The Mother Brain Files Underrated Actors Special: James Marsden
By Mother Brain
As much as I have written about underrated actors who had major career heights, there have been very few non-household names that I’ve discussed. James Marsden, best known for playing Cyclops in the X-Men films, has still not achieved the respect he deserves as an actor. Despite his work in X-Men as well as hits like The Notebook, Enchanted, and Hairspray, Marsden always seems to be looked over by the critics. Yet, I see an actor with a wide range of talents that we as an audience tend to take for granted.
Born in Stillwater, Oklahoma in 1973, Marsden was the son of an animal science professor father and a nutritionist mother and was one of five children. He spent the majority of his teen years in Oklahoma from attending Putnam City North H.S. to enrolling on Oklahoma State and became a member of the Delta Tau Delta fraternity. During this time, Marsden was studying Broadcast Journalism for a career. Then a chance meeting with Growing Pains star Kirk Cameron on a family vacation in Hawaii inspired him to go into acting. He would appear in his one college production of “Bye Bye Birdie” before dropping out to move out west.
Marsden got his lucky break early on appearing in two episodes of CBS’ The Nanny as Nicholle Tom’s boyfriend as well as a guest spot on Saved by the Bell: The New Class. His first regular role was in a short-lived Canadian sitcom, Boogies Diner. While making appearances on other television shows, Marsden auditioned but lost out major parts in Primal Fear and 54.
His first starring role on the silver screen was 1998’s Disturbing Behavior opposite Katie Holmes. Top billed in the role of Steve Clark, a new kid in a small town who discovers that a school psychologist is conducting experiments on troubled teenagers to make them into straight-laced citizens. It’s box office take was small; however, it gave Marsden the exposure he needed in the business. While his next film, Gossip, was a flop, Marsden got to feature his singing ability by performing the song “Glow” on the film’s soundtrack.
In 2000, the first X-Men movie went into production with a great deal of fanfare as Bryan Singer took the director’s chair. Every major actor in Hollywood was up for the iconic roles from the Marvel Comics. Marsden would win the part of optic blasting de-facto leader Scott “Cyclops” Summers only after Thomas Jane and James Caviezel turned it down. Marsden had never read the comics until this point and used the mentality of a boy scout to approach the role. He had the perfect look for the part as well as the antagonistic chemistry with the unknown Hugh Jackman playing Wolverine. The only downside was the fact that Cyclops was heavily underwritten in the films to emphasize Wolverine’s story. By the time X2 was made, Cyclops was captured and out for an entire hour of screen time. By X-Men: The Last Stand, he gets killed off after 30 mins. Many fans have complained since then that Marsden was given a bad deal and was never given a chance to truly portray the part as dramatically as the comics showed.
In between X-Men films, Marsden tackled comedy as an ex-football star turned loser baby daddy in Sugar & Spice and a brief cameo as John Wilkes Booth in Ben Stiller’s Zoolander. One of his most underrated roles came in 2002’s Interstate 60 which was directed by Bob Gale, co-creator of Back to the Future. He played a young artist who meets a mysterious man who grants a single wish to the people he meets and gets told to travel to a nonexistent town where he’ll find his dream girl. The offbeat sci-fi comedy was barely released upon completion and went straight to video.
Marsden eventually found himself playing nothing but rival boyfriends due to his X-Men role. He played Rachel McAdams‘ rebound boyfriend in The Notebook which was different from playing the usual cliched evil boyfriend part. Instead, he plays an honest and successful lawyer who cannot live to the image of McAdams‘ true love played by Ryan Gosling. Bryan Singer would cast Marsden as Perry White’s son and Lois Lane’s spouse in Superman Returns, a role that some say caused X-Men producers to reduce his Cyclops role completely in X-Men: The Last Stand.
The singing talents of Marsden were in full display in Hairspray where he played Corny Collins, the host of a segregated teen dance show ALA American Bandstand who decides to fight segregation. Ironically, he beat out Hugh Jackman for the role. Then he played the stereotypical charming prince in Disney’s Enchanted. Not only was he required to sing tunes but also play off lots of physical comedy which revealed his expanded acting range to the public. Other comedic roles in 27 Dresses and Sex Drive soon followed.
In 2009, Marsden headlined Richard Kelly’s The Box. He and Cameron Diaz play an unlucky couple offered a million dollars if they press the button of a mysterious box which would lead to someone’s death. He played Zoe Saldana’s Valium-popping fiance in the American remake of Death at a Funeral, a role originated by Alan Tudyk in the British film. Both films flopped. Then Marsden scored another major hit with the Easter-themed family comedy Hop, playing a jobless man who wants to become an Easter Bunny with the help of a cartoon bunny. Critics trashed it but kids flocked to see it.
In 2011, Marsden starred in the remake of Straw Dogs where he played the part originated by Dustin Hoffman. While many changes were made to modernize the remake, it was still as shocking and as violent as the Hoffman film and Marsden preserved Hoffman’s sense of complexity in his performance as David Sumner. He also continues to make a mark on television from Liz Lemon’s boyfriend on 30 Rock to a homeless squatter on Modern Family.
Along with many independent films, the future still remains bright for Marsden who turns 40 this year. He’ll be playing President Kennedy in Lee Daniels’ The Butler, working with Denzel Washington in 2 Guns, a role in the upcoming sequel to Anchorman, Charles Manson in Dead Circus, a possible sequel to Enchanted, and a slightly slim possibly of being resurrected in X-Men: Days of Future Past. Yet through it all, Marsden remains very humble about his career and isn’t one to embrace the perks of being a celebrity. Let’s hope that someday that humbleness will give him the respect he deserves as a talent.