Though his long career has been full of box office hits, critically acclaimed projects and some truly scene-stealing performances, James Marsden landed the role of a lifetime on the Amazon Freevee series “Jury Duty” playing … James Marsden.
It is, however, an exaggerated (we hope) version of himself, due to the premise of the show — that everyone taking part in a fake trial is an actor in on the joke except for “star” Ronald Gladden. Marsden shines as a self-centered actor convinced that he deserves special treatment (“I’m a recognizable public figure,” he tells the judge) while simultaneously bemoaning his fame isn’t remarkable enough. In one tantrum, he screams, “Let’s all feel sorry for the guy from ‘The Notebook,’ who’s not even the guy from ‘The Notebook!’”
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It’s a tricky balance — and add to it the fact that Marsden is improvising without scripted lines and finding himself in situations he has no way of predicting. The performance has, at long last, brought Marsden his first Emmy nomination, for supporting actor in a comedy series. In a SAG-AFTRA Foundation conversation recorded in May, Marsden said he knew the idea was “nobody cares who Marsden is,” and the idea was to mine “the laughs that come from that.”
But it was more about just having a sense of humor about himself. The bar of difficulty was so high in “Jury Duty” that viewers should not be fooled by how easy Marsden makes it look. While the rest of the cast had a week or two of rehearsal, Marsden had three days — because, ironically, he was playing an entitled actor on an episode of “Party Down” and shooting ran over. “I was terrified,” Marsden said frankly. “I just kind of had to roll with it.”
Marsden also had to stay in character the entire time he was on set and around Gladden. The audience only sees a fraction of what was filmed over a three-week period, and the actor admits he was nervous that he might give something away. One of the biggest challenges was when the defense lawyer shows a video featuring some truly terrible animation. “I lost it that day. That is the funniest thing I’ve ever seen,” Marsden recalled. “But it was OK because we would have laughed at that in court, anyway.”
There are many moments where you can see Marsden is always in character — such as his fist pump when he thinks he hasn’t been selected for jury duty and his reaction when he realizes he’s been picked as an alternate. He also had to walk a fine line between going for big laughs but still being likable enough that Gladden would put up with him. Marsden knew he had gone too far when he showed up at a party and destroyed a birthday cake in anger. Originally, he was supposed to continue the tantrum.
“But as soon as I flipped the cake, I saw out of the corner of my eye Ronald kind of hang his head,” Marsden said. “And I was like, I can’t do this to this guy. No TV and no laughs are worth messing with somebody’s human experience like this. It’s just not worth it.”
So Marsden left the scene but came up with a way to mine even more laughs by returning with a replacement cake. He then claims the only cake that was available was one inscribed “It’s a girl,” creating perhaps an even a more sublimely funny moment than intended.
The interview for the SAG-AFTRA Foundation was conducted before the union went on strike July 14.
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