He charmed us in Enchanted with an over-the-top Prince Charming, we've seen him mutate into the Cyclops in X-Men, and he made us laugh in Death at a Funeral. Now he's back as Fred O'Hare, a slacker who unwittingly injures the Easter Bunny in Hop. Blue-eyed star James Marsden sat down with Buzzine to talk about working with Chelsea Handler and Russell Brand, and the traditions of Easter which he carries on with his own children...
Emmanuel Itier: Since you got to spend some time watching
Russell Brand do his recording sessions, how did that inform your performance, perhaps giving you an advantage in terms of knowing what he was doing?
James Marsden: It was really helpful. I had requested it, and Tim [Hill] had already had it in his head that he wanted to do that. But I'd just finished a movie before this called Cats and Dogs where I was a voice, and there was living action stuff as well. Through that entire process, I kept thinking, "Chris O'Donnell is up there, and he can't change his performance." When you lock picture, you lock picture, but as a voice-over artist, you can go back in and if something doesn't work, you can come back in any time and change the lines. So I thought, here I was with Russell Brand, like the world's greatest improvisational comedian too, and if there's any sort of back and forth banter, he's always going to get the good end of it because I'm going to be stuck with what we shoot. He's going to go in and make it funnier. So mainly I wanted to get together because this movie, to me, hinges on the dynamic and the chemistry between these two characters. I wanted to sort of explore what that was going to be and what his take was going to be on the Easter Bunny, and what sort of stuff he was going to come up with and what he'd make up on his own. So it was really great for him and me to just sit in the room together and riff off of each other. We did that for about two days. I tried to record as much of it as I could in my head and remember it on the day when he wasn't there. And I thought, "Can we get like a Russell Brand impersonator off camera to be delivering his lines so we can just keep it as real as possible?" But it was great. We got to bond and figure out what our dynamic was during that process.
EI: You've done the live action, you've done the musical. Now you're doing the live action with the animation. Has this been the toughest job, or which of those has been the hardest?
JM: I wouldn't say that there was a specific genre that was the most difficult, but this was certainly the most difficult technical process that I've been through. I keep telling people that it's hard enough to just be a good actor. When you're on set, there is everything going against you. There are walkie-talkies going off, and the camera is creaking and moving, and the boom mics, and you have to hit your mark and make sure you don't shadow the other person's face... It's a really technical process. It's difficult because you're there to create, to bring life to a scene, to make it feel natural and normal when all these other things are going on. Then you add into that, or even subtract from that, a costar, and you're actually talking to nobody. You're looking at little pieces of green tape. I've never been more prepared in my life because I knew that I couldn't afford to not know my lines. I couldn't afford to not know where my mark was. I had to know all of his lines and his blocking--the choreography of where he went. The rabbit is not going to move around when you're doing the scene. There's nothing there. So I have to remember, during the scene, while trying to remember the lines and keep it natural, "Oh, yeah, the rabbit is going there for that line and there for this line..." So technically it was difficult, but every film has its own challenges. This was a technical process. Normally on a film, like when you're with other actors, like when Kaley [Cuoco] or Gary Cole came in, I was like, "Thank, God. We can act together." You never went home on a movie like this thinking, "Man. That scene today, that was awesome. I really felt it and it really came to life." It was all piecemeal, like singing a duet without the other person singing with you. I was like, "I hope whoever is in the editing room with the scissors and the glue makes this all work."
EI: Is there a method that you use for working against an actor that's not an actor but CGI--the rabbit? Or is it something that each actor has to just go for in the best way that they know how?
JM: It's kind of that. There is a process that makes it a little easier for you. We had a read-through and there was this great British actor by the name of Greg Ellis. He's in the Pirates movies. He did Russell's part in the read-through. I said, "Can we get him? Can we just pay him to be right off-camera so I can hear a British accent with somebody with a similar sensibility and humor?" And we did. We got him for a few weeks until he had to go do the next Pirates movie. Then another great actor came in to help as well, so that was massively helpful. It was great to be working with Tim, who's obviously done these kinds of movies before. So he knew, obviously, the process and what could be done to help the actors, knowing that this is a completely unnatural thing to be doing. That process was that they had a stuffed rabbit, and we'd do one take, we'd roll camera, and someone would hold the rabbit and say, "Here's where he's going to go during the scene. He's going to hop up here on the kitchen counter and he's going to say this. Then he's going to run over here and eat a piece of licorice and do this bit." So we'd roll one, doing the scene, and I would watch the stuffed animal. Then they would take him out, because obviously he can't be in it while we're shooting it, and they would replace it with little pieces of wire that stood up and a little piece of green tape on the end of it. You would have to replay the scene, hearing the voice-over actor doing Russell's lines, and looking at these pieces of green tape. Beyond that, it was all your imagination. On one hand, it's kind of cool because you really do get to control the scene, to a certain degree, because you're the only one that's in the scene at the moment, and then Russell...you just hope he comes in later and fills in the gaps. But that was the process, and it was still really hard.
EI: Do you have anything in common with this character, that maybe you'd like to be the Easter Bunny?
JM: No. What I would say I have in common with Fred is that I'm sort of a perpetual child as a 37-year-old adult. I have two kids. I have a ten-year-old and a five-year-old. My point in saying that is that I'm always acting very goofy and silly with them, but when I was younger, I didn't really, up until I was like 19 years old, and in college, I was surrounded by people in high school who felt like they knew what they wanted to do with their lives. That was intimidating to me because I didn't. I just really didn't know what my calling was. I didn't know what I was here on Earth to do, or even what my passion was until I discovered the dramatic arts in junior high and school. I realized then, "I like this. This is something that I feel like I'm good at," but it was really unrealistic--the idea of moving to Hollywood and becoming an actor. I guess what I have in common with Fred is that I'm a little lazy. I'm a little bit of a slacker and I didn't want to settle for something that I didn't feel was right for me. I didn't want to go get a job or get a degree in business or marketing, or whatever all my other friends were getting degrees in. But I also realized that this is a tough thing to do, to make a career out of being an actor. But I thought, "You know what? I'm just going to make this happen. I'm going to move to L.A." I had really supportive parents, and that was great, and it happened, thank God, because I really, to this day, can't think of what I'd be doing otherwise. So I guess Fred and I have that in common. I wasn't going to really do anything unless I was really passionate about it. I'm a little stubborn that way.
EI: Have your kids seen this or any of it, and if so, what did they think? Did they visit the set at all while you were shooting it?
JM: No, they haven't seen it yet. They did visit the set. My kids are all about free candy. So when they visited the set, it wasn't like, "Wow. I'm on a film set." They were at craft service picking candy out of the bowls on the craft service table. I actually said to my son last night, "We're going to go to the premiere next Sunday. We're going to go and you're going to see the movie for the first time," and he goes, "Is there going to be free popcorn?" "Yeah, there's going to be free popcorn." "Cool, great. I'm excited." But they're great, and they're one of the reasons why I did the movie. I just finished a remake of [Sam] Peckinpah's Straw Dogs, which, if you're familiar with the movie, is obviously a really dark and controversial, intense psychological thriller, horror movie. After that, I had to get myself out of that place, and then all of a sudden Hop came along and it was like, "Ah, colors. Eggs. Chicks. Rabbits. This is fun. I'll go do that." Enchanted was something I was really excited about being a part of, and I did that for my kids too. So this was definitely doing one for the kids.
EI: You've gotten to act opposite Chelsea Handler. Can you talk about what that experience was like?
JM: If you interview her, she'll tell you the same thing. I've been doing this for like 18 years, and there have been maybe three times where I could not keep it together during a take. Chelsea was hilarious, but she really, obviously, is really, really irreverent. And here we are on this kids' movie and we were messing with each other during each other's close-ups. It took hours to get just one clean take, and the crew was really angry, actually. They were looking at their watches, like, "It was funny the first time, guys, but now we've got to get through this." And then, of course, that makes it worse. So I would be doing my close-up during the scene where she was interviewing me, and she would be looking at me and going, [whispering] "You're embarrassing yourself. What are you doing? You're the worst actor I've ever seen." She's got her sense of humor, and mine is very similar to hers. So we had a good time not being able to keep it together. We actually kind of keep in touch now. She sends me random emails of kangaroos humping each other, or just gross, random emails. It was great working with her.
EI: What kind of values or message do you feel like this film is communicating to kids? These movies usually have a moral. What would you say this one has?
JM: I would say that it's following your dream, finding your passion in life. That's certainly it when I think of my character. It's pretty sad that he's in his early thirties and still living at home and without a job. But he saw the Easter Bunny when he was a kid and that opened his world up to a sense of magic--a real magic that most kids don't get to see. Then he grew up in a world that doesn't have a lot of magic, and yet he held onto that. I think that was one of the reasons why he didn't want to settle for something that he wasn't passionate about. It just turns out that him being the Easter Bunny was his passion, which is strange, but I think it's about following your dreams. It's about finding your passion in life and going for that.
EI: You've made quite a few movies over the span of your career. You mentioned making this for your kids, but can you talk about your selection process, if it's a script or the director, or what it is you're looking for?
JM: Every time I read a script, I see the movie in my head, and I try to see the best movie in my head because everyone interprets the movie differently when they read it. I just ask myself, first of all, what did I just finish doing? When I finished Straw Dogs, I wanted to do something completely different, and this business...they've been really good to me in that they've afforded me a lot of opportunities to do very, very versatile or different kinds of projects. I did the X-Men movies, and then I did Hairspray, and it's almost confusing people, like, "Where do we put him? What does he do? He's sort of all over the place." So to me, creatively, actors are always talking about that balance in their careers--doing something that's your livelihood, it's your job and you get a paycheck and you're paying a mortgage. There's that component, and then the other side of it is your creative integrity, the projects that you really feel like you want to be a part of and that you feel like you can contribute to creatively. That's what I usually try to have. I believe that if you let that captain the ship, if you're lucky enough to, then all the other stuff will come along with it. Every movie I do, whether it's a little indie drama or if it's a big budget action movie, or if it's a comedy, a romantic comedy or anything, I always approach it like, "I want this to be the best that that there is." I told Chris Meledandri, when I first started Hop, "I would imagine that a lot of actors might like to step into a movie like this thinking that it'll be easy, that it's a kids' movie, and you can just phone it in." I said, "I have to tell you, I feel more of a responsibility to do more work on this than I ever have." He said, "That's exactly right." To me, it was important that the relationship between him and the rabbit felt very real, that it felt like him and another human being, even though he's talking to a rabbit. But I guess, to get back to your question, whatever scripts come to me, I read them and I look at the ones that I feel like I can see myself in. You'll feel a spark. You'll be like, "Okay, I see this guy. I get this guy. This guy makes me laugh. I know what to do." When I read Enchanted, I was like, "I know this guy. Please let me have this. I'll kill this role." Death at a Funeral was the same thing. That, to me, was the best role in the movie. I feel really confident about my ability to create that performance, and those are the ones I go after. Then, within that, I always try to change it up. I go from a drama to a comedy to something else, and that just keeps it interesting for me.
EI: Did you celebrate Easter as a kid? Do you have a fond memory of it? And since your kids love candy, what are your Easter plans for them?
JM: Yes, I did celebrate Easter. We had visits from the Easter Bunny every year, and we would dye eggs the night before and paint them, and wake up and there would be this sort of magical little display of baskets and candy and eggs and all of that. I had two brothers that were very close in age, and we would do an egg hunt, and a lot of times, the Easter Bunny...they had these plastic eggs that you could put candy into, and sometimes there was money, like a five or ten dollar bill. So it became not this fun, like, "Ah, this is so sweet. We're going to go find the eggs." It was like, "I'm going to kill you." Then we'd count the eggs after. If one had more than the other, it was a fist fight. My mother was like, "Oh, God. This is terrible." We were very greedy as kids, but for my children, we do the same thing every year. We have an egg hunt. They wake up and they get all their baskets and everything, and we put carrots out. We've been really lucky every year. We go out and the carrots are kind of half-eaten and there are little trails of eaten carrot pieces. So it's great. We get that magic every year. With them and the candy, they're pretty good about stopping when they know they need to stop, because they've had a few times where they got sick, and I think that changed after that. They know enough about when to stop.
Universal Pictures' 'Hop' is released on April 1, 2011.