CelebrityJames Marsden is the World’s Handsomest Man—So Why Isn’t He More Famous?
For one of GQ’s three October cover stories, we took a road trip from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara in a very handsome car (the Porsche 718 Boxster) to stay at a very handsome hotel (the San Ysidro Ranch) with a very handsome actor (James Marsden, the star of HBO’s new dystopian robot theme park drama Westworld). The purpose was twofold: to figure out why someone who should so clearly be a huge movie star isn’t just yet, and to have that dashing man show us how to wear a suit
How famous is James Marsden? He's a movie star, sure, at least in the literal sense that he is a person who regularly stars in movies. He has all the required movie-star components: charm, talent, a face so obviously beautiful that he played a mutant who wears goggles to avoid blinding other X-Men with his piercing blue eyes. At this very moment, he looks like a movie star against the red interior of the Porsche he's driving on the 101 Freeway. So far, though, Marsden's gifts have not brought him full-blown movie stardom, but rather a long and lucrative career playing characters who look like movie stars but lose the girl or their lives to the movie's actual star. Over his 22-year run—a surprisingly broad résumé of franchises (X-Men, Superman Returns), family blockbusters (Hop, Enchanted), love stories (27 Dresses, The Notebook), films about cooperative loft spaces used for murdering mistresses (The Loft), and genial self-mockery (30 Rock, Anchorman 2)—he has experienced this fate so often that he offers the insight that “if I'm in the movie and there's another dude, we know how the movie ends.” James Marsden describes the act of Marsdening thus: “losing the girl to some other guy who's got a little more charisma than him.”
Does this bum Marsden out? Shit no! “I should be working at the Dairy Queen,” he says, then mocks his Okie guilelessness with an “aw shucks” fist swing and a “Golly gee, I'm milquetoast!” But he's right: How many people who grew up thrashing old cars in Oklahoma City are now behind the wheel of a Boxster 718 S, driving to the super-nice San Ysidro Ranch hotel in Santa Barbara?
Being James Marsden means being famous enough that people come up to you and say, “You're famous, aren't you?” It means being famous enough that my Uber driver said he should “be in every romantic movie because of his face.” Famous enough to be one of three GQ covers this month.
Famous enough to have worked with not only Paul Rudd and Ryan Gosling but also Will Ferrell and Adam McKay and Tina Fey and John Travolta and Jennifer Lawrence and Denzel Washington. And now Ed Harris and Anthony Hopkins—his co-stars on Westworld, the new HBO series that gives him the best role of his life: a kindhearted, swooningly handsome cowboy who just happens to be a robot in an Old West theme park. A good-guy humanoid who every single week gets shoved aside—or shot to tatters—by more complicated men, trying to take what's his. In other words, he's playing James Marsden.
The Porsche is not his Porsche. It's a loaner. He's always wanted one, he says, but he worried people would see him in it and think he was “that guy.” He already looks like that guy. The Porsche would be too much.
“Women pay attention to how men drive because it's a good indicator of what kind of character you have,” he tells me at one point, as we turn off the freeway. “They want someone who's going to be intelligent and cautious and assertive and confident when you need to be, but not overly aggressive and reckless, and also not timid and overly paranoid.”
It will come as no surprise, then, that Marsden is a great driver.
Considerate, too. He's concerned that I'm carsick as he coils up the road. He slows to point out a buzzard lazily stalking airspace between the cliff and the mansions of the hillside Riviera neighborhood. He compliments me on stalling (only!) twice as he teaches me how to drive a stick. He says, “I was worried that I was gonna be late for you. I can't stand being late.” He's not a bad boy. He's not troubled at all.
For our road trip, Marsden had a very specific car request: “Porsche 550 Spyder—the one James Dean died in.” This proved logistically complicated, so he agreed to drive the 718 Boxster, a descendant of the Dean death-mobile. As we drive, I wonder if this was a ploy to borrow some edge—a danger loaner from someone who's got plenty to someone who could maybe use more.
“James Dean has never been one of my guys,” Marsden insists. “I don't want to be him. I will take boring anytime. I love boring! Are you kidding me? Matt Damon has been one of my favorites forever. He always elevates every bit of material, and then you don't hear a thing about him. It's like, ‘No, I pretty much wear a T-shirt every day of my life, and I don't really have any dirt.' I love that. If you were to ask me what career I would choose, I'd be like, ‘That. One hundred percent.' ”
One of Marsden's first roles was on Party of Five, playing a knockoff of Jared Leto's illiterate My So-Called Life character, Jordan Catalano: “They were trying to do the same thing—like, brooding long-haired dude. He was introduced at a funeral…drinking out of a water fountain in slow motion.” Marsden knows how silly it looks when you put on a James Dean costume. So, no, he is not trying to send a message. He just thought it'd be fun to drive a Porsche.
Pull A Tab | When you're shopping for a suit, look for the little extras. Sometimes that means functional sleeve buttons or a small ticket pocket on your jacket, and other times it means side tabs and extended waist tabs like these. They're functional, sure—you'll never wear a belt again—but mostly they're debonair details that set you and your new suit apart.
Marsden has been in 43 movies—and a handful of high-end TV shows. He's remarkably objective and candid about his output.
“If I wasn't me,” he says, “I'd look at my stuff and go, ‘He's been in everything. Turn on the cable, and he's on there. Good movie, bad movie, good movie, bad movie.' We all want to be great. Of course. Everybody wants that. I'd be lying out of my ass if I told you that I didn't want to be. When I was younger, I used to feel like, ‘Yeah, there are certain roles out there that may go to other actors who are bigger than me and have more pull.' And that can be frustrating.”
Sure, his career is rooted more in ubiquity than in prestige. But Marsden doesn't curse divinity or the cruelty of Hollywood or the high-class limitations of his gorgeous face (just try to imagine James Marsden playing, like, a plumber)—sometimes he just made the wrong decision. Most notably: Magic Mike. Steven Soderbergh offered him a part, and when Marsden hesitated, Channing Tatum sent him an e-mail that said, “I love what you did in Enchanted,” which must be the first time a cartoon prince has been invoked while imploring someone to play a stripper. But Marsden passed.
“Soderbergh is one of my favorites,” he says now, “but I didn't know if I trusted myself to be good enough in this to not have my two dozen lines end up on the editing-room floor. I'd look like a naked extra in this movie.” He didn't trust his talent, and he wasn't ready for his beauty to be a punch line. He regrets that. “It's perfect the way it worked out, but that's one of the only ones I'm like, Hmm. I didn't know it was gonna be the massive success that it was.”
Then there are films that sounded good on paper. The Box, a thriller from Richard Kelly, the cultish director of Donnie Darko, in which he and Cameron Diaz mysteriously receive a box containing a button that, if pressed, will kill a random stranger in exchange for a million dollars. (The defining trait of Diaz's character is that she has only one toe on her right foot; the movie did not do well.) Straw Dogs, a rapey, misguided remake of Sam Peckinpah's classic home-invasion thriller. Accidental Love, which has what he describes as “the dubious distinction of being David O. Russell's only straight-to-video movie.” Even as he acknowledges the results, he defends the choices: “I've done some films that, on paper, were really interesting and special. And for some reason, when they got on-screen, it just didn't work. Well, I didn't get to watch the film before I decided to do it.”
But Marsden says that careerism is the wrong metric: “If I'm picking the movies that people really like my performance in, what's the through line? Oh, I was fucking having a blast. You forget how nice it is to watch people just have a good time doing what they're doing.”
Like his hilarious part on 30 Rock, or in the acid indie comedy Bachelorette, in which he has bathroom sex with Kirsten Dunst while shouting “Shut the fuck up!” in syncopation with his thrusts. Those were fun. And—go figure!—they worked.
Now comes Westworld, where he gets to shoot guns and ride horses and have a meaty role opposite a bananas cast that, in addition to Hopkins and Harris, includes Thandie Newton, Jeffrey Wright, and Evan Rachel Wood. Like with Magic Mike, the part is somewhat a meta-comment about his looks—a leading man playing a droid playing a leading man discovering the limits of being a leading man.
This time, he said yes.
There's A Plaid For Everyone | We like to say plaid is the new pinstripe: a business-suit pattern that radiates confidence. If you're not quite ready for this daring glen plaid, try a quieter shadow plaid like the one at far right.
We sit down at the San Ysidro Ranch for lunch. Marsden's got a hunger headache and needs some fish tacos and rosé. He inspects a radish for dirt and makes a comedy reference that (sorry) I don't get: “It's called recycling!” Apparently this is a line from a Richard Pryor bit—he was a childhood idol of Marsden's. On the vast Oklahoma plains of teenage boredom, armed with a VCR and (so he claims) little sexual appeal, Marsden says, he memorized entire comedy shows by Pryor and Eddie Murphy.
“I want to go out like my father died. My father died fucking.”
Marsden is delivering this profane monologue, in public, on a hotel patio, in what can only be described as “dialect.” I become briefly and deeply terrified that he is going to use the N-word.
“He was having sex with this woman he was with and had a heart attack and died. I saw the woman the other day. She was like, ‘I'm sorry I killed your father.' ‘You didn't kill my father! Bitch, he died in your pussy.' That's called recycling. 'Cause men, if you had a chance to die getting hit by a bus or die in some pussy, which line you gon' be in? I know which line I'm gon' be in. I'm gon' be in that long motherfucker.”
Marsden stands as he finishes this riff, queuing up in the metaphorical pussy line, checking his watch and craning his neck to see how many people are ahead of him, waiting their turn to die inside of what must be an extremely resilient orifice. His Pryor, it must be said, is impeccable. But it's also baffling.
How did this performance clear James Marsden's vetting process for appropriate public behavior? Why in the world would he do this during a magazine interview, with the recorder running, the reporter covering her open mouth with both hands?
Because James Marsden isn't worried about what James Marsden should be doing. (Definitely not this.) Or how he looks doing it. (Insane.) Or how I'm reacting to it. (I love it so, so much.) Because once you start, you've gotta do the whole routine, especially if you're surprisingly incredible at it. Because James Marsden is fucking having a blast.
Be A Heavyweight | Fall weather calls for nubby fabrics. So if you're buying a suit right now, the first decision you're making is: tweed or corduroy? Replace your tie with a sweater and you're set for the season.