, I could have gone with Sugar & Spice and Disturbing Behavior.” I was like, “Jesus, OK.”
I have a funny feeling that guy might someday read this interview.
[Laughs] He knew all my movies. He just wanted to hit the extremes.
Hensley wrote Screening Party (Alyson Books) and cowrote the film Testosterone.
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